General election 2015: Major parties focus on tech agenda

With advancements around data protection and state surveillance of internet traffic, the UK is heading into its first tech-aware general election

With technological advancements around data protection and state surveillance of internet traffic, the UK is heading into its first tech-aware general election.

This will be the first UK election since surveillance revelations were made by whistleblower Edward Snowden and UK voters are aware of the extent to which the UK security services and GCHQ have tapped into their internet communications.

It is also the first UK election to be fought in the era of cloud computing, a technology which has the potential to slash the cost of public sector IT.

But risk-averse government procurement and legal issues have hampered the widescale adoption of cloud, open data and open source in government.

Then there is the question of Europe. If the UK was to leave Europe, its tech sector's ability to compete would be hampered. 

Computer Weekly recently hosted a debate with the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties looking at their technology manifestos for the UK.

Europe an opportunity for UK tech

UK minister for culture and the digital economy Ed Vaizey said Europe represented an opportunity for UK tech businesses. 

"The digital single market is a great opportunity for a business based in the UK to sell to a consumer in another member state with the least amount of friction. It is important for us to push that," he said. 

"Our agenda is to make sure Europe makes crucial reforms. The European economy is stagnating. We want to reform the EU to push an agenda for growth."

More on digital government

  • The future of digital government in the UK
  • Government aims for 90% digital take-up by 2020
  • Interview: 'Government is the best digital startup in London'
  • Labour unveils Digital Government Review for input to 2015 election policy
  • Government needs more conversations with local businesses
  • Revolutionising digital public service delivery: A UK government perspective

But the uncertainty that exists as the political parties tackle Ukip is already damaging the tech industry. Speaking about his own constituency of Cambridge, home to one of the UK's first technology hubs, Liberal Democrat spokesman Julian Huppert said prime minister David Cameron is running up a "white flag to the Ukip tendency".

"When I speak to companies in Cambridge, they are very worried about the outcome of the referendum and also the referendum process – the uncertainty and the business chaos," he said. "I don’t think anyone would say the European Union couldn’t be reformed, but then I don’t think Whitehall couldn’t be reformed."

Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister for digital government Chi Onwurah called for greater support to help startups break into international markets. "At a government level we need a louder voice in international forums," she said. 

While this is one of the roles of UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), Onwurah said the government deparment needed more skills around the digital economy.

"There are some technology and cultural barriers," she said. "The kinds of services and scale we want our companies to achieve will only be achieved if we are open to and even quite aggressive at doing business globally."

Huppert, who has spoken on many occasions about the risks of state surveillance, warned against David Cameron's mission to give security services a back door to open encrypted internet traffic.

"We need to make sure we do not do anything daft that drives the rest of the world away, which is why the prime minister’s desire to have back doors in technology would absolutely slam doors around the world to a huge amount of exports," he said. 

"If you knew that any British product necessarily had a government security services back door, no bank would buy it; no business would buy it."

Making GDS local

The question over whether Government Digital Services (GDS) can scale locally was also discussed at the Computer Weekly debate on government digital policies.

Government has an opportunity to bring more innovation into public sector procurement, from companies of all sizes, across the country

Julian David, TechUK

And while Vaizey may not have specifically referred to it as a private or hybrid cloud, he did indicate GDS has this potential for the government. 

"You have this concept of government-as-a-platform, where we have saved billions of pounds by providing a gateway through to government services," he said.

Fellow panellist Onwurah said she wanted to see platforms developed that local goverment, national government and third-party providers can "share in the delivery of services for the citizen", as well as save money.

TechUK CEO Julian David added: "Government has an opportunity to bring more innovation into public sector procurement, from companies of all sizes, across the country."

But there is a sense of reluctance, according to BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT membership director David Evans. 

While historically a few major suppliers dominated government IT procurement because they offered low risk, Evans said there are certain IT risks that can not be outsourced, meaning small businesess are a viable prospect. But this does not mean large companies should be excluded, he warned.

Read more on Regulatory compliance and standard requirements

Data Center
Data Management