A digital Brexit will spur us to rethink the nature of the state

Lights representing the colours of the U
Few countries get to rewire themselves to the degree now afforded to the UK (Source: Getty)

As Brexit negotiations continue, with the EU playing for time and the UK insisting that talks move onto the future relationship, the uncertainty can be unsettling for even the most experienced of commentators.

However, this uncertainty should not stop us thinking about how we can transform the UK to meet future challenges after we leave the EU.

We were on opposite sides of the EU debate, but we both now believe that, whatever the EU strategy, it is critical to turn the external process into an opportunity for domestic transformation.

Read more: How making British industry digital could boost the economy by billions

In particularly, we believe that Brexit allows us rethink the nature of the British state, rebooting the delivery of public services through new technologies and new models of governance. And we believe the government needs to focus on this with much greater urgency.

Few countries get to rewire themselves to the degree now afforded to the UK by virtue of Brexit. Rebooting a country does not happen often or easily.

It happened in the Baltic states, when they regained their independence from the Soviet Union. Estonia duly revamped itself from a Bolshevik backwater to a digital paradise, giving birth to companies like Skype and making its government paperless at a time when most European bureaucracies hadn’t yet embraced email.

Perhaps the greatest recent act of reconstitution is Germany’s. The transformation of a centralised, militaristic, Prussian state to a decentralised, commercial, export-driven nation has been remarkable.

The UK does not have the same tradition for remaking the state.

Tony Blair was the first Prime Minister in a long time to reshape the government by creating several new ministries, and, even more critically, decentralising power to Scotland and Wales. Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s administrations continued the process of devolution.

Historically, however, British pragmatism has meant a preference – and openness – to continual reform, but a dislike of abrupt and dramatic change.

That now needs to change.

From rural subsidies to customs payments, everything can be rethought.

Instead of farmers having to take pictures of their land in order to claim their subsidies from the Rural Payments Agency according to Common Agricultural Policy rules, could they in future use sensors or drones?

What about the application of distributed ledgers to customs filings? Or the best way to move from physical borders to e-borders?

The options are endless.

Unfortunately, some tech experts tells us that it does not feel like anyone is currently setting out the kind of leadership that is required to seize this agenda.

The centre – Number 10, Cabinet Office, Dexeu – are focused on the Brexit negotiations. Departments are busy individually examining their options for how to use Brexit to transform their operations.

While there have been some hopeful signs, such as the announcement that HMRC, the Home Office, and the DWP will share data in a “fully digital” post-Brexit immigration system, much of the work is being done in a piecemeal and often unimaginative manner. GDS, the government’s digital agency, has not been trusted to help.

Technology companies, meanwhile, have not shown much leadership either. Notwithstanding the occasional blog post, hackathon or sales pitch, there is little new thinking. They are mainly complaining about the prospect of new burdens, new rules, and more paperwork. Everyone appears in a form of suspended animation.

The dearth of work is partly caused by a fear of allowing technological solutions to move ahead of political decisions. Nor does anyone feel fully confident about the three components required to drive change: an overview of the Brexit choices, an understanding of how they translate into sectors and departmental policies, and what new technologies could do to deliver more effectively.

It is time to bring these different strands together in a specially created task force, set up by the government and given the job of scoping out the digital opportunities.

It would need to have a dynamic chair, political support from the Prime Minister and key ministers, as well as a top notch secretariat staffed by civil servants and secondees from academia and industry.

It should be given a realistic but tight deadline (e.g. six months), and would bring together different experts, and in particular technology leaders from different sectors – large firms, startups, and the public sector – with experience of local and national government as well as the EU.

While they would not necessarily agree on everything, they would be united in their determination to find solutions, rather than complain about potential problems.

There is now a risk that we will not use the opportunity afforded to us to reform the British state and how it operates. Realising that the technologically transformative potential of Brexit is critical to the UK’s long term prosperity.

What we need is a digital Brexit.

Read more: Estonia is leading the way to a digital, globalised future

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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