“Harms” out, “growth” in? Pending government digital strategy posits tech as economic saviour

26 June 2020 (Last Updated June 26th, 2020 11:09)

UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said coronavirus has "delivered a sucker punch to our economy – and we really need tech to get us back on our feet". Ed Targett reports.

“Harms” out, “growth” in? Pending government digital strategy posits tech as economic saviour
The government sees digitisation as central to efforts to power the UK out of recession, drive productivity and create jobs in multiple sectors.

The UK’s Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has promised a new digital strategy in the autumn with the “clear priority” of growth and productivity.

Tech, he suggested, will be a linchpin of the government’s efforts to help pull the country out of recession: both in its own right, and as an adjunct to traditional industries that may be struggling and which need to digitalise.

The announcement represents something of a landmark shift away from a core focus of the 2017 digital strategy: reducing the risk of “online harms” and making the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”.

That paper had the cautious, security-conscious fingerprints of Theresa May on it; “cyber” was great, but perhaps to be handled with care, it hinted. Dowden’s comments suggest a more pro-business strategy is on the horizon, although the minister was not immediately forthcoming with policy specifics.

“Tech needs to help more traditional industries… adapt, survive and indeed thrive”

The announcement came in a well-received speech to the UK Tech Cluster Group, a collective of public and private sector technology organisations that provides “strategic insight and grass-roots level feedback” on government policy.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.

Dowden was appointed to lead the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in February 2020.

He said: “I know we have had previous digital strategies before and they have addressed all kinds of important questions and challenges for the tech industry. Such as how to build 21st century digital infrastructure or how to make the UK the safest place to go online.”

He added: “These are all still important questions, and must continue to form a central part of all government thinking on digital. [But] right now, our clear priority must be growth. Using tech to power us out of the recession, to drive productivity and create jobs in all parts of the industry, region by region.”

New digital strategy: What can CIOs/CTOs expect?

Dowden, a former special advisor to David Cameron, served as Minister for the Cabinet Office from 24 July 2019 to 13 February 2020. He suggested that the forthcoming new digital strategy will focus on the following key areas.

1) Data Regime

A priority will be a data regime that lets businesses use and share data “quickly, efficiently and ethically”, the minister said.

He added: “We have seen during this pandemic huge improvements in how data has been used and I want that spirit of innovation and the urgency of change to be one of the positive legacies that we now take forward.”

(The government has thus far not led by example on data strategy, certainly vis-a-vis internal use: a September 2019 select committee report noted that “Departments have been left to develop their own processes for managing data, leading to inconsistency across government… It is not clear who is responsible for planning and driving the changes needed.”)

A long-promised and “forthcoming” National Data Strategy, meanwhile, will reflect this desire for greater data agility, Dowden said.

2) Skills

Dowden also hinted at “a strategy that will help workers here adjust to a digital-led economy after coronavirus”.

This means “looking at ways to build a highly skilled digital workforce across every region of the UK, so that people can shift into the digital or tech sectors or indeed digitise their own businesses.”

“This means ensuring our regulatory regime for digital is pro-competitive, pro-innovation, agile, and proportionate… I want a wave of new micro-multinationals across the UK,” Dowden said.

He offered few details on how this would be achieved, or how greater fibre and 5G infrastructure roll-out could be expedited – the kinds of real-world sticking points that have bedevilled government ambitions.

But if Dowden’s fine words are reflected in policy action, the UK’s tech sector looks set to win some welcome support.

The UK Tech Cluster Group’s chairman David Dunn tells Computer Business Review: “I’d like to see a focus across three areas.

“Tech start-ups have arguably been overlooked in favour of scale-ups. But there is a huge opportunity emerging for people without tech backgrounds to build start-ups. Ten years ago, it was typically people with shiny code emerging, but often an inability to talk to investors.

“Right now there is a growing number of people coming forward recognising that tech can solve a problem, with the black books of contacts, and able to raise seed capital. Support for their efforts will be vital.

“Secondly, it should focus on digital adoption,” he adds.

“There is a market failure, an information asymmetry, in terms of the traditional businesses ripe for the benefits of digital adoption, but who don’t know what tools are out there; what to buy, what is best; what is available. That asymmetry needs addressing.

“Thirdly, ‘digital skills’. This term normally means anything from teaching kids in primary schools how to code, through to talking to boards about cybersecurity. What we need isn’t rocket science: it is help encouraging businesses around the country to learn what tech is available and how it can help them thrive – and a national programme of delivery isn’t going to work. This needs to be bottom-up, grass-roots and well-funded.

“A key question will be this: the public sector often requires three-year funding cycles. In tech, however, we often don’t know what’s on the horizon in six months, let alone three-years, so flexibility in delivery of support will be important. It may need to be just short-term, for example.”