Brexit for good? Seeking facts on the digital opportunities of leaving the EU

Written by William Perrin on 10 November 2016 in News
News

What opportunities could there be for digital n the UK as it exits the European Union? Digital consultant William Perrin is on a mission to find out. Here, he tells PublicTechnology about his latest research project.

Many questions remain as the UK progresses on the road to Brexit: Photo credit: Flickr, Veronique Debord-Lazaro, CC BY-SA 2.0

As the dust settles on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, there are many unanswered questions – but among the chaos, might there also be opportunities for digital?

For instance, will the UK be able act more nimbly than the 27 remaining member states in evolving its rules better to suit the fast moving digital space? And what non-regulatory opportunities might arise during the transition?

On a mission to help draw out the positive potential for the UK digital sphere, I am carrying out a short piece of research for the Carnegie UK Trust.

At this point I should say that, although I campaigned for Remain, I plan to slip back into my professional intellectual neutrality from 15 years as a civil servant and aim to take an optimistic and progressive approach at a time when public policy is open to new ideas.

As I begin the work, many observations and questions stand out to me. Here is just a small sample of these thoughts – for my full take and to participate in the project you can go to my blog.

Values

The tumultuous changes of Brexit will lead to all sorts of uncertainty and opportunity.

Can the government set out a guiding statement of British values, fairness, tolerance to act as an overarching guide through the turmoil?


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Labour, skills and visas

The government plans explicitly to restrain the movement of labour. For the tech sector, this risks reducing the supply of labour, and the primary focus for government and industry should be to increase the domestic supply of skills and mitigate for a lack of specialist labour from overseas.

We can already see signs of this in policy announcements by culture secretary Karen Bradley and minister for digital and culture Matthew Hancock, and – while the prime minister hasn’t yet given an official report of her trip to India – there are signals of changes to the India/UK visa system.

Indeed, why can’t the UK aim for the worlds best, ethical and transparent immigration system, interoperable with others and showing the way for the rest of the world? A system with world-leading technology at its heart that can both bring us the skills we need from overseas and maintain the confidence of a mistrustful public.

This should be the biggest chance for a generation for the tech sector to improve the government’s migration schemes – asking for better visas, not necessarily more in total. 

The tech industry as a beneficiary and an enabler could step up to the plate: how can it channel its energy into designing a better, quicker visa system for people with necessary skills? How can the UK have the world’s best high level digital skills migration scheme? And will the Home Office come to the table for a user-led design process?

Skills is at the heart of almost all post Brexit challenges and opportunities – not just the high end elite skills but how the government and indeed industry can deliver modern digital skills and jobs to the millions who voted for Brexit from the former heavy industry areas.

Should we see the noises about a renewed focus on digital skills as an opportunity to close the digital divide in the UK once and for all?

Data

After some initial caution, Bradley last month told MPs that the UK will adopt the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018 – although what happens next is open to debate, choosing her words carefully so as not to be conclusive on a post-Brexit regime.

She said: “We will be members of the EU in 2018 and therefore it would be expected and quite normal for us to opt into the GDPR and then look later at how best we might be able to help British business with data protection while maintaining high levels of protection for members of the public.”

She is still providing certainty for businesses to plan for a major change in 18 months’ time – but it isn’t clear if a debate is going on about whether the UK should simply adopt the GDPR or if a different form of data protection would be preferred.

We must ask: Is there a better response to Podesta’s challenge for trading blocs to engage with the USA on data and tech issues? What could be done to improve citizens’ data rights and make UK industry more competitive through smarter regulation?

Given the uncertainty a new regime would cause, how great an advantage would such a regime have to deliver to make it worthwhile?

Procurement

Brexit gives us an opportunity to test whether the UK’s procurement rules are in fact the product of the EU system or a broken domestic approach to procurement.

Certainly when I worked in central government, tech procurement felt like bureaucratic self harm. What does this mean for digital companies and people who might benefit from services so procured in local and central government?

Will the Crown Commercial Service simply procure a procurement consultant to procure a new procurement system? Or will they come to the tech industry to design a user-led system that works for SMEs, delivers quality and fair prices to the public purse and is transparent and painless?

There are entrepreneurial parts of government – perhaps they could design a shadow procurement system or systems to pilot.

Infrastructure and connectivity

As we exit the EU, we need to ask what critical infrastructure for UK digital products and services is physically in the EU27.

For instance, the UK must consider what cloud services and advanced internet services we would need to have here in order to ensure our tech companies can develop and deliver services here.

If I am used to running or developing my software in a cloud which happens to be in Germany or just running a small business website that happens to be on some French servers how does that work post Brexit? Is there an opportunity to develop such services in the UK?

And of course, we must consider the UK government’s promise to improve connectivity for those in rural areas – will there be more opportunities outside of the EU?

Capital

And finally, we know that wider Brexit issues will affect capital and intellectual property flows, but the government does not set out explicitly to constrain those. And, despite much speculation, it isn’t yet clear how the government’s plans for Brexit will affect net capital flows or funding availability in the medium term.

Once the initial disruptive effects have been worked through, will Brexit diminish or increase the funding available to the UK tech sector?

And, more importantly, what policies would we need to have in place to ensure an increase, and how could the government offset the risk premium required to invest in Britain?

Of course, on top of all this uncertainty, we face another big question mark, we must now throw in the US elections result into the mix.

I’m fascinated to hear constructive, helpful points of view, email me or leave me a comment below. 

About the author

William Perrin is the founder of digital inclusion consultancy Talk About Local and has previously worked at the Cabinet Office and Number 10, as well as serving on the Government Digital Service’s digital advisory board. He is conducting his research for the Carnegie UK Trust, but writes here in a personal capacity. 

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Comments

Richard Pope (not verified)

Submitted on 10 November, 2016 - 09:48
There will have to be amendments to any laws that require the UK to send EU institutions data. There is an opportunity to ensure that, post Brexit, the data is published by suitable U.K. Institutions under open standards and licenses. The best example I know of is product recalls data: http://blog.memespring.co.uk/2016/10/24/brexit-open-data-and-dangerous-products/ but there will be other areas (e.g. medical Marketing Authorisations, INSPIRE data)

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