What Tony Blair didn’t say. How policy makers can harness technological change.

Tony Blair is right – policy makers have to embrace and harness technological change But it’s easier said than done if one is to maintain probity and accountability in public private partnerships and procurement.

Tony Blair is right – policy makers have to embrace and harness technological change[1].

Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done if one is to maintain probity and accountability in public-private partnerships and procurement.

We have been asked many times by Local Authority tender officers – ‘can you tell us what the future technology is so that we can write it into our tender documents? Only half joking.’

Take outdoor advertising and smart city technology. Government guidelines on advertising consent refers to paper posters on hoardings and bus stops – it doesn’t cover digital adverts which are now ubiquitous and generate more revenue for public and private sector. By the time new guidance has been consulted on, debated, scrutinised and passed, it will be out of date.

How, for example, does a transport authority incorporate smart city tech into a 20 year concession tender? It can’t predict the future but if new tech is incorporated into an existing supply agreement, rivals will complain and probably go to law.

The PFIs in, for example, street lighting in the 90’s and 00’s were interested in LED light bulbs. These agreements are now coming to a life cycle end and now they need smart city tech which didn’t exist then. Do we renegotiate all PFIs and incorporate what we will need in 2043 when they end?

And AI will, as Tony has also said[2], transform the functioning of Government – Alex Chisholm, outgoing head of the Cabinet Office, recently told a conference[3] of the Reform Think Tank said that AI could save £5billion in civil service costs and replace tens of thousands of civil servants. This may improve services but is it a good thing or a bad thing? Not for us to judge but it is inevitable so let’s get on top of it.

We believe this all means that as well as a mindset change as Tony has called for, we must also radically change the way we decide laws and regulations in Parliament.

The Law Commission was established in the 1960s to review existing laws and make recommendations to Parliament to update laws to make them fit for purpose not only in response to case law but to real world, including technological changes. Yet it is most often ignored because it’s not headline grabbing or, to be fair, its reports often don’t carry a manifesto mandate and take second place to Government inspired legislation. It’s not coincidence that the founder of the Law Commission was one Harold Wilson,

author of the White Hot Heat policy. Plus ca change.

Our colleagues at Palace Yard Think tank produced a fantastic report recently on Hydrogen[4] – they consulted the industry and made a series of recommendations to Government, Parliament and Civil Service on what regulations will be needed to harness the hydrogen revolution – this may seem petty but without regulatory stability, investment will not flow and the UK and other liberal democracies will miss the boat – we worry that we already have. Palace Yard know a thing or two about legislative processes having a former Deputy Speaker of the House, the Usual Channels (Permanent Secretary of the Chief Whips Office) and a Number 10 head of policy in their ranks – we should listen to them.

So, we need laws and regulations to be time limited and reviewed on an ongoing basis – select committees are ideal to help. Pre-legislative and Post-legislative scrutiny should be embedded into a permanent flow – the regulatory laws need to be a river not a lake.

Otherwise, countries which don’t care about democracy and accountability will win the technology race. The PRC doesn’t bother about outdoor advertising consent and planning laws, it just gets on with it. Its why they can build a 1000 mile high speed train in three years and we can’t build a branch line. It’s not just the failure to embrace technology which we are guilty of, as TB says, it’s the system of law making and regulating as well.


[1] https://www.institute.global/insights/politics-and-governance/reimagining-government-for-the-21st-century

[2] https://www.institute.global/insights/tech-and-digitalisation/as-uks-ai-safety-summit-approaches-governments-must-take-steps-to-harness-technology

[3] https://reform.uk/event/future-government-data-driven-citizen-centric-conference/

[4] https://www.palaceyard.co.uk/briefings—hydrogen

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