Amid the chaos as Cabinet collective responsibility collapsed into a hasty Brexit-induced reshuffle yesterday, the UK found itself with a new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS).
With Matt Hancock, the most recent incumbent, rewarded for his very public loyalty to Prime Minister Theresa May with a surprise promotion to the Department of Health and Social Care, the man now handed the responsibility for growing the UK digital economy is Jeremy Wright QC, MP for Kinilworth and Southam.
He’s moved to the DCMS brief after having been most recently the Attorney General. As he’s a barrister by trade, his legal background and qualifications clearly map onto the latter role.
But do his tech credentials stand up? That’s not, shall we say, as immediately obvious. His predecessor Hancock was fond of spinning the story of having worked in tech prior to his Parliamentary career. Wright has no such boast to make.
He’s got a Twitter account, although he’s only posted on it five times and the last update was in 2015. But then again, Oracle founder Larry Ellison has a twitter account that he’s only used once! It’s also been pointed out that according to a Hansard search, Wright has said the word ‘digital’ twice in 13 years in Parliament.
Now, that’s not to say that behind the scenes Wright isn’t a massive technophile. He’s also a barrister and had a successful career in that field, so he’s clearly not lacking in smarts. But is this, Brexit-eve as it were, the time to have someone learning on the job in a vitally important sector for the future UK economy?
We’ve recently seen the resurgence of the so-called Oligopoly. It never really went away - it just hid in the bushes until the coast was clear and then the SI sirens resumed their (big) business. They do so to receptive ears. Where once there was the immovable object of Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office, now there’s David Lidington, eagerly fulfilling a self-defined remit of ‘Cheerleader-in-Chief’ for the outsourcing industry.
Without a sound understanding of tech, those siren voices can be very tempting and persuasive. “Lift and shift to us, Minister - all yours for a mere £50 million a year…”.
Let’s never forget that Tony Blair signed off on the single biggest waste of time and money tech programme in the UK public sector - the NHS National IT Programme - on the back of a one hour briefing from vendors. Or his claim when pushing the cause of ID cards, that the technology was there and that we owed it to “modernity” to pursue this.
To do and to don’t
So what do I want to see from the new Secretary of State? Here’s some random thoughts.
Look beyond the Oligopoly. OK, the ‘big vendor bad’ meme may have gotten out of control for a while. And there is absolutely a place for larger providers in delivering public services. But a return to the ‘all eggs in one SI basket’ days would be disastrous. Oh and when a spin doctor inevitably tells you that there’s a great photo opp to be had at Microsoft’s office in Reading, don’t do it! That’s soooo last year.
Don’t become a tech groupie. Hancock’s predilection for over-excited selfies with bands, singers, artists etc extended to tech CEOs as well. Tap into leaders in the sector, build strong relationships that will encourage growth and investment, but try not to look like a teen that’s just bumped into Little Mix when you’re meeting enterprise tech CEOs.
Beat up on BT. One of the most infuriating things about Hancock was his willingness to act as an extension of the press office at BT. Every half-truth to come out from the company that’s done more to stifle the growth of the UK digital economy was enthusiastically repeated on Twitter as gospel. Yesterday it was confirmed that the UK ranks the lowest of all European Union member states in terms of average broadband speeds - and 35th in the world, behind the likes of Madagascar! That’s the reality and it’s a direct result of years and years of appeasement by government ministers afraid to take on BT’s monopolistic hangover. Time to get tough!
But be realistically tough. Over recent years, and in particular the past 12 months since the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, there’s been a lot of posturing by government ministers about how they’re going to clamp down on social media giants and bring them to heel. Prime Minister May has had her moments. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was notoriously always about to clamp down, while also admitting to not understanding what she was talking about. And Hancock’s had a lot of ‘something must be done and I’m the man to do it’ favorable media coverage out of threatening Facebook. The end result of all of these promises to hold feet to the fire? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The DCMS Select Committee can’t even get Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to talk to it! Focus on achievable and deliverable goals, not getting the headline slot on the Today show.
Most importantly - talk to the UK tech sector and find out what it needs. It’s terrific to have large U.S. companies upping their footprint in the UK and bolstering the tech economy. That’s vital as we move into whatever kind of Brexit we end up with. But let’s also build on the UK’s home grown technology champions and provide them with the support they need to become the next SAP or Oracle or Salesforce.
Matt Hancock had a lot of supporters across the tech sector. I personally found much of his public profile to be irritating, particularly his near fetishistic support for BT, or the never-knowingly-undersold nature of his self-promotion. Who else would have the nerve to launch his own app named after him? But equally he was a very enthusiastic promoter of the UK tech scene, as noted yesterday by trade association TechUK.
It’s critical that Wright gets to grips with his new remit in order to build a post-Brexit UK digital future. His lack of obvious credentials here worries me. I hope that he will provide an open ear to TechUK and the various leaders in the UK tech industry to assist in getting up to speed on his brief and not just default to picking up the phone to the Oligopoly’s usual suspects.