Maggots, rats and a fork in the road

So what’s it going to be then, hey? Will the outcome of the Brexit negotiations see the UK forced to adhere to the EU’s “level playing field” rules, or free to set its own standards? The mood music is ominous, hinting that the UK could adopt lower standards in some Mad Max “race to the bottom” that will leave us sipping essence of maggot orange juice for breakfast.

I readily admit I’m not qualified to comment on many of the issues being debated, from the merits of swimming-pool scented chicken to rodent infused paprika. But my objection to any attempt to make the UK comply with EU standards after Brexit is the opposite of what many seem to fear. I worry that staying fixed to EU rules and regulations will hold us back by preventing us from adopting higher and better standards.

Park your scepticism for a moment. Think instead about how we might make the UK synonymous with high standards and a resurgence of Parliamentary democracy as a beacon to the world. An exemplar of seamless, frictionless services redesigned around evidence and citizens and consumers rather than current organisational structures — whether that be claiming welfare, improved care in the community, setting up a new business, or being free to deliver frontline public services unencumbered by all the current managerial, administrative and operational baggage. The sort of promised “transformation” in the way both public and private sectors work that’s been playing on an endless policy tape loop in a musty Whitehall cupboard since at least 1996.

Given all the Brexit brouhaha about “standards” and “level playing fields”, I thought I’d share insight into ideas I socialised around Whitehall in 2016 in an unaccountable fit of optimism about the opportunity for the UK to both show leadership and to radically improve the way technology, and data in particular, helps inform public policy.

Data at the centre

I have a long-standing belief in the better use of public data — and the better protection of personal data. It’s essential to help us map, understand and respond effectively to the issues we face as a country — from housing to healthcare, and from transport planning to taxation. We need much better quality and more timely public data to inform how we make decisions and develop policy, rather than resorting to guesswork and tired old political dogma.

It’s why I’ve been disappointed that the open data and open systems agenda promoted over many years in reports such as ‘The Power of Information‘ (2007), ‘Better for Less‘ (2009) and the Martha Lane Fox proposals (2010) — which could have made live, or near-live, data directly available from open systems interfaces, as well as enabling a more nimble reconfiguration of public services around users rather than organisations — has so often taken a back seat in much so-called “transformation”.

The importance of data was also something I wrote about in my article in the book ‘After Shock’, published earlier this year:

Democratic governments should be at the vanguard of the positive uses of technology, placing citizens centre stage and helping strengthen our rights and laws and modernise our institutions. They should be providing continuous feedback mechanisms to improve policy outcomes and using open public data to monitor economic, social, environmental, and cultural progress. They should be regulating domestic and global technology companies to ensure they play by the same rules as everyone else, and lifting people and communities out of old, dying jobs and industries and into new ones …

… We need to cultivate a new age of democratic enlightenment supported by, not dictated by, technology. One in which social, human, and environmental improvements have as much focus and value as more traditional economic measures. This requires government to let go of its inward-looking bureaucratic instincts and to open up—monitoring and releasing public data regularly, frequently, and automatically to enable citizens to see the extent of progress and to determine where resources are best directed or redirected.

adapted from my article ‘Our Future State’, in ‘After Shock

So it made sense to me in my chats in Whitehall to place data at the heart of where the UK should excel. It was nicknamed (not particularly imaginatively) “Data Protection+”, which may seem like an odd place to start—protecting data, which sounds like the very opposite of open data. However, I wanted to emphasise that while better use of public (open) data is important, so too is ensuring that our personal (private) data is better protected too — even if we may choose to consent for it to be used for wider societal benefits, such as in health research. Often talk of “government data” confuses “government-held data” (i.e. our personal data) with data relating to government’s own services, operations, and performance.

Data Protection+

Data Protection+a vision for post-Brexit Britain

Redesign and improve data protection, creating a legislative regime that’s the envy of the world, driving consumer protection and fostering business and technological innovation

I hoped to kickstart an ambitious and forward-looking discussion. And not just discussion: ideas are the easy part, implementation and delivery less so. I wanted to provoke enough interest that a team would be created to make it happen, based on my outline sketches:

Some of the ideas in ‘Data Protection+’

Whether we voted ‘Just do it!’ or ‘No way!’ to leaving the EU, given Brexit happened it should have been the catalyst to create an exemplary approach of improved standards, driving consumer protection and empowerment, alongside business, technological and regulatory innovation.

However, reports about the status of our negotiations suggest ideas like these never made it beyond polite early discussions. Yet the work required could have been done rapidly and well. We have no shortage of skilled and knowledgable people who could have helped make it happen, from high level principles, to social and economic modelling, to legal drafting, to technical standards, to a Brexit negotiation guide — along with the action to deliver it on the ground:

Making it happen – my outline proposals from policy to delivery, 2016

What next?

It’s always possible I guess that the EU negotiators are well aware that if the UK improves standards it would be much more of a concern than if we lower them. But they probably also realise that even if the UK did have the ambition to raise the bar and lead by example, our ability to execute major technology policy improvements has been patchy.

We have decades of worthy strategies about better use of data, better services rebuilt around the needs of the user not the providing organisation, improved operational efficiency, making the UK a digital nation, best place to live and do business, blah, blah blah. Despite several waves of dedicated, passionate people and teams committed to driving meaningful change, over recent decades the UK has ended up exhibiting about as much forward momentum and progress as a dog endlessly chasing its own tail. Technology alone will never deliver the changes needed — it needs a strong political vision and commitment to see it through too.

We should have long ago set out a post-Brexit, aspirational vision and implementation plan for the UK across a whole range of important areas, not just data and technology. We have the ideas, we have the people, we have the technology, we have the capability. But we still lack a lot of the necessary data, and access to data where it does exist, to help us improve public and private sectors alike.

On the upside, there’s no limit on what we might achieve with the right mix of better public data, enlightened political planning and technology chutzpah. In the wake of COVID-19 this has become even more important. A range of intersecting planning and policy assumptions need to be urgently revisited and rethought, and in a much more joined-up, evidence-based way than in the past.

We’re at an important fork in the road, for a high variety of factors, with a genuine opportunity to take a better path. What’s less clear is the direction we’re heading in next.

So, what’s it going to be then, hey? A levelling up—or a levelling down?

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