Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - why government needs a different political dialogue to bring the public on side in the tech revolution

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 6, 2020
People will trust governments that display a consistent application of risk calculus, argues Tony Blair - and Amazon should be involved in COVID logistics.

Tony Blair
(via Tony Blair Institute for Global Change)

The track record of government’s use of technology to tackle the COVID-19 crisis has varied greatly from country to country. Some nation states have enjoyed considerable success in tapping into tech to contain the virus; others considerably less so. This week has seen the latest in a series of debacles surrounding track and trace apps in the UK, for example, another notch on the bedpost of failures stacked up by Health Secretary Matt Hancock

While Hancock himself blindly sticks to his technophilic party line that the crisis has boosted public faith in government’s use of medtech and, by extension, tech in public service delivery in general, other senior politicians take another view. Speaking prior to the latest (Han)cock-up, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was scathing in his assessment about Britain's chaotic track and trace push: 

I just think we made an error in the beginning in thinking we could design our own app that was going to be better than the apps that are designed by companies that do this for a living day in, day out, on a global scale.

At this point it should be recalled that Blair in office was a huge advocate of the blind pursuit of ‘modernity’ which led to the single worst healthcare IT debacle in history - the NHS National IT Programme - as well as mass outsourcing of in-house technology skills within government, an offloading from which central government’s skills crisis in the UK has never recovered. So, there’s a lot of room for justifiable scepticism when contemplating his commentary on the role of tech in government. 


That said, in his new role as head of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, his research teams have done some good policy work on a global scale on potential govtech use cases that stand up to scrutiny. It’s a state of affairs that has led to the former Prime Minister casting himself in the role of tech evangelist: 

The single biggest change that's going on in the world, in the real world, is the technology revolution. It's going to change everything. It's going to change the workplace, it's going to change every part of industry, the service sector. It's going to change the way that we interact with each other. It should change the way the government works. So this revolution is going to offer enormous opportunities. 

This should inform debates around healthcare, he says: 

You can have a debate about should you spend this much more or that much more. That's a very old debate and I'm not saying it's not a valid debate -  I went through all these debates when I was Prime Minister.  But the single most important thing in the healthcare system is, how do you use technology to deliver a better service, better health care, better prevention and reduce costs so that the system itself becomes more sustainable? Likewise, in education. Through this crisis we've been using remote learning, but there are a myriad of different ways that, even if we return to normal, we should be using technology to personalise education, law and order, transport. 

This in turn has significant implications for society, he argues: 

My point is just very simple - you've got this revolution that's happening, but the change makers, and the policymakers aren't in the right debate together. This is why my constant theme to politicians today is, the only way you're going to revive optimism about the future is by showing that you understand this revolution, can master it and harness it. If you show that, then there's actually an optimistic future because there's a whole lot of things we can do far better. But it will have big displacement effects. It is going to mean big changes, and you've got to have government that is re-engineered to help people through that. I think government can make that change, but it needs to be driven from the top. You need to identify exactly the types of changes you believe you can make.

One thing that hasn’t changed since falling from office is Blair’s belief in the need for public-private partnership, a conviction he suggests that COVID has proven is valid:

One of the things that's most difficult about government in an era of change is that it becomes about implementation and doing. That requires a certain expertise.   I said at the beginning of this COVID crisis, you're going to have to pull a whole lot of people in from the outside of  government. Some of these issues around COVID are logistics questions. Other people do this stuff for a living. They do it day in, day out. They're going to know more than a civil servant. It's no disrespect to the civil service, but they just will. I don't know how we could use Amazon in the current situation around delivery of mass testing,  but we probably could if we thought about it...You need to identify the task, you need to pull in a different skill set.   

I think policy has gone in the wrong direction on this over many years. I'd like to see much greater switching between public and private sector. We did this a certain amount when we were in government, but people would then get worried [that] someone’s leaving the public sector, going to the private sector, going to make money out of what they used to know and all that. Honestly, I think that's a real second order question. To get people who've got experience in the private sector and bring them into the public sector is important. And likewise, people go out of the public sector into the private sector and learn things that then, when they come back into the public sector, can be useful to them. Developing these interchangeable, interoperable skills is really really important because this stuff can be complicated and you need really imaginative and creative people at the centre of government.

