Image: Pixabay

Policy report: The digital future

Our lives have moved online. Public policy must adapt
August 31, 2020

mere generation ago in the 1990s, junior politicians who wanted to sound modern in their speeches would drop in a mention of the “information superhighway.” The audience would look blank, and the speaker would sound baffled too, as he or she relayed that technical wizards were saying it might just be the route to the future.

In the years that followed, we all began to encounter first email, then Google, Wikipedia and perhaps iTunes in day-to-day life. But where politics was concerned, the “virtual” aspect of life somehow remained a peculiar afterthought. The avowed “modernising” prime minister Tony Blair got through a whole decade ending in 2007 without having a computer on his desk at No 10. Sure, the “digital dimension” arrived as a standard subheading in green papers and think-tank reports, but it reliably denoted a deadening section that most ministers and even officials would skip safely over. The need to move things like pensions and driving licences online got some civil servants interested—but never enough. Which might explain why the biggest IT projects, such as the digitising of NHS patient records, went awry. The stubborn tendency to conceptualise “the virtual” as an exotic bolt-on to “real life” survived, even as automated trading algorithms played havoc with the markets. But 2020 will surely go down in economic history as the year that this anachronistic bifurcation finally bit the dust.

Before lockdown, I avoided multi-person video conferencing, still assuming—on the basis of experiences a few years before—that it was too glitchy for serious meetings. But at Prospect, we were suddenly forced to pull a magazine together without going into the office. And like businesses around the country, we soon discovered we could get our core work done remotely.

There are disruptive elements to this discovery, with profound implications for housing and transport. It is also, however, potentially a liberation for industries and communities up and down the land. But only if—as Labour’s Jo Stevens and Conservative Julian Knight both argue in different ways—public policy finally makes virtual connectivity its top real-world priority.