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Does digital hold the public sector back?

Graham Francis - Senior policy lead at DCMS - on tackling online harms, the benefits of bringing technology to policy, and why the term 'digital' sometimes does more harm than good

As digital technologies become more widely seen as crucial to modern business, organisations face an issue of talent. Not only in recruiting for experienced technical roles – where the talent gap has been widely reported – but also finding the right people for senior leadership positions. In this series, we speak to digital and technology leaders from a range of organisations, to find out how they're meeting their biggest challenges.

In the early days of the internet online safety was never really a priority. It was something we worried about – with parents in particular fretting over what their children were getting up to online – but it didn't stop us from investing more and more time in the digital sphere.

Then things began to change. In the wake of scandals such as Cambridge Analytica, increasing levels of radicalisation and hate speech online, it became clear that something had to give. Voluntary measures had failed to hold platforms to account, sowing the seeds for government's current efforts in this space. The Online Harms White Paper was published in 2019, an Online Safety Bill will be released later on in 2021, and legislation will follow over the next few years.

Leading the charge for this work is Graham Francis, Senior policy lead in online safety technology and innovation at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Foundry4 caught up with him to find out more about the safety tech industry, and the place of digital in the public sector.

The most ambitious attempt to address online harms in the world

If there's one common thread that links each role in Graham Francis' career, it is using technology for social good.

From running online campaigns promoting human rights for Amnesty International, to exploring how technology can improve government at the Government Digital Service (GDS), to joining the Online Safety Directorate at DCMS, he has learnt a lot about the transformational power of digital.

When it comes to tackling online harms, however, is the genie now out of the bottle?

“I wouldn't characterise the current work as playing catch up,” Graham says. “What we are doing in the UK is the most ambitious attempt to properly address online harms anywhere in the world; we want to hold companies accountable for a whole range of different harms.”

“What has changed, however, is the mood. There has been acceptance of the amazing things that can be enabled via social platforms, such as communication, collaboration, and building communities. But the negative consequences of that, when they are used at scale by so many people, have now become increasingly clear to the general public.”

Safety tech for the win

Graham's priorities for the next year are firmly focused on the safety technology agenda, understanding the industry's requirements and putting the right mechanisms in place to help it flourish.

This process of providing actionable insights, and then making sure they happen, was showcased during Foundry4's recent work with DCMS – which provided a detailed breakdown of the user needs, skills and capabilities of the safety tech sector, and recommendations for the future, in a research report.

“Following the publication of the report, we held a workshop with industry and Foundry4 where we discussed our action plan. The rest of the year now is going away and delivering that, in a trial way, and if this works we will scale it up in future. The whole process is a methodology for working with industry stakeholders to support their needs.”

Three focus areas for DCMS as it supports the UK's safety tech sector over the coming months, are helping it to scale; incentivising the development of desired capabilities; and communicating the value of safe working practices to businesses – in that they attract more users.

The UK might be a leader in this space, with the DCMS Safety Tech team nominated for the CogX Global Leadership Award, but as Graham notes, other countries have highlighted it as a priority too.

“One of the things the G7 leaders agreed to was proposals to boost internet safety,” he says. “One of the principles is a commitment to supporting the growth of safety tech across G7 countries. We are now working out what we can do to turn that principle into a reality.”

Digital background, policy role

Just as the digital realm has encroached upon all other areas of our lives, so it is in government. This makes the traditional divide between those who make policy, and those who deliver it, increasingly untenable.

But what specific skills and perspectives do those with a digital background bring to policy roles? Graham notes three distinct parts to this answer, gained from his time at GDS.

“The first one I might call digital ways of working,” he says. “One of the things GDS is really good at is providing people in government with tools and frameworks to work collaboratively and at pace. The idea of GDS was working in the open: engage people, make mistakes, correct things as you go along. The concept that strategy is delivery, and that in order to build trust, you have to show you can deliver high-quality products at pace...”

“The second is user centred policy making,” he continues, “how do you design policy that works in the real world? How do you develop an evidence base at pace and at scale that can inform the policies you create? Digital gives you the techniques to do this really quickly.”

“The third thing that GDS has taught me is more technical,” Graham adds, “in that there are definitely good ways of building digital products. I might call it a technology code of practice, and it's about open standards, use of cloud hosting where appropriate, respect for privacy and security... Being conscious of this framework helps me ensure whatever we deliver is robust, resilient, scalable and future-proof."

Digital done right

One thing anyone working in a digital role knows, is that it is always just as much about people, as it is technology. For Graham, the term 'digital' – with everything it entails - can put people off, particularly in government.

“One of the most valuable things is to look at how we can talk about Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) techniques, and user-centred design, that doesn't limit them by being called digital. I've tried to call them modern ways of working, to smuggle in techniques that have come from the digital sector, but are really just part of your modern toolkit. Sometimes calling them digital gets in the way.”

Ultimately, as government works to support and develop a burgeoning safety technology sector in the UK, we will all benefit from digital tools to protect us online. That's something everyone in this space can be proud of, whether they have digital in their job title or not.

“It's been the best 18 months of my career in government – having the chance to work with these amazing safety tech entrepreneurs, because they've got so much passion, knowledge and commitment,” Graham says. “They also have common needs, whether it's for training, or understanding data…"

"One of the most satisfying things to do is find out which of those elements they do have in common. What if we provided some form of centralised training support to help? It could achieve massive economies of scale for their work and the UK economy.”

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Sarah Finch
Research and Insights Manager
Foundry4

Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.

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