Which digital policies will top new UK PM Liz Truss’ agenda?

As Truss develops a technology strategy for the UK, she faces calls to make digital its own department, and several controversial bills.

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Newly appointed UK Prime Minister Liz Truss has not historically worked in government departments with a heavy technology focus, so the British electorate has thus far had very little insight into her digital ideology—and with soaring energy costs and record levels of inflation to tackle, it’s unlikely we’ll see any new, groundbreaking digital policies in the early days of her premiership.

That’s not to say there aren’t a number of tech policy issues that have been left in her in-tray, including two controversial pieces of legislation. Furthermore, with technology continuing to reach far beyond the confines of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)—the government department responsible for all digital and tech related policy—having a coherent and comprehensive digital strategy will be vital for the new Conservative Prime Minister.

With Truss becoming the fourth British Prime Minister in six years in the wake of Boris Johnson's resignation, every government department has become a revolving door for personnel, with each new leader culling whole departments to suit their legislative agendas.

As a result, the appointment of Michelle Donelan to DCMS marks the fifth secretary of state for that department in seven years, with the role of Minister for Digital—who will report to Donelan—still yet to be filled.

Conservatives haven't matched rhetoric with delivery

When it comes to digital policy, the Conservatives can rarely be accused of lacking enthusiasm. Unfortunately, as is the case with most political promises, the rhetoric is rarely matched by the delivery.

For example, last week the UK government at long last awarded the first major subsidy contract as part of Project Gigabit, a £5 billion plan to deliver fast, reliable broadband to homes and businesses across the country.

Wessex Internet was selected to deliver a contract worth around £6 million, providing over 7,000 rural properties in South West England with high-speed internet. The first home will be connected by the end of the year, with an expected completion date of 2025.

However, the pledge to roll out full fibre broadband across the country has long been a Conservative Party promise. In their 2015 manifesto, the party promised to provide superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017. This was a revision of their previous May 2015 deadline. Their 2019 manifesto, on which the current government was elected, pledged full fibre broadband to every home and business by 2025.

In July 2022, that deadline was revised once again to promise 85% coverage of gigabit broadband by 2025, increasing to at least 99% coverage by 2030.

Caroline Carruthers, a global data consultant and former chief data officer at Network Rail, said that politicians need to be more transparent about what digital policy goals are actually achievable.

She also believes that previous governments have not done a good job of selling the benefits of many digital policies, especially when it comes to data and how it can be used to drive improvements across society.

“One of the things we're really terrible at doing is promoting the positive use of data and technology within our public services,” Carruthers said. “We're absolutely abysmal at it and as a result, there's a really low-lying level of trust within the public, which is having the knock-on effect on public services as they’re frightened to use data in certain ways.”

While Carruthers acknowledges that the disparate nature of many of the UK’s public sector institutions can make implementing a coherent data strategy rather challenging (there are 45 territorial police forces and 219 NHS trusts in the UK), there are some real differences that can be made to societal problems through the use of data.

“[The public] needs a tangible understanding of how their data is being used, what it's being used for and the potential benefits in order to create this high degree of trust,” she said. “What would be really good to see is a focus on trying to build up that trust again through engagement with the public. And I think part of the play is to really focus on improving data and tech skills all the way through things like data literacy, which is a fundamental life skill.”

Which digital policies should DCMS be focusing on?

When it comes to the immediate focus of DCMS’ digital arm, it’s likely that trying to address some of the controversies in the proposed Data Protection and Digital Information Bill and the Online Safety Bill will be high up the agenda.

Described by the DCMS as “[freeing] businesses and researchers from GDPR’s one-size-fits-all approach”, critics of the new legislation have argued it diminishes the power of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) by introducing more government oversight to the detriment of the data watchdog’s independence.

In an article for PolitcsHome, Conservative peer, Lord Kirkhope, went as far as to say that moving away from European data laws poses serious economic and national security risks and the benefits of the new bill are “negligible at best”.

Carruthers praised the bill’s attempt to make data privacy laws more targeted and proportional for smaller organisations, but said that she ultimately believes that trying to impose geographical restraints on something like data, which doesn’t sit in a physical geography, is futile.

Following the appointment of Liz Truss, however, it was announced that the government will not move forward with the second reading or other motions relating to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. This puts the bill in limbo, at least for the moment.

The other controversial piece of digital legislation that was borne out of the previous administration was the Online Safety Bill, which was denied a second reading during the dying months of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tenure, essentially scrapping it.

However, at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Truss told MPs that the legislation would be returning to the Commons, noting that some “tweaks” may be required to ensure it does more to protect free speech.

While many MPs supported the bill's efforts to protect children online, others have labelled it as a disaster for free speech, while a survey of industry professionals by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, found only 14% of respondents believed the legislation is fit for purpose.

Professor Jon Crowcroft, chair of the programme committee at The Alan Turing Institute and professor of communication systems at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory, said that the new administration needs to maintain the country’s current high standards, especially in data protection and privacy, to ensure that the UK remains competitive across all markets.

“Designing to meet high standards, that exceed the standards of countries that compete with the UK in the development of technology, will give the UK a competitive advantage,” he said.

Crowcroft also argued that in addition to the legislation that has been brought forward, one of the primary concerns for the tech industry is being able to fill the increasing number of roles in the sector. Crowcroft said that if Truss’ promises of a lower tax regime are to make sense, the tech industry needs to be able to hire and invest rapidly, which will require fast tracked visas to support immediate recruitment.

Is it time to make digital its own department?

DCMS only adopted its digital remit in 2017. But since then, technology has increasingly become part of the wider agenda everywhere from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Currently, there are half a dozen senior civil service (SCS) technology roles being advertised, including director of digital at the Ministry of Justice, a chief data officer at the Cabinet Officer and four chief domain architects who will be based in HM Revenue and Customs.

Crowcroft said that alongside the legislative priorities Truss should be focused on, its also vital she understands the importance in investing in and adopting emerging technologies to help improve efficiencies in government departments.

“Many government departments trail behind other sectors in the use of new technology, and this needs addressing,” he said. “Leading by example would benefit everybody, including the taxpayer.”

Carruthers, like many others operating in the technology sector, thinks it's time that the digital part of DCMS was spun out into its own department, especially as data and digital are now more important to help grow the UK economy than ever before.

“DCMS is an interesting amalgamation,” said Carruthers. “[By making digital a standalone department], it will allow the government to have a more laser sharp focus on all things digital, which in the long term would benefit both the government and the country."

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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