Three policy ideas to help the UK adapt faster to the internet

Peter Wells
Nov 15, 2019 · 7 min read

The UK is having a general election on December 12th. Over the next week political parties will put out their manifestos. Those manifestos will contain lots of commitments about what the parties will do if they are elected.

When I looked at the manifestos for the last general election in 2017 I was disappointed at their lack of recognition of the changes the world was going through because of technology. To help this time, here are three simple tech policy ideas for any party. They’re focussed on helping the UK adapt to the current wave of technology change. They are a bit late for the manifestos, but they still might be useful.

A bit of context

First, a bit of context. Technology is always changing but it has changed a lot in the last few decades with the proliferation of computers, the internet, the web, and data. These technologies have changed things for governments.

Some citizens now have higher expectations from public services. They expect public services to behave like those they get from Google, Amazon or whichever service is hot this year, *checks notes*, such as ByteDance’s TikTok. Technology is enabling things that some may think should be public services — like accurate mapping data on smartphones, or being able to have a video call with a doctor.

Other citizens now have more fear. Perhaps because they are excluded from those services because they lack skills or access to the internet or perhaps they are at risk of being discriminated against because technology is being used to perpetuate, or accentuate, existing societal biases.

Using new technology to help deliver public services that work for everyone is a tough job that, despite good work by Government Digital Services, government still has not cracked.

Image from For Everyone via the Web Foundation

New technology has also enabled new businesses, markets and types of services to emerge. Things like smartphones, social media, cloud computing, online retailers, online advertising, and the “sharing economy”. The world is now more interconnected. Someone in Wales can rapidly build an online service and start selling it to people in India, and vice versa. Meanwhile because the technologies have also been adopted by existing companies they affect government’s role in existing markets.

Technological waves of change like this are not new — I recommend reading some history about the after-effects of the invention of ocean sailing, printing, electricity, or television — but governments have been particularly slow to adapt to this wave of technological change.

Why? Perhaps because the technologies have changed things globally. Perhaps because of the type of governments that we have had. Perhaps because of lobbying by businesses. Who knows. Future historians will be better placed to assess this.

Anyway, my suggestions are not about the details of each of these areas. Instead they are about how to increase the rate of adaptation for the next government. About how to get more radical change.

Tackle the fear around technology and politics

There is a lot of fear about what technology means for politics. Misuse of data by companies and political organisations. Highly targeted advertising reducing accountability. Foreign governments interfering in elections. This fear is exacerbating a pre-existing low level of trust in and disengagement from UK democracy.

Political parties should start with themselves. They need to be open about how they are using data and online advertising and publish data about their candidates to help voters make more informed decisions. Political parties should not use micro-targeted advertising during the election, and should challenge their opposition to follow their lead. Where necessary they should err on the side of caution when using advertising tools. After all, much targeted advertising is already likely to be illegal under existing legislation. Doing these things will help politicians learn how to responsibly use technology while competing for power. That will help them use technology responsibly if they get in to power.

Whoever gets into power should then ban targeted political advertising until it is shown to be reasonably safe. To understand the effects researchers will need access to data held by the big technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple. Organisations in the USA have faced challenges when trying to do this with Facebook but approaches like the ONS ‘five safes’ and the Ministry of Justice data lab show that parts of the public sector have the necessary skills to design ways to do it. Government should use models like this to give accredited researchers access to data held by the platforms to inform future policy decisions and, perhaps, when to relax the ban for certain kinds of ads.

Develop technology literacy in more of the public sector

To implement a party’s manifesto commitments — whether it be implementing municipal socialism, moving to a zero carbon society, (re)creating an independent Scotland, agreeing new trade deals (if Brexit actually happens), free broadband, a charter of digital rights, or implementing an industrial strategy and increasing R&D — public sector staff need to understand how technology affects their work and technology experts need to understand the public sector.

Sometimes a horrified face emerges from behind my polite face. I apologise to everyone who has seen it.

Unfortunately too many people still do not get it. In my own meetings with governments I am often surprised, and sometimes horrified, by whole teams of people with limited technology literacy making significant decisions about technology. (Similarly, I am often surprised, and sometimes horrified, by teams of technology experts making significant decisions that impact on policy or operations with no real experience in those areas.)

Not every public sector worker needs to be a technology expert, and it is certainly not true that everyone needs to know how to code, but it is necessary to have technology literacy in many more parts of government. More public sector workers need to understand both the benefits and the limitations of new technology and the techniques that people, like me, use to build it.

This is one of the most important things to focus on. Different skills are needed by different roles, but an underlying element of technology literacy is useful for everyone.

To start providing this technology literacy I would recommend vocally demonstrating that technology experience is as valued as other skill sets and encouraging more technology experts to join teams that lack that experience, and by seconding non-technology staff into technology teams. In both cases people can then listen to and learn from each other.

An independent inquiry into technology regulation

Finally, regulation. Technological change needs changes to regulators and can lead to the need for new ones. There are a growing number of known gaps in technology regulation. Some of these gaps affect public services, like the police. Others affect public spaces, like facial recognition. Some affect new services like social media. Others existing ones, like insurance. In some cases it is not clear if regulators are appropriately enforcing existing rules, like equalities and data protection legislation, while there will be a large number of gaps that people simply haven’t spotted yet.

Previous governments have set in process various initiatives such as considering the need for a new social media regulator, a national data strategy, and a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), but these initiatives are not adequate. They are controlled and appointed by the current politicians, operate within current civil service structures, and are mostly taking place in London. The changes bought about by technology are too fundamental for this approach to work. The UK needs something more strategic, more radical, more independent, and more citizen-facing.

I listen to songs while writing

An independent inquiry into technology regulation should be set up. It should have representatives from around the UK; with different political views; with experience from the public sector, private sector and civil society; and from both citizens that love modern technology and from the groups that are most at risk of discrimination. It should look across the whole technology landscape, have the power to call witnesses, and be empowered to make a series of recommendations for changes to legislation and regulation to help set the UK on a better path for the next decade.

Inquiries like this can happen faster than you think. The recent German Data Ethics Commission took just 12 months to come up with a set of excellent recommendations. Setting a similar timescale for an inquiry in the UK will allow the next Parliament and the next Government to focus on delivery.

It is necessary and possible for the UK to adapt to technology faster

Politicians and their teams can learn how to use technology more responsibly by tackling the fear around technology and politics; mixing up teams in the public sector can help staff learn from each other; and an independent inquiry into technology regulation can help set the UK on a better path to the future.

The UK needs to adapt to technology faster. For the good of everyone in the UK, but particularly those who are being disadvantaged by irresponsible use of technology, can we do it? Please?

Peter Wells

Written by

Pondering what digital socialism of the heart looks like. I talk about Blackpool FC & books, I ask questions, & I do some stuff @ODIHQ.

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