What’s the reaction been so far to Gordon Brown’s digital economy announcements this morning? Similar to most government technology-related announcements: nice idea, but how’s it going to happen?
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Jim Killock, executive director at the Open Rights Group, highlighted the inconsistencies of wanting broadband for all while cutting off filesharers. He said: “These sound like great ideas, but the government cannot plan to deliver every service online, and simultaneously plan to disconnect families after allegations of minor copyright offences.
“The only consistent and reasonable way forward is to drop clauses 11-18 of the Digital Economy Bill, that would allow thousands of families to be cut off the internet.”
Web designer Katy Bairstow agreed, saying on Twitter, “Super-fast connections to every home and internet-only government services are incompatible with bandwidth throttling and disconnection.”
Sue Black, head of computer science at Westminster University, pointed to a potentially huge stumbling block in the shape of a lack of UK computer science talent. Computer science applicants are falling year on year, but the government has yet to invest money in the area and throw its weight behind getting more bright students into technology. Politicians are paying more and more lip service to the importance of the digital economy, but Sue warned none of this will reap the benefits they want if there aren’t enough talented people working to make it happen.
She said, “It was great to hear from the prime minister that there will be £30 million for a new Web Science Institute and substantial investment in digital inclusion but for me this information is tempered with the knowledge that university computer science departments are closing. Lack of support and investment in university computer science now will mean a lack of knowledgeable computer science experts in the future. So when we are ready to take a lead in the global technology arena in 2015 we will suddenly realise that all the fundamental expertise we need is overseas. Oops.”
Des Speed, CEO of Lagan Technologies, said plans for Mygov – which will deliver a personalised “dashboard” of public services for each person – need careful planning.
He said, “Individual web pages, whilst eye-catching, are not a panacea, unless they form part of a more coherent service management and delivery strategy. A two-dimensional page needs to be part of effective three-dimensional service provision.
“There are risks, for example, that bottlenecks and false expectations can be created. In our experience, any government to citizen implementation must be designed with the benefits in mind before any decision is made about the tools.”
Colin Rowland, Senior vice presidentof EMEA Operations at OpTier, also focussed on the back ground systems that will be required to support the project.
He said, “The success of this project will be the ability to integrate multiple systems through one portal. It will be crucial for the government to ensure that the infrastructure and IT systems are up to task and able to cope with the massive surge in online usage that a system used by 60 million people could cause. To do this the Government will need to be proactive in tackling IT problems before they hit citizens and impact their user experience or worse lead to services being taken offline. If they aren’t, millions will be seriously disgruntled at being unable to access vital government services.”
Susan Anderson, director for public services and skills at the Confederation for British Industry, welcomed plans for online public services. But she warned that contracts for the work must be open for businesses to bid for.
“Next-generation broadband has great potential in both the private and state sectors. We welcome the Government’s commitment to stimulating demand for it by providing state-run services over the internet.
“Innovations such as online consultations with GPs and teaching via the internet could help deliver better-quality services for consumers, and save the taxpayer money.
“However, we are concerned that the Government’s intention to create state-owned ‘business service companies’ could actually backfire by preventing commercial companies from competing for contracts. It would be better to create a level playing field to encourage competition and efficiency.”
Jos Creese, vice president at the Society of IT Managers and Chair of the Local CIO Council, said it will be crucial to focus on introducing cultural change as well as new technology.
“The role of IT in national economic prosperity and social well-being is incontrovertible but also well-known. Where politicians in the past have been somewhat fearful of technology programmes, Gordon Brown’s speech is to be welcomed, as is the profile now being given to technology by all the political parties. Creating a supportive climate for IT innovation in both business and in the public sector will be essential to future UK competitiveness and to sustainable communities. However, this must extend further than support for the IT industry into priority for public IT infrastructure and the development of online services and support for the public. It must also recognise that IT programmes which fundamentally change things are inherently risky and require cultural change. Its not just about the latest IT.”
David Clarke, CEO of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said, “We welcome the higher profile that IT-related issues are currently receiving. One of the forces behind the Institute for Web Science is our past President, Professor Nigel Shadbolt. The Chartered Institute is also involved with the Race Online Initiative championed by Martha Lane Fox to help the 10 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, to get online. Getting these people the access and confidence to use the internet for these services will be the critical success factor for this approach. In this respect, 2014, the date when the Government plans to have its services online, is not very far away.
“We are absolutely convinced of the social and economic benefits that the internet can bring to citizens. Our view is that universally available internet access at high speed is a necessity for the UK to be competitive in the future.
“These announcements once again highlight the increasingly significant role that IT professionals play in enabling the information society and the critical role they play in the development of future services. We would encourage any post-election Government to place much greater weight on using IT professionals with Chartered IT status to lead initiatives such as this, which have will have a significant impact on people’s lives.”
David Roberts, executive director of the Corporate IT Forum said, “Writing on behalf of an organisation whose members’ businesses employ an average of 20,000 people each, in the UK, we must applaud Mr. Brown’s wish for digital Britain to be a world leader.
“One has to wonder just how this will be achieved and at what cost. Providing £30 million for an institute of Web Science sounds very grand indeed but it puts into perspective the diminutive £7 million funding provided to the Police Central E-crime Unit whose role is to protect electronic Britain for 3 years. This imbalance will make large businesses worry that desperately needed funding for the protection of electronic Britain might be frittered away on a grand web-site and however much Members’ four million employees will appreciate open access to public services it is not going to protect their jobs.
“While on the subject of open, Mr Brown implies that open source technology is ‘freely available’. According to a timely survey of Members on open source matters, Open does not mean free. Open is not plug and play. It is not self documenting, it does not self-maintain and interfaces need customising. Members prefer to build O/S systems. Package systems don’t meet needs and there is organisational resistance to non-supported systems. Development and support costs are unpredictable.
“Where members do agree very strongly with Mr. Brown is in the need to invest in e-skilling people, perhaps starting with the elderly who will need to communicate with public services electronically which brings us back to the underfunded protection of electronic Britain.”