By Suzannah Brecknell

07 Dec 2022

As DCMS perm sec Sarah Healey argued in a recent speech, policymakers should not assume in the face of monumental change that a policy response is impossible

It’s hard to predict the future. When American businessman Irving T Bush set about building a grand international trade centre in central London after the First World War,  he probably didn’t expect that within a few decades another war would force businesses out of what was then the most expensive building in the world. Taking the place of those firms, BBC newsreaders and radio presenters moved into Bush House, creating international connections of a different kind through the World Service.

Now the building belongs to King’s College London and houses King's Business School – including a Department of Informatics, which brings together innovators from the worlds of technology and business. Given this rich and varied history, Bush House was a fitting backdrop for Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as she took on the challenge of predicting the future in a recent speech exploring the challenges government might face as it makes digital policy in the years to come.

This was the second in a pair of lectures given by Healey to mark the start of a new partnership between DCMS and the Strand Group, part of King’s College London. In the first, she defined digital policymaking as not about “the way government uses digital technology to deliver its own services” but “the shorthand we use for policymaking in response to the massive transformation effected by digital technology on the world we live in.”

She argued that over the last decade or so, the UK government has built a “coherent, consolidated capability” for digital policymaking . In both speeches, however, Healey cautioned against complacency, pointing out that while we may not know exactly what changes will come with new technologies, we know there will be more change.

“Because it’s hard to imagine a different future, our default is to think we have been through the industrial revolution, come out the other side and never again will we see the changes we have so far,” Healey said in her second speech. “You can see this assumption built into policy documents on technology throughout history and certainly in relation to the digital economy and society. Knowing this, we should learn the lessons of the last two decades of work on digital policy to ensure we are not caught unawares.”

Known unknowns

Healey set out three types of challenges which government may face in digital policymaking. First, there are those “we know we will face [because] we have already experienced them to varying extents in these early years of policymaking in the information age”.

Next, there are challenges which “flow from those we have already experienced but will require a further expansion of our thinking, our capabilities and our ambition to exploit new opportunities and manage the totality of risk”.

Finally there are those resulting from “seismic change” which we are not yet able to predict in any detail.

The challenges government has already faced around digital policy making flow from the pace and breadth of change – new technologies are not only emerging quickly across all sectors and countries, but have unanticipated and interconnected impacts which policy makers need to understand if they are to respond effectively.

There has always been a lag between the emergence of new technologies and government’s response to the opportunities and harms they create, Healey argued, but the gap is more important when the change is so fast.

To close it, Healey suggested, the civil service needs to build new skills – “we will always lag behind real world change if we cannot and do not build the knowledge and skills to better predict the potential impact of technology” – but it must also think differently about the tools it uses to speed up the pace of its responses.

On the first point, Healey said government needs more civil servants with a science and technology background  who “can better understand the nature of new technology and better assess the impact it may have”.

She praised proposals to reform the Fast Stream to bring in a higher proportion of these individuals to the generalist policy profession but added that in order to retain these skills, the civil service must also create career paths and development offerings which will “recognise and reward their particular expertise”.

These skills must be brought in at all levels, she continued, echoing chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s call for “the same revolution in scientific capability across the civil service that was previously achieved for economic capability”.

Building capability needn’t rely on bringing in new skills, she suggested, but also in creating ways for civil servants to access expertise externally.

In digital policymaking there has been a tendency to rely on tech companies to understand detail and impact of change, Healey said. “That is important, and close links with industry must remain. But it is a single and partial view. To fully understand the potential impacts, the benefits and risks of new technologies, we need access to a broader range of opinions, of thinkers, of experts and critics.”

Here she pointed to the work of DCMS’s chief scientific adviser Tom Rodden in building a College of Experts to provide “deep, independent, external expertise to DCMS at all stages of the policy making process”.

Alongside this expansion in science and technology skills, Healey argued for a wider spread of digital policy capability beyond the team in DCMS. The department will continue to have an important role, she said, particularly to “improve collaboration and coordination across government” but government must invest in capability across departments and consider how best to bring these teams together.

"Going forward, digital change is only going to burrow itself more deeply into the fabric of our society as new digital services emerge and more and more industries adopt a tech-led approach,” Healey said. “To provide a coherent policy response we must continue to invest in digital policy expertise across the whole of government and learn how to pull it together. Creating cross-departmental, multi-disciplinary teams to solve complex and long-term digital policy questions should, as the Declaration on Government Reform set out, become routine.”

Old tools, new tricks

Alongside new capabilities, Healey said, digital policymakers will need to consider the tools they are using in order to keep pace with, and properly respond to, technological change.

Making policy, enacting legislation and implementing change can be slow processes, Healey said, with good reasons. Parliament must have “the time it needs to interrogate, amend or decline to pass laws the government proposes”,  and civil servants must properly fulfil legal duties – such as consultation – and develop a “thorough and prudent approach to implementation” especially in emerging and novel areas.

Civil servants, she argued, should not seek to shorten these processes at the expense of “responsible policymaking”. Instead, they should look at other tools such as secondary legislation and smarter working with regulators and regulation to “mitigate against the risk that the pace of technological change is just too fast for responsible policymaking to keep up.”

 Already, she said, regulators can be given responsibility to produce statutory codes “in lieu of prescribed detail in legislation”.

