Industrial strategy promises boost for data infrastructure, skills and R&D

The government’s industrial strategy has emphasised the importance of data-sharing by Whitehall, as well as a push to improve digital skills training and boost funding for technologies like robotics and 5G.

Industrial strategy offers backing for improved digital procurement, skills training and better use of data in Whitehall – Photo credit: PA

The government’s green paper, Building our Industrial Strategy, sets out 10 pillars that aim to improve the UK’s economy, with an emphasis on the need for Whitehall to work with industry to identify strengths and boost productivity.

The green paper said that for some industries this relationship is less well developed than the more mature ones, such as aerospace and automotive sectors, and that the aim is to establish “a coherent framework for industrial strategy across all sectors”.

Among the 10 pillars are a pledge to upgrade infrastructure, which includes a focus on connected and autonomous vehicles – with a coordinating hub for development and testing to be announced in spring – and investments already announced for cyber security and digital modernisation of railway signalling.

In addition, the strategy makes a commitment to creating an “effective data infrastructure” so that “open data drives growth, efficiency and innovation” in the UK.

It also name-checks the Government Digital Service’s flagship identity assurance service GOV.UK Verify – GDS leader Kevin Cunnington said when he took up his role last year that “sorting out Verify” would be one of his main priorities, because “as sure as eggs is eggs my boss will ask how we’re doing” on it.

This echoes comments made by civil service chief executive John Manzoni last week, where he said that if Whitehall wants to make the most of the opportunities offered by data it must improve data infrastructure, establish better policies on data use and boost civil servants’ skills.

The strategy also set out plans to explore how data held by government – for instance by HMRC and Companies House – can be used to identify scale-up businesses and offer them more support.

Elsewhere in the document, the government said it was working with behavioural insights experts to improve our targeting of potential exporters using HMRC data.

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Further pillars include an increased investment in digital skills connectivity across the UK and making better use of technology to deliver clean energy.

The strategy also said that there would be efforts to use government procurement to drive innovation, with the strategy saying that the public sector spends £268bn a year, or 14% of GDP.

It highlighted the commitment made to ensure a third of total procurement spend is with small businesses by 2020, and said that it needed to “transform” digital procurement. However, it did not include any new pledges digital procurement platforms, instead simply noted that the government had created G-Cloud for government bodies to procure cloud-based services and the Digital Marketplace for other digital services.

Meanwhile, the first pillar set out in the document focused on investment in science and research. This includes the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund that was announced last year, and asks for feedback on potential technologies to support, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, 5G, autonomous vehicles and drones.

The document also sets out work being carried out on sector-specific strategies, with a review of industrial digitalisation to look at use of digital technology in advanced manufacturing to be led by Siemens UK chief Juergen Maier. A health sciences strand – which will include a focus on digital health – will be led by John Bell, a professor of medical sciences at the University of Oxford.

Ministers must get ‘digital act together’

Despite the industrial strategy setting out the importance of digital and technology for improving government working and increasing productivity, there is just one mention of the long-delayed digital strategy, which says: “We will also shortly publish…the Digital Strategy.”

This was picked up on by Stephen Metcalfe, the chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, who said that – although “delighted” that two of the pillars are investing in science and boosting skills – ministers needed to “get their digital act together”.

“Now the Prime Minister has confirmed the importance of digital skills, I am again calling on ministers to get their digital act together and publish the digital strategy as soon as possible so they can play their part in helping the PM to deliver on the proposed Industrial Strategy,” he said.

Meanwhile other industry commentators welcomed the strategy’s plans, but said that its success would depend on it being a sustained, long-term approach that involved all of government and could adapt to technology changes in the future.

Antony Walker, deputy chief executive of industry representative body TechUK said that the recognition that industrial strategy is “a process rather than a rigid, one off announcement that lacks the flexibility for meaningful policymaking” showed that the government had taken a modern approach.

“A collaborative and iterative industrial strategy must lie at the heart of a truly global Britain,” he said.

The deadline for responses to the consultation on the government’s industrial strategy green paper is 17 April. 


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