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Whoever wins election 2017, it's time for a digital minister with real authority

You would expect, of course, that a publication such as Computer Weekly would call on whoever wins the 2017 general election to put the digital economy on its list of immediate priorities.

While the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all made important digital promises in their manifestos (the SNP made barely any mention other than a paragraph about broadband roll-out) there will never be an election more timely and vital for the UK’s place in the digital revolution.

As the most international of industries, technology must be at the heart of the UK’s post-Brexit economy if we are to retain any leading role on a world stage. We have an opportunity to plan for the digital economy of the 2020s, not simply to continue among the mass of followers reacting to digital change and not leading it.

That means an education, skills and training programme to prepare the workforce at all ages and career stages for the increasingly central role technology will play in the way we live and work in 10 years’ time. Alongside that, there need to be employment laws that reflect the changing nature of work while protecting the rights of workers who seek a living through firms that operate in ways that were impossible to conceive in the industrial age.

It means putting in place a security and regulatory environment that allows innovation to flourish and attracts inward investment through a safe but open tech environment that allows startups and small businesses to compete and thrive alongside their more established rivals, while respecting an individual’s control and privacy over their own data.

It requires as a minimum a broadband and mobile network infrastructure that is regarded among the world’s best – not simply one that compares favourably to European laggards.

And it needs a government that engages with citizens and delivers public services using modern, digital methods that enhance the ability to adapt policy and services in a faster changing world than current public sector IT could ever cope with.

Not much, then.

The next 10 years are when the leaders in the digital revolution will be established – it is still early days, and there will be much greater technology led social change in the next 20 years than in the last 20.

No government has yet put digital at the heart of its administration. Policy is split between different departments, ministerial responsibility is shared, with co-ordination seeming patchy and inconsistent.

Whoever wins the election, it’s now time to appoint a digital minister, with a seat at Cabinet, and the accountability and authority to put the UK at the forefront of the global digital revolution.

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