Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last weeknotes, so here’s a quick overview of some of what I’ve been up to.

Participation in the early stages of a project

We’ve been continuing our work with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as they explore how to develop poverty insight infrastructure. Our focus is on the ecosystem the infrastructure needs to engage and support.

One of the things that’s become clear as we’ve worked on this project is how early you need to think of engagement as starting. It’s not the case that you can go and run a survey and interviews in the ecosystem and then use that to create an engagement plan; rather, doing that research is itself part of the engagement. That first encounter with what JRF is planning to do needs to be as thoughtfully curated – if not more so – than the ongoing engagement once some things have been built.

Jonathan has been really helpful in identifying this early need for relationship and partnership building, to create alliances, advocates and momentum for the work. In retrospect, I’ve come at it from a product or service delivery perspective, but he sees it as a campaign.

This does bring challenges:

  • There’s a tension between needing to provide a sufficient definition of the thing (in this case “poverty insight infrastructure”) to enable stakeholders to understand what they’re engaging with, and the desire to have those stakeholders shape the thing. As we’re getting into it, I think building a shared vision of the problem will help get to a shared vision for a solution.
  • We think that having some foundational partnerships is necessary to build credibility and prevent this from being seen as an intervention JRF is doing to the ecosystem rather than with it. It’s quite likely that the closest partnerships will be with organisations that JRF is already partnering with: these will have been built over years, based on shared values and mutual trust. But taking this approach could also exclude potential new partners, and if we’re aiming for inclusion (which we are), that’s a problem.

We’re still only part of the way through the project but it’s teaching us a lot about how to structure this kind of early participatory practice around technology. It’s fortunate that JRF are open to experimentation and iteration!

International data, digital and tech policy

As part of our policy work (funded in part by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust), we are currently looking at how to frame a progressive vision around data, digital and technology. And as part of that, I’ve been examining policies from different countries, particularly from progressive parties.

The scope of data, digital and technology policy is really really wide. There are lots of ways of subdividing it, but broadly it covers:

  • infrastructure that supports technology, including: electronics such as semiconductors or quantum computing; physical connectivity through broadband and 5G, as well as accessibility issues such as net neutrality; access to compute and storage infrastructures on the cloud; and issues surrounding the robustness of this infrastructure such as cybersecurity and defence
  • national competitiveness and sovereignty in data, digital and technology, including issues related to supporting research, development and innovation in new technologies including AI; talent retention; tackling the taxation of digital monopolies; and working through trade policy around data and digital
  • impact on citizens, consumers and communities including consumer choice and protection; privacy and the data economy; the changing nature of work (including the gig economy) and the need for worker rights and a fair transition; skills and digital literacy; and tackling disinformation, online harms, and the impact on democracy
  • digitisation of various sectors, including smart management of physical infrastructure and the built environment; digital and online education, health, transport, energy, agriculture etc; and digital government

There’s a lot of motherhood and apple pie in these policy areas. In other words, there are many areas in which – at least at a high level – policies from different countries and parties look more or less the same. It’d be hard not to commit to greater broadband rollout, supporting digital innovators, or protecting people’s personal data, for example.

Within this commonality, there is room for nuance and different emphases, but I think a progressive vision has to be founded on some fundamental principles that don’t only cut across data/digital/tech policy areas, but also hook into the wider political positioning.

The US AI Bill of Rights is an interesting example. There, Biden has an explicitly pro-social justice – and particularly pro-racial justice – stance across the board. That’s reflected in an approach to AI (at least in the Bill of Rights) that is far more about empowering marginalised communities than driving innovation.

I think one of the principles that could be applied across the board is that of democratic, participatory, devolved governance, conjured by phrases like “power to the people” or “nothing about us without us”. A principle like that can cut across policy areas, for example:

  • empowering unions and consumer rights organisations to negotiate terms around data collection and use
  • embedding citizens in the process of prioritising areas of implementation for digital government
  • placing decision making over the sharing of data from big tech companies under democratic control

I think this has to somehow align with a narrative about the side hustle and the microbusiness. In a situation where economic growth is the primary pledge of every political party, it’s essential to have a narrative that includes being on the side of some businesses, and reasonably safe in the UK (I feel) to not worry too much about mollifying the big digital platforms. Protecting customer rights can seem like a drag on business, but when the customers are themselves entrepreneurs – as they are on Etsy or AirBnB – it turns into a growth enabler.

Anyway, these are the things I’m thinking about as we progress this part of our work.

Other things

Other things of note over the past couple of weeks:

  • We have had a great response for our Head of Delivery and Operations role. There’s another week to go and we have had over fifty applications. Just filtering these, and dealing with questions and requests for conversations, has been quite time consuming.
  • The response to our field building associate role has been much less extensive, and we’re going to have to do more to get that in front of likely candidates.
  • We had a great conversation with our fellows on Thursday, looking critically at the participatory engagement around the Australian National Disability Data Asset, which brought up questions about representativeness and legitimacy, and some of the issues about the timing of engagement that I described above.
  • We’re making progress on the video we’re making, and I enjoyed going through the script and how to balance more hard-hitting campaign-y language with accuracy and nuance, and an awareness of the audience(s) who will view it.

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