UK government's digital strategy has to be welcomed - but it could have been so much more

The very best thing about the government digital strategy is that it exists.

The areas covered by the strategy are vitally important for the UK’s economic future – not only for our digital economy – and the strategy documents are comprehensive. They mostly tick all the right boxes – skills, startups, broadband and 5G, cyber security, data infrastructure, and digital transformation in businesses and government.

It was seen as a major announcement by the government, and the recognition of its importance extends to the highest levels of Westminster. It is good and right and promising that the government has released such a plan.

And yet…

If you read through the strategy in detail, you’ll probably find yourself nodding in agreement but not getting especially fired up by plans that minister Karen Bradley said would “make Britain the best place to start and grow a digital business”.

Much of the strategy as released is not new, for a start – it’s simply bringing together a number of previously announced initiatives under one banner.

It contains topical and forward-looking elements such as aiming to make the UK a leader in artificial intelligence (AI). But all it actually offers is £17m for a number of research initiatives and a review of the “critical elements” for building an AI industry.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is actually building an AI industry. A Silicon Valley AI startup would turn its nose up at a meagre £17m of potential investment.

There’s no vision of a future digital Britain – just a series of initiatives that will, probably, take us in generally the right sort of direction and hopefully will take us somewhere better. There are no measurable targets to aim for – so if any of those initiatives don’t actually change much, nobody is accountable, and nothing much happens about it.

For example, one of the plans is “a commitment to create a Secretary of State-led forum for government and the tech community” – note, not actually creating a forum, just a promise that it will at some unspecified point exist.

While you wouldn’t object or complain about any of the proposals in the strategy, none of it is especially ambitious. It’s all good. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it could have been so much more.

And that’s before you even get onto Brexit and the potential impact of severing digital ties with the European Union.

The government gets that digital is important. It knows where the challenges lie, and it’s taking action to address them. But nobody reading this critically important strategy is likely to come way enthused that it’s going to put the UK at the forefront of the global digital economy for the next 10 years. Let’s hope it is only a start, because we need a more ambitious vision than the digital strategy currently offers.