At first glance there doesn’t appear to be much for the tech sector to smile about right now – the threat of reforms to tax, competition and content moderation looms large – but if you look a little deeper it is not necessarily all gloom.
For one thing, 2021 represents a rare opportunity for the sector to reset its relationship with the government. There is a very real prospect of developing and making permanent groundbreaking relationships forged in the crucible of the Covid crisis.
Ministers today understand the importance of the sector to the UK’s economy – now more than ever before – and they clearly want to project the Johnson administration as passionately pro-tech.
Indeed, the 2019 Conservative manifesto was littered with commitments to the sector and the digital ecosystem. Setting a target of 2.4 percent of GDP being spent on R&D by 2027 and making significant investments in skills to meet the needs of a 21st-century economy, are just two examples.
The counterpoint to this is that Government is clearly deeply worried about the impact digital technology is having on people, competition and even our democracy. These concerns are likely to lead to policies that attempt to mitigate these concerns. Next year we can expect to see the next step in this process with the introduction of an Online Harms Bill and continued action from the regulators on competition and data protection.
However, with a new Digital Strategy also pencilled in for the coming months there is a real opportunity for the tech sector to engage proactively with Government, as it seeks to “build back better” (expect to hear this phrase A LOT).
Firstly, it must work collaboratively with the Government to support new schemes to help the recently unemployed retrain to work in digital. This will be a major focus across Whitehall for the next couple of years as ministers attempt to avoid the projected waves of mass unemployment.
Secondly, as the vaccine roll-out gathers pace it will be hugely important that the major social media platforms work with the authorities to combat misinformation but also make themselves available to engage with hard-to-reach communities.
And finally, there is a huge opportunity for the tech sector to help ministers solve Britain’s productivity problem. With “new ways of working” embedded in a way that was unimaginable less than a year ago, there is a chance for a once-in-a-generation change to the working habits of the national workforce.
Now is the time for cooperation, not confrontation. That doesn’t mean avoiding difficult conversations but it does mean working with the government to tackle its concerns while also helping to build a shared vision for the UK and for its businesses.
During the pandemic, the tech sector and Government discovered new common ground. 2021 must be the year for this new relationship to blossom