Matt Hancock backs ‘Automate the State’ proposal, published by low-tax pressure group with dubious funding links

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 23, 2019
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been on a mission to overhaul technology across the NHS. However, by putting his name to the Taxpayers’ Alliance research, his credibility is undermined.

Digital Secretary Matt Hancock
Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has today put his name to - and written a foreword for - newly published ‘research’ by ‘think tank’ Taxpayers’ Alliance, which is entitled ‘Automate the State’, and focuses on the potential benefits of automation across the National Health Service (NHS).

Whilst there is certainly room for more information around the use of automation and AI within the NHS, it’s surprising that Hancock has chosen the Taxpayers’ Alliance as his think tank of authority - because, quite frankly, they don’t have any.

Instead of choosing an organisation that is thoughtfully conducting research around the implications of automation, AI and machine learning, and the impact on public services, Hancock has instead chosen to associate his name with an organisation that has funding links from unknown entities overseas, has been given the worst rating possible for funding transparency from, and has been revealed to have secret meetings with ministers to influence government policy.

The question we’ve got to ask ourselves is, why? Instead of carrying out authoritative research with a well-respected organisation, why does the Health Secretary choose to align himself with a company that is obsessed with stripping back public services, promoting lower taxes and has received £223,000 from US-based donors over the past 5 years?

The ‘research’

I don’t want to give the findings too much time, as I think journalists have a responsibility to present information that is authoritative and unbiased (neither of which the Taxypayers’ Alliance research is). However, it found:

  • The potential value of time released for NHS staff through improved productivity from increased automation is estimated to be £12.5 billion a year
  • The social care sector could similarly save £5.9 billion annual by improved productivity from accelerated automation

Unsurprisingly, the research also states:

“There are barriers to entry into the NHS for companies offering innovative healthcare solutions. Many are being addressed and in the long term it’s crucial that the NHS remains open to new ideas and innovation”.

In Hancock’s foreword to the report, he says:

“This report from the TaxPayers’ Alliance is a timely and provocative intervention in this debate. Whilst we don’t agree on everything, the TPA has a long history of challenging the status quo. So I welcome the challenge to think even harder about how we can use technology and innovation to save money, time and ultimately lives.

“Many of the innovations that the TPA highlights depend on us first getting the technical infrastructure right, something I set out in my Tech Vision for Health and Care last year. This includes sorting out the NHS’s data layer: ensuring that essential diagnostic information about you can be accessed safely and reliably from wherever you are in the system, just as you can access your emails from any device.

“It also means only buying or building systems that can talk to each other, designing them in a way which means we can plug in the latest innovations without breaking the technical plumbing underneath. It might not be as glamorous as robotics, genomics or AI, but it’s completely essential if we want to take advantage of this new technology.”

Hancock adds that it’s not just about “inventing new technology”, but about “getting those ideas to spread”. Thankfully, he adds, that “every decision we make on new technology needs to be guided by real evidence about the needs of the patients and staff”.

My take

Whilst we at diginomica/government haven’t always been Hancock’s biggest fan (PR over substance a lot of the time), we have been impressed by some of the work he’s done since being promoted to Health Secretary. The focus on interoperability and standards within the NHS, as well as the creation of the NHS central digital unit, NHSX, are all steps in the right direction. Hancock does also have a lot of support from industry.

However, today the Health Secretary lost a bit more credibility in our eyes. AI and automation hold huge opportunities for public services, including the NHS, but it needs to be a thoughtful, considered discussion. One led by experts. Not one that is promoted by a discredited organisation that has dubious funding links and is primarily focused on stripping back public services.

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