Why technology should be central to political parties’ ideas for 2015

From healthcare to education, and from energy to transport, there is almost no policy area that is not significantly affected by technology

With the final Queen’s Speech of this Parliament out of the way, speculation is inevitably turning to what will make up the core elements of each party’s manifesto for next year’s general election. 

As various policy ideas are debated, the think tank Policy Exchange wants to make one message loud and clear: technology should be front and centre of politicians’ thinking for May 2015.

Why? Because technology has long ceased to be peripheral to our lives, nor should it be an adjunct to policymaking. From healthcare to education, and from energy to transport, there is almost no policy area that is not significantly affected by technology, for good or bad.

Oddly, there are few MPs who seem to have understood its huge potential to transform public services. When technology is discussed by politicians at all, it is generally treated as a procurement issue. This misses the point entirely.

Technology should be taken seriously by policymakers for what it can enable. It can aid social mobility, drive British exports, create new jobs and allow government to deliver more with less by being smarter. These are things that parties of all colours care about.

Technology Manifesto

That is why, on 4 June, Policy Exchange published its own Technology Manifesto. The document offers 33 policy recommendations and highlights three core goals that we believe all parties should aim to achieve by 2020: to build the world’s most connected and digitally skilled society; to make Britain the most attractive place outside of Silicon Valley for technology entrepreneurs to start and grow a business; and to use technology and data to make our government the smartest in the world.

The next government’s first priority should be to ensure that as many people as possible have at least basic digital skills. This is the vital prerequisite for breaking down social barriers, creating the widest possible domestic market for British businesses selling online, and ensuring that government can provide more services digitally. Yet today, 9.8 million Britons lack even these basic competencies. Addressing this will require significant investment – £875m by 2020. But that is a small fraction of the cost savings for government – £1.2bn-1.7bn from moving to digital transactions – plus, self-evidently, massive potential economic benefits.

Developing talent

Beyond essential online skills, Britain urgently needs individuals who do not just use technology, but who understand how it works and who can harness it to create innovative products and services. Developing this talent is key to the future success of both our technology sector and of wider industry.

Introducing computing into the school curriculum this September is the long-term answer, but the need is now. In the near term, with almost half of all technology-sector employers looking abroad to hire talented staff, the only practical way to get more skilled individuals into the workforce is from overseas. Yet recent changes to the UK’s visa regulations have effectively shut the door to many of the best and brightest from around the world, and even to international students who have studied in the UK.

As a result, between 2010/11 and 2012/13, the number of non-EU international students entering science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at UK universities fell by 8% for undergraduates and by 20% for taught postgraduates. In computer science, both undergraduate and taught postgraduate entrants saw a decline of 38%. Visa reform should therefore be a top priority for the next government.

As for making the UK government the smartest in the world, all parties should be aiming to build on the momentum started during the current parliament. Soon we will see the first digital-by-default services; more websites being migrated to gov.uk; and greater use of G-Cloud. But the real need for change is behind the scenes.

Technology has the power to transform our country and our government and it is up to politicians to play their part in making that a reality

Government as a platform

Government needs to phase out the hundreds of bespoke pieces of hardware, software and processes used across the public sector and replace them with simple, standardised and interoperable building blocks that can be assembled locally and used repeatedly. Adopting such a “government as a platform” model, based on open standards, is the only viable way to reduce IT costs, simplify interactions between different branches of government, and free departments to work with the best-value suppliers.

For this to happen, the Government Digital Service (GDS) cannot be an island of innovation in an otherwise unreformed civil service. Its role should be to develop and manage the platform; the rest of government needs to adopt it.

Local government must not be left out of the digital revolution. Local authorities face similar budgetary pressures and deliver some of the most frequently used citizen-facing transactions. Although they must be free to decide their own course, councils will surely fail to achieve the benefits of digital government if they try to undergo the transformation completely independently of each other. That is why we are building on Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council IT manager Richard Copley’s call for a Local GDS.

In truth, we are less concerned whether policymakers agree with every one of our recommendations than that the manifesto helps start a wider conversation about the role of technology in public policy. Technology has the power to transform our country and our government and it is up to politicians to play their part in making that a reality.

Eddie Copeland (pictured) is head of the technology policy unit at Policy Exchange. Click here to read Policy Exchange’s Technology Manifesto.

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