This week the Conservative party – the UK’s governing party – held its annual conference in Birmingham. ODI Head of Public Policy Dr Milly Zimeta spoke at conference panels on Data and AI, and reports back from four days of speeches, policy debates and fringe events

- Also see Labour Conference 2022: key takeaways for data and digital policy

The government’s ‘Growth Plan’

This autumn’s Conservative Party conference was the first major outing of new Prime Minister Liz Truss and her cabinet team. High on their agenda is deregulation of the UK’s post-Brexit economy: this applies to both regulatory reforms to the UK’s data economy (overseen by Michelle Donelan as new Secretary of State for DCMS), and to the role of data in regulatory reforms of the wider economy (overseen by Jacob Rees-Mogg as new Secretary of State for BEIS).

A week before the conference, new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced the government’s Growth Plan in a ‘fiscal event' or mini-budget to address the cost of living crisis. Aspects of it were well received by the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors. But this was overshadowed by wider political controversy and economic instability triggered by the surprise inclusion of tax cuts in a period of high public debt. This dominated conversations at the conference, as the government sought to socialise its vision with more nuance.

Data, digital markets and big tech

At the Tory party conference there were several sessions on aspects of online safety but it’s not yet clear how the government intends to take forward the Online Safety Bill. New Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy Damian Collins indicated that instead of a focus on online content moderation, the government would be examining the role of data in the recommendation algorithms of online platforms.

Collins also signalled the government’s commitments around a new Digital Markets Bill, and a desire to empower the Competition and Markets Authority to strengthen online platform accountability and transparency, and to support consumers and challenger firms. 'We are the party of free markets, but also of fair markets,' he said, as he described the ways in which data access can tilt a digital market towards monopoly because of network effects, and how the big tech companies are increasingly operating as a kind of public utility provider – with cloud computing infrastructure as the possible next frontier for similar market distortion.

AI and industrial revolutions

AI was often discussed at the conference as a general purpose technology that can be applied in a wide range of sectors with positive impacts on productivity. These opportunities were the focus of a panel I spoke at hosted by techUK and BT on the future of the UK’s AI economy. But concerns were raised about imbalances in the diffusion of this technology across organisations, with SMEs and charities struggling to leverage it. Concerns were also raised about the diffusion of this technology across sectors, with the creative industries sector highlighting issues around the role of text and data mining in training AI systems without artist consent or royalties.

Chris Philp, former Digital Minister at DCMS and now Chief Secretary at the Treasury, emphasised that the government is keen to catalyse international investment for the UK’s digital economy to compete with Silicon Valley, with initiatives such as enterprise investment schemes to support institutional investment (such as by pension funds), and 'patient capital' or long-term capital for scaling up start-ups and SMEs, in line with the Kalifa Review of the UK’s fintech sector.

Collins outlined a vision for a greater role for standards in supporting flexible but consistent regulation of AI across sectors, as well as enabling cross-border collaboration around AI and giving SMEs confidence in their compliance with AI regulation despite having smaller infrastructure than larger companies for conducting self-assessments. Regulatory sandboxes were also praised as a tool for safe exploration of the bounds of AI regulation.

Several sessions raised the issue of skills shortages for the digital economy – from school leavers to mid-career adults; and from technical skills for AI development to experience of implementing and managing automated processes. There were widespread calls for the government to support lifelong learning for the transition to a digital economy and digital services. There was some scepticism about whether a drive for job automation could be compatible with a drive for job creation. However, Rees-Mogg positioned it in a longer-term context of how new roles, activities and opportunities emerge as economies develop, and that automation should be seen as something that can augment the productivity of human labour rather than displace it.

NHS data and digital tech for climate change

The conference also focused on the role of data and digital technologies in improving public health and in tackling climate change.

The strategic value of NHS data for R&D was acknowledged for its combination of being rich data around a socially heterogeneous population, and also being structured with unique patient identifiers which make longitudinal and latitudinal analysis possible. New Health Minister Nick Markham celebrated the role of competition in the private sector for driving quality, innovation, and rapid adoption of 'what works', and expressed a desire to explore how this could be adapted to support the improvement of service provision in the NHS. Lord Ed Vaizey, former Minister for the Digital Economy, observed that people who might be uncomfortable with a 'Big Brother' state or 'surveillance capitalism' multinational corporations in digital health might be more comfortable with a role for SMEs.

