Since the referendum result in favour of leaving the European Union, BCS members have been in dialogue about the issues and opportunities that arise from this change in relationship between the UK and Europe. Much uncertainty remains, but there are a number of clear objectives for UK government, business, the profession and wider society to aim for. Most of the issues are not new, but are heightened, more urgent, or modified as a result of this change of course.
Our primary conclusion is that the UK’s future success outside the EU will be underpinned by our choices on major digital issues.
A data-driven future
It is essential for the UK that data relationships between people, corporations and governments work for the common good. Data relationships underpin and increasingly define our citizenship as well as commerce and private life. This is by its very nature a global issue, and one where the UK has incredible opportunity to lead change, drive growth, and support a fair society.
Issues to consider:
- Data protection equivalence for the UK to be a high priority outcome of negotiations to leave the EU.
Move beyond a data protection compliance mind-set to seeing personal data relationships as a strategic opportunity.This is a serious issue. There are countless reports that highlight the issues around personal data, but there is a need for a more sustained and deeper look at the opportunities, issues, and way forward. Could this be the time for us to try something with a larger scale? Perhaps a Royal Commission on personal data? We need to be aiming for a step-change in UK ambition as a leader in global data protection and exploitation. How personal data operates requires big changes. If we could mobilise a selection of those who wield the power in large organisations to work together to produce a business case on data usage; and including MPs and civil servants in that conversation, we would have a powerful starting point. The issues of our personal wellbeing, economic activity, citizenship, not to mention a huge potential market for new data products, make a powerful case for a successful public/private partnership.
A digitally-capable future
From digital literacy to the most valuable digital talent, the UK’s growth and innovation is underpinned by the digital capability of its resident population. Every sector depends on it, and from transportation, finance, retail, health to public services, the future plans assume access to talent. Professionals in information security, data analytics, business architecture and analysis, software engineering and digital leadership (and many more) are ubiquitously required. As a result, the UK’s future will be constrained by this one factor. This is also a factor in the location choices for global digital businesses both large and small. A post-EU Britain will see a change in the competitive environment for talent, and will be in dire need of a range of capabilities simply to enact the changes as the UK leaves - as well as to support future growth and ambitions. Access to non-UK talent is essential as part of a solution that also majors in investment in education and training for the existing UK workforce.
Issues to consider:
- We should consider the lowest possible barriers to entry for practitioners and academics who meet appropriate professional standards in computing / IT / digital
- We must continue to promote personal and team development in your organisations, and a welcoming, diverse, fair workplace. Put long term talent planning on the agenda.
- A worthy goal would be a step-change in public/private investment in educating the UK workforce in digital capability, with specific focus on information security, software development and data innovation, and the many supporting capabilities; expansion of honours degree apprenticeships targeted at the existing workforce as well as new entrants.
A secure digital future
Security - personal, corporate and national - and online criminal activity continues to grow in importance as both threat and opportunity. To secure a fair society, protect our critical infrastructure, and ensure the UK is an attractive place to do business, we need to maximise UK information security capability. The exit from the EU changes the international relationships and impacts priorities around information security. Current relationships, for example with Europol, will be affected, but what that means in practice is not clear. We will need to put together an integrated strategy to create a vibrant industry around information security. Part of that is building talent - again, amongst the existing workforce as well as new entrants - but this will require investment in research, business, government capability, and international co-operation.
Issues to consider:
- Protecting and encourage cross-border working on cyber security. Boost UK participation in standards development.
- Connecting information security strategy with talent planning. Make information security a focus for your development and encourage others to do likewise.
- The big issue: Develop a UK strategy to build a vibrant information security sector.
An academic future
The UK’s world-class academic computing community is one of the pillars of our economy and society. That community is under immediate threat because of the prospect of a changing environment outside the EU. This must be protected. BCS supports the Royal Academy of Engineering’s positions on a post-EU academic community.
A connected future
The ambitions of every sector and every domain important to our society depends on future connectivity that we are not currently planning to deliver. Outside the EU the UK’s infrastructure will be benchmarked against international competition for infrastructure, and it does not benchmark well. The rationale and positive economic case for connectivity is unavoidable and clear. Yet despite this clarity, investment has been calibrated to the interests of the telecommunications sector, not the wider economy and public need. This needs to change.
Issues we need to consider:
- Strategic co-operation on communications regulation and pricing that continues beyond Britain’s exit.
