Opinion: The UK’s post-Brexit role in the world should be digital

Championing and developing progress in digital government across the globe could place the UK at the heart of global networks, say Tanya Filer and Antonio Weiss
GDS/CC BY 2.0

In August 2020, the Cabinet Office formally called for submissions as part of its landmark integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign affairs. In the words of the prime minister, the exercise represents the “biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the cold war” and a significant opportunity for the UK to reimagine its role in the world now that it has left the EU.

The role could well be a digital one. Governments are becoming both increasingly digitalised and increasingly responsible for thorny digital governance issues, from digital IDs to data privacy. Recognising the merits and investing in the capabilities required for international cooperation and lesson-sharing on digital governance is more critical than ever, and new research from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, examines the role Britain has played in fostering cooperation on digital governance globally since 2014.

In the report, we pinpoint two particular areas of learning of value to the Integrated Review: a model of cooperation, from which practitioners across policy domains can learn, that we describe as “digital minilateralism”; and the digital capabilities Britain can share, cooperate on, and defend over the coming years.

The birth of digital 'mini-lateralism'

The UK was the driving force behind the foundation in 2014 of the D5 – a network of five nations that self-identified as digital leaders. By early 2014, the UK had successfully established GOV.UK – which consolidated some 1,700 government websites into a single domain for many citizen-facing services – and was receiving significant international attention and visitors keen to learn from its efforts. Aiming to capitalise on the attention, Francis Maude, the then-minister of the Cabinet Office - commissioned the development of a conference of leading digital nations.

The somewhat eclectic grouping of nations, comprising Estonia, the Republic of Korea, Israel, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, nonetheless shared a commitment to a set of baseline shared values relating to digital governance, including openness and a willingness to collaborate. The network set out to “provide a focused forum to share best practice, identify how to improve participants’ digital services, collaborate on common projects and to support and champion our growing digital economies.” Their working methods since have included two in-person meetings each year: the officials meeting (at the leader and practitioner levels, who are broadly referred to as officials), and the ministerial summit (divided into overlapping ministerial, leader, and practitioner levels depending on the agenda) and monthly meetings and calls. Experts also meet within thematic working groups focused on AI, data and other emergent policy topics.

Six years on, the network continues quietly to grow in strength and influence. Doubling in size over the years, it has now rebranded as Digital Nations (DN) and features ten members, adding Canada, Denmark, Mexico, Portugal, and Uruguay. Operating in distinction to large multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organization or United Nation, the network is best understand as a “digital mini-lateral” body: a small, cooperative, trust-based, knowledge creating and sharing, innovation-oriented network both committed to digital government and using ‘digital’ – understood as the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era — as tools for advancing its agenda. 

Strengths of expert-driven, trust-based networks

These ‘digital mini-lateral’ qualities sit in contrast to the gridlock that scholars increasingly perceive to characterise intensively bureaucratic and formalised multilateral approaches to problems requiring global cooperation – and are beginning to prove valuable. 

Digital Nations, in 2020, is neither the biggest digital government network, nor, arguably, the most globally reputed. Significantly, however, nations report real benefits from membership. The value of a relatively informal network where there is genuine trust and honesty should not be underestimated in the context of innovation, where there is no set path. As Shai-lee Spigelman, former chief executive of Digital Israel, describes, “When you build a strategy from scratch you don’t always know where you’re going, what are the next challenges, where you need to focus.” In this context, having access to a trusted peer-led expert group, based strongly on interpersonal relations, can prove empowering and instructive.

Practically, countries have benefitted too: code has been shared of the UK’s GOV.UK Notify and the AI ethics principles signed at the 2018 Israel Digital Nations Summit has been adopted by a number of member nations. The principles have also come to inform international policy. Canada’s leading role in the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence has led to their uptake within that international forum, suggesting that the network is beginning to play a stewardship role on the international stage.

Britain’s digital offering in a post-Brexit world

Since inception, the UK has played a leading – and well regarded - role in the development of the Digital Nations. Its digital blueprint of GOV.UK and central digital government unit model of GDS has also been replicated across the world. In an era of waning UK diplomatic influence, digital government has become a form of British soft power. 

Progress within GDS may have slowed in recent years, but the UK continues to be sought out and promoted as a lodestar on digital government. As Britain considers its post-Brexit role in the world via the Integrated Review, two specific learnings from the Digital Nations experience stand out. 

First, the UK should make best use of its existing strengths, and continue to develop its capabilities, in digital government in close cooperation with governments with whom it shares values, trusts, and can learn. In terms of service design, AI, government platforms, models of digital government units, and the development of GovTech ventures, Britain has much to offer. Using its knowledge in exchange for cooperation on areas of mutual benefit will be valuable as it seeks a new global role. 

Second, the example of the Digital Nations suggests that UK government must harness the strength of expert-driven, trust-based mini-networks more widely in an age that has often prioritised economies of scale. Accountability is key, to avoid charges of ‘runaway technocracy’. Yet small, expert-based networks can help individual governments learn, adopt, and govern the use of new and emerging technologies, and create common or aligned policy with trusted peers elsewhere.

Dr Tanya Filer leads the Digital State project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge. She is also founder and director at StateUp. Dr Antonio Weiss is a director at The PSC and, in 2020-21, a Digital State Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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