D-Day for digital, deckchairs and Dorries as UK Government introduces new science and tech state department

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan February 8, 2023
The latest UK Government reshuffle of responsibilities gives digital to a new department. Good idea?


In the popular BBC comedy show W1A, David Tennant’s sardonic narrator intones at one point about dealing with “the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and, for some reason, Sport”. No more! The UK Government yesterday held a mini-reshuffle and when the music stopped, DCMS had lost the Digital chair, AKA gone back to its pre-2017 status and remit (almost). 

The digital part of DCMS is being rolled into a new government department called the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology. This new office will also pick up part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s responsibilities. Michele Donelan moves from DCMS to become Secretary of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

The explanation for this changing of the guard/re-arranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic - delete according to political prejudice - is, according to Downing Street, as follows: 

A dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy. Having a single department focused on turning scientific and technical innovations into practical, appliable [sic] solutions to the challenges faced will help make sure the UK is the most innovative economy in the world.

Nad's not happy (again)

Sounds great, huh? 

Not everyone’s thrilled. Former DCMS Secretary of State Nadine Dorries is livid, taking to Twitter to proclaim: 

Sad to break up  @DCMS because it works. Dept has tragically lacked profile of late despite being most effective in Whitehall.  Track record in tech, digital, gigabit roll out, telecoms, data speaks for itself.

‘Most effective in Whitehall’ are four words doing an awful lot of heavy lifting here, and Dorries inevitably presents no evidence to support this claim. But then this is the Secretary of State who didn’t know how Channel 4 television is funded during her vendetta - sorry, policy-driven efforts - to privatise it. 

Or who looked plain baffled when told that she shouldn’t be sharing her Netflix password, not a great look for someone supposedly in charge of media and culture. 

Or who was the woman in charge of digital and media who told us how we were all busy “downstreaming” stuff from the internet, which was, she assured us, about ten years old. 

Anyway you get the picture. In my personal opinion, if Nadine reckons this latest is a bad move, then that’s good enough for me - let’s go for it! (As for the lacking profile of late comment, read the sub-text there from someone who’s now hosting her own fawning chat show on a right-leaning TV channel that almost no-one watches!)

Dumping ground 

That aside, there are good reasons to welcome this re-arrangement of responsibilities. DCMS has been, as the W1A comment above suggests, something of a smorgasbord of duties. It’s been the Whitehall equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs where you dump all those things that you have cluttering up the place, but you don’t really know where to put them. 

The leadership on show has not exactly been astounding either. Another former occupant of the DCMS hot seat was Matt Hancock. In the days before his attention turned to snogging his special advisor, chowing down on kangaroo genitalia, and ditching whatever remained of his dubious credibility for a £320,000 price tag, Hancock spent a happy few years popping in front of any TV camera he came across to promise super fast broadband for all - again and again and again and again - and making such spurious claims about the state of the UK’s network infrastructure that some of us suspected he was in fact a remote worker for the BT press office! He was also the guy who assured us he was going to tough it out with Mark Zuckerberg and bring Facebook into line - until the details of the meeting were leaked and the reality of the conversation was exposed. 

To be fair, Donelan’s time in charge has been more constructive. She’s ditched Dorries demented dreams for Channel 4, and the controversial Online Safety Bill has been stalled while some of the more contentious aspects are addressed. (It’s interesting to note that this Bill remains with DCMS and won’t be coming with Donelan to the new Science department. Perhaps she can hear it ticking?)

But in this day and age, the notion that Digital is something that can be lumped in with the Olympics or the National Opera House is ludicrous. So a move to a more suitable environment is long overdue. 

Now, deliver!

As to those ambitions for this new department, the proof will come with delivery - and we have been here before in terms of UK ambition.

Back in the 1960s, the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson was bigging up the idea of the ‘white heat’ of technology, but in the event, it hardly reached a rolling boil.

Mrs Thatcher cheerily sold off the nation’s telecoms infrastructure to an effectively privatized monopoly and condemned the country to decades of lack of investment in the kind of infrastructure a digital economy needs.

Meanwhile Tony Blair was entranced by the idea of what he called ‘modernity’, but all that led to was a multi-billion pound disaster in the shape of the NHS National Programme for IT and an obsession with enforced ID cards that continues to this day

Will things be any better this time around? Time will tell. The timing of this re-org isn’t great. Clearly it’s part of new - or do we call him current, given the turnover of late? - PM Rishi Sunak’s attempts to make a mark and he has spoken enthusiastically in the past about technology innovation. (He’s pretty well-connected when it comes to IT movers and shakers…)

But there’s less than two years to go until the next UK General Election has to be held and in terms of ‘getting things done’, considerably less than that once the electioneering gets underway. Getting a new government department up and running isn’t something you can do overnight. And unless something radical happens in the polls, the current standing of the various runners and riders suggests that it might not be Donelan’s party that ends up in charge on the other side of the vote. 

There’s also the long shadow cast by the DCMS’ decision last month to pull its £12 million annual funding from Tech Nation, the UK investment operation that has supported start-ups such as Monzo, Ocado and Deliver in the past. The organization relied on the government grant to carry out its work and will now be shuttering its doors on 31 March as the money is handed over to Barclays Bank and its Eagle Labs arm instead. According to DCMS, the decision was taken “to make the Digital Growth Grant competitive”. If that’s the sort of quality decision-making we can expect from the new department, then those deckchairs will need another look. 

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