UK Digital Strategy - two weeks to give your views on how the UK will cross "the next frontier"

On the 29th December, while most of the world’s digital leaders were off-line , Ed Vaizey called for inputs to [email protected] from the public and from industry by 19th January to a new cross-departmental UK Digital Strategy for the next five years. not a very momentous consultation you might think, given the timing and low key nature of the release.

After comments calling for a customer centric approach he homed in on four themes:

1 – Unlocking digital growth – to make the UK “the default place entrepreneurs want to start new digital business over any other tech hub in the world from Silicon Valley to Shanghai, scaling up to be global brands” . In this context he referred to the need to push “for the completion of the Digital Single Market”, across ball usiness, not just the tech sector.

2 – Transforming government – “to make sure interacting with government is as simple and seamless as possible”

3 – Transforming day to day life – with reference to “massive open online courses  … so lectures and courses can reach a much wider audience, costing less. Could schools benefit from similar innovations”, making our “health system more efficient and joined up, so that our amazing doctors and nurses can spend more time saving lives and improving care” and making sure that “the UK is at the cutting edge of … developments”

4 – Building the foundations – with reference to ubiquitous internet access, cyber-security and digital skills.

The call for inputs came while I was assembling my inputs to the Science and Technology Select Committee Enquiry on Digital Skills Gaps and, unsurprisingly my immediate  response focus eson the need for joined up Government Policy on skills, skills, skills and skills.

In the course of a recent Digital Policy Alliance round table to review progress with the formation of Local Skills Partnerships I was startled to learn that the Skills Funding Agency rules (Page 6, Para 19)  actually forbid the use of the courses, materials and qualifications funded by vendors, trade associations and professional bodies by those organizing the new trailblazer apprenticeships . They also effectively bar their use by FE on publicly funded programmes, thus denying students the certifications most likely to be specified, rightly or wrongly, by their prospective employers .

I can fully understand the need to go beyond the qualifications of any one vendor, for balance and to prevent abuse. But if we are to unlock digital growth, surely we need to encourage innovators to work with FE and HE to ensure their prospective customers have local and affordable access to the skills to use the products and services on which they are working.

The recent  National Audit Office report into the DEFRA systems collapse and the role of GDS was all the more shocking because it showed  how comprehensively the lessons from past NAO and Select Committees  have been ignored when it comes to Transforming  Government for the better. All those responsible for Government change programmes need to have at least basic training in how to identify and ensure the pre-conditions for success. Why do we never learn? – the reasons can be found in the Old Testament, not just Kipling or the Royal Academy of Engineering. The digital enthusiasts need to learn how to distinguish between education (and basic disciplines, which change slowly, if at all), and training: to use the latest digital app techniques, where the relevant content (to be able to understand that which is supposedly intuitively obvious and is therefore undocumented and unexplained) changes faster than the course can be sufficiently defined to qualify for public funding.       

Most of the technologies capable of transforming day to day life have been around for over twenty years, sometimes longer.  The reason they have not been applied is, once again, a matter of skills: particularly across our fragmented and silo’d public sector planning and funding hierarchies.  Encouraging Fintech entrepreneurs to do that which is forbidden by Financial Services Regulators will not help. Nor will encouraging healthcare innovations which the NHS will not authorise. And trying to bludgeon professional bodies and trade associations into doing what they have not been allowed to do is not the best way forward.  Juicy carrots and well publicised awards and rewards for cross-boundary co-operation would  be far more effective. That will require addressing public sector budgeting and expenditure processes
And so we come to building the foundations. Shortly after I welcomed the excellent DCMS-Treasury Communications Infrastructure strategy released with last year’s budget I began blogging on the need to help expedite a Victorian style, open market, investor led, transition to an ubiquitous, robust and resilient, internet age communications mesh which is nowhere dependent on a single supplier or set of bottlenecks and I am pleased to see the progress now being made.  But the key is skills, skills, skills. skills – we need once again to focus on the carrots not the stick and build on the UK traditions of helping create the best in the world.

It is often forgotten (perhaps it might be better to say the story is never told) that the University of Phoenix (whose parent now owns BPP)  is the most successful  and profitable (in terms of fees and royalties, albeit not to the University itself) spin-off from the Fenland Polytechnic since Harvard . The underlying business model was based on John Sperling’s Cambridge PhD and the contacts he made at King’s . Pearson is the world’s largest education and training operation (but most of its business it now outside the UK).  Many of the world’s “vendor” qualifications were developed by moonlighting Oxford Dons who were later forced to choose between commercial and academic life and left accordingly. 

The core to the strategy should be the removal of obstacles to co-operation across boundaries, inter-departmental, public- private, professional and sectoral before the UK dies in a flurry of red tape. But that too leads us back to skills, skills, skills and skills (both education and training, remembering the difference) from the top to the bottom.

I hope you will all, despite the short time available, make your views known.