“Such tools allow public bodies to respond to changing technology in months rather than years, provided they stay within the broad principles and requirements of the overarching legal regime,” she said, pointing to the ICO’s Age-Appropriate Design Code as an example.

While tools like this present advantages for speed of response, Healey noted that “the cost for this agility is less parliamentary and government involvement in decisions and so, critics might say, less democratic accountability.” Ministers must therefore be advised on how to manage that risk and offer “safeguards for the use of regulation-making powers”.  

“At its best, this approach will help us get ahead of the curve of tech change. It represents a necessary evolution in our policymaking capabilities in a digital age"

Beyond closing the gap between change and response, Healey also suggested tools which would allow digital policymakers to take preventative action. “It has long been best practice for governments to encourage development of technology to design out problems in society as well as to work voluntarily with industry to address potential risks and harms,” Healey said. “But the unique nature of how [information] technology is developed creates new opportunities.”

Government is increasing work with industry and international partners to shape the digital standards on which new technologies are based, for example through a DCMS-initiated AI Standards Hub, launched in October 2022.

“At its best, this approach will help us get ahead of the curve of tech change and, where we have to respond to events, can ensure we are future-proofing our interventions. It represents a necessary evolution in our policymaking capabilities in a digital age,” Healey said.  

Expansionary challenges

While the first group of challenges Healey discussed revolved around the gap between change and policy response, the second group stems from the need to look ahead and take decisions which will put the UK on a good footing for future changes.

With a nation’s economic and social wellbeing now increasingly dependent on access to, creation of and fair distribution of digital innovation, she explained, digital policy makers must “expand how we think about the enablers of growth and societal wellbeing” and “try to predict what technology ecosystem is needed for the decades ahead”.

Some of these enablers are already known and indeed have underpinned previous economic growth the, she said. This includes elements like “a suitably skilled workforce or “stable regulatory environments”.

“But where I expect we are likely to see a difference is in the infrastructure needs of the future digital economy,” Healey said. She added that while it will be for politicians to decide how to invest in future infrastructure needs, civil servants must ensure they are able to give the best quality advice to support those decisions.

Doing this will require both improved capabilities and processes in government, she argued. Civil servants must have the skills and the confidence to lean into the challenge of predicting the future infrastructure needs of an increasingly digital and tech enabled country,” as well as being able to “understand and frame the novel political choices for ministers in designing digital infrastructure and its role in society – the democratic choices at the heart of how technology interacts with citizens”.

Alongside this, digital policymakers must “expand on how we develop investment cases so that we can better judge and advise ministers on the case for investing now in these novel enablers for economic growth,” and they may need to drastically change the way they apply economics to digital policy.

But all of this good advice also requires the right processes in place to ensure it is being used, she suggested, and that “investment decisions to support long term economic growth take full account of the likely importance of technology and digital infrastructure to our future economic success”.

World wide work

The global nature of digital change – and the resulting need for a global approach to digital policymaking – was a theme throughout both of Healey’s speeches. She described governments as being at the “foothills” of the work needed to build the institutions and systems which can address challenges such as the intra-national impact of digital change and the unequal distribution of benefits from the information age.

 “There are challenges in even like-minded states agreeing common positions, given competing domestic values and the concentration of the biggest tech companies within a few countries,” she said.

In addition to the growing challenge of tech proctectionism, she noted that the risk that “digital policy issues go beyond the traditional wheelhouse of existing multi-lateral fora". Each of these organisations will tend to focus on one issue such as trade or security, she explained, and “we know this [approach] does not work for digital policy”.

“Regardless of how we do it, I think there is a need to look at well established international governance models, like for […] the facilitation of financial capital flows, and ask what capability might similarly be needed to enable a global response to issues like digital competition, data access and the safe and trusted use of AI and to ensure that response is guided by democratic values,” she said.

“While we have historically moved slower than we might have liked, we have shown that public administrations can step up to manage the harms than come with those benefits”

Underlying this is the risk of a growing digital divide between developed and developing nations, which will “require us to expand the scope of the global conversation on technology change” Healey said. This expansion should ensure that the “digital dividend is experienced globally,” to avoid the security and economic risks of growing digital inequality.

Change beyond our imagination

As she closed the speech, Healey spoke of the seismic changes which are even harder to imagine and therefore respond to. “What if quantum technology leads to such a step change in computational productivity that previously impossible innovation becomes possible?” she asked. And what if AI makes our economy “unrecognisable” by transforming multiple industries, or augmented realities change “the very nature of our society and how we interact as humans?”

Imagining these changes may be hard, she suggested, but the principles of previous digital policymaking will hold good if governments remain ambitious and prompt in their response. Policymakers both official and political “should not assume in the face of monumental change that a policy response is impossible,” Healey said, adding that “governments can and should shape the impact of transformative new technologies on our citizens”.

This will require a “hard-headed” assessment about the “the opportunity cost of not acting speedily enough” to ensure “difficult decisions for how we must respond as an institution are not delayed.” It will require both unilateral and multilateral action globally, and a continued focus on expanding the technology and horizon-scanning capabilities of the civil service.

Though the future may be uncertain, Healey concluded, she is optimistic about it.

“Technology has brought incredible benefits to our society in these last 20 years. And while we have historically moved slower than we might have liked, we have shown that public administrations can step up to manage the harms than come with those benefits. We are more clear-eyed about the future challenges we might face. We are absolutely more prepared to confront them.”

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