Tony Blair criticises Theresa May’s government for not prioritising digital agenda

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 8, 2018
The former Labour Prime Minister, who led the government between 1997 and 2007, speaks out about the distraction of Brexit and how digital government should prioritise bringing policy makers together with tech industry.

Tony blair digital government
Although many would quite like it if Tony Blair would just disappear into retirement, the former Labour Prime Minister can’t seem to help himself by speaking on a number of issues relating to the current government. This is even more so true since the establishment of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which claims to want to help make globalisation work “for the many, not the few”.

However, it was with interest that this week Blair was featured on a Digital Leaders Podcast, in which he expressed his dismay with the current government’s handling of digital policy making. In a fairly wide ranging discussion, Blair called for the establishment of a Department of Digital and Technology (although didn’t clarify how this would differ from the Government Digital Service or DCMS) and also urged for the formalisation of policy makers and tech industry coming together.

During the discussion, Blair said that David Cameron’s government “more of an interest in this [digital government]” and that the Government Digital Service “did some really good work”, but added that we “I don’t think this government particularly understands this”. He added that things are now less likely to be driven forward, thanks to the distraction of Brexit. Blair said:

“I think we’ve learnt a lot over the past two years about this distractive impact. I mean the truth is that the problems of the country don’t get dealt with because the bandwidth of the government is pretty much subsumed with Brexit. Day and night. And really Brexit doesn’t offer an answer to any of the problems we have.

“[Technology] is going to be the central challenge facing this country. We can’t afford to be in the situation where we aren’t giving this massive attention.”

Closer ties to industry

Blair’s central argument was to formalise and structure the relationship between tech experts and policy makers. We have seen in government some grassroots movements to make this happen, with #OneTeamGov gaining some traction thanks to groups of people in Whitehall committed to the cause. However, these people are doing it because they think it’s important, despite a lack of recognition from those at the top of the civil service. Blair said:

:You need experts in the area to come into government. You need to create a much faster interchange between the private sector and public service. You need to get rid of some of the crusty old rules around that, because they don’t really apply today.

“And you need to be working out in each department, each public service, how you take advantage of the opportunities. I think one of the things that’s really dangerous at the moment is there’s so little understanding of the tech sector amongst policy makers. I don’t think there’s any real understanding of this, let alone how to reshape government in order to deal with this.

“It’s a fundamental challenge because the real world is moving ahead with all this and the government world is light years behind.”

Blair said that his Institute for Global Change is looking at whether it’s possible to put together a specialised unit, or centre, where people from both tech and policy backgrounds can come together and have a structured dialogue. He added:

“You need to organise this, it’s not going to happen through the odd seminar and conference, you need to do it in a structured way.”

One final dig

Blair also made a point of directly accusing the leading political figures in government of not making this a priority. He said that if this isn’t made a priority by them, it will never happen, despite what the departments might be saying. Blair said:

“Politicians are very simple people, on a certain level. They go to where the debate is. They’re simple souls. If the debate every day is around Brexit, that’s where they are. If the debate every day is around crime, that’s where they are. If the debate every day is about the impact of technology, they’ll be there.

“You need to make it the focus. And the one thing you can do from the top of government is determine the agenda. I just don’t see that happening. I know, having been prime minister for 10 years, these things only happen if there’s an absolutely overwhelming push from the top.”

My take

Will Blair’s comments be taken seriously? Probably not. Are they helpful to the cause of digital government? Questionable. Did he say some of the right things? Arguably.

I listened to the whole podcast and I think Blair missed the mark a couple of times - I got the distinct impression he didn’t really know what was happening with GDS how things have been progressing since. That being said, he was right on two things. Policy and tech need to be more tightly integrated. And the agenda needs to come from the top, which just isn’t happening.

Image credit - Image sourced via Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

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