Government for the 21st century – Interview with Tony Blair

Public

08 August 2019

PUBLIC interviews Former PM Tony Blair about the opportunity for Europe to transform public services through technology and the upcoming GovTech Summit.

Last month, you published a report on how to build a government fit for the 21st century. In the report, you laid out an ambitious and detailed plan for how the UK government can make the most of the opportunities presented by new technologies, and how to drive the requisite organisational change to support this process.

Why do you think that governments have traditionally struggled to embrace technology as quickly as the private sector?

Historically, private companies have been driven to evolve and progress by the market in a way that states have not, while reforming the machinery of government can be like turning around a supertanker – it takes time and can lack flexibility. Often this has led to services being oriented around the needs of the state rather than the citizen, but mostly what people want is the ability to get things done quickly and companies with tech in their DNA are often far better at grasping this.

Today, we need our public services and institutions to be similarly responsive and empowering. The iterative, multidisciplinary processes and structures of the likes of Spotify or Google often far surpass those of states when it comes to embracing technology, and we have to learn from these organisations and shift how we govern, organise and deliver in the public sector. We must promote greater experimentation; learn from platform operating models to provide a foundation for innovation; and adopt more responsive structures to speed up delivery.

Making these changes will be hard, and in some quarters might require a leap of faith. But we can start by facilitating a greater interchange between the private and public sectors. This will bring not only new expertise but also embed new cultures and ways of working into government.

“What people want is the ability to get things done quickly and companies with tech in their DNA are often far better at grasping this.”

The report argues that an effective national digital identity system is the ‘backbone’ of any digital government, and point to the successes in countries such as Estonia, Denmark and South Korea.

What lessons can we learn from our failed attempts to implement such a system to-date, and what would a successful digital identity capability look like? Is Britain ready to overcome what was traditionally political concerns about identity schemes?

The crucial lesson is that behind many of the world’s leading digital governments is a substrate of digital platforms, data registers and identity systems. In the UK, the failure to implement a proper identity system and the lost momentum in the digital government movement in general have been major constraints on reform.

A digital identity system would make life easier for everyone. The great thing about technology is that it is always moving forward. Many of the concerns some people had in the past about big government databases are now obsolete, as new technologies can keep our data private, secure and under our control.

But the key point is that there’s nothing necessary about our failure to keep up. We have the capability and, in parts, ambition. It is time for progressive politicians to again make the case for the reforms we need to deliver progress.

By taking inspiration from tech companies in the private sector, you also endorse setting-up new cross-functional teams within government, bringing together interdisciplinary teams to work across multiple policy portfolios.

Given that you set up several of these during your premiership do you think you should have gone further even then and re-configured Government departments? If so, what’s the lesson from those early steps? How can we encourage the necessary behaviour change within government to make this a reality?

What’s important here is that changing public services and institutions is very different to legislating change. You can pass a law to establish certain rights or change tax rules, but essentially these are reforms where other actors then take the process forward. If you want to reform government itself, you are actually having to make systems change and that’s much harder to do because they each operate according to their own structures, cultures and interests.

“For a country like Britain to maintain its influence and protect its interests, strong alliances will be essential and in particular with its European neighbours. “

One lesson from the early years is that you can try to push systems to change, to be more efficient or to be more effective, and for a short time it might work. But once you take away that external pressure the change doesn’t sustain.

In response, the central units we created were about providing the executive with the tools to push and shape the system on an ongoing basis. But the world is different now, and as tech makes it ever more complex, we must adapt again. For many tech companies, cross-functional working is a necessary condition for progress: having everyone you need around the same table allows for far faster decision-making. It’s right that government moves with the times, and launching more autonomous, multi-disciplinary teams should be part of this.

The GovTech Summit in Paris attempts to bring together European leaders, policymakers, entrepreneurs and investors to use technology to solve major social problems.

In today’s changing political environment, how important is it for the UK to build digital ties with other European governments, and how can UK ensure this, even outside of the European Union?

For a country like Britain to maintain its influence and protect its interests, strong alliances will be essential and in particular with its European neighbours. Brexit or no Brexit, when you look at how the world is changing, this has never been more important. By mid-century, the world will have three giants in America, China and India shaping global politics more than anyone else, and if medium sized countries like Britain, Germany, France and so on don’t band together as a strong collective they will lose out. This is just the reality.

Now add the fact that technology has become a foundational layer for almost all economic and social activity. Whether it’s the debate over Huawei and 5G, or an AI arms race between China and the US, with tech so pervasive these alliances become even more important.

The UK should be using its preeminent position as a leading European developer and regulator of new technologies. We are a small but important player in this space globally, and should play our part to shape emerging technologies in the global public interest.

Europe has the potential to position itself between the other two major global technology forces – USA and China, especially when it comes to the regulation of major tech companies.

What should the new European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen do to help digitise European governments?

I have known Ursula for many years, and her first-class political mind as well as diverse and long-standing experience across several different policy areas will be much-needed during this period of profound challenge and change for the EU.

In her opening statement she recognised the increasing impact of digitisation across society and the economy, and while delivering public services and transforming states’ operating models are primarily matters for national governments, the Commission should lead by example where it can. Certainly, articulating the need for progressive technology regulation in the context of a shifting world order should be a priority.

“At a time when the big tech companies are facing a backlash, it’s essential to ensure that the right regulation – which shapes technology in the public interest – is adopted. Europe has an opportunity to set a progressive example.

Our recent report also notes how the Commission’s research and innovation strategy is already leading by promoting purposeful missions, but it also has an important role in facilitating more enabling infrastructure and building more responsive institutions. For instance, it must help to harmonise standards in areas such as cross-border digital identities, which former Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip has regularly highlighted as being crucial for the continued integration of the Digital Single Market, while also recognising the urgent need for deep internal reform to equip it to operate within an increasingly challenging geopolitical and technological context.

How should the Commission deal with the large tech companies who supply so much of the infrastructure of democratic societies from cloud computing to our public space?

At a time when the big tech companies are facing a backlash, it’s essential to ensure that the right regulation – which shapes technology in the public interest – is adopted. As with GDPR, which is a step in the right direction that has set in motion many similar frameworks globally, Europe has an opportunity to set a progressive example.

But the central challenge for the Commission is also recognising that internet businesses often tend towards scale, and that isn’t always to the cost of consumers. That’s not to suggest there aren’t very real challenges here, and the role of the competition commissioner will continue to be important, but a long-term solution won’t be found unless we build a sustainable, structured dialogue between those changing the world through technology and those looking to respond with regulation. This is a key focus of my Institute, because it’s increasingly clear that to break the impasse we must build informed trust between two worlds which often misunderstand each other.

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