Trump appears to have no position on digital – but are the tech tides against him?

Written by David Walker on 18 November 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

The digital revolution in US states and cities is not likely to grind to a halt following Trump’s election, but your take on his win will depend on how you view the sands of time, says David Walker.

Trump may have to go with the flow of the tech tide - Photo credit: Matt Rourke AP/Press Association Images​

Since the early morning of 9 November (UK time), we’ve been divided into two camps, and the demarcation line has nothing to do with whether we’re blue or red, moderate or extreme, or anywhere in between.

In the first camp are those who believe history can go back as well as forward – and is all too capable of repeating past horrors.

Those in the second think history is a broad stream moving forward. The US election is a hiccup, a bubble on the surface. The currents are technology, trade and unstoppable momentum to innovate and progress; Donald Trump may kick and scream but he will have to go with the flow.

When, earlier this month Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore flew off with Liam Maxwell, the government’s chief technology officer, the conference they were attending in South Korea was very much a gathering of optimists.

This was the third annual D5 conference, a mixture of jamboree, sales trip, trumpet-blowing, tech talk and mutual backslapping.


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The countries of the D5 – Estonia, New Zealand, South Korea, Israel and the UK – see themselves as the vanguard. They are going to be first into brave new world of transformed public services and (for the UK, said Skidmore) opportunities to sell kit, systems and standards.

My guess is that Liam, like most tech types, belongs to the second camp: optimists who think they are going with the future flow. The D5, which got going under Francis Maude, are out ahead of the pack.

But even while they were in Busan, history moved on. And back. Rioters demanded the impeachment of the South Korean president; the Asian country has come a long way in digital terms but further progress is not guaranteed. Bare miles from capital Seoul is the border with North Korea.

During the conference Trump was elected – the Trump who on the campaign trail said South Korea and Japan should build nuclear weapons to defend themselves and no longer count on the US.

Estonia may be a leader in e-government but as far as Trump’s advisers are concerned it’s as good as ‘in the suburbs of St Petersburg’ and not worth defending if attacked by Vladimir Putin. It has already experienced cyber siege from Moscow.

As far as anyone knows, Trump has no known position on digital government – beyond talking about investing in communications technology to improve access to Veterans Administration healthcare.

What is known is that he plans tax cuts and doesn’t much like government. The US Congress, now Republican dominated, will slice and dice the many federal programmes they don’t like, probably including technological and science investment.

The Republican ranks aren’t bursting with champions of speedier and more customer focused public services.

Some are predicting that Trump, once in power, will give tech a very bad name by using and abusing surveillance and online intercepts against his political enemies.

On the agenda in Busan were cyber security and crime. There are also digital revolutionaries in military barracks.

The US election showed that hacking now has a distinctly political dimension to it. The D5 Charter, promoted by the UK, isn’t going to stop the Russian, Chinese or US governments committing cyber aggression if they feel national interests are at stake.

As for the human rights that are also part of the UK contribution to international digital cooperation, Trump and Putin are equally contemptuous.

In its post-Brexit enthusiasm for non-EU trade deals, the UK is pushing for India to join the D5. Some might ask, however, whether the UK’s Digital Service Standard embraces the censorship and discrimination practised by India against Kashmir and Pakistan.

But optimists will respond that trade won’t stop, even if Trump attempts to put US interests first and talks tough with China. Away from federal government US states and cities will continue the digital revolution.

Won’t spectrum and broadband speeds go on expanding whoever is in the White House? Doesn’t innovation obey its own apolitical logic?

About the author

David Walker is former managing director public reporting at the Audit Commission and co-author with Polly Toynbee of Cameron’s Coup. 

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