A word from Eurohumph: former EC chief Robert Madelin on tech, skills & Brexit

By on 16/01/2019
Robert Madelin, a former European Commission innovation and technology chief, aka @eurohumph

Robert Madelin, a former European Commission innovation and technology chief, tells Ian Hall of the digital challenges facing civil services on regulation and deployment. And then there’s Brexit: the UK’s predicament, he says, points to something broken in the relationship between UK ministers and officials

Robert Madelin’s Twitter handle is @eurohumph – a surely unsurpassable online identity for someone who has spent the bulk of their career in senior civil service roles in the European Union and the UK.

Madelin, who left the European Commission in 2016, is speaking to Global Government Forum over coffee at St Pancras station, after catching the Eurostar from Brussels – a journey he made countless times in his 30-year civil service career.

Between 2004 and 2016, Madelin held a series of leadership positions at the European Commission – including Senior Adviser for Innovation; Director-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT); and Director-General for Health and Consumer Policy (DG SANCO). He’d previously spent 20 years as a trade and investment negotiator for the UK and then the EU.

Nowadays, the 61-year-old is Chairman of the consultancy Fipra International, a Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Centre for Technology & Global Affairs, and involved with AI4People – billed as ‘the first global forum in Europe on the social impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI)’.

From Rwanda to Romania

So technology in public service delivery is an obvious starting-point for
Global Government Forum’s interview.

“The conversation about where digital is going is so much more sophisticated now than a decade ago,” Madelin reflects. “You go through hype cycles – you talk about the Cloud, about AI – but, underneath it, the understanding of what digital might mean for government is getting much more mature”.

Achieving that maturity in tech-enabled service delivery, he says, demands the ability to combine high-level leadership – “from the minister, the civil service, the Prime Minister’s Office” – with “a quite open approach to creating a new eco-system, with geeks, ambassadors and early-adopters”.

This combination can produce both a national drive for progress, and delivery that meets local needs. In Rwanda, for example, “you find somebody who is literate, has good interpersonal skills and an internet connection, and they help everybody in their village to use online services.” In Romania, connected local libraries enable farmers to receive rapid payments from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. And in Italy, a government digital platform operates as “an always-on hackathon, where developers can take away questions and work on them. People can contract different potential answers – it’s quite a sexy innovation.”

National leadership

Whilst services should vary locally, though, it is the job of national governments to create the infrastructure permitting digital growth and innovation. That can, he adds, mean determined action by regulators: “The ability of central government regulators to keep the market honest works. Look at the way France’s telecom regulator has pushed much faster rural broadband than in Germany or the UK.”

Asked to rate the UK’s rate of adoption of digital government, he points to “controversy about whether the initial big push from the Government Digital Service was a success. It definitely brought new personalities and new dynamism.” After a poor start in digital health, with the NHS’s ill-fated National Programme for IT, he sees rapid progress under health secretary Matt Hancock: “I think the current re-launch has been phenomenally successful because it really connects with people’s recognition that ‘digital health can be good for me’.”

On a different note, he describes the benefits of tech within civil service structures – explaining how a ‘social intranet’ tool from a California firm, Jive Software, helped with “de-siloing” during his European Commission years. “People tag their profile with things they’re interested in,” he explains. “So if a colleague tags that they are ‘off to #Malaysia’, and you yourself have tagged ‘#Malaysia’, you receive an alert. You’re increasing situation-awareness and decreasing threshold costs for the [internal] transfer of knowledge: these are two big drivers of efficiency.”

Co-regulatory flexibilty

Another key field of digital regulation concerns social media and the big tech giants. In 2011, Madelin wrote that “internet actors have to become more responsible or otherwise they will be forced to become more responsible”. The pressure for change has only grown since – but Madelin believes it’s not too late for businesses to avoid heavy-handed regulation. If they “still want to beat over-regulation, then a co-regulatory framework can still work – setting over-arching principles and applying them to problems [such as porn and terrorism] case by case,” he comments. “It’s more flexible than hard law, even if it doesn’t give that draconian energy surge that ministers like to feel.”

In fact, he’s not a fan of the current UK and EU approaches to regulation, arguing that the existing “actions and proposals on terrorism, porn etcetera are dangerous. By giving multiple agencies the right to impose 60-minute takedowns, these provisions threaten to localise the Internet and break the Single Market. So there are problems.”

On data, though, he praises the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), predicting that forthcoming prosecutions will lead to “a lot of people, particularly UK media, saying ‘bloody Europe, GDPR’,” but “actually, it’s an innovation ‘growing pain’: part of cleaning-up – and cleaning-up is good.”

Digital opportunities

To make full use of digital technologies in government’s own operations, Madelin points out, civil service leaders will need much greater expertise – particularly in fields such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), where opacity over how decisions are being made raises questions over accountability. “I would say we don’t fully understand everything that goes on ‘under the bonnet’ in many areas of life,” he says; and “you need a very special ethic of explain-ability, transparency, accountability for something like AI, which will be quasi-automated. Even if there’s a human in the loop, AI could be saying: ‘We need to take Mrs Jones’s appendix out’. What happens if Mrs Jones has a bad experience?”

This expertise will also be crucial in regulating new technologies in the wider economy, permitting continued business investment whilst safeguarding the public interest. In the US, he notes, the government has more or less left the AI field of play: “Under the current US administration, government ownership has moved to zero, quite deliberately. The difficulty is that you lose some of the legitimacy that a private endeavour needs in the public mind. The EU and its member states are saying ‘we need publicly owned fora’.”

Training the leaders

And it’s not sufficient for digital capabilities to sit within dedicated teams; civil service leaders must also understand how these technologies operate.

One solution, he suggests, is ‘upwards mentoring’ – but this can sit awkwardly within civil service cultures. “Culturally, you have to make it cool for a 55-year-old permanent secretary to be mentored – not shadowed, but actually told what to do – by someone 30 years younger,” he comments. “This would be true in any organisation, but it’s definitely relevant to a civil service [which is] more hierarchical, and older at the top.”

International exchange is also important here; and Madelin highlights the value of up-and-coming civil servants studying abroad – gaining language skills, international contacts and insights into civil services overseas. He studied at France’s ENA civil service finishing school when he was 26, and argues that the UK should train more officials there to build the connections needed in a post-Brexit world. “London does not send enough, and they need to double-down precisely because of Brexit,” he comments.

No avoiding it

And so to Brexit. With the political situation changing by the hour as we speak, we focus on what the process reveals for the machinery of government decision-making.

Madelin says he has been dipping into the Butler Review of the UK government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 – and sees parallels in politicians’ unwillingness to listen to the advice of civil servants. “I think we have seen the continued decline of arms-length, mutually respectful administrative advice,” he reflects. “This is identified by the Butler Report as a contributory factor in the Iraq War decision-making.

“So I think what you see in the Brexit debate is no loss of quality in the British civil service: it’s a loss of quality in the vertical transmission mechanisms of our machinery of government. It’s gone top-down and anti-expert.”

He concludes by asking aloud: “How did [the UK] get bulldozed by political urgency into triggering Article 50, without having the sorts of discussions that we are now beginning to have about what the end-game will be, and what will be the exit plan? Discussions not to question the referendum outcome. but to plan for a viable deal instead of drifting into chaos.”

About Ian Hall

Ian Hall is a former Editor of Public Affairs News, who has most recently worked as UK Director for the pan-European media network Euractiv. He is also a former News Editor of PR Week. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo.

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