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UK digital strategy highlights key issues but lacks measurable targets

The government’s digital strategy, which aims to set out plans to the “success of the UK’s digital economy” post-Brexit, has been received with mixed response by industry and experts

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: UK digital strategy lacks vision and ambition:

After months of anticipation, the significantly delayed government digital strategy has finally been released. Dubbed a “framework” to ensure the success of the UK’s digital economy, it promises to increase skills, grow the digital sector and partner with industry.

The strategy, launched by Karen Bradley, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, has been a long time in the making.

Originally it was due to be published last spring, ahead of the UK referendum on membership in the EU. It was then delayed until after the referendum, and as a result of said referendum it was subject to further delays to ensure it was fit for a post-Brexit Britain.

“We have taken our time getting it absolutely right, but it has been time well spent,” said Bradley at the launch.

“This strategy will ensure that the benefits of digital are spread throughout the country; that we have the necessary infrastructure; that regulations are agile and benign; and that everyone has the skills they need to be citizens in the digital age and workers in the digital economy,” she said.

It sets out seven key focus areas: connectivity, digital skills, making the UK the “best place to start and grow a digital business”, helping businesses go digital, cyber security, digital government and data.

However, while it makes big promises such as a commitment to “more than four million free digital skills training opportunities” and digital connectivity, these aren’t new measures, but have rather been neatly packaged up in one document.

Read more about the UK government digital strategy

MP Louise Haigh, Labour's shadow minister for the digital economy, criticised the strategy, saying it has no ambition or long-term vision on skills and infrastructure. 

“This strategy has been delayed for well over a year and the recycled announcements and meagre commitments will leave many wondering whether ministers have the vision our digital economy desperately needs,” she said.

Chris Bates, technology partner at law firm Ashurst, said that although the strategy moves in the right direction, “questions remains of whether the strategy goes far enough”, especially in terms of its financial commitment “to enable Britain to retain its status as a global technology hub”. 

Also critical of the strategy is Camden Council’s Labour councillor and cabinet member for finance technology and growth, Theo Blackwell, who said that although it is comprehensive, it “struggles with a failure of imagination on local digital transformation”.

While it is billed as a UK-wide strategy with mentions of local tech hubs and the Northern Powerhouse, with Bradley saying it is a plan “to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”, Blackwell said the document side-steps local government and cities almost entirely.

“Given that 80% of services people receive are delivered locally, it is hard to see the strategy as the fullest aspiration we can have,” he said.

Plugging the skills gap 

One of the biggest focuses of the framework is skills. This includes a digital skills partnership in which the government will work with businesses, charities and voluntary organisations to make sure people have the skills they need to thrive in a digital world.  

As part of the strategy, the government will “undertake a feasibility study this year on the viability of using outcome commissioning frameworks, such as payment by results or social impact bonds, to tackle digital exclusion,” according to the strategy. 

It will also “develop the role of libraries in improving digital inclusion to make them the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities.” 

Several large companies, such as Google, Lloyds Banking Group and Accenture, have committed to help fostering digital skills throughout Britain as part of the digital skills partnership – a move that has been welcome by industry.

However, Britian is already facing a significant skills gap, both when it comes to low-level digital skills and high-level expertise. This is a gap unlikely to get smaller as the country leaves the EU. 

Earlier this year, prime minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK will leave the EU single market, which has caused worries among UK tech businesses relying on EU talent.

However, Bradley said that the government recognises that “digital businesses are concerned about the future status of their current staff who are EU nationals”, and promised that “securing the status of, and providing certainty to, EU nationals already in the UK and to UK nationals in the EU is one of this government’s early priorities for the forthcoming negotiations”.

She added that use of the Tech Nation Visa Scheme, designed to make it easier for tech businesses to bring in expertise from overseas, continues to rise.  

Martin Leuw, former CEO of Iris Software and now an investor in tech businesses, said it’s “great to see large companies getting involved in teaching digital skills to millions of individuals and businesses”, but added that more needs to be done right now. 

“The biggest challenge facing UK businesses at the moment is finding and hiring talented workers – a task that will be made immeasurably more challenging post Brexit,” he said.

“The government’s digital strategy is a long-term approach to plugging the skills gap, but it’s of no help to businesses looking to hire staff now. Waiting until 2020 to fix their skills gap isn’t an option for them. So let’s have more joined-up thinking, combining this with a working visa policy to retain and attract the skills we need now to compete globally.” 

