Chancellor Rishi Sunak listens to UK tech – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this episode of the CW Downtime Upload, CW editor in chief Bryan Glick joins the podcast team to discuss his interview with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak at a Treasury Connect conference

In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, CW editor in chief Bryan Glick joins Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna to discuss his fireside chat with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak at a high-level Treasury tech sector conference.

Caroline gets the episode motoring with some gentle quizzing of Bryan. Where was the fireside? How did Bryan select the questions to ask? And what was the encounter like?

Bryan then fills the team in on the basics of the event, which was exclusive and attended by around 80 tech sector luminaries, such as startup CEOs, other IT company leaders and investors.

Some light-hearted chat about on-stage seating arrangements and the chancellor’s awesome stationery then ensues.

The questions Bryan asked were about what Sunak wanted attendees to get from the event, how he sees the government’s investments in technology enabling the UK to match up to the US and China, post-Brexit data protection plans, the role of tech post-pandemic in the new hybrid working world, and the digital skills gap.

A full account of what was said, along with some illuminating context, can be read in Bryan’s write-up of the interview: Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on supporting the UK tech sector.

On the Downtime Upload podcast, Bryan goes into some depth about the feel and tone of the interview. It emerges, too, that the chancellor was fully engaged in the event more generally, chairing discussions and taking notes, as the host.

Sunak is familiar with the IT sector. He is the son-in-law of the founder of Infosys, N. R. Narayana Murthy. He did an MBA at Stanford, which is where he met his wife, Akshata Murthy. He studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Lincoln College, Oxford, and started his business career as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. He subsequently worked in hedge fund management, and was elected as the MP for Richmond, Yorkshire, in 2015, succeeding former Conservative Party leader William Hague.

He became Chancellor of the Exchequer at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, succeeding Sajid Javid, in mid-February 2020. As chancellor, he has been synonymous with such pandemic responses as the Job Retention Scheme and Eat out to Help Out.

Bryan says the chancellor’s press team offered latitude in terms of the scope of the on-stage interview and that Sunak engaged with the questions in a relaxed and thoughtful way – and that he continued in like manner during the rest of the event.

The interview itself runs in full on the podcast.

Some selected quotes from Rishi Sunak:

  • “Our approach has been that of a “startup Treasury”. We’re trying to think more creatively and innovatively about policymaking. And we had to do that a lot in the [Covid-19] crisis – the furlough scheme we conceived, designed and implemented with a phenomenal team of people in the space of days and weeks. And it’s that mindset in a crisis that I want to try to embed a bit more in how we think about things.”
  • Fintech and life sciences are two areas where we are absolutely globally best in class... We’re not going to do everything at the same level that the US and China do. But as with any business, we need to focus on the verticals where we can clearly do things at world-class levels.”
  • “There are plenty of countries that have adequacy decisions with the EU, that are sensible countries – whether it’s Switzerland, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, or more – that don’t do GDPR. First of all, the idea that you have to have GDPR to have data adequacy, I don’t think is right. There are demonstrably many other people that don’t. And as you acknowledge, there are lots of things that probably we think are a bit more in the box-ticking kind of approach to regulation in GDPR. Whereas, what we want to focus on is the substance – we want to protect individuals’ data, but we don’t want to inhibit innovation.”
  • “It certainly was beneficial to me in my career when I was young to be in an office with people who were mentoring me, training me and formed good relationships that are benefiting me to this day. And it would be sad if that was lost. Now, there’s no reason for that to be lost if people are doing things in a hybrid fashion. But if people are exclusively doing things in a digital fashion, I do worry about those connections being formed.”

In response to a question from an audience member – Sarah Merritt, Ripple Energy – about what to do to address the matter of less than 2% of venture capital going to women founders, Sunak said the government was keen to support women entrepreneurs, but he had no “silver bullet”.

As the podcast team reflected on the substance of the interview itself, in the episode, Clare says she found Sunak’s response to that particular question somewhat wanting – a politician’s answer, indeed. His comment about removing barriers he and his team have been told about effectively passes the buck.

And his comment that the Future Fund initiative – a £375m government investment programme aimed at R&D-intensive technology firms – has produced some good results, in terms of diversity of founders, by accident rather than design suggests more of the latter would be better in future.

The team then goes on to discuss other topics from the interview: the concept of government acting in a more agile manner, as it has done in the pandemic; Sunak’s reaction to what he called Bryan’s thesis about a working from home utopia of revitalised localities and a more sustainable new economy; and the general future of what used to be office-based work.

Bryan comments that Sunak’s own concept of a “startup Treasury” has shown that things can be done differently, and that technology can be used to improve people’s lives in a hybrid future that avoids simply returning to how things were in the past.

“The chancellor is genuine in wanting to work with the tech sector to understand how it can help it to grow,” he says. “And to help companies to become more productive through better use of technology. He acknowledged that we are not going to be a superpower at everything and should be the best at the things we can be the best at, rather than trying to be good at everything. And I’ve not really heard the government say that before.”

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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