Tony Blair at the GovTech Summit: Reconfiguring government using tech

Digital Government

Tony Blair at the GovTech Summit: Reconfiguring government using tech

Interview
Posted on: 29th September 2020
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Tony Blair joined the GovTech Summit 2020 and spoke with Hanna Johnson about the challenges and opportunities for government reform in the post-Covid era. This is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Hanna Johnson (COO of PUBLIC): I'm delighted to be joined by Tony Blair, who you will all know as the UK Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007. He's now the chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which supports countries around the world and develops policy with a particular focus on technology.

Our theme today is Crisis to Recovery. And throughout the day, we'll be looking at ways technology has been and can be used to help weather the storm that Covid has brought, but also to build a better future for public services. Tony's Institute has today released his latest paper on the ways in which government needs to evolve to harness the power of technology. And we'll talk a little bit about that later. But first of all, welcome, Tony. It's wonderful to have you with us.

Tony Blair:Thanks, Hanna.

HJ: I wonder if we can maybe start by taking a step back for a second. Tony, facing a crisis on this scale must be every Prime Minister's nightmare. It poses a huge challenge for government both in the immediate term and in planning for the future. What do you make of this government's response?

TB: Well, the first thing to say is it is the toughest challenge that I think government around the world has faced in living memory. So you've got to be fair about that. I mean, I was Prime Minister for ten years, I know how difficult the job is and these challenges are, and this is of a different order of challenge. I think that the response has been mixed. We were too slow to lock down at the beginning. And mainly what I've been pushing in recent times is the need for testing on a large scale. And I think the problem always in government on these things are logistics. It's not knowing what to do, it's the implementation. I think most people would say it’s been mixed, even in government.

HJ: I think it's interesting that you talk about logistics there, because when you think about technology and the Covid crisis, for better or worse, you naturally think of the test and trace app. We were first promised it back in April, it was delayed till May, then scrapped and rebuilt. And it was finally launched last Thursday, and now has, I think, 12 million people signed up to it. But why do you think it's been so hard to get that test and trace app up and running? And what does that say for the readiness of our digital services and government?

TB: Well I just think we made an error in thinking we could design our own app that is going to be better than the apps that are designed by companies that do this for a living, day in day out on a global scale. So once we've got over that, then we've got the app up and running. Now look, 12 million is not bad. I mean in Germany I think around 22 per cent of people download the app; Ireland 37 per cent, but it's a smaller population. It's a pretty good start. But I still think the most important thing is to be in a position where you could do testing at a scale that enables you to go through this period where you've got rising cases, and where you're not careful, you're left with a very unpalatable choice between allowing cases to rise and shutting back down the economy. And I still think that the only way you're going to get from where we are now to the bridge to a vaccine: testing.

HJ: I mean, you've talked a lot about the need for mass testing, and also for a digital ID to enable health passporting. Do you think that's something that the public would embrace?

TB: I think they would embrace digital ID frankly, and I think a lot of the arguments against it are based on noise rather than a real, proper assessment of public opinion.

On the testing side, the issue that government hasn't really resolved is whether it's right use the PCR tests that are available now or some further innovations that are coming on stream very shortly, and whether we go further than that and use some rapid tests that are available in the private sector, which many people are using. And the government's argument now has been that these are of insufficient accuracy. And I just believe that is a fallacious argument. I think that even if they're not the full accuracy of your gold standard PCR tests, they're nonetheless extremely useful. And unless you can get tested at scale, I think it’s very hard to maintain a situation where people are back at school, they're back at work and they're using public transport again. So I think all of these things need to be resolved. Now with testing you need to sort out, for example, how you would use testing for the education system both in schools and universities.

