Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

I enjoy the summer weeks, which events are scheduled to avoid and when everything just happens at a slower pace. It’s a good time for doing those important-but-not-urgent tasks and tying up loose ends.

But August hasn’t all been like that. The publication of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill just before the parliamentary recess, and the fact that it has its Second Reading on Monday, the day they return, means that this August has involved a lot of preparatory work.

Data Bill

Our campaigning and advocacy work around the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill has really picked up pace over the last couple of weeks.

The timing of the Bill, the fact we’re just starting out as an organisation, my lack of campaigning experience and networks, and some feedback we received on a bid for support for our work, meant I had more than a moment of self-doubt about our ambitions around the Bill. I’ve always seen the Bill as a testing ground for our work: both a hook through which we can get to know politicians and their advisers, and get to influence long term policy; and an opportunity to test our narratives and work through what policy implications would look like. So it’s not the be-all and end-all of our work: failing to make substantial changes is a likely possibility and our focus is on learning from the experience. But even so, I was worried about even getting a foot in the door, being able to get the meetings and attention we need.

The last couple of weeks have put those fears to rest. I’ve been invited to give evidence by the Public Bill Committee (albeit in a half hour session shared with the Open Rights Group). We’ve provided very-well-received written briefings on the Bill and the changes we think are necessary to it. I’ve talked directly to politicians and their advisers about it, and been asked for future support around amendments.

Gavin and Renate have been working with us to help plan our engagements, map out relevant stakeholders, and explore the narratives that might appeal to different parties and political traditions. They’ve also helped me understand the messy process of manifesto creation, and how we might influence it.

Finally, we’ve got a growing coalition of organisations who are doing work around the Bill, and as that’s taking shape, I’m really hopeful that the bit of coordinating work that we’re doing will help that wider group to be more successful in their advocacy and campaigning too.

In the spirit of learning, though, a couple of reflections from the experience thus far.

First, I thought I had a reasonable handle on the data policy space from my time at ODI but I really didn’t. There’s a whole other set of people working at the political level. And small-p politics is (naturally!) important within this group: it’s hard to know without trusted guides who is listened to and who is dismissed.

On the other hand reaching these other people has been possible because of both existing connections, and the open publication of our positioning and thinking. We have to keep pushing on both of these things (I’m particularly aware that a lot of thinking is hidden in these weeknotes and needs to be more findable).

Second, I wish the parties were doing more to develop their political vision of the role of data in the societies and economies they want to build. Data is foundational to our relationship with the state as citizens, to companies as consumers, and increasingly to charities as clients. But with so much else going on, data as a standalone topic is low on the political agenda.

Instead, we have to demonstrate how our angle on data helps to achieve their wider political goals, which are focused on the economy. For example, how does it cut red tape for small businesses? How does it create growth, bolster innovation and increase productivity? How does it cut public sector spending? I’m honestly quite disheartened that the question “how does it advance justice, equity and sustainability?” seems to be pretty low down the list. I’m still wrestling a little about how to be apolitical, and have arguments that appeal to all sides, when it feels like the world we’re advocating for is a political vision about where power should sit.

Third, it is difficult to balance being focused on the specific areas of the Bill that are relevant for our particular vision and mission, with seeing and talking about the bigger picture. There are some real problems in the Bill with the potential loss of adequacy, “Henry VIII powers”, revisions to the definitions of personal data, the scope of automated decision making, and so on and on, but those aren’t really our fight. It’s hard not to get drawn into these other issues, but I know doing so will mean less time on the things it’s our mission to campaign for.

Finally, it’s been interesting to understand the different stages the Bill will go through and the kind of considerations parliamentarians have at different stages, and therefore what briefing information is needed. We’re just approaching the Second Reading, when speeches contain the big picture indications of how different parties will approach the Bill, rather than getting into the nitty gritty details of what needs changing. Our written evidence, and the support we give during the committee and report stages, will be more amendment-focused. And there may be more interesting opportunities when the Bill comes to the Lords, particularly as this is a new Government, headed by Liz Truss, and therefore not subject to the Salisbury Convention which keeps the Lords from challenging manifesto commitments.

Overall I’m enjoying taking a more opinionated and strident stand. It is exciting being more involved in the political process. I’m still uncertain about how effective this will be, both on its own terms and in the context of the wider change in the world we’re advocating for. But the point is to find out.

Theory of change

Talking of our wider change in the world, one important-but-not-urgent thing we’ve managed to complete is our Theory of Change. This documents what we believe is true about the current state of the world, what we intend to do about it, and the impact we think that will have.

The process of creating a Theory of Change is perhaps even more useful than the final artefact. I certainly found it incredibly useful to have Johnathan and Tim asking challenging questions about bits I assumed were obvious, skipped over, or vaguely waved my hands about.

One of the biggest changes coming out of the discussion was to insert more of a coalition-building and campaigning angle into our activities. This is what I wanted Connected by Data to do, but it’s not my background or natural mode of operation. Jonathan and Tim really helped me shift my thinking from a technocratic, doing-things-to mode, to one focused on doing-things-with communities. (Something I expect I will need constant nudging and reminding on.)

Please do take a look and let us know what you think.

Other things

Finally, I did spend some time recently getting back to the report I was working on earlier in the year about what we can learn about approaches to data regulation from food regulation. I’ve been working through comments that have helped bring out the collective impacts, and the fact that businesses aren’t just passive translators of consumer demand, but active shapers of it. But it’s again slipped down my priority list in the face of current demands on my time. Hopefully I’ll get some quality time on the train next week, when I’m headed to Aberdeen to give the Significance keynote at the Royal Statistical Society Conference.

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