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Policy / Geopolitics

What does the appointment of Nadine Dorries as digital secretary mean for tech?

The new DCMS minister lacks digital experience, and tech leaders have questioned the wisdom of continual changes at the head of the department.

During this week’s cabinet reshuffle, Nadine Dorries was appointed as the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). She replaces Oliver Dowden, who had been in post since February 2020 and now will serve as minister without portfolio and co-chairman of the Conservative Party.

The DCMS is the government department responsible for government policy on culture, sport, newspapers and television, and tourism in the UK. It is also the authority in charge of digital economy matters, data privacy, online safety and 5G deployment, and as such of great importance to the tech industry.

Dorries is the tenth minister holding the DCMS portfolio since the Tories came into power in 2010. Her appointment has caused commotion in the arts and culture sectors due to her socially ultra-conservative views and past controversial statements. But what are the implications of her new job for the technology and digital sectors? Tech Monitor approached tech industry leaders to find out.

Nadine Dorries

During this week’s cabinet reshuffle, Nadine Dorries was given the DCMS portfolio. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Who is new digital secretary Nadine Dorries?

A nurse by trade, Liverpool-born Nadine Dorries was first elected to the House of Commons at the 2005 General Election as MP for Mid Bedfordshire, a safe Conservative seat. Since then, she has made headlines for her ultra-conservative stances, including abortion and same-sex marriage. A Brexit supporter and staunch ally of Boris Johnson, before being appointed secretary of state for DCMS on Wednesday, Dorries was minister of state for mental health, suicide prevention and patient safety, where she was also involved in some controversies.

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Her life outside Westminster includes writing novels and participating in the 2012 series of reality show “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here”, for which she was suspended from her party for taking part without seeking permission from Conservative headquarters.

Although Dorries lacks experience in tech, in 2017 she was at the heart of a cybersecurity polemic, when she caused outrage among the cyber and data privacy communities after tweeting that she routinely shared her parliamentary computer login details with her staff, including interns on exchange programmes. Her tweet came as a defence to her colleague Damian Green, first secretary of state of the time, who was accused of having pornography in his Westminster computer. Chapter 23 of the House of Commons Staff Handbook includes information security guidelines that warn MPs against sharing their passwords.

What do tech leaders think of new digital secretary Nadine Dorries?

Russ Shaw, founder of the tech leader communities Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, thinks that Dorries’ new role is “an interesting appointment” since despite having some relevant experience for the overall portfolio, she lacks a background in digital or technology.

“Looking at her background, I don’t see that she has much, if any, technology experience,” Shaw told Tech Monitor. “Now that’s not to say that she can’t step in and really embrace the digital and technology agenda. But you know, you kind of want to have somebody in there who knows and understands the digital and technology landscape. So she’s going to have a steep learning curve.”

Next Monday will see the launch of London Tech Week, a five-day industry event with influential speakers from the tech sector. Dowden had been due to deliver a keynote address, but his place has been taken by new foreign secretary Liz Truss, rather than Dorries. Shaw had been hoping Dorries would take to the podium to give some indication about her priorities for her new role.

What is Oliver Dowden’s legacy in DCMS?

Some of the pressing issues within the tech and digital scope for DCMS include the decision on whether to approve the $40bn acquisition of British chip designer Arm by US rival Nvidia, and setting new post-Brexit data privacy rules.

Dowden has been a leading figure in the debate around the UK’s new data regime, but has now departed to take the role of Conservative party chairman. Shaw shared his frustration, which he said is echoed by others in the tech community, at the high turnover of ministers in the DCMS during the past decade. He thinks a ministry in charge of such an important part of the UK’s economic growth and development should have more stable leadership.

In March, Dowden announced the government’s Ten Tech Priorities for 2021 to power “a golden age of tech in the UK”, including plans around 5G deployment and a new data strategy. Shaw questions if Dorries will pick these initiatives up or if instead, she will set her own agenda.

Shaw affirmed that Dowden made “a very positive impression” on the digital and technology community. He added that other culture secretaries, including Matt Hancock, who held the DCMS portfolio between January and July 2018, also embraced the tech community, who felt their support. Thus, Shaw shared his confusion at these constant changes that seem more like a “lateral move”.

“Will she continue to drive that agenda around those ten tech priorities? I hope so,” Shaw said. “She is the tenth digital secretary in the last ten years, and I think that’s a worrying thing. My immediate reaction is, well, how long will she be the digital secretary? It just feels like it’s a bit of a revolving door, which is disappointing for such a critical role in government.”

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, the professional body representing workers in IT and computer science, welcomed Dorries as the person responsible to lead the UK on its digital agenda.

“We hope Nadine Dorries’ appointment as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport signals renewed efforts to build on professionalism and ethics within the tech industry,” said Holly Porter, membership director at BCS. “There is a huge opportunity for the UK [to] lead the way on issues like digital skills, online safety and public trust in AI – if there is the political will and funding to do so.”

Tech Monitor approached other technology bodies for comment, including Tech Nation, Digital Catapult and BIMA, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. A spokesperson for techUK declined to comment quoting that the tech industry body is still analysing Dorries’ appointment and how it might affect the sector.

Cristina Lago

Associate editor

Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.