Matt Hancock, the creator of the Matt Hancock app, sits in Matt Hancock’s office at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), in a Pinewood Studios Matt Hancock director’s chair, drinking coffee in a Matt Hancock mug. Earlier he was rolling a cricket ball in his hands – there is no evidence the ball was also Matt Hancock branded.
Standing out in his regulation blue Conservative Party suit and crisp white shirt, he wears a 1970s-style orange plastic Casio digital watch, which he happily explains came about because he wanted to go to the “old school” as he uses so much modern technology in the rest of his life. He has, for now at least, given up on his Apple Watch.
As Secretary of State at DCMS, Hancock is the tech cheerleader in government – perhaps the first Cabinet Minister to have such a voice on behalf of the digital economy. He is certainly the first politician to have reached the exalted heights of Cabinet after proving his ability in the digital sphere.
He took over as DCMS leader in January this year in Theresa May’s latest reshuffle, 18 months after she was demoted in May when she took over as prime minister. Before entering Parliament, he was chief of staff to former chancellor-turned-editor George Osborne, and perhaps because of those close ties – Osborne was sacked in May on his appointment – Hancock first moved in May from Cabinet Minister, where he was responsible for the Government Digital Service (GDS), to a more junior role as Digital Minister at DCMS.
Unlike his former boss, Hancock bowed his head, pursued his new term and was eventually rewarded with a promotion to the Cabinet. He is a smooth, confident speaker – reminiscent in this respect of David Cameron – and reported by many in Westminster to be a rising politician.
World leader in digital
He has invited journalists to a briefing ahead of London Tech Week, where he hopes to promote the government’s pro-tech credentials. He comes across as genuine in his desire for a post-Brexit UK that emphasizes being a global digital leader.
“We are very keen to articulate the fact that the level of investment in technology has doubled over the past year; that the United Kingdom is ahead of France, Germany and Spain combined; and that building this ecosystem is mission critical,” he said.
“There are also new statistics showing that the digital export trade from the UK has grown by 20% over the past year. It’s very strong and much faster than the rest of the economy .
He describes the UK as a ‘digital dynamo’ and jokingly warns that we will often hear this phrase repeated by the government in the months to come.
But for all of Hancock’s defense of the technology, he is reluctant to publicly address the digital sector’s significant concerns about the impact of Brexit. He is not going to break government-approved lines on ongoing negotiations, but his department is responsible for two key areas impacted by Brexit: skills and data.
According to trade body TechUK, around 18% of UK IT professionals are born overseas, and with the growing shortage of talent, restrictions on the availability of people could dampen the UK’s digital economy.
According to research by Deloitte, more than three-quarters of UK organizations struggle to recruit people with digital skills. But at the same time, thousands of IT workers eligible for UK Tier 2 skilled visas are being denied entry due to government immigration caps.
Immigration policy is not Hancock’s purview, but he understands the problem.
“We want to see great talent come here who can contribute to our country. We have already increased the number of exceptional talent visas and I am in constant discussion with the tech industry,” he said.
“It’s very important that we have a visa system that both controls immigration and also ensures that the brightest and best talent from around the world can come here. We have already shown that we are committed to ensuring that exceptional people with exceptional talents who can bring so much to Britain can come here and work, start businesses and grow businesses, and I want that to continue to the future.
Reading between the lines, it’s likely that Hancock would support any proposal to reconsider Tier 2 visa caps to help the tech sector address its growing skills gap.
Free flow of data
His DCMS team recently traveled to Brussels to negotiate with the EU on the free flow of data, and Hancock is confident this is one area of Brexit where there will be a deal, as the UK Uni passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which became law through the Data Protection Act, which received royal assent last month.
However, he has already been pushed back by the EU over his request for the UK’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), to remain involved in the bloc’s data protection policy after Brexit. Negotiations are ongoing.
Another topic of interest to Hancock is the relationship between technology and productivity. The UK is perceived to have a significant productivity deficit compared to its main rivals such as France, Germany and the United States. However, some economists counter that the way GDP is measured no longer reflects the role of the digital economy – in particular, the fact that so many internet services that enrich our lives are free.
As Hancock puts it: “If I use Google Maps to walk through the park instead of taking a taxi, it reduces measured GDP, even though it improves my real income and improves my productivity.”
Measuring the digital economy
The Treasury has given £4m to the Office for National Statistics to examine how the digital economy is affecting the way GDP is measured. The UK has one of the largest numerical proportions of GDP among major countries, and Hancock suggests that it would not be difficult to draw a connection with the UK also having lower productivity.
“I think the measurement of productivity has been fundamentally changed by digital, where a whole host of things that we had to pay for are now free. I don’t think the topic of economics has yet caught up with the impact of zero marginal cost production or free goods,” he said.
Since taking up his role at DCMS, Hancock has expanded his empire by taking responsibility for data policy away from his former home in the Cabinet Office, and he revealed he has also taken over data policy. digital identity, formerly held by GDS. Clearly he hopes to break the stalemate in the private sector identity ecosystem caused by delays and performance issues with GDS’ Gov.uk Verify system.
“Getting a high-quality digital identity system is extremely important. This is important both within government for people to access government services efficiently, and in the wider economy. The more these two things are connected, the better,” Hancock said.
Regulate internet companies
Meanwhile, he’s also tasked with addressing the challenges of social media companies, their use of our personal data, and their cooperation – or lack thereof – in regulating what happens on their platforms. Here, too, Hancock is – inevitably – optimistic about what can be achieved. He believes it is possible to be both “pro-tech” and “pro-privacy”. But it is clear that Internet companies must change.
“Obviously, social media platforms are not publishers in the full sense of the word, like a book publisher, but neither are they just conduits of other people’s information. We look at whether and how the law should be updated to reflect this in order to preserve essential internet freedoms, which are a very powerful force for good, but also to mitigate some of the harms and to help ensure that people can protect their intellectual property. property and make sure some of the damage online is better controlled,” he said.
“We are working with businesses and also with wider civil society to ensure that we apply future laws correctly. We are not excluding legislation, and it is better that this approach be done internationally. But it’s not necessary because, at the end of the day, we need political responsibility in an area of life where there is an enormous amount of power in the hands of a very small number of people, and this is done legitimately through national legislation. We work with people around the world to try to find that right balance.
The tech industry hailed Hancock’s rise to the top of government, seeing him largely as an ally, and one with enough understanding of his tenure to make a difference. As Hancock likes to point out in his speeches, his family started a small software company in Chester, where he once worked.
“I have a real interest in all of this,” he said with genuine enthusiasm.
Like any politician, his ambitions no doubt go beyond the digital elements of his current term, but for now he is keen to convince IT people that he has their best interests at heart.