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The Policy Ask with Owen Pritchard: “I’d ban the public sector paying ransoms to hackers”

The Local Government Association’s cybersecurity lead on Nelson Mandela, serving in the army, and asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

By Spotlight

Owen Pritchard leads the Local Government Association (LGA)’s cybersecurity, digital and technology programme, an initiative funded by central government focused on improving councils’ use of digital technology and security. Previously, he was the joint deputy leader of the London Borough of Merton Council, worked as chief of staff for an MP and metro mayor, and served for 17 years in the army, including as a policy adviser to the chief of the general staff.

How do you start your working day?

For most of the week I work from home, but my partner doesn’t. This means that my day often begins at least an hour before it really needs to, and inevitably with coffee, then porridge, then tea. I usually have routine meetings first thing, but even if I don’t, I normally end up cold calling members of my team – or they cold call me – to chat about ongoing issues or things we’ve been reading about. Although I am more productive when working from home, if I don’t have human interaction early in the day, I end up feeling too remote.

What has been your career high?

I spent my twenties in the Army and much of it on operations. Although I am conflicted about much of what we did during that time, it is hard for me to ignore the sense of belonging and purpose I felt; it was the best and worst of times. Aside from that, the passing of the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Act in 2019 is something I will always be proud to have contributed to. It taught me what can be achieved through consensus and cooperation, if only our institutions would enable more of it.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Attending the funeral of one of my soldiers, who died a teenager.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

It is more productive to ask for forgiveness than permission.

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[See also: The Policy Ask with James Heath: “The UK has been very slow on decarbonising buildings”]

Which political figure inspires you?

I was seven years old when “Free Nelson Mandela” was in the charts, coming up to 13 when he was released, and 17 when he became president of South Africa. He was without doubt the most inspirational political figure of my formative years, and I believe his leadership, humility and approach to reconciliation should remain a source of inspiration to us all. But politicians like Mandela don’t come around very often, and these days, my inspiration comes more from technically capable politicians who deliver positive change in specific areas. People like Agnes Kalibata, the former Rwandan minister of agriculture, who reformed and modernised much of Rwanda’s agricultural sector, and in doing so contributed to reducing the country’s poverty levels. Politicians who, rather than promising the world, improve it, bit by bit.

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What has been the most important piece of policy for local government?

I was impressed by last year’s Government Cyber Security Strategy and the emphasis it places on developing a common approach to cybersecurity across the public sector. Since its publication, my team have been supporting the local digital team in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in its development of a Local Government Cyber Assessment Framework. If we get this framework right, it has the potential to be a transformative policy that simultaneously improves cybersecurity, reduces compliance burdens, eases data sharing and saves money.

What upcoming policy or law are you most looking forward to?

Vladimir Nabokov wrote that genius was “seeing things others don’t see. Or rather the invisible links between things.” This sentiment is the reason I am passionate about the power of data to unlock innovation and improve public services. At the LGA, my colleagues and I work with councils to strengthen their use of data in improving outcomes, while protecting citizens’ privacy. That’s why I was personally pleased to see the UK government, as part of last spring’s Budget, accept Sir Patrick Vallance’s “pro-innovation” recommendation to “facilitate greater industry access to public data”, and also, in particular, “prioritise wider data sharing and linkage across the public sector”.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

In the spirit of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, I’m going to pass three laws: first, I’d make it illegal for public sector bodies to pay ransoms if they are the victim of a ransomware attack. This would reduce the threat posed to the public sector by making it less lucrative for cybercriminals. Second, given the reliance on private sector suppliers in the delivery of local services (and the scarcity of contractual levers), I’d introduce legislation to mandate that in the event of a cyber-incident, service providers must immediately share with government everything they know about the nature of the data breached. This would enable the early mitigation of risks to the public. Third, to further enable us to see “the invisible links” Nabokov wrote about, I would build on Vallance’s proposals and legislate to further reduce the financial and legal obstacles associated with accessing both academic research and public service data.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Alastair Campbell: “Boris Johnson and his kind should never be allowed near public life again”]

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