To go back to digital ID, the sense of the thing would be, and especially so when you get vaccinated, to have the capability of people being able to go about with that little ID, have this test, take the vaccine. Virtually all the vaccines that are being developed – not all of them, but most of them – are going to be two dose vaccines. So you'll take a first dose, and then you'll take a booster. It's going to be really important that we're able to track who's had it, and then make sure that they then have their second dose. You'll need to have a register of those that have been vaccinated. And I think even after you get the vaccine, testing will still be important. So I don't see how you can make international travel operate again, unless you've got some form of digital knowledge of what your disease status is. So I just think, we've got the opportunity with technology to handle a lot of the issues around privacy, but digital ID across a whole range of services: you could rent your home more easily, do your mortgage more easily. All of these things are just a sensible part of the modern world. And we should just do it. I mean, I think you could get cross party consensus on it, actually.

HJ: I think it's a really important point, and particularly around public expectations, when those sorts of tests are available, but not being provided, that people will expect to be able to start moving around, going back to work and getting back into the industries that they they've been pushed out of because of because of COVID. And yeah, and that speaks to a wider point I think...

TB: Yeah, sure. So, for example, if you've got the Premier League using certain types of tests; if it's good enough for them, it's probably good enough for a lot of different situations. Now, it all depends what you're trying to measure. If you want to know for certain whether someone has the disease or not – so you're measuring whether they have Covid or not – then it's probably important to have the full gold standard test. But if you're trying to measure infectiousness, these more rapid tests will measure viral loads up to a significant degree, which will allow you to be pretty sure whether someone's infectious or not. And if you test regularly, so if you look at for example, what’s happening in some of the university campuses in the US now, they're taking their students back on campus and they're testing them twice a week. Now, will all these tests be absolutely accurate? No, but because you're testing twice a week, you'll get the vast majority of people. And at the moment, you've got a situation where, when people worry about false positives, for example, you've got a situation where when you lockdown, everyone who's locked down and doesn't have the disease is a false positive in a sense. And, as for false negatives, at the moment you're not testing people without symptoms. So since 70 per cent of carriers are asymptomatic, of its very nature you've got a whole range of people who have false negatives at the moment. So I just think this is where, if you combine mass testing with technology, you're going to be able to live with this disease much more easily. Anyway, that's my belief.

HJ: I think there's a large cohort of new students who would completely agree with you on that one. But I want to get back to that point about citizen expectations, because throughout the course of the crisis, we've seen public services digitised at a more rapid pace than we have done in previous years. By necessity, we've seen school classes going online, we've seen courts and tribunals using video services, GPs using video services. Do you think that coming out of this – for me at least, it's hard to imagine going back to how things were before – do you think that's a general feeling? Do you think the public's expectation for digital services has been heightened by the Covid crisis?

TB: Yes, I think so. Both from what they get from government, but also for the private sector as well, if you think about the shift to online purchasing and so on. But I think that the most important thing you realise about government is that when there's an actual crisis, decision making is sharpened, and it becomes much more effective. And the risk is then, when you return to normal, you kind of leave that form of more effective decision making behind you and you go back to the old bureaucratic ways.

The truth is with this technology revolution, what this crisis has taught us is what the possibilities are for technology. I mean, if you just think about it, technology in terms of innovation, around testing and vaccination, technology such as the one we're using now. As you rightly say, we've probably done more to shift to online consultations to the NHS in the last six months than we have in the last six or 16 years. Those schools that have used technology properly have managed to keep their students up to scratch. There's a whole series of things that have happened, that show us what the capability of technology is. And we've got to take that now, hopefully and eventually, as we get to more normal times, we've got to keep the same sense of urgency about how you use technology to transform the way government works. Because otherwise, you have this bizarre situation, where the whole of the rest of the world – in the private sector, at least, and in civic society, and the way people live and work and interact with each other – all of that's undergoing a revolution and government bureaucracy stays fixed in the same place.

HJ: Quite right. And I think one of the one of the key takeaways for me from the crisis has been embracing more risk and trying things through technology to try to make things better, something that government tends not to be very good but that it has been forced to do, because of the situation we find ourselves in.