George Freeman, former Minister for Innovation, highlighted the strategic role of technological innovation to enable net zero goals in a pro-growth way while reducing negative impact on people’s lifestyles – a pragmatic approach that one speaker described as ‘being the grown-ups in the room on climate change’. With new uses of data and digital technologies the opportunities are around things like precision agriculture, connected and autonomous vehicles, adaptive power grids, and smart energy meters. However, new uses of data raise new questions around data privacy and other aspects of the regulatory environment: one industry rep complained that 'without clear direction from government on the role of digital tech in net zero, we won’t know how to invest, recruit, innovate or implement strategy.' Felicity Buchan, new Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, affirmed the government’s ambition for the UK to become the world’s first net zero financial centre, and how tackling greenwashing will be integral for delivering this: data practices will be integral for this goal too.

Public sector innovation and the database theory of government

Several of these strands of discussion came together in a panel session that I spoke at, hosted by the Institute for Government and Bright Data on the role of data in better public services.

There was recognition that public sector data practices can’t be siloed by government department – for example, mobility data is relevant to public health decision-making – and MPs signalled that the government is looking for public sector data interoperability that prevents linkage for innovation. There were also signs of an increased appetite for deploying AI across government and lowering barriers for cross-departmental use-cases. However, public sector data innovation need not depend on high-end digital technology: the ODI’s work on open cities shows how local authorities can work effectively with the data they already steward, drawing on transparency and community engagement, and partnership with industry and civil society, to achieve positive outcomes across domains and sectors.

Aaron Bell, co-Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, referenced Robert Colvile’s 'database theory of government', where a government’s policy options are shaped by its data capabilities. Central to the creation of a government’s data capabilities is public trust in these capabilities – and this has been the focus of the Select Committee’s recent inquiry on The right to privacy: digital data, due to report later this year. (Read the ODI’s evidence submission here.) Issues of bias in datasets and bias in the analysis of data came up throughout the conference, as well as the importance of robust redress mechanisms to build public trust and resilience as new data use cases are rolled out. What was distinctive to the session on public sector use of data was a discussion of the role of government in data and digital experimentation – for example the role of ethical hacking teams within government, and ONS’s activities in experimental statistics.

What’s next

The Conservatives as the party of wealth creation for all, and the party for reconciling profit with social good were recurring themes throughout the conference. What also came through was a keenness to communicate the moral value of both of these – particularly in times of economic downturn.

On data, there was a strong belief in the potential for the free market to shape the UK’s future data economy, and a desire for the government to create the conditions for innovation, but for that innovation to be market led. There was also a strong belief in the potential of the UK’s data economy to support growth across sectors and to reduce the burden on the country’s public finances in different ways. This came with clear political support for the idea of the government leading by example through its own data and digital practices. However, concerns were acknowledged around public trust in how the government might manage the country’s transition to a digital economy in light of disappointment around how the government had so far handled other high-profile programmes such as levelling up.

Halfway through the conference, Michelle Donelan announced that the government would replace GDPR with a 'British Data Protection System' – although how this relates to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill which DCMS recently laid before Parliament is not yet clear. Some MPs hinted that it should be understood as an evolution of the current draft legislation, rather than a revolution.

There was a sense of anticipation around the development of the UK’s AI Strategy, and ministers’ recognition of the strategic role of data across the economy and digital technologies is welcome. Surprisingly, there was not much mention of data portability and smart data, despite the proposals in the Data Protection and Digital Information bill to expand schemes like Open Banking to other aspects of the finance sector and to other sectors such as telecoms. Smart data schemes would enable customers to require organisations to make their personal data available to other organisations – including to industry rivals for strengthening competition, or to civil society organisations for targeting welfare services. Smart Data has the potential to drive quality and innovation, as well as improving support for vulnerable communities - which will be critical as the UK enters a cost of living crisis.

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