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Industry partnerships and data key to better public services

Using public-private partnerships and improving the use of data are key to improving public services and the government’s ‘science and technology superpower’ ambitions, says digital secretary Michelle Donelan

Digital secretary Michelle Donelan has said the success of government plans to digitally transform public services and become a “science and technology superpower” will rest on industry partnerships and the ability of public bodies to better utilise data.

Speaking at TechUK’s third annual tech policy leadership conference in Westminster, Donelan outlined how the government’s ambitions are built around three core pillars: improving digital skills; scaling up existing technology businesses; and creating “common sense, pro-business” regulation.

Informed by the secretary’s discussions with industry, Donelan said the pillars will be “absolutely critical” to the success of digital public services. “Transforming public services and driving growth is quite literally the whole point of our science and technology superpower mission,” she said.

On boosting scaleups and developing a homegrown startup ecosystem, Donelan announced the government has launched a “science and technology superpower campaign”, which aims to drive new investment opportunities for British tech scaleups via targeted advertising to venture capitalists. “Our science and tech superpower campaign drives home the message to investors that we need to seize the extraordinary opportunities here on home turf, or risk promising companies travelling to international competitors for funding,” she said.

In promoting British tech businesses, Donelan also emphasised the important role of public-private partnerships in the government’s work around technology, citing the success of the industry-led full-fibre roll-out.

Noting that a new premises is connected to gigabit broadband every 13 seconds, Donelan said full-fibre coverage has gone from 6% in 2019 to 81% today, claiming every connection will add £270 per person per year to the UK economy. “That’s where we need public-private partnerships that this government decided to pioneer,” she said, adding that the coverage was only achieved through “working hand in hand with business”.

“This advanced wireless technology is so much more than just connecting smart homes – it offers a very high rate of connectivity that can unleash growth and productivity in sectors across the economy, from manufacturing to agritech to the creative industries,” said Donelan.

Public-private partnerships

However, public-private partnerships will not be limited to specific contracts, and will extend to the development of tech-related policy, she said.

Speaking on how she approached setting up the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which was started in February 2023, Donelan added that brining in external expertise has been key to delivering outcomes.

“We’re making sure that we're bringing people from industry into the heart of our department, so that we can stay current [and] make the right policy decisions that are informed,” she said.  

Donelan added that, given that government is having to do ever-more work with ever-fewer resources, the success of digital public services will also be defined by an organisation’s ability to tap into and utilise data effectively.

“The best public services in the 21st century will be defined by their ability to be delivered in an efficient and effective way,” she said. “In my view, data will be absolutely critical to this.

“The public sector and other organisations are sitting on mountains of incredibly useful data that could be used more to improve public services… Data-driven public services are not just a nice to have, they’re an absolute necessity if we’re going to be able to deliver more for the public at better value for money.”

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The effective use of data will also underpin the accelerated deployment of more artificial intelligence (AI) tools, which Donelan said have massive potential to streamline public services. “Whether it’s in our health services or transport system, there is quite literally no limit to what AI could achieve,” she said.

Highlighting two data access pilots announced by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his 2024 Spring Budget, Donelan said they will help generate new AI services to support education, as well as promote better data access and services throughout the adult social care sector.

Pointing to the example of an AI-enabled NHS, she said AI co-pilots could free up medical professionals so they can spend more time with patients and on improving care outcomes, as well as helping to identify serious illnesses, such as cancer or dementia, much earlier.

“I take an unapologetically pro-business, common-sense approach when it comes to people’s lives and making sure that technology delivers for that,” said Donelan.

Under the Budget, the chancellor committed £800m to boosting public sector productivity through technology – mainly via various AI tools and forms of automation – with cash set aside for police tech, the justice system transformation programme and the NHS.

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