TB: Yeah, and I think that's right. But I think also to be fair to government, and, you know, in a way that attempt to develop our own app as an example of this. You're right when you say you’ve got to be prepared to try and fail sometimes. I don't think there's any problem with that. But the safest thing in government is always to take the most risk-averse option. And what I would say is the biggest disagreement I have with the way governments in general approach this crisis, not just our own, is that you need a risk calculus that is consistently applied. And what I mean by that is, we're not going to eradicate this disease, we're going to live with it.

I think part of the problem is that first of all it was herd immunity, we scrapped that because of the consequences. And then we went for lockdown. And that was a policy of eradication. But it never really was a policy of eradication, it was a policy of suppression, in the hope that you could then prepare yourself as you eased to be able to deal with the consequences of easing better. But that's not the same as eradicating it.

So if you accept you're going to live with it, you need a risk calculus that says, yes, there are risks, whatever you do there are risks, but make it consistent. So we were talking about students in schools a moment or two ago. Another thing is international travel. I don't think you need to quarantine for 14 days if you're testing. Now, is there a risk? Yes. If you want to have zero risk, 14 day quarantine it. But if you want to pick up the vast bulk of cases, you could test people after they come back up to five days. Probably, it's good enough for the vast majority of people. Likewise, if you're a business and you're wanting people to come back into the workplace, you use testing capability. And you test regularly, you'll probably pick up the vast bulk of people. Will you pick up everyone? No. But there's no point in telling people to go back to work, or I'm not quite sure what it is now. But I think it certainly we were telling people to go back to work and some people do have to work. And even if you say well, the people who got to be out of the pub at 10 o’clock, is still saying before then you want people to enjoy hospitality. All of these things are risks. You know, the moment you send children back to school, it's a risk.

So if you look at the most risky areas, they are going to be probably around schools and around the workplace, possibly care homes, okay. You manage that risk. And that's, that's my point. And I think if we don't get a more sensible way of managing risks and use technology to assist us to do so, we end up in a situation where you're going zero risk in some areas, and then you're putting rules in place that if you’re not careful, people, if they don't see that consistent risk calculus, then they lose faith in the system.

HJ: Yeah, I think you're right. But I also wonder how we build trust in the system. We've had a question coming in from the audience watching today, how do we build trust between government and the public through the Covid crisis? We've accepted changes through necessity to get ourselves out of the house and to get to see a GP and to speak to our teachers, and have our children taught, but how do we, going forward, help to build that trust, where, in the past, it hasn't always naturally come?

TB: I think people will trust the government that they think, “they know what they're doing”, right? And that's why it's very important to have a strategy, not a series of ad hoc reactions, but a strategy in which you explain to people exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it. And you explain to people, there is inevitably going to be a balance between what the government stipulates or demands or orders, and people taking responsibility for themselves. And I think, you know, you need to do that in a very consistent way.

So I think one of the things that is most difficult at the moment, is to explain to people in a way that doesn't frighten them unduly but does educate them, about what I think is the principal Covid problem now, which is less to do with mortality rates. I think we have got much better at treating people. And in the most severe cases, and those mortality rates have come down significantly, and they have around the world, you know, there are drugs that we can use that reduce the severity in the most serious cases.

The issues are these, what are called the long-haul Covid cases, the issue is people who get the disease, they don’t die of it. But several weeks, even several months later, they've still got serious conditions. And we need to both have a far better idea of what the numbers are around that. And my institute is just working on a whole lot of information around that now. But we need to know better what that problem is. And give people the best advice as to how you can make sure that you're going to avoid the situation of Covid, whilst leading as normal a life as possible. And that's why all the other things that we're talking about,the testing and tracing, and tracking and so on are really important. But if you need to build trust, you've got to give people a sense that you've laid out the full picture for them. And you're in it as a partner with the government.

