The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has published a report, jointly authored by Tony Blair, William Hague et al, which has received wide media coverage. It recommends a “radical new policy agenda” that will transcend the current fray of political ideology.
It’s worth reading (see link below) and I will pick out some of the important points in it:
It recommends “building foundational AI-era infrastructure”. This should include: 1) Government-led development of sovereign general-purpose AI systems, enabled by the required supercomputing capabilities, to underpin broad swaths of public-service delivery; 2) A national health infrastructure that brings together interoperable data platforms into a world-leading system that is able to bring down ever-increasing costs through operational efficiencies; 3) A secure, privacy-preserving digital ID for citizens that allows them to quickly interact with government services, while also providing the state with the ability to better target support.
To encourage investment in “growth equity” it suggests encouragement of pension scheme consolidation by limiting capital gains tax exemption to funds with over £20 billion under management (it argues that there are too many small schemes).
It suggests Increasing public research and development (R&D) investment to make the UK a leader among comparable nations within five years, coupled with reforms to the way our institutions of science, research and innovation are funded and regulated to give more freedom and better incentives. Investing in new models of organising science and technology research, including greatly expanding the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), and creating innovative laboratories that seed new industries by working at the intersection of cutting-edge science and engineering.
The proposals for a “national health infrastructure” seems to be reviving the old concept of a single monolithic patient record system which was abandoned after unsuccessful implementation and the waste of many billions of pounds. Trusts and hospitals now have disparate systems but interoperability is the key while the Government is funding “digital transformation” and having some impact on improving systems. We don’t need a new “big bang” approach with the enormous costs incurred with chosen consultancy firms.
The report appears to suggest that technology can solve all the problems in the NHS by improving productivity. But this is nonsense. Management is the problem, not lack of technology.
The report has a touching faith in the possible impact of AI. So it says: “As a general-purpose technology, AI has the potential to make an unprecedented impact that will exceed those of the steam engine and electricity combined during the industrial revolutions. These previous revolutions focused on the harnessing of energy to mechanise physical labour, but our current revolution is the first in history to automate cognition itself”.
AI is improving but it so far has limited applications. The fact that products such as ChatGPT can help students to write essays (albeit with frequent factual errors) by completing sentences based on internet word frequencies does not herald a revolution in productivity.
The report strongly promotes digital identities. So it says: “Today, many of us can set up a bank account in minutes and pay for shopping at the tap of a watch or phone. For the generation now entering middle age, this level of digital simplicity and streamlining is expected as a default while those in their 20s have grown up in an entirely digital age. Despite this, government records are still based in a different era. The debate over digital IDs has raged in the UK for decades. In a world in which everything from vaccine status to aeroplane tickets and banking details are available on our personal devices, it is illogical that the same is not true of our individual public records”.
I personally would welcome a digital ID. At present I have over 500 separate log-ins for different organisations which I have to record and manage with some help from technology. But I still occasionally have to prove who I am by submitting copies of a passport or driving licence and proof of residence by a copy of a utility bill. This is archaic nonsense when companies such as Experian or GB Group can already verify my identity from their records.
But the NHS and Government bodies like HMRC have separate systems which still require separate log-ins. The report suggests personal data should be shareable between organisations but that should only be permitted for digital IDs when a user permits it.
The report says: “Governments are the original issuers and source of truth for most identity documents, from birth certificates to passports. Rather than creating a marketplace of private-sector providers to manage the government-issued identity credentials of citizens, the government should provide a secure, private, decentralised digital-ID system for the benefit of both citizens and businesses. A well-designed, decentralised digital-ID system would allow citizens to prove not only who they are, but also their right to live and work in the UK, their age and ownership of a driving licence. It could also accommodate credentials issued by other authorities, such as educational or vocational qualifications. This would make it cheaper, easier and more secure to access a range of goods and services, online and in person. A digital ID could help the government to understand users’ needs and preferences better, improving the design of public services. It would make it simpler and easier to access benefits, reducing the number of people who are missing out on support they are entitled to. It could even help the government move to a more proactive model, meeting people’s needs before they apply for a service, tailoring the services and support they are offered to their individual circumstances and reducing administrative burdens on both individuals and the public sector”.
Some of that goes far beyond what is necessary or wise. But giving everyone a digital ID from birth is surely a good idea. Almost everyone already has a National Insurance Number so this is not a new concept but it needs extending to provide digital ID verification. Other countries such as Finland and Ukraine are ahead of the UK already in this regard.
The report has some interesting things to say about the lack of investment in the UK. For example: “Despite startup financing being the focus of several government reviews and new funds, the UK has continually struggled to deliver a sufficient scale and volume of patient and growth capital to the country’s startup companies. The UK’s DB pensions industry is fragmented, with over 5,300 schemes with an average size of £330 million. Their investment strategies, driven by risk-averse corporate sponsors and finite investment horizons, have typically pursued a zero-risk approach. According to Michael Tory, co-founder of the advisory firm Ondra Partners, the UK is one of the only major economies where domestic pension funds have in effect abandoned investment in UK companies. The proportion of UK pension funds invested in bonds increased from less than 20 per cent in 2000 to 72 per cent in 2021, even as their investments in UK equities dropped from 50 per cent of their asset allocation in 2000 to just 4 per cent in 2021”.
This is certainly an area that the Government should look at. Effectively pension funds have become risk averse due to the imposition of regulations that require limitation of risk.
In conclusion the report suggests that technology can solve many of the UK’s economic and social problems. It is way too optimistic in that regard but it does contain a large number of suggestions for where improvements could be made.
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )
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