Risk aversion

The pandemic pressures create an ideal environment for government to shake-up how it approaches policy-making, according to Blair: 

The most important thing in realise about government is that when there's an actual crisis, decision-making is sharper and it becomes much more effective. The risk is then when you return to normal, you leave that that form of more effective decision-making behind and  you go back to the old bureaucratic ways. What this crisis has taught us is what the possibilities are for technology. If you just think about it, technology in terms of innovation and around testing and vaccination, technology such as [video-conferencing]. We've probably done more to shift to online consultations for the NHS in the last six months than we had in the last six or 16 years. Those schools that have used technology properly have managed to keep their students up to scratch. 

There's a whole series of things that have happened that show us what the capability of technology is. We've got to take that now and [when] hopefully, eventually, we get to more normal times, we've got to keep the same sense of urgency about how you use technology to transform the way government works. Otherwise you have this bizarre situation where the whole of the rest of the world, in the private sector at least and in civic society and the way people live and work and interact with each other, all of that's undergoing a revolution and government bureaucracy stays fixed in the same place.

The safest thing in government is always to take the most risk averse option. The biggest disagreement I have with the way governments in general approach this crisis,  is that you need a risk calculus that is consistently applied. What I mean by that is, we're not going to eradicate the disease; we're going to live with it...You manage that risk. That's my point.  I think if we don't get a more sensible way of managing risk and use technology to assist us to do so, we end up in a situation where you're doing zero risk in some areas and then you're putting rules in place that, if you're not careful, people if they don't see that consistent risk calculus, they lose faith in the system. 

And bringing the electorate along with change is essential, he advises, which coming from the man who oversaw the march to war with Iraq in the face of enormous public protest may elicit a sharp intake of breath: 

People will trust government if they think they know what they're doing. That's why it's very important to have a strategy. Not a series of ad hoc reactions, but a strategy in which you explain to people exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it. And you explain to people that there is inevitably going to be a balance between what the government stipulates or demands or orders and people taking responsibility for themselves. You need to do that in a very consistent way.

Digital ID - one more time for luck

A case in point might be another of Blair’s pet topics - the need to roll out digital ID programmes, something he attempted - and failed - to do during his time in Number 10. Now would be a great time to have another go, he posits:

I think [the public] would embrace digital ID, frankly, and I think a lot of the arguments against it are based on noise rather than a real proper assessment of it…Virtually all the vaccines that have been developed…are going to be a two dose vaccine. So you'll take the first dose and then you'll take a booster. It's going to be really important that we're able to track who's had it and then make sure that they then have their second dose. You'll need to have a register of those that have been vaccinated. Even after you get the vaccine, testing will still be important. I don't see how you can make international travel operate again unless you've got some form of digital knowledge of what your disease status is.

We've got the opportunity with technology to handle a lot of the issues around privacy, but [we can have a] digital ID across a whole range of services. You can rent your home more easily, do your mortgage more easily. All of these things are just a sensible part of the modern world and we should just do it. I think you'd get cross party consensus on it actually.

My take

You can read that last pitch as optimism or opportunism - and certainly I struggle not to frown when reading Blair’s advice on the need to bring fresh skills into government. Not because there isn’t a need for that, but because he spent 10 years in power being one of the prime architects of creating that need in the first place. 

That said, I am struck by his downbeat conclusion when considering whether the political classes have woken up to the wider considerations that need to be taken on board around his technology revolution. His assessment, if correct, has serious societal implications, he warns:

I don't think the political class as a whole has really grasped this properly. I think this question of how you understand and master and harvest the technology revolution is also the answer to the waves of populism. Populism is based on pessimism. If you don't have hope for the future, you look for someone to blame. The left might blame business and the right blames immigrants or whatever it is, but really this technology revolution, which is the real world thing that's happening, does offer us hope, provided we can weave it into a narrative about the future that makes sense to people.  If you look at the 19th century Industrial Revolution, it was going on for decades before the politicians caught up. In the early part of the 19th century the Whigs and the Tories were still carrying on with old arguments when this Industrial Revolution was of course changing everything. Eventually politics caught up and then of course politics itself change. 

But the point is, it took a long time for politics to catch up. I'm only hopeful about the future of politics if we have a political class that understands that whatever all these other issues are that we need to handle, there are big challenges getting this thing right. How you make most of the opportunities of technology and mitigate its challenges and its problems - that is the central challenge of our time. And that's why we need a different type of political dialogue.

I certainly can’t disagree with that last comment. 

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