How should the next government shape the future of the IT industry?

As the election approaches and political parties are outlining plans to enhance the digital economy, the IT industry is bracing for the future

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: UK election special – who wins the digital vote?

As the election approaches and political parties are outlining how they plan to enhance the digital economy, the IT industry is bracing itself for the future.

When Computer Weekly spoke to industry experts about the last five years of government IT, the creation of Government Digital Service (GDS) was highlighted as the most successful IT project of the coalition government, alongside the reduction of clunky outsourcing contracts and investment in technology talent.

But what does the IT industry want from the next government once the general election on 7 May 2015 decides the fate of the country?

Can the GDS scale?

The GDS has made a significant impact on not only how the public interacts with government services, but also the government’s future structure. At Cabinet Office’s Sprint 15 event earlier this year a government-as-a-platform model was the best cross-government approach to providing public services in the future.

But there are concerns over whether the work of GDS can be sustained and scaled to cover digital services across all central and local government departments.

“Government still has a capability issue. It’s done a better job than the last parliament of denying mad contracts for undeliverable IT projects, for millions and billions of pounds. It’s put an end to some of that and, more importantly, to the attitude,” said Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at BCS, the chartered institute for IT.

“Scaling and repeating the capability that GDS has across government is going to be a bigger thing,” he added.

In the future, GDS will have to be more than a disruptive force and grow to tackle the government’s current capability issues.

The political parties each highlighted their plans for digital in the future, with the Conservatives hinting at plans for a cross-platform approach, Labour promising to focus on data sharing between services and the Liberal Democrats hoping to take GDS to a local level.

This focus on local government is important in driving forward the creation of public-facing services that better promote the needs of customers, according to Martin Ferguson director of policy and research at Socitm.

“There should be no such thing as an IT project. We want to see new investment in public service redesign driven by better outcomes for the user, not automation of outmoded, silo-based processes,” said Ferguson.

“This requires an engagement with those who are closest to the user, namely local government and its partners in localities - a whole place, whole systems, whole user approach,” he said.

Developing established projects  

A number of IT projects have been developed and are a work-in-progress, for example the Universal Credit scheme, or have been put on hold, such as the NHS Care.data initiative.

Read more about IT and the May 2015 election

  • With the 2015 election in May, broadband stakeholders set out their manifesto and hopes for broadband policy.
  • The Conservative Party's manifesto for the 2015 general election promises to continue key technology policies, including 'digital by default' services.
  • The Labour Party's 2015 election manifesto puts technology at the heart of policies for growth, education and public sector reform.

Although Care.data was not mentioned by parties in their manifestos, there was discussion surrounding healthcare technology, in particular electronic health records.

“What’s really needed is more detail. The concept sounds like something we would fully endorse and we’re very keen to work with GDS to develop that detail,” said Naureen Khan, associate director for central government at IT trade body TechUK.

“Whoever the next government will be, I don’t see massive changes around digital. I think it will be pretty much more of the same, which is great news,” she said. 

According to TechUK's Khan, what is really needed is development of G-Cloud (the government's purchasing framework) and the digital marketplace to promote smaller outsourcing contracts and help grow small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that contribute services through the model.

Although more than £200m has been spent through G-Cloud, with more than 50% of the spend on SMEs, it is important to promote as a method of buying in the future.

“What we’d like to see over the next five years is more of the same, but at a greater scale and pace, and we’d really like to see that end-to-end transformation being brought through,” Khan said.

“G-Cloud and Gov.uk have been successful, but over the next five years there will be legacy contracts and huge contracts that end and come up for renewal – an example being the HMRC Aspire contract – and I think that will be the real test for the government,” she said.

Focus on what’s important

Russ Shaw, founder of startup support group Tech London Advocates, hopes other decisions, in particular whether the UK should remain in the EU, do not prevent the development of the technology industry and the economy – the quicker a decision and reform is chosen the better.

“Any time you have a high degree of uncertainty, particularly around something as big as whether or not Britain will be in the EU, businesses won't invest and the whole growth in our technology sector will be challenged,” Shaw said.

Employer network Tech Partnership pointed out the tech industry contributed more than £90bn to the economy in 2014, so promoting digital skills to help it grow is the most important step the next government can take.

It estimates that 134,000 new people are needed for the industry every year and, although incorporating coding into the school curriculum was a step in the right direction, teachers need proper support to teach these new complex subjects.

“For virtually every policy commitment made, tech will be an important component. Tech is increasingly a focus for education and training, our public services rely on digital infrastructure to run, and tech is at the heart of continued economic growth and competitiveness,” said John Cox, policy manager for the Tech Partnership.

“Success for the next government will be affected by their approach to delivering digital skills, and the next month will be a fascinating indicator of things to come,” he added.

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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