‘DCMS can speak with a single, expert voice on digital policy within government’

Perm sec Healey claims that department’s emergence as the go-to place for tech policy is ‘an incredible asset to the UK’

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

The emergence of DCMS as government’s hub for policymaking on digital issues is “an incredible asset to the UK”, the department’s leader has said.

The word ‘digital’ was added to the name of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport five years ago, in a move that was intended to reflect the fact that about half of its work related to the online world and the wider technology sector. Its remit in these areas has only grown since then, with figures published in 2020 indicating that about 70% of the department’s personnel resources were dedicated to digital policy and projects.

In a recent speech, covered by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, DCMS permanent secretary Sarah Healey (pictured above) said that having a “coherent, consolidated capability” for digital policymaking makes the UK civil service “almost unique among governments”.

“There is endless commentary and analysis of how the internet has developed, how tech giants have become dominant in our economy, how technology has improved and transformed almost every industry sector and how our lives have changed now we live them online,” Healey said, in a speech given as part of partnership with the Strand Group, part of King’s College London. “But a lot less on how government and the public administration has responded to the impact of technology on our lives, our economy, our security and our society. While individual policies are rightly scrutinised, challenged or lauded, there is little debate about whether government and the civil service have organised themselves to set digital policy effectively.”

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Healey said she wanted to start a conversation in a bid to keep improving the UK’s ability to make digital policy, which she defined as not about “the way government uses digital technology to deliver its own services” but “the shorthand we use for policymaking in response to the massive transformation effected by digital technology on the world we live in.”

In an address that examined government’s work over the last decade or so, the DCMS chief identified three phases of digital policymaking, starting with a period around the early 2010s when there were “pockets of isolated activity [across government] reacting to technological change largely as it was felt within existing structures”. 

This included Cabinet Office-led work around cybersecurity and a team in the business department looking at the digital sector, which at that point was focused as much on the older tech giants such as HP and IBM as the new online platforms. “Where there were deeper examinations, they still did not anticipate how all-consuming the change would be and how rapid,” Healey added.

This began to change in the mid-2010s, Healey argued. By 2014, DCMS and the business department were running a joint unit working on the digital economy and in this second phase, “the civil service was starting better to cover parts of the new landscape of digital policy – but our efforts were still immature”. 

There was still a “heavy focus on growth, but less on security and harms”, she said, and disparate policy teams were not yet able to grasp the “connections and synergies between these issues”. 

The department’s work on Online Harms is now perhaps its most significant policy brief. In recent years, the its remit has continued to expand to include things such as digital identity, digital competition, AI regulation and international digital policy.

“DCMS can now also speak with a single, expert voice on digital policy within HMG,” Healey said. “This has made the civil service more effective at embedding digital policy within the wider strategic objectives it can support.”


Sam Trendall

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