How to make sure this was a Budget for business IT

Chancellor George Osborne labelled the latest contents of his tattered red briefcase as a Budget for business, and if that proves to be the case then it would be a good one for the IT sector and IT professionals.

It’s going to be a big “if” though.

On paper, the Budget promises to be positive for IT – support for entrepreneurs will help tech start-ups; funding for apprenticeships and technical colleges could help get more young people into IT; and measures to cut red tape and reduce corporation tax could free up time and money for firms to invest in new technology projects.

Osborne has shuffled his pack and now it is up to those businesses to play their cards, because the ultimate test of whether this will prove to be a successful Budget will come not from yesterday’s announcements but from the reaction of UK plc.

Take IT skills and employment, for example. This is hardly the first time that government has put in place policies that should in theory encourage IT employers to take on more young people and develop IT skills. But can you now think of any of those initiatives that have really made a difference? Can you even remember the initiatives? Young people continue to avoid IT in their thousands, with a whole range of statistics showing the lack of desire to work in technology from the most tech-savvy generation ever.

What about tech start-ups and small IT suppliers? They will welcome the support from Whitehall, but would welcome even more to have support from big IT buyers. In its own purchasing policy, the coalition says it want to end the IT oligopoly that sees 18 suppliers responsible for 80% of government IT spending, and encourage more SMEs, but we have yet to see that working in practice.

Similarly, there remains a reticence among many IT leaders to take a risk on new technology products from emerging suppliers and start-ups. UK IT purchasing is predominantly risk averse, and when IT budgets are under scrutiny it is hard to convince the CEO to take a chance on an unproven supplier.

The biggest disappointment for UK IT in the Budget was the fact it was not even mentioned, while other sectors were singled out as likely engines of economic growth.

What about more support, more quickly, for superfast broadband roll-out? There is £830m or so on offer but that’s a drop in the ocean and yet to be allocated.

What about concrete moves to purchase more government IT from SMEs and start-ups? We’re still waiting for the new Whitehall IT strategy – due soon – and evidence of a change in procurement policy.

What about specific programmes to help fill the 110,000 new entrants into IT that we need every year – many of whom will have to come from other sectors and professions and be cross-trained?

We should not be so churlish as to criticise Osborne, for he has at least introduced measures that have the potential to help support UK IT, even if he could have gone further. But if this is to be a Budget for business – and in particular, a Budget for business IT – then it will be down to business and IT leaders to make it so.

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