Louise Haigh added: “With 12 million people lacking basic digital skills, the commitments to train only a third of that do not come close to meeting the challenge of digital illiteracy.” 

The connectivity issue 

The strategy also promises to build a “world-class digital infrastructure for the UK”. It reconfirmed the previous announcement by chancellor Philip Hammond in last year’s Autumn Statement and the industrial strategy earlier this year – that the government is set to release more than £1bn to fund ultrafast connectivity, including “full fibre and 5G”.   

According to the shadow minister for the digital economy, the strategy fails to make any real commitments with focus spent on re-announcing the fund. 

“The government had warm words for digital infrastructure – the lifeblood of our economy in the decades to come – but the reality is millions are being left in the digital slow lane and today’s announcements are more a case of what was not said rather than what was,” said Haigh.

“Rather than commit to universal superfast broadband which will benefit millions, the government has, for the fourth time, re-announced a fund, first trailed 16 months ago, which will mean that by 2020 only 7% of homes and businesses will receive full fibre – a coverage level Latvia and Lithuania reached in 2012. 

“Our major cities, towns, swathes of our rural communities and thousands of small businesses are being left behind, and the government’s failure to use this strategy to commit to universal superfast broadband represents a missed opportunity. The government is uniting rural farmers, urban coffee shops, and business park startups in a coalition against them,” she said.  

“This country deserves better than the second-best, out-of-date digital infrastructure the government is insisting it relies on.”

The strategy also reconfirms the government’s plans to support development of 5G mobile networking technology and is “developing a 5G strategy, to be published at Spring Budget 2017, which will set out our vision for the next generation of mobile connectivity, and the steps we will take to realise that vision.”

The strategy added: “As part of the £740m of investment in digital infrastructure announced at Autumn Statement 2016, we will fund a coordinated programme of integrated fibre and 5G trials to help make sure that we are in the best possible position to exploit the considerable potential of 5G and future digital services for UK consumers and businesses.”

Derek McManus, chief operating officer of O2, said that mobile connectivity will drive long-term growth and that by 2026 an effective rollout of 5G will add more than £7bn to the UK economy. 

“We need a collective effort from government and industry to invest in future-proofing our digital infrastructure, ensuring that we can reap the benefits of the new technologies set to transform our daily lives,” he said.  

Data, robotics and AI

As reported by Computer Weekly earlier this week, the digital strategy will also set out funding proposals to support the development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, including a review of AI and £17.3m in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to support the development of robotics and AI in universities.

Jérôme Pesenti, CEO of BenevolentTech, will undertake the review of AI together with Dame Wendy Hall, and said that we are “in the midst of a digital transformation for which AI represents the ultimate stage of development”.

“Thanks to new algorithms, more data, more computing power and the necessary investment, computers are becoming exponentially smarter. This will fuel a dramatic acceleration in our digital innovation,” he said.

“AI will drive deep changes in our society and especially in the way we work. For example, today you wouldn’t trust a bank that doesn’t have computer terminals, but tomorrow, you may consider it common practice that your doctor uses AI to make a diagnosis.

“The UK needs to be at the forefront of the AI revolution. Its unique blend of academic strength, economic dynamism, and track record as a global innovator will place the UK at the forefront of this new wave of digital transformation.”

What AI can do for the economy

Chris Bates from Amhurst agreed that AI will have a huge impact. “The potential impact that AI is anticipated to have on the economy (conservative estimates suggest it could contribute hundreds of billions of pounds within the next 20 years), coupled with the amount of investment being ploughed into research by the big tech players in the private sector, brings into sharp relief the scale and importance of AI investment,” he said, but added that the pledge of £17.3m seems “a fairly modest amount”, and is “unlikely to bring the UK to the leading edge of AI development”.

Another key element of the strategy was the use of data, for businesses, individuals and government. 

Speaking at the strategy launch, minister Karen Bradley said the government fully understands the importance of data, and reconfirmed that, despite leaving the EU, it will continue to implement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by May 2018. 

The strategy promises to “ensure businesses and government are able to use data in innovative and effective ways”, and that as part of the UK’s exit from the EU, the government will be seeking to ensure that data flows remain uninterrupted. It adds that it will be considering all available options that will provide legal certainty for businesses and individuals alike.

Chris Bates said that while he welcomes the commitment to implementing GDPR, “questions remain over our future involvement in EU digital strategies”.  

“Compliance issues also on the rise with digitisation, with new business models having to operate in the constraints of traditional legal frameworks,” he said. 

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