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Where is the UK’s digital strategy?

While the devolved nations press on with their digital plans, the UK government has delayed its digital strategy – yet this is too important for the economy to be put off any further

Today, without a doubt, we are unanimous in our understanding as a population that “digital” is critical to our day-to-day lives and to our economy. It is necessary for our current survival and will be a key basis for our future economy after Brexit.

The government must care about digital to ensure the infrastructure of both public and private sectors in the UK is fit for purpose in the future. It must care about digital to protect and promote its economy, and it must care about this to promote the wellbeing and potential of its citizens in 2021.

Presumably with this in mind, the government announced in June 2020 that it would publish a new digital strategy in the autumn.

However, in January, the UK minister of state for digital and culture, Caroline Dinenage, confirmed that the plan was delayed. She said the government was “continuing to consider the best timeframe for delivering the strategy, in light of the broader national context, including the Covid-19 pandemic”, adding: “We are currently working towards publishing in 2021.”

This revelation came in response to a parliamentary question from Pete Wishart MP in late December.

Scotland’s digital strategy consultation closed on 23 December – the day after Wishart’s question. A coincidence? In the consultation request, Scotland is looking for a strategy that is, among other things, “big, bold and transformative, and recognises that digital is now at the front and centre of how we live and work”. Right now, it feels like that is something the whole UK could do with – and quickly.

Overarching strategy

Currently, UK government digital strategy exists at two levels. First, the activities of government itself rely on digital. There is a need for an overarching strategy and policy to direct the public sector’s digital activities. Second, the government is responsible for regulation. All of this should be co-ordinated under a single transparent policy to establish trust.

This is in progress but cannot come soon enough. On 12 January, the Cabinet Office announced it was establishing the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) for government. This should provide a new strategic centre for digital, data and technology, starting in early February.

The appointment of Paul Willmott as non-executive chair, Home Office digital chief Joanna Davinson as executive director, and Ministry of Justice CIO Tom Read as the new chief executive of the Government Digital Service (GDS) should be a positive start to 2021, and the first steps towards that approach and the emergence of a coordinated approach to digital.

The role of digital within the economy and our lives has developed massively. Over a decade ago, I was part of a Cabinet Office advisory group advising the government on open source. The UK’s regulation and policy at that time were – to use phrases popular with the current administration – truly groundbreaking and world-leading. But that was 10 years ago, before the huge uptake of cloud and new digital approaches to doing business that rely heavily on open source and open technologies to work.

EU strategy

Any new digital strategy should continue to meet the commitments that the UK signed up to in the Tallinn Declaration around user-centric public services, including both openness and transparency, and interoperability by default. The UK may have left the European Union (EU), but these guiding principles should still be in place for the future.

Last year, we saw the European Commission (EC) create an open source policy, as well as an Open Source Programme Office (OSPO), to manage its commitment to use open source and to open up its own activities. The European Union’s digital strategy, published in late 2018, was the starting point for this, and the open source policy and OSPO a natural next step.

The EU is continuing its work around open source with the development of the federated cloud initiative Gaia-X to build a cloud infrastructure for Europe. This move supports the EC’s goals around retaining digital and data sovereignty over the location and processing of data. This will be supplemented by the publication of reports in February 2021 that will detail the EU’s policy around open source for the next decade.  

Devolved nations

These moves by the EU offer some examples of where the UK government should concentrate. While Scotland is working through its digital strategy consultation responses, Wales is working through a consultation process around six digital missions and Northern Ireland is currently working under its 2017-2021 strategy.

Creating a unified digital strategy that reflects the specific needs of the devolved nations, while achieving the right international goals for the UK as a whole, will therefore be of paramount importance. We can already see the emphasis placed on open source by the EU, and this should also be considered.

The UK has a great open source community, including both home-grown businesses and projects as well as representatives from international companies. Tapping into this community can help the CDDO achieve its digital goals in an open, collaborative and transparent way to build citizen and business confidence and align the digital strategy closely to its data strategy.

Immediate need

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that he saw two years of digital transformation in two months take place during 2020. Depending on which pundit you read, what has happened through the pandemic has seen the last companies dragging their heels to transform be forced to do so at an incredible pace, and all companies that have survived this transformation are now digital. Yet all these organisations operating in the UK are currently doing so independently and without the benefit of that planned and comprehensive digital strategy.

Similarly, many people remain digitally excluded, struggling to get online due to poor internet or excluded by the expense of data. Governmental response to their immediate need is one of a number of its visible digital activities. However, without a digital strategy in place, these activities are apparently uncoordinated, inevitably expensive and piecemeal efforts.

Boris Johnson reportedly spent some of December courting Deliveroo, Revolut, TrustPilot, Darktrace and Transferwise, encouraging them to use the London Stock Exchange when they list their shares. To create the UK’s world-leading digital post-Brexit economy, attractive for companies like this to list in and call home, the UK must surely have a fit-for-purpose digital strategy in 2021.

Amanda Brock is CEO at OpenUK, a not-for-profit organisation representing the UK open community.

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