Published on 25 May 2022
Share Tweet  Share

Why do British politicians have so little to say about technology?

Technology is particularly well placed to help improve the lives of British citizens. Antonio Weiss discusses how technology could be leveraged for the better.

In September 2019, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York decrying a nearby future in which:

“You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor – even your personal trainer – but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google… [this is a] cold and heartless future in which computer says yes — or computer says no with the grim finality of an emperor in the arena.”

Johnson’s comments point to a wider scepticism at the heart of the current UK government regarding the benefits of technology. Covid-19 heralded a transformation in working patterns for millions of people, with Britain’s digital infrastructure allowing much of the economy to continue working during the pandemic. However, the Government’s Minister for Efficiency Opportunities, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has now sought a fight with civil servants, demanding an end to a so-called “work-from-home-culture” to ensure government department offices are running at “full capacity”. Online learning at universities has also been heavily criticised

Such hostility is problematic because, whilst there are obvious issues to guard against, there are real potential benefits to be gained from the relentless and fast-moving technological changes transforming society.

A policy platform beyond regulation

Where the government has been most active is in the field of regulation. The Online Harms Bill, an imperfect attempt to regulate social media platforms, has gained the most political attention. The Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) recently issued a white paper on “digital regulation”, highlighting “ten technology priorities” to help Britain “build back better.” Yet the 2021 Spending Review and 2022 Spring Statement provided little specificity for how technology could be leveraged for the better. This matters because the history of successful digital government transformation points to the importance of strong political leadership and specific, tangible goals.

The opposition, the Labour Party, has been slightly more proactive: advocating for tackling the real digital literacy and capability divide in Britain, and putting forward two thoughtful speeches by its Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves and Leader Sir Keir Starmer on “technology as the driver for shared prosperity” and the “need to relearn that Britain led the world in the technology of the day”, respectively.

Yet despite these contributions, technology has remained little talked about by the opposition. Analysis of Hansard records indicate that since March 2020, fewer than 10 percent of contributions on debates on “digital” or “technology” have come from Labour politicians. 

One could argue this is because digital and technological issues are of limited interest to voters. This is partly true. Technology has never registered as a major issue in YouGov’s polling of the “most important issues facing the country.” But this is to mistake technology for an end in itself. Instead, technology should be viewed as the critical enabler for much of the future prosperity of Britain. A quick review of the issues that do matter to voters highlights the point. Crime: fraud, particularly digital identity fraud, is now the most common form of crime in Britain. Health: accelerated by Covid-19, 70 percent of GP appointments are now online rather than face-to-face. Economy: whilst capturing the contribution of the technology sector in GDP figures is notoriously hard (and arguably not that helpful), the tech sector still forms a major part of economic output, at an estimated 7 percent. Yet this figure is still significantly behind peers such as the US, where it is close to 10 percent

Bridging the investment gap

New technologies require investment. The UK still considerably lags behind other leading countries on research and development expenditure. Despite significant progress by the government on fostering more inward venture capital (VC) investment – the UK now makes up a third of all of Europe’s VC technology investmentplans for an Oxford-Cambridge innovation hub were put on hold earlier this year. As Sebastian Mallaby’s  history of venture capital has demonstrated, it is the nexus of VC funds, investment in scientific education and research and tax and legal corporation-friendly environments for start-ups which has driven the emergence of the tech giants which dominate the technology ecosystem. Politicians serious about long-term technology-led growth need to signal to investors and entrepreneurs that Britain will provide a fertile base in which companies can invent, innovate and thrive.

Aligning technology to policy priorities

Technology is particularly well placed to help improve the lives of British citizens in five domains in the short to medium term. These domains should form the backbone of a progressive policy agenda for this era of major technological advancement. First, in terms of health and wellbeing, the potential of genomics and personalised healthcare could be nothing short of revolutionary. This could benefit in real-time diagnosis, reduced costs, and better treatment. Britain’s Oxford Nanopore Technologies has led in much of this and demonstrates the potential of applied medicine arising from its leading research institutes.

Second, in terms of job security, much has been discussed and written about the potential jobs displacement from automation. This is a real risk. Yet the technology sector has historically – in the long-run – created more jobs than it has destroyed. Policy interventions should be focused on mitigating the impact from jobs displacement: Britain lags OECD peers in skills and training and specifically technical vocational qualifications. Micro-credential courses focused on building digital capabilities, starting at school but available through all of working life must be a priority. Ensuring that all citizens have digital connectivity should be a minimum basic requirement so nobody is digitally excluded. Innovations have already existed for some time in this domain: from Loon balloons providing 4G coverage to solar powered devices; delivering this commitment is a case of political will not technological challenge.

Third, with crime increasingly moving into the cybersphere more focus needs to be given to law enforcement agencies to tackle identity fraud, and more support to individuals to understand the risks they run. Awareness campaigns would be a simple and important start. The war in Ukraine has finally raised the very real threat of cyberwarfare higher up the political agenda – ensuring government bodies and agencies are well protected is essential, and easier said than done.

Fourth, the climate crisis. From the satellite imagery monitoring of climate change impact to carbon capture technologies, the journey to net zero will require significant leaps in new technology development. London is particularly advanced in terms of climate tech start-ups and could provide the home pioneering technologies with the ability to scale beyond British borders. Early progress in this area should not be stalled by political infighting.

Fifth, public services. The UK used to lead the way in digital government but has fallen behind in recent years. Whilst excellent work has been done to date in developing transactional online services, supported by the Government Digital Service in particular, much remains to be done in moving to a more personalised digital state service such as Estonia and in leveraging the benefits of huge volumes of health and care data, which has yet to be truly achieved anywhere. Realising such possibilities requires focused efforts on public sector reform: this has only been achieved with strong political leadership, either from Tony Blair in the 2000s or Francis Maude in the 2010s.

Underpinning all of this must be a concerted investment in bridging the “digital divide”. Whilst this must cover the aforementioned investment in high speed internet access, it also requires providing devices for those needing them (the government’s laptops for students service during the pandemic should be viewed as an exemplary model to be replicated for other use cases) and improving digital literacy levels. Whilst it is commonly assumed – with some truth – that older people struggle more with digital literacy, as research by the Oxford Internet Surveys has shown, digital illiteracy is closely correlated with functional illiteracy in general, which is a more widespread, age-blind and challenging problem that still urgently needs addressing.

A global outlook and call to action

Britain is not alone in struggling to articulate a new policy agenda for an era of “technological revolution.” It is hoped this initial post helps to stimulate debate in this area and thoughts would be especially welcome from political parties across the globe grappling with the same opportunities presented by technology in the future.

Authors

Antonio Weiss

Dr Antonio Weiss

Affiliated Researcher

Antonio is a Senior Partner at The PSC, a public services consultancy, advising senior clients on user-centred design, innovation thinking, and utilising technology to redesign public services to meet citizens’...

Back to Top