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Creating the new online harms regulator

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Bakhtiar Zein)

Earlier this year DCMS announced that Ofcom will take on the mantle of regulating harmful content online. This is quite a task, even for a regulator of Ofcom’s stature, and we’ve been thinking about how it might work in practice.

The new body is being created in response to the consultation on the online harms white paper last year. Its goal is to help remove harmful content like child sexual exploitation, abuse and terrorism from social media. The main way it will do this is by ensuring that companies handling user-generated content have appropriate processes to detect and address these harms. The worst offenders could be fined a

percentage of their global income. Companies may also be asked to submit transparency reports setting out how well they're doing.

In many ways the new regulations are more important now than ever, as disinformation around the Covid-19 pandemic continues across many internet platforms.

Building credible government organisations

When Ofcom is ready to forge ahead with its plans, deciding how to create this new taskforce within the communications regulator will be a challenge. Yes, Ofcom is brilliant at regulation. And yes, putting it under Ofcom’s control will also save money, limiting the cost of establishing this new regulatory function. But implementing a radical new mission within an existing organisation isn’t easy.

Ofcom’s new online harms arm will need the credibility and muscle to take on the internet giants. It will also be building a team in a world that is no doubt going to be very different from the one we all inhabited up until the start of the year.

There are certain advantages in building something now. Many of the old constraints will disappear in a world that has had to wipe its slate clean in order to keep going during the current crisis. Every part of society, including government, will have been forced to get rid of old processes and adapt to new ways of working. We don't know how long the isolation measures will continue, but it’s possible that the new team will be onboarded remotely.

Our sense is that the Government is keen for this new body to lead the charge in putting the UK’s regulation expertise in the global shop window. There is a lot riding on its success.

For it to be credible, it will need a highly skilled, specialist team. It will also need the freedom to build and shape itself. It’s vital that DCMS and Ofcom heed the lessons of past attempts at creating new organisations like this in government. You only get one shot at getting it right.

What can we learn from past attempts?

Like many of the team here at dxw, I’ve seen first-hand the Government’s attempts to establish new functions within departments. In former roles we were involved in the organisational build and delivery of Directgov, and subsequently the Government

Digital Service (GDS). And at dxw we worked with government to establish the Office of the Small Business Commissioner (SBC).

In 2020, if you’re serious about building a lean, technology savvy, internet era organisation, you need to start small and let the new team develop their own ways of working. If you apply the structures and processes of the parent organisation or allow consultants to design an operating model in isolation, the chances are you will seriously hamper your chances of success.

When it recognised that Directgov had lost momentum, Cabinet Office was bold enough to form GDS to spearhead digital transformation in central government. GDS had its own team of people and the freedom to operate slightly outside of the Civil Service norm.

What did we learn? You need to build from the ground up. GDS brought in charismatic, influential figures to sit at the heart of the new organisation and those individuals were allowed to form the wider team and recruit in their own mould.

The organisation’s vision and core principles were established early on with a small, multi-disciplinary team that brought together core expertise from strategy to tech to operations. It was able to develop at pace, planning, testing and iterating in the open.

It engaged with users and stakeholders as it developed the Government Digital Strategy, before bringing more people into the team and starting to implement at scale.

Losing legacy baggage

With the SBC we were commissioned to build the service, but in reality we were building a digital front end. The organisational design of the SBC and the development of a user-centred digital service were managed separately. Applying a user-centred design approach to both would have created a different, internet era organisation.

SBC inherited the practices and structures of its parent department. Systems like HR, recruitment, finance and commodity IT, that were designed for a larger organisation were applied to something much smaller. Within this model recruitment can be slow, as is the agility of a commercial team locked into procurement methods designed to meet different needs.

DCMS and Ofcom need to ensure that the new regulatory function is given the scope to create its own ways of doing things with its own support functions.

They will need to attract the right kind of people and have the recruitment mechanisms in place to make that as quick and smooth as possible. Let’s be honest, government recruitment can be hard to navigate, and this can be a blocker to getting in the best people. I’ve seen some key individuals drop out of onerous recruitment processes. We can’t afford for that to happen here.

Lessons for the new online harms regulator

So there are some important lessons for the new online harms regulator:

  • Let the organisation build itself from the ground up. Put in place a talented and diverse group of senior leaders, and allow them to build their own teams.
  • Allow the organisation to create its own culture, and to create that culture through developing its own ways of working. Don’t impose things from the parent organisation.
  • And finally, to avoid the turf wars you often get between policy and delivery people, create one integrated service. Don’t elevate policy teams from practitioners, or split the digital part of the organisation from the other parts of the business.

Dave Mann, Managing Director, dxw