Interview: Ed Vaizey MP talks digital economy and digital skills

Minister for the digital economy Ed Vaizey discusses his new role and the future of digital policy

With just over six months to go before the country goes to the polls for what looks set to be a highly divisive general election, there are many who would question the logic behind creating a new ministerial post when the opportunity to bring about legislative change during the current parliament is dwindling fast.

But for Ed Vaizey (pictured), who became minister for the digital economy in July 2014 following a cabinet reshuffle, the logic was more than sound. It was his idea to begin with.

The new role spans both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and as a result Vaizey now has a variety of responsibilities to deal with.

On the DCMS side, these include Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and the mobile infrastructure project (MIP), telecoms policy, media policy, creative industries and culture. 

Meanwhile, at BIS he covers the digital economy, digital entrepreneurship, cyber and business resilience, digital skills, the European Union (EU) single digital market, relationship management with suppliers such as Microsoft and HP, and co-chairmanship of the Smart Cities Forum. More recently still he became vice-chairman of the Prime Minister’s Digital Taskforce.

Fewer silos, more collaboration

But why would anyone take on such an extensive portfolio?

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“I had been doing the job de facto for a while, in the sense that I had a brief to look after the creative industries and I had a brief to look after broadband and mobile, and the two kind of converged together – a lot of the creative stuff morphed into tech,” Vaizey tells Computer Weekly.

“It seemed to me there was an opportunity to join all that up. I think it essential that DCMS and BIS work together, and I think it essential there should be a joint minister to do that job, so I basically lobbied for it myself.”

What benefits has it brought? For Vaizey, several, such as being able to take a more coherent stance on cyber security, formalising his role with Tech City, and working with the Cabinet Office’s Francis Maude on the Prime Minister’s Digital Taskforce, which is trying to bring together various elements of tech policy – including digital skills, investment and network infrastructure – into a more coherent whole.

“It begins to join things up,” says Vaizey. “I’m on record again and again as saying the biggest problem with government is it works in silos, and the more you can break down those silos and work across departments the better things are.”

The Prime Minister’s Digital Taskforce: sound planning or last-ditch policy grab?

With this in mind, and with the last days of the first Cameron ministry approaching, what are his priorities for the next few months?

Ed Vaizey on BDUK, mobile and the IoT

In the second part of our exclusive interview, Ed Vaizey discusses broadband policy and roll-out, mobile, the internet of things, and tells us why Boris Johnson’s recent announcement on 5G wasn’t just hot air.

High on the agenda will be ramping up the work of the Prime Minister's Digital Taskforce, with a big emphasis on skills – revealed over the summer of 2014 as one of the biggest obstacles to the fulfilment of the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) £1.4bn cost-cutting plan.

With Gartner warning a lack of basic IT infrastructure and operations skills is holding back enterprises from fully exploiting changing tech environments, and the European Commission (EC) predicting a 900,000 shortfall in IT jobs by 2020, the skills shortage is one of the most pressing concerns facing the industry today.

Vaizey is keen to play his part by ensuring the recently-launched coding curriculum is bedded in, and that teachers have the skills to teach it.

Before committing too deeply, though, he argues he needs more data at his fingertips before making rash decisions on policy and goes so far as to suggest a lot of the bad news about skills is merely anecdotal.

“I think we need a much clearer route map about where people can pick up skills. Are kids getting the right skills at school, in terms of being introduced to coding and knowing what it’s about, are they going on courses in further or higher education that are good enough for employers?

“There’s also a big role for employers. Tech companies take on apprenticeships and we want to encourage that. They’ll be doing in-house training and we also want that to be a clear part of the picture,” he says.

We will be working with companies that want to invest here, as well as providing more opportunities for people that grow companies in the UK

There are already some examples to suggest, in some quarters, things are improving. Vaizey counters by citing the example of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special-effects company behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park, among other things, which recently opened new London offices.

At the office’s opening, Vaizey says he asked how hard the firm had found it to recruit technically skilled people, fully expecting to be told it was a nightmare. Instead, he was told ILM had found a large and diverse talent pool to meet its needs.

“My instinct is I don’t think we have enough data. It is a tough market to recruit in, but of all the marketplaces you could be recruiting in, the UK is probably one of the better ones,” he says.

The UK is also, arguably, one of the better markets to invest in and this is something else the Digital Taskforce will be addressing in the next few months, and helps explain why former Tech City CEO Joanna Shields was appointed to the panel in an advisory role.

“The role of things like Tech City is to act as a beacon,” says Vaizey. “I remember John Chambers coming over from Cisco and saying one of the reasons he was here is because Tech City was like a big flashing light saying the UK is interested in technology and investment. That’s a good thing.

“It’s also a test bed for policy – for things like the entrepreneur visa scheme, which came out of conversations with people in Tech City saying it was really difficult for them to get people into the country whom they needed to ramp up their growth.

“We will be working with companies that want to invest here, as well as providing more opportunities for people that grow companies in the UK,” says Vaizey.

In a departure from vote-winning issues such as skills and investment, the final strand of the Digital Taskforce’s remit will address the multitude of network infrastructure projects that exist throughout the public sector.

It’s not going to be a headline policy in the next Conservative manifesto, but in terms of its importance to the country’s unbalanced books, perhaps it ought to be.

“We’ve started to bring together a lot of the different infrastructure projects that exist across departments,” explains Vaizey.

“You’ve got, for example, Network Rail’s fibre roll-out, the Highways Agency’s fibre network, and Janet – the UK’s research and education network – and there are big opportunities to see those big infrastructure projects working more closely together, not just in saving money but in seeing there are more opportunities to get better coverage.

“That’s one big chunk of work that will make significant progress in the next six months, and hopefully beyond the election, but just getting it up and running will be a huge achievement,” says Vaizey.

After the 2015 general election

Naturally, no sitting minister wishes to entertain the prospect of being out of work on 8 May 2015, but whatever the outcome of the election Vaizey hopes his creation will survive, and he has a message for his possible successors.

CW interviews Ed Vaizey

In 2013, Computer Weekly caught up with Ed Vaizey to discuss broadband policy and all things mobile

“Whoever is in government I hope will continue this role, and understand the importance of joining up technology policy,” he says.

He also has plans for what he might do after the election should he remain in the role, including expanding it to incorporate policy areas such as intellectual property and data protection, which he still believes are too fragmented.

At European level in particular – assuming the UK remains a member of the EU – change needs to come, according to Vaizey.

“The most important piece of economic legislation that Europe is likely to pass in the next two years is the reform of the Data Protection Directive. It is so fundamental to how technology companies operate,” he says.

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