Digital Policy: Ask not what the Government can do for you

Portland’s Sam Sharps on developing digital policy

A year after the election, the Secretary of State stood up and announced his intention to put the UK at the forefront of the digital economy. For the UK to ride this wave of change, he said, we needed to spread innovation, rethink regulation, redesign public services and adapt to working with different types of companies.

That was 1998. But apart from the now-quaint references to ‘the knowledge-driven economy’, and the gag about Monica Lewinsky, Peter Mandelson’s speech (for he was that Secretary of State) could well have been delivered by a coalition minister today.

And of course since 1998 a lot of things have changed. Mandelson’s big e-commerce drive included such revolutionary interventions as encouraging UK businesses to have a website; today even the Pope is on Twitter. But what is also unchanged is the desire of ministers to look and sound digital.

The years following 1998 saw numerous digital strategies come and go (full disclosure: I am partly responsible for some of them). And depending on the personalities of the ministers involved, the level of resource dedicated to them, and the snazziness of their ideas, these passed by with a general reaction ranging from mild appreciation to universal disinterest.

Then in 2008 Stephen Carter’s Digital Britain Report caught a little more of the public imagination. The report itself contained rather too many pages bursting with policies which today largely lie forgotten or reversed.

But Lord Carter, an ad man by training, had his real triumph in branding digital policy in a way that made everyone sit up and take notice. The name of the strategy came first; the details could be filled in after, aided by the feeding frenzy around the work of the review team.

In an otherwise pretty disastrous political phase for the Labour government, there seemed to be one bright spark: suddenly it had a ‘digital’ strategy that got it attention at home and abroad.

And this was clearly recognised by opposition spokesmen, who moved swiftly to work up their own mini manifestos. In government the digital duo of Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey have set a cracking pace in their first year, with more industry meetings than any other ministers.

In some ways this is understandable. Rather than spending time trying to halt the decline of old industry, why wouldn’t ministers associate with the new? And if they can be photographed rubbing shoulders with the bright young things from the coolest brands, all the better. Unlike his colleagues stuck with the brief covering the closure of car plants and shipyards, maybe the digital minister has more to gain from the relationship than the industry he is there to serve.

Such is the cachet of the digital brief that it is not hard not to imagine ministers dreaming of being the first Secretary of State in a future Department of Communications, with an overview taking in public services, digital skills, R&D, online content, broadcast, infrastructure…basically anything that can be given a digital badge.

But this begs the question: what should the Government actually be doing about the digital sector? In part this depends on what we mean by ‘digital’. The heavily regulated parts of the digital sector, usually involving pipes in the ground or radio waves in the air, are easiest to get to grips with.

Here, the government can choose from its usual toolkit: spend, regulate or exhort. All three of these instruments are in use, most notably in relation to broadband and local TV, twin obsessions of Jeremy Hunt.

But much of the real growth in the digital sector is generated in markets that government policy has barely ever touched, such as search, e-commerce and social networks. In fact, maybe these markets have been successful precisely because they exist away from the hand of government.

This is not to say that there aren’t big issues to address. Privacy, safety and standards are parts of the online experience which are either political already, or will be soon.

So maybe it is a good sign that Ed Vaizey, the junior partner in the Department, has pointed the way to a fourth category of government involvement in a market: being at the table. Through his series of round tables and speeches, he has sought to explore the facts about the issues and ensure the government knows where everyone stands.

Ed has made no secret of his ambition to be seen as the minister who ‘gets’ the internet but has largely resisted the temptation to invent new policies to announce at every opportunity.

For the companies involved, attending talking shops can sometimes be a drag, but if the outcome is better understanding then that certainly beats the alternative. And if the price is allowing politicians and civil servants to stand in the glow of your brand for an hour or two, then only a truly hard-hearted digital company would say no.

However, the round table-fest can’t last forever. The on-going review of regulation in the communications sector will certainly throw up suggestions that internet governance, internet content, and the markets for online services all need to feel the firm hand of regulation.

Digital businesses need to begin to find compelling answers to these issues, whether self-regulation, partnerships with NGOs or strategies to educate users. Without these answers, then sexy sector or not, the Government might feel the familiar pressure to ‘do something’.

So maybe the time is coming when digital companies should look to what they can do for the government, before the government decides to do something for them…or to them.

Sam Sharps recently joined Portland as Associate Director. He was previously an official in the Department for Business and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.