Collaborative Consumption Of Stationery! (And Other UK Gov Responses To Sharing Economy Report)

Late last year the UK government commissioned an independent (or not-so independent) report into the so-called sharing economy, epitomised by companies such as Airbnb and Zipcar, and how to position the country to be a leader in the space.

That report — headed up by Debbie Wosskow, CEO of holiday home-swapping startup Love Home Swap — was issued a few months later, and yesterday, to coincide with the final budget before the national elections this May, the UK government published its official response to the recommendations outlined.

To main take-away is that the UK (and for now Tory-led) government remains bullish and fairly committed to the idea of the sharing economy, even though no one seems quite to know where the sharing economy starts and ends, agreeing to the majority but not all of the report’s recommendations.

Reading through the report so you don’t have to, below are some of the more interesting responses relating to policy areas such as ride-sharing, the status of ‘task-sharing’ platforms, online identity, and better sharing of government assets.

Piloting ‘sharing cities’

The report recommended the setting up of a pilot ‘sharing city’ where “transport, shared office space, accommodation and skills networks are joined together and residents are encouraged to share as part of their daily lives.”

The UK government seems to love this idea and plans to set up not one but two of these sharing cities, namely in Leeds and Manchester in the North of England.

Measuring the size and impact sharing economy

As per the report’s recommendation, the UK government has asked the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to investigate the feasibility of developing statistics on the sharing economy in the UK.

However, it cautions that “the sharing economy is a new and fast-changing area of the economy, and robustly measuring its size and impact will be challenging.” The ONS is being asked to report back on the feasibility this summer.

Online identity and verification

In order to build trust in online transactions in the sharing economy, the report called for the UK government’s own identity verification system, GOV.UK Verify, to be opened up to the private sector. Their response was essentially a ‘maybe, one day’.

For now, the UK government says the priority for GOV.UK Verify is for use in central government services, and then eventually other public bodies, such as the NHS and local authorities, as well as “key private industry sectors”.

Criminal record checks via an API

The report recommended that the UK government fully digitise criminal records checks, “so they can be done quickly, more cheaply, and be integrated into third party services such as sharing economy platforms.”

A number of companies exist to help sharing economy startups (and other businesses) conduct background checks, but, of course, it would be cheaper and easier to do the criminal check element digitally and directly with the appropriate government body.

The UK government agreed, committing to “further improve and speed-up the process of applying for criminal record checks by ensuring that the application process is digital by default and can be conducted online.”

This will eventually include providing an API so that criminal record checks can be integrated into third party services, including sharing economy platforms.

Better guidance of tax status for those participating in the sharing economy

The UK government committed to making it easier for people participating in the sharing economy to understand their tax obligations and report their income. This will include plans to produce targeted bespoke guidance for the sharing economy.

That’s because in lots of cases becoming a sharing economy worker means technically being self-employed, whereby the individual is required to file their own tax return and conduct all related bookkeeping.

Sharing economy companies, such as task-sharing platforms (think: domestic cleaning apps), like to talk up how they bring workers out of the so-called black economy, but this won’t happen if workers aren’t aware that their income tax responsibilities lie with them not the platform they use to contract work.

Which brings us to…

Employment status of those working in the sharing economy

The report urged the UK government to “clarify the employment status of people who use online platforms to find freelance work.

In response it says this remains under review, noting that “the development of new models such as those provided by sharing economy platforms is making it more complicated to determine whether an individual is a ‘worker’, an ‘employee’, or genuinely self-employed.”

In other words, it’s yet to have a definitive answer (another example of technology outpacing legislation).

Status of task-sharing platforms vs agencies

Here the report essentially called for more deregulation in relation to ‘task-sharing’ platforms, compared to traditional employment agencies.

“In particular, it should be detailed that platforms which play a passive role in matching users (where there is no human intervention by the platform) are neither employment businesses nor employment agencies, but instead are a new form of service with lighter regulatory needs,” it urged.

In short, the UK government disagreed, arguing that it is too difficult to define what is and isn’t an employment agency, if its primary function is to match workers with employers.

“An inadequate definition could result in recruiters who operate online being subject to less regulation than agencies with a physical presence, and who carry out the same functions,” argues the UK government.

Where this leaves services such as Hassle, TaskRabbit or Homejoy, I’m not quite sure.

Ridesharing should be regulated

The report recommended that the law be changed to allow drivers to make a profit from ridesharing without being bound by taxi or private hire vehicle legislation, as long as this only applies to journeys where taking paying passengers is not the primary reason for the journey; a recommendation clearly aimed at ridesharing platforms such as Blablacar et al.

The UK government disagrees, saying: “… we consider that activities which involve making a profit and potentially transporting strangers fall within the scope of taxi and private hire vehicle legislation and should be licensed as such.”


Bonus: Collaborative consumption of government stationery!

And, lastly, my favourite: the UK government’s plans for departmental collaborative consumption of stationery and other office supplies! Because that’s exactly what any sensible person — including, in this case, government civil servants — thinks of when they hear the term sharing economy.

Specifically, responding to a call to reuse government assets, HM Revenue and Customs is leading a pilot project on the reuse of stationery, office supplies, furniture and IT equipment, which is expected to launch by spring 2015. It will use a “digital platform” to allow items to be shared across other participating departments.

Anyone have a pen I can borrow collaboratively consume? No, seriously…