HJ: Well, that's may be a good time to move on to looking at the future, because you've put out a

paper with the Institute today that looks very firmly at the future and how to take advantage of technology and how to reorganise government in order to do so. And fundamentally, you talk about a shift from being quite system centric to government being much more user centric. Did you want to expand a little bit on that?

TB: So leaving Covid aside, although with many of the same lessons in it, but the single biggest change that's going on in the world in the real world, is the technology revolution. And it's going to change everything. It's going to change the workplace. It's going to change every part of industry, the service sector, and it's going to change the way that we interact with each other. And, and it should change the way that government works.

So this, this revolution is going to offer enormous opportunities. So the most important issue in healthcare today, okay, you can have a debate about should you spend this much more or that much more? That's a very old debate. And I mean, I'm not saying it's not a valid debate, and I went through all these debates when I was Prime Minister, but the single most important thing in the healthcare system today is how do you use technology to deliver a better service, better health care, better prevention, and drive costs, you know that scale up, reduce those costs, so that the system itself becomes more sustainable. Likewise, in education, through this crisis, we've been using remote learning, but there are a myriad of different ways that even if we return to normal, we should be using technology to personalise education. Law and order, transport, you know, in 15 years, you're going to be having electric driverless cars. So just think of the change that makes in terms of employment in terms of the way we organise ourselves. You look at how you run and organise a city today, if you're using technology intelligently.

So my point is just very simple, you've got this revolution that's happening. But the change makers and the policymakers aren’t in the right debate together. This is why I wanted to do your conference today. And why my constant theme to politicians today is the only way you're going to revive optimism about the future is showing that you understand this revolution, can master it and harness it. If you show that, then there's actually an optimistic future. Because there's a whole lot of things we can do far better. But it will have big displacement effects. It is going to mean big changes. And you've got to have a government that is reengineered to help people through that.

HJ: Absolutely. Do you think government's capable of that change? You talk in the paper about some fairly fundamental differences in the way that the state operates, splitting delivery from

policymaking and making policymaking far more user centric, building small teams to focus on individual issues, rather than being siloed in those kind of departmental structures that have endured over time, but you also recognise some of the political challenges in achieving that. There’s no incentive for any one Prime Minister to push through with that, it’s difficult to achieve. So do you think government can make that change?

TB: I think government can make that change, but it needs to be, it needs to be sort of driven from the top. And you need to identify exactly the types of changes you believe you can make. And you know, we were talking about digital IDs, that's something I think you can do, but you need to focus on it as a government, you need to build political support for it. But I also think you need a different skill set coming into government. And one of the things that's most difficult about government, in an era of change, is that it becomes about implementation and doing. And that is, you know, that requires a certain expertise. That's why at the beginning of this Covid crisis, you were having to pull a whole lot of people in from the outside of the government, in some of these issues around Covid, logistics questions, other people do this stuff for a living. If they do it day in day out, they're going to know more than a civil servant. It’s no disrespect to the civil servant, they just will. I mean, I don't know how we could use Amazon in the current situation around delivery of mass tests, but we probably could, if we thought about it, right? Maybe we are thinking about it. But you know what I mean, it's this type of, you need to identify the task, you need to pull in, you know, a different skill set.

I would like to see – and I think policy has gone in the wrong direction this over many years - much greater switching between public and private sector. Now, we did this a certain amount when we were in government, you know, people would then get very worried that okay, maybe someone's leaving the public sector, going to the private sector going to make money out of what they used to know and all that. I think that's a real second order question. To get people who've got experience in the private sector and bring them into the public sector is important. And likewise, to have people go out from the public sector into the private sector and learn things that, then when they come back into the public sector can and will be useful to them. Developing these interchangeable and interoperable skills is really, really important, because this stuff can be complicated, and you need really imaginative and creative people at the centre of government.

HJ: I also wonder whether, you know, people talk about the new normal post Covid – far more remote working, and that enables far more diversity of geography involved in the policymaking process, rather than having Whitehall departments just in London – could we “de-London” policymaking by bringing in voices from around the country?

