Government is merely flirting with digital – it’s time to commit

Nat Gross of industry body BIMA believes that all political parties must do more to ensure the UK remains at the digital vanguard


Nat Gross applauds some of the recent government initiatives on digital, but believes more needs to be done

It’s been a hectic few weeks for the government and digital, with the announcement of a new ministerial department – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport – the appointment of Caroline Nokes to the GDS and digital-government brief, and, crucially, the government’s £400m Digital Infrastructure Fund, which has been launched to drive digital in the UK.

Despite this suggesting a renewed focus on digital, the Digital Strategy launched by the government in March was immediately followed by the distractions of Brexit and the snap election. It also is not beyond the realms of fantasy to imagine a leadership contest may be imminent. 

In among this noise, the government cannot afford to falter when it comes to putting digital at its core. The benefits are too great to ignore, and the penalties for not embedding the digital revolution within the public sector are too significant for anything less than a robust and committed approach from government.

There are some key areas where we need to see improvement in the government’s digital ethos, and it is in all our interests to explore the context for each.

Firstly, BIMA wants to see greater cross-party agreement. Digital is not tribal – quite the opposite. Digital is a leveller, and we are keen that, given every party knows we need homes and roads – and digital is, essentially, investment in infrastructure that buttresses the economy – that every party should agree on the UK’s digital approach.

Broad agreement on a strong digital strategy would do wonders for the digital industry as a whole. The US is championing technology like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, and strong investment across the pond is a big lure for the brightest and boldest of digital talent. Our political parties finding a common goal of maintaining the UK as a digital leader would help keep the science here.

Digital is, essentially, investment in infrastructure that buttresses the economy

Beyond that, the government has to set out a clearer strategy for teaching digital skills. The skills gap in the digital sector is well known, but it is unnecessary. Nurturing and honing both home-grown and overseas talent must be a priority to plug that gap. 

The UK currently attracts more investment than other parts of Europe. But, with Brexit looming, that is in peril unless we act now. Some 200,000 EU workers contribute to the UK’s strong digital sector. Losing them would be damaging, and we would likely fall off the number-one spot for investment in digital in Europe.

Talent without borders
Whatever the results of Brexit negotiations, we need a commitment to a borderless talent pool, so clear leadership from the government, working with key leaders in the sector, is vital. BIMA is home to a wide range of digital agencies and digital talent, and the public sector should be working with us to assess what we need, and how we can move from conversation to action. Issues like diversity in digital can be solved, but only if we’re ‘all in this together’.

Likewise, the government needs to conduct due diligence on any legislation that may impact the digital world. Consultation can help avoid any unforeseen effects, ensuring the government understands how digital businesses and platforms operate, and therefore what smarter legislation should be drawn up. An intelligent and genuinely pioneering approach to security, for example, 

should protect both the public and the economy. Knee-jerk regulation aimed at digital platforms undermines the great work that we’re all doing to improve people’s lives.

Finally, there is no question that digital is the fourth industrial revolution, following water/steam, electricity, and IT. But the current digital strategy does not have the top-line commitment to the pioneering technology that the UK is deploying on a global scale. We are crying out for a call to arms from the government to support the work we’re doing. JFK did not know whether it was possible to land on the Moon when he announced that the US would do so before 1970. Why can’t we announce that the UK will be the world leader in AI development, or that we will produce the most data scientists of any nation?

AI is going to change the world. Some even predict that it will automate all jobs within 100 years. The government needs to be framing what this brave new world will look like. It needs to spend more time with industry leaders to look at practical applications for AI. 

The recent announcements in digital from the Government show promise, but – to steal a phrase – we can, and we must do more. Because, if we don’t, someone else will.

Sam Trendall

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