- A refreshed infrastructure strategy that includes clear government commitment to an order-of-magnitude change in the scale of investment and pace of roll-out of a mixture of fixed and mobile infrastructure (Fibre to the Premise, 4G) and investment in future connectivity (e.g. 5G).
A socially-integrated digital future
Britain is not alone in experiencing the impact of social technologies on political dynamics. The highly-respected think tank Demos, in collaboration with BCS, has been looking at the way social media is fragmenting political discussion online (through effects such as ‘filter bubbles’). The potential for positive political engagement online is huge, but are threatened by a number of factors from abusive and aggressive social norms through to fragmentation of debate and dialogue. BCS and Demos are concerned that these effects are understood, and everyone from members of parliament through to the general public are equipped and educated for constructive online debate as they define it. The exit from the EU, and the conduct of online debates around the referendum have both highlighted and aggravated this effect.
Issues to consider:
- A civil society partnership to be built around understanding the issues and providing education.
- For the long term, education around both digital skills and citizenship should encourage positive online political engagement. Research into these issues will be essential.
- Each political party should have in place a specific strategy to develop and proliferate a positive social norm in online debate. They should specifically support office holders and party members in constructive online debate and help them deal with abuse.
Confidence and emigration
Our ‘post-Brexit’ survey showed that our members confidence in the UK’s digital future had suffered because of the referendum, and the word ‘emigrate’ featured heavily in comments. While this is likely to be an emotional reaction to the result amongst ‘remainers’, and we do not expect this will be the sole factor in individuals choosing to leave the UK, it may affect the calculus. We also have anecdotal reports that this is seen as an opportunity to entice UK talent abroad, which is more likely to lead to increases in a ‘brain drain’.
Exit-related change programmes
The precise arrangements for leaving the EU will remain unknown for some time, but most scenarios will mean some level of change of operating environment for public services and commercial organisations. In regulated industries such as financial services, small changes in the operating environment can result in vast technical exercises to achieve compliance. Simple tweaks in tax, employment law, financial regulations etc. can spawn vast change programmes. In dialogue amongst members, many have expressed a great deal of alarm at what the summation of these programmes may look like. The level of multi-sector change combined with the level of digital integration could put us into unknown territory.
In a short-term and narrowly-defined way this could be ‘good’ for the IT profession in terms of ensuring more than a decade of incredible demand for their services. However, this is not in the UK’s interests or that of the profession, and few BCS members are genuinely optimistic about this. The comparison is with the ‘Y2K’ bug, where a vast amount of investment in technical work led to the avoidance of an issue rather than adding value. It is better for the UK if the profession is pursuing changes that move businesses and public services forward, and supporting exports.
This will be incredibly difficult to predict or influence, but an eye needs to be kept on the exit-related technical debt. Many industries could be affected by only seemingly small regulatory changes. For example, a single change in financial reporting could mean huge change projects. IT systems in the UK currently reflect its status within EU rules, so as our trading and regulatory relationships change this could have a cascade effect on systems. If many sectors are affected simultaneously this could mean a macro-level deficit in available resource to make these changes. The main mitigations will be through a rapid step-change in talent planning and investment in people. Investments in infrastructure will also help offset this ‘exit-debt’ and potentially support more effective and efficient delivery and international collaboration.
Sadly, member comments have shown that some members see little upside in the exit from the EU. However, others support the view that there are clear opportunities to see economic and social progress – for example, on personal data - in a more independent legal and regulatory environment. This is set against the substantial power of the EU to regulate global digital business. In a post-EU Britain there will undoubtedly be positive opportunities. Despite some negativity, in dialogue with members it is clear that for BCS members there is a duty to work for a positive future for Britain, and this means as much of a focus on opportunity exploitation as on risk mitigation.
Ethics and social good underpins any profession, so BCS is by its constitution committed to diversity and inclusion. The digital economy is highly international in its outlook and constituent parts. BCS members have a duty to support welcoming and inclusive environments. The IT profession can and should act as ambassadors for an open and inclusive UK that welcomes positive relationships with non-UK citizens and a diverse UK society.
Continue the conversation
This article is a continuation of conversations that have taken place across the BCS community, and will continue further. We want to hear from you on these issues, any we may have missed and the other issues that will undoubtedly arise.
On 27 October we hosted a Brexit IT Impact event in Manchester. We discussed the reality of what Brexit means for IT professionals, organisations and the industry as a whole.