TB: Well, I think it's going to make a difference, certainly. And, you know, even if say 20 per cent of people or even 10 per cent of people change and work remotely, that will have cumulatively a major impact. I think the ability of people to work remotely, and maybe come into the office every so often, I think it's fine. I think most organisations, my Institute [has nearly] 300 people employed and we found in terms of productivity, the workings being quite easy actually to do. So yes, I think I think it does give us that chance.

HJ: And how do we maintain proper accountability, because some of the constructs of policymaking are designed to keep that accountability – whether it's working to a manifesto that you've published in advance and sticking to it, whether it's collective agreement, consultation and responses, cabinet committees – if we move to a more agile and risk embracing system where we encourage people to try things and fail fast, how do we maintain proper accountability through that?

TB: But I think all those systems of accountability that you mentioned, will stay in place. Moving to a situation where the user, or the citizen, feels much more power in engaging with the government, you know, whether it's in the benefit system, or migration, or taxation and revenue issues. I just think that's the sense, that people live their lives like that now.

And one of the things that's been a problem politically, is people think that when you talk about the citizen, as a consumer or a user, you're kind of individualising things that should be collective. And I would say to people, no, you're simply you're giving people power over the system. A systemic framework that is created by government, but within that framework, you should be allowing a whole lot of different people to come forward with different ways of engineering, government services, for example. I mean, there's lots of things that government does, both at national and local government that would be better done by, you know, small groups of people, in companies or developing apps that are outside of government – let it happen. Obviously, you need to make sure those systems of accountability are there. But I think people often use this just as a way of kind of shutting out innovation.

HJ: I think it also requires a shift to think about, more about outcomes and to focus policy on outcomes far more than inputs and outputs as well, because there are many ways to achieve certain outcomes, but that you've got to, as you say, allow that innovation. Just as we just as we wrap up, you mentioned hope earlier. Are you hopeful for the future of technology and government? Do you think that we are on the right path?

TB: No, I don't think the political class as a whole has really grasped this properly. And I think this question of how you understand and harness the technology revolution is also the answer to the waves of populism. The populism is based on pessimism. If you don't have hope for the future, you look for someone to blame. And, you know, the left might blame business and the right blames immigrants or whatever it is. But really, this technology revolution, which is the real world thing that's happening, it does offer us hope, provided we can weave it into a narrative about the future that makes sense to people.

And you know what's interesting? My institute did a paper on this last year actually – if you look at the 19th century Industrial Revolution, it was going on for decades before the politicians caught up. I mean, in that those days, in the early part of the 19th century, the Whigs and the Tories, were still carrying on with old arguments, when this Industrial Revolution was, of course, changing everything. Now, eventually, politics caught up. And then, of course, politics itself changed. Then you had the Liberal Party, and then you had the Labour Party. And you had all the reforms and changes and so on, of the electoral system and the way government worked. You created a proper financial system, the Exchequer and all of that happened. But the point is, it took a long time for politics to catch up.

I'm only hopeful about the future of politics. If we have a political class that understands that whatever all these other issues are that we need to handle and that are big challenges, getting this thing right, how you make most of the opportunities of technology and mitigate its challenges and its problems. That is the central challenge of our time. And that's why we need a different type of political dialogue. And we need to recognise that this is about understanding and about applying. And there is an area that's around values, because the values you bring to this show the benefits through revolution are properly and fairly and equally distributed. All of those things are really important. But they happen, and this political battle happens against the backdrop of that reality. And it's only if that happens that I'm hopeful about the future. And we've got a long way to go.

HJ: Right. Well, Tony, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a fascinating discussion.

And I think that last theme of needing to capture the opportunity of the future is something we'll explore in a lot more detail in the other sessions today. So thank you very much for joining us.

TB: Thank you. Thanks, everyone. Pleasure.

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