The Week

The Week, 24 September 2021

For all your behind the scenes commentary on this week's goings-on in SW1, we've got you covered.



To coincide with London Tech Week, on Wednesday the Government published the long anticipated National AI Strategy. Set within a ten year time frame, the strategy focuses on ways to improve research and development, set clearer governance frameworks, and spread the benefits of AI nation-wide. Tabitha Goldstaub — who Chairs the UK Government AI Council — delivered a keynote address outlining the background for the Strategy at Reform's Hackathon in May. A particular highlight of the Stategy is its focus on skills. The digital skills gap is well-publicised, and this plan attacks it from both ends, promoting AI at the Department for Education's Skills Bootcamps at home and rolling out new visa regimes to attract the best talent from abroad.

Eagle-eyed readers will be feeling some Déjà vu with this publication, given the many digital strategies that have come before it, catalogued here. There is reason to be optimistic, however. This strategy clearly sets out short, medium and long term objectives and the obstacles these face. This type of milestone setting was a key recommendation for future digital policy from the National Audit Office over the summer, and something Reform has long advocated for.

Two key challenges facing the strategy will hinge on decisions that are coming down the track. First, the strategy outlines that new trade deals will include provisions for emerging technologies, and champion international data flows. As others have noted, the potential reforms to the data protection laws could put barriers to how comprehensive these provisions will be. Second, the strategy sets out that proposed reforms to governance will come in a White Paper in 2022. We will have to wait and see what this entails to pass judgement, but AI governance is fraught with technical challenges and it is vital to get regulation right to boost public confidence in the technology. Luckily for the Government, Reform brought experts from all over the world together in May to find solutions to issues of governance and transparency in UK public sector AI — and you can read the publication here.

Elsewhere, there was big news in regional inequality this week. Whilst Reform has long been concerned that Levelling Up is more slogan than action, this has been turned on its head with the Ministerial reshuffle. A dream team has been assembled at the rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with problem solvers Michael Gove and Neil O'Brien steering the ship and Reform favourite Andy Haldane being appointed to lead a Levelling Up Taskforce.

Paradoxically, the success of these reformers will be measured not by their ability to drive transformation from SW1, but their willingness to devolve power and responsibility to communities themselves. As Andy Haldane outlined in an essay for Reform back in September 2020, to solve issues of regional inequalities the Government must rediscover Community Power. The star studded team should therefore look to ideas like the ones outlined in the Create Streets report this week. Here, they advocate for locally accountable Community Improvement Districts, extending Business Improvement Districts to bring local authorities and community organisations into the conversation about how to reimagine local areas.