Blair calls for digital department

Written by Julian Blake, Editor at DigitalAgenda

Former prime minister Tony Blair calls this month for a dedicated new government department of digital and technology, to help make the best connections to the ‘change makers’ in the digital business community. And he warns that tech business could soon become the target for a populist backlash.

The government should create a new department of digital and technology, to help officials connect better with the people driving the technological revolution, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair says this week. Blair, who chairs his own Institute of Global Change, was speaking to Tarah Ferguson in a new Digital Leaders podcast.

Blair, who was prime minister for 10 years from 1997, is Labour’s longest-serving premier. He established his institute to work on some of the most difficult challenges in the world today, including how the centre ground of politics renews itself with practical policy solutions.

In a wide-ranging interview from the impacts of Brexit to artificial intelligence, Blair expresses concern that government officials have yet to find an effective way to connect with those driving the technological revolution. He says: “The change makers, the people engaged in making these huge changes with such impact on how we live, work and think; and the policy makers, those who are going to have to produce the governance and regulation and work out the impact of it all, are not in a proper dialogue together.”

Calling for the new department, Blair argues that it should be staffed and run in a very different way to traditional government departments. He says it should bring together experts in technology and government and create a faster interchange between the private sector and government. That, he argues, and will help overcome the lack of understanding of the tech sector amongst policymakers.

In the podcast, Blair also calls for more industry experts to work alongside policymakers in a specialised unit where there would be both people familiar with policy and with tech, ensuring that there is a direct dialogue between them.

On ethics and privacy the former prime minister warns that “as a result of failing to understand this wider picture, the one thing politicians do understand are issues around privacy/regulation/Facebook, etc”. He adds that “the risk is that tech becomes the next target for a populist wave looking for people to blame for this accelerating change. It’s not a question of blaming anyone. You risk ending up with bad public policy”.  

The institute’s 2017 report, Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future sets out the challenges and opportunities for government in the face of rapid technological change. Written by Chris Yiu, it highlights the numerous ways government can use technology for good, presenting a new policy agenda that would lead to positive outcomes for the many.

Its policy recommendations include the digitalisation of British industry along the lines of Germany, as well as the new department for digital and technology. The paper also says every citizen should have a personal account manager for public services and government interactions.

The Tony Blair interview is the latest in a series of Digital Leaders podcasts, featuring conversations with key influencers in the UK’s digital transformation community.

In season one, the podcast hears from some of the UK’s most proactive digital leaders as they share their views on the importance of leadership in an evolving digital workforce and economy.

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