The ICT Sector’s Brexit Priorities

Dr Elizabeth Lomas, Senior Lecturer in Information Governance at UCL, discusses some key steps to support the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector with regards to Brexit. Drawing on research from workshops and surveys, this post captures key actions and requirements for the sector. It makes the case that governments need to work more openly with ICT experts to ensure that laws are optimised for the sector and there are more targeted policies and funding strategies to support and grow ICT.

This blog is based on research exploring perspectives on the needs of those working across the information/ICT domain in order to respond positively to the changes triggered by Brexit. The work has been undertaken by Dr Elizabeth Lomas, UCL, and Professor Julie McLeod, Northumbria University. Data was gathered through two global surveys. The first was launched immediately after the Brexit referendum and obtained 733 responses, with 59% being made by UK citizens. The full results and analysis of this first survey are available here.  The second survey was launched one year after Article 50 was triggered in March 2018 and obtained 245 responses, again with 59% of responses coming from UK citizens. The surveys considered both the opportunities and threats posed by Brexit. In addition, two appreciative inquiry workshops were held, the first in Newcastle on 3rd May 2018 and the second in London on 26th June 2018. At each workshop there were participants who were from the UK and beyond. Appreciative inquiry is a strengths-based approach, intended to focus only on the potential positives for change.

Across the EU, ICT represents a significant economic driver. Within this context, ICT was calculated in 2015 as delivering 5.9% of the UK’s GDP; the largest ICT percentage for an EU Member State. The July 2017 Technology (ICT) Sector Report produced by the UK House of Commons Brexit Committee recognises the role of ICT in supporting the UK’s delivery of services and goods, providing employment and income generation. This picture has been further developed by the evidence provided to the UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee as published in January 2018 . Further important work has been undertaken to understand aspects of ICT delivery, such as the ScotlandIS report on ICT public sector expenditure in Scotland.  However, the needs of the so called ‘ICT sector’ are complex and are not fully encompassed in current publications. ICT encompasses a number of sectors ranging from IT support within particular private and public sector contexts through to a range of ICT driven industries producing software, hardware, content and services including broadcasting, cyber-security, e-commerce, gaming, Fintech and telecommunications. ICT is an integral part of all sectors and is perhaps best described as a knowledge ‘domain’. Evidenced are the clear concerns from across ICT representatives (see for example the work of Oliver Patel about what Brexit will mean for digital startups).

Emerging from this research there were fifteen themes identified around which actions are required now. The themes were:

  1. A UK/EU Brexit plan and an ICT Brexit roadmap to reduce uncertainty and enable planning across both the UK and the EU
  2. Active and evidenced Government engagement with the ICT domain
  3. UK infrastructure to support ICT delivery
  4. Pushing new knowledge and ICT development
  5. UK workforce frameworks to attract the best ICT talent
  6. Growing ICT skills in schools
  7. Planning for future societal needs and linked ICT requirements/skills
  8. Supporting international study in the UK
  9. R&D and innovation frameworks and funding
  10. New international business models and tax frameworks
  11. Optimising legislation and regulatory frameworks for an ICT driven world
  12. UK leading on international standards
  13. Smart living underpinned by ICT driven global environmental solutions
  14. Ethical data storage, management and deletion
  15. Ethical ICT delivered from across ICT practice and into society

Critically there was a desire from participants to have a clear Brexit roadmap from the UK Government and the EU in order to plan. Whilst those working in ICT are used to engaging with change, uncertainty is far harder to navigate. It remains very unclear what will occur in March 2019, and thereafter, in terms of transition planning. ICT solutions will be core to assisting all areas of public and private sector delivery in adapting to the changes Brexit triggers, both within the UK and the EU. However, the ICT domain needs to be connected to Government agendas in order that a range of ICT solutions can be put in place to support Brexit change. An example provided was the need to invest in connected technologies to manage the hard and soft borders that may emerge.

In terms of engaging with the Brexit change, of the 245 responses to the 2018 ICT survey, only 28% indicated that they were aware their organisation had any plans in place to respond or prepare for Brexit. Where plans were in place the most commonly cited were moving some operations overseas. This response may become more common if it is not quickly understood what is to be the nature of relations with the EU longer term and what are the potential new opportunities.

In terms of considering opportunities, the work identified a number of areas for further urgent exploration to harness potential openings. These included establishing a committee to consider new UK business models and the support mechanisms they require to retain business in the UK. The concept of ‘golden shares’ was discussed, a model which has enabled nation states to maintain varying degrees of control in a business by keeping a minority stake that carries more than 50% of voting rights. Historically the UK has had such models but these are not necessarily ideal as they may limit inward investment due to the fact they limit the free flow of capital. Creating and maintaining intellectual property and patent rights in UK hands may be the key to retaining control and trade in the UK rather than necessarily business ownership per se. However, this does need to be reviewed. In addition, if the UK is outside EU rules then the UK Government can consider state aid schemes to bolster parts of the economy as well as R&D tax breaks and tax model changes more generally. In terms of EU research grants, the case was made that money contributed into EU research must be routed back to support UK research and not diverted. EU schemes are decided at a very high level and it was noted that the UK can develop bespoke schemes which build international collaboration in line with its own vested interests.

It was established that the UK needs to identify areas where it excels now and can develop moving forward, considering where to lead and where to collaborate globally as a major player. For example, the UK has centres of cyber-security excellence. However, cyber-security needs to be discussed on a global scale so this is an area where the UK needs to retain a position as a major global player. The UK can offer leadership in certain areas of ICT, for example aspects of Artificial Intelligence and the Fintech industries. Having strong UK university centres linked into practice and business development will ensure that ICT boundaries are pushed further. In addition, the UK should identify and invest in representation on international standards committees which will then enable business contingent on these standards, to be routed back into the UK, for example, ISO/TC 307’s work on blockchain and distributed ledgers which provides a current opportunity.

Over time, the UK will be able to optimise its laws to foster technology developments. It can legislate more quickly than the EU which needs to negotiate across all member states. As such there are opportunities to foster an environment for ICT business growth. However, critically, some aspects of ICT delivery require global collaboration.

Throughout the Brexit process there has been perceived to be a lack of official transparency. Whilst the UK Government has been taking evidence and holding meetings with representatives across the ICT domain, Government responses to these meetings are not well evidenced. Generally, it is unclear where Government does take actions that are linked to recommendations made from across the ICT domain. It would be beneficial for the UK Government to make clear links between ICT recommendations and the subsequent actions and outcomes delivered. This should be part of a bigger Open Government agenda that acknowledges policy contributions and, as such, delivers accountable and comprehensible decision making.

In conclusion, there were areas for positive and dynamic action identified. A call for clearly evidenced action from a range of actors was made. As one participant stated:

“Decision makers in the public or private sector must understand how technology will affect their business, department or market. Technology directly affects our economy, our security, our competitiveness in global markets and our way of life, there is no hiding place for business, government or political leaders – get on board or quickly become irrelevant.”

Further information on this work is available in the detailed policy briefing at:

Elizabeth Lomas is a Senior Lecturer in Information Governance at UCL’s Department of Information Studies.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Image credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann (CC BY 2.0)

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