Delivering Digital Policy For The 21st Century

October 2021. How does a 19th century Parliamentary system and model of government successfully consider, draft and enact legislation to respond to the 21st century challenges posed by increasingly complex and nuanced digital technology? One is a considered, deliberative, consensus-oriented and very public process; the other is evolving at the accelerated pace of new technology innovation combined with new user behaviours, norms and expectations.

Our parliaments and governments have the political legitimacy but, typically, not the technical knowledge, tool kit or bandwidth suited to get ahead of these challenges. Industry, on the other hand, has lots of insights, tools and considerable bandwidth but not the political legitimacy that comes with elected office.

This leads, too often, to lagging legislation that is enacted to deal with challenges that are 3-5 years old. The technology and the public behaviours move on, and the issues evolve and lead to completely new public policy dilemmas. Legislators call on industry to ‘do more’ to fix a particular new problem, industry calls on the government to set the ground rules and standards for a sector or platform. Others, meanwhile, criticise governments for not acting or, alternatively, industry for writing their own rulebook.

All this is quite familiar to anyone that has worked in government, in the tech sector, in academia, a trade association or an NGO. The noise eventually builds to a crescendo, an imperfect solution that trades off different competing demands is proposed, everyone moves on with varying degrees of satisfaction or disappointment but all can be confident that within 6-12 months the conversation will start again.

As someone that has worked in variations of all those roles, and in government for 5 years during a crisis, I can say with some conviction that there has to be a better way of building the legislative architecture around the systems that will define how our society and our economy will operate for the next 100 years.

And I believe there is.

For me, that better way of delivering digital policy for the 21st century that works for all citizens and organisations is, at its core, a collaboration between trusted partners. Trusted partners in government and trusted partners in industry. Bring the democratic legitimacy and accountability of our Parliamentary and government model and add the tool kit and bandwidth of industry to help inform the process and deliver better, more sustainable outcomes. Including wider civil society, academia and other key stakeholders further informs, enriches and improves this proactive policy process.

At a wider enterprise level this was an approach I took when working in government from 2011-2016, when Ireland was dealing with the financial and budget crisis, had close to 20% unemployment and was staring over the cliff of economic and social collapse. The ‘Action Plan for Jobs’ model with Minister Richard Bruton explicitly acknowledged that the challenge of rebuilding such a ruptured enterprise economy was too large and too complex to be tackled by just one Department of government – or by government on its own.  Every Department of State and all key stakeholder groups from industry, unions, social justice groups along with individual leaders from industry were systematically plugged into the annual process of planning for each year’s enterprise policy agenda and set of actions to help rebuild a shattered economy. The political ownership of the process was key – this approach cannot be about outsourcing the democratically mandated responsibility to govern (we tried that in Ireland before with very mixed results). Politicians and Parliaments must decide; industry, experts and stakeholders must advise.

Back to 2021 and I think the pervasiveness, importance and acceleration of digital policy demands is so great that the idea that a single Minister or ‘Task Force’ can meet the challenge is mistaken. Digital policy today should be seen and considered as the social and enterprise infrastructure of the 21st century.  In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, we cumulatively built-up education and health systems, policing and justice structures, media markets, political processes as well as physical infrastructure like roads, railways, airports and telecommunications networks that all underpinned the world we grew up in. But with the accelerating move to digital platforms and solutions we are – over a period of years rather than decades or centuries – trying to build a digital architecture that works inclusively and equitably for all.

That means delivering urgently on issues like broadband as a right, eHealth access, remote work, remote education, online safety, cybercrime, privacy, international law enforcement, ethical AI, energy sustainability, inclusion, diversity…and so much more.

That’s really hard to do and to get right.

Which brings us back to trusted partners working together to get better solutions. It actually speaks to Microsoft’s Mission to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. It’s one of the reasons that Microsoft is committed to the Masters in Digital Policy programme in UCD where a unique approach to programme development involves industry, academia and government in a process to shape and form the course content. That process is ongoing and iterative.

To help achieve the broader goals for digital policy that I describe above we need programmes like this to support policy makers in government in Ireland and across Europe in better understanding and appreciating the challenges of the new digital world. Distinctions between ‘digital economy’ and ‘real economy’ or ‘physical’ versus ‘digital’ infrastructure must become redundant.

As Ireland’s traditional enterprise model comes under challenge from a range of sources we have the chance to buttress that enterprise model in another way. Ireland has all the elements in place to become a global leader on digital policy; it has the industry cluster, it has the academic institutions, its R&D programmes, a stable political and legal environment and, of course, our role as committed members of the EU.

The rapid transition to a more digital society over the last 18 months has been an extraordinary challenge for our society. But it has also shown the incredible resilience and agility of our enterprises, social services and – most crucially – our communities. These are the elements that can turn a challenge into an opportunity. An opportunity that can deliver remarkable results and benefits if trusted partners acting in good faith work together.

The Digital Policy Masters programme is one targeted but very tangible example of partners in government, industry and academia starting to do just that.

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