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The Policy Ask with Helen Margetts: “Zelensky shows the power of digital communication”

The political scientist on social media campaigns, the Online Safety Bill and ditching “first-past-the-post”.

By Spotlight

Helen Margetts is professor of society and the internet at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), University of Oxford, and director of the public policy programme at the Alan Turing Institute. She studied mathematics at the University of Bristol, and started her career as a computer programmer at Rank Xerox, before moving into policy. She has an MSc in politics and public policy, and a PhD in government.

How do you start your working day?

Walking the dog in the water meadows. It’s a really good time for deciding on the theme or title of an article or talk, and thinking things out when I’m stuck.

What has been your career high?

I’ve been lucky to have several career highs. Three of them are: becoming University College London’s first professor of political science; building up the OII into a splendid multi-disciplinary department of the University of Oxford; and developing the public policy programme at the Alan Turing Institute, making it a leading centre of expertise for thinking about artificial intelligence from a public sector perspective.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Leaving a comfortable well-paid job in the private sector to start again as a student with no money. My first degree was in mathematics and I worked as a computer programmer and analyst for several years. I left for a year to do an MSc in politics at the London School of Economics, and never came back.

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

Don’t worry so much. There’s more time than you think, you can change direction several times before you find what you want. Most experiences that you have come in handy somehow.

Which political figure inspires you, and why?

Political figures are inspiring for all kinds of reasons, and none are perfect. For digital communications, Barack Obama demonstrated how to do digital campaigning with integrity and the potential of micro-donations. Volodymyr Zelensky and his team (who were his production team when he was an actor) are incredible – they show the power of communications when people know what they’re doing in a digital world.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The Online Safety Bill. It’s far from perfect, but it’s globally path-breaking in its scope and ambition, in terms of making the UK a safer space to interact socially, economically and politically.

And what policy should the government ditch?

The “hostile environment” policy aimed at deterring immigration that has been in operation since the early 2010s. It’s inhumane, ineffective and the cause of huge misery. And it has all kinds of secondary effects, such as inhibiting our ability to bring talented scholars to the UK research community.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) passed by the European Union in 2016. At the time, everyone (particularly Silicon Valley) said it couldn’t be done, but they did it. Not only did the sky not fall in, but GDPR is on its way to becoming a global standard and has shown that regulating the digital landscape can be possible.

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

A proportional voting system. We need to move away from the antiquated first-past-the-post voting system, whose algorithm does such a terrible job of matching political outcomes to voters’ preferences. It wastes votes and forces people to vote tactically. A proportional system would match votes to seats, improve political representation and increase trust in democratic politics.

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