Brexit will replace digital as the biggest show in Whitehall

Profile picture for user Nicola Brittain By Nicola Brittain February 12, 2017
Summary:
A panel at the Think Digital Government 2017 conference paints a dark picture for the challenges presented by Brexit for digital.

Brexit
Brexit marks the biggest political upheaval in decades and delegates on the final panel at the Think Digital Government 2017 conference on Friday were unanimous in their belief that the impact on public sector technology will be huge.

But exactly what this impact will be is still unclear and the panel were mixed in their assessment. Director of privacy management software company OneTrust, Gilbert Hill, said that Brexit will change “everything and nothing” and cautioned against its distracting potential.

Meanwhile ex-Cabinet Office Policy Maker Paul Waller argued that it was like a thumping great goods train hurtling towards us, noting:

This is not a distraction. We need to get the hell out of the way.

The impact

And it was hard not to agree with this analysis. Not least because Waller argued that Brexit will require extensive rewriting of IT systems right across government. He said:

Separating from the EU will mean huge changes to administrative law. Government IT systems exist to administer legislation, and the Brexit process is about legislative change. It will be very detailed stuff, and this detail will all require changes to IT.

He argued that cross border administrative law is one directly affected area. This will include customs, imports and exports, agricultural law and tariffs, fishing quotas, civil aviation, shipping, policing of borders, international research and DVLA driver registration.

In addition, there are many laws that are currently being enacted directly by the EU that will cease to exist post Brexit. As such new laws will need to be created to replace these. So it is clear that although government IT will be directly affected by our separation from Europe, technologists need to ensure that Brexit doesn’t indirectly affect their work by distracting from and potentially derailing new digital projects.

Director of Digital, Methods Digital Michael Beaven said that this sort of distraction was what most concerned him. He said:

I worked with Francis Maude [ex-Cabinet Office Minister] and Mike Bracken [ex-Director of GDS] when digital change and transformation was the biggest show in town but now Brexit is the biggest show in town and it will consume resource and attention. Providing better services to citizens and making organisations work better will inevitably take a back seat.

Researcher at the Institute of Government Joseph Owen said that already delayed IT programmes are likely to be held back further. He said:

These projects have already been hit by spending reduction and you only have to look at the NAO report to know that the majority of government IT projects are struggling to meet delivery timescales. Last year half the IT projects were on amber or amber red. Brexit is likely to make the targets of these projects even more difficult to meet.

Hill was more concerned with high-level decision making. He said:

The danger is that Brexit and other conversations around politics will distract from a lot of the cool stuff we've heard about. GDPR offers an immense opportunity around transformation, as well as the use and potential monetisation of data, and we have to seize this. But since work around data protection has become politicised we’ve seen things like the privacy shield framework being put in limbo or actually being torpedoed a year down the line. Brexit could have a similar sort of impact.

How long will it take?

Westminster Government
Unfortunately the distraction from Brexit will not be short lived. Waller argued that the recent permanent representative to the EU Ivan Rogers was “probably correct” in his assessment that the separation process will take at least ten years.

He explained that once Article 50 has been served all the agreements around money, residency (including UK nationals in the UK and EU agencies here), pensions and other settlements needs to be agreed within two years.

But this is just the beginning. EU directives that have been incorporated into British law can be ignored for a while, but those that are being run via the EU, and there are thousands of them, will cease to exist as soon as the separation is enacted. New laws will need to be created in their place. Cross border law will be affected too. He said:

Getting the EU states to agree on a treaty in the first place will be hard work but there are likely to be other problems too, not least the political issues around the Irish border and problems with Gibraltar.

Waller explained that administrative law (and the IT systems underpinning it) is connected across different jurisdictions making change on this scale even more complicated. He added:

Agricultural subsidies are connected to tariff and import duties, and this will affect trade negotiations done with other countries. Similarly, these are connected to environmental and land policies too.

There is a Tsunami of stuff to sort out, not least how you get that lot through the parliamentary system within a decent time frame.

Opportunities

But will Brexit afford any positive opportunities for government IT? The panel agreed that ultimately it might. Hill said:

There is a big opportunity to take back control. The world might begin to view the UK as a ‘free data love Las Vegas’, and we could position ourselves this way. Or we could position ourselves as Canada has with its lax privacy laws and minimal enforcement. The country is seen as a beacon worldwide for best data practice.

Waller argued that, yes, Brexit does provide an opportunity for government to provide new IT policy, institutions and systems but that the route to get there is “immensely complicated”.

Owen said that although the threats were significant there will probably be opportunity for the implementation of technology around the implementation of Brexit. He said:

When looking at immigration and customs there are 50 million non EEA crossings a year and 35 million from the region. An extra 35 million put through the non EEA processes would mean huge queues. Options include more border force, a new arrivals hall at Heathrow or the implementation of technology. The latter seems the best response.

There are already microchips in passports but the EU are currently working on interesting initiatives around biometrics, iris scanning and number plate recognition on cars. Norway and Sweden are using digital chips to register goods. Other countries have drones.

These difficult implementation challenges are likely to be met by technology and that is a good thing.

My take

Although I can’t say I like the idea of Brexit, perhaps it does afford some exciting opportunities long term. It is important that IT technologists keep focused on transformation and as Hill said make the most of some of what millennials have in their DNA:

They are better able to negotiate flexible tech contracts and we need to make use of this.

His arguments around leading strategy around data use were also compelling.

But Waller’s more circumspect observation is perhaps the one with which I most agree. He said:

Before we can get to the sunny pastures of new technology, we need to get through the tsunami. We have is a vast estate of systems that accompany legislation. Right now we don't know which bits are going to change, but it will probably be a lot.

In short, it looks as though the road ahead is going to be long and it certainly isn’t going to be easy, but perhaps, as Hill argued, with continued focus we can emerge as global leaders in data management and technology.