Manifesto tech takeaways: Conservatives pledge to double Whitehall digital and AI expertise

Current party of government reminds voters of standing up to Huawei, as well as pledging to support facial recognition and NHS device upgrades, and offering youngsters a cyber military career

Within the opening sentence of the Conservative general election manifesto, prime minister Rishi Sunak tells voters that the party has delivered “growth” during its time in office.

He is not wrong – at least for those of us who are keen watchers of public sector tech and digital and data policy. The Tories’ 2019 manifesto was 64 pages in length and featured 31 instances of key tech-related terms, according to PublicTechnology analysis at the time.

This time out, the document clocks in at 80 pages, with 47 mentions of digital, technology, cyber, data, and artificial intelligence – or variations thereon. Those figures – as the PM promises – mean that the Conservatives have, at least in one regard, delivered growth: of 25% and 52%, respectively.

The overall increase in shout-outs for all things tech is accompanied by a handful of eye-catching policy proposals related to government digital, data and cyber. If the electorate returns the party to power in three weeks’ time, here are five to look out for in the coming years.

Doubling digital expertise in Whitehall
Despite setting out an overall target of “returning the civil service to its pre-pandemic size” – which would require cutting 86,000 jobs – the manifesto also suggests that the Conservatives would continue to ramp up government’s base of technology specialists.

The document makes a commitment to “doubling digital and AI expertise in the civil service, to take advantage of the latest technologies to transform public services”. It is not made clear, however, how ‘doubling’ would be quantified, and whether this would mean, for example, increasing the existing 28,000 headcount in the digital and data profession, or simply conducting more training for non-specialist staff.

In either case, the pledge follows on from an existing government target that, by June 2024, 6% of civil servants will be digital and data employees; the rate is currently 5.4%.

The manifesto also pledges to halve the money currently spent on external consultancy services, while moving another 25,000 government roles out of London.

“These reforms will allow us to achieve a significant productivity boost in Whitehall,” it says. “If we returned public sector productivity to pre-pandemic levels that would deliver up to £20bn of annual savings.”

Upgrading NHS devices
In a section headed “transforming NHS technology and productivity”, the manifesto reiterates various commitments that were previously made in the spring budget. In March, chancellor Jeremy Hunt outlined plans to invest £3.4bn in health-service transformation, with a particular focus on boosting the use of technology.

This broad objective is restated in the manifesto, including an intention to “make the NHS App the single front door for NHS services, [where] patients will… access their medical records, order prescriptions, book vaccine appointments, access a digital red book and manage their hospital appointment”.

Perhaps the closest thing to a new policy here is a pledge that, as part of the transformation plans, many end-user devices currently in use across the health service will be upgraded. Work on central infrastructure – such as the controversial new national data hub, being delivered by tech firm Palantir – will also continue.

The manifesto says :“We will… replace tens of thousands of outdated computers, slashing the 13 million hours in doctors’ and nurses’ time lost to IT issues every year and digitise NHS processes through the Federated Data Platform.”

A thumbs-up for facial recognition
In the 13 years that the Conservatives have been in power, the capabilities of facial-recognition systems have progressed a great deal. All the while the minsters have – seemingly – been happy for police forces to experiment with the technology, despite concerns raised by the civil society groups, parliamentarians and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The use of live facial recognition software in policing was pioneered by forces in London and South Wales, and has grown to include a much broader array of forces across England and Wales. Future deployments will have the full support of government if the Conservatives remain in power, the party’s manifesto suggests.

“We will… back the police, by giving officers new powers and tools to catch criminals, including technology like facial recognition and powers to seize knives and track down stolen property,” it says. “We will always back the police in the lawful and professional use of force, alongside a fair and proportionate accountability system.”

Huawei we go
The Conservative manifesto’s “plan to secure our nation from global uncertainty”, again, largely reinforces plans announced previously.

This includes a commitment made in April to create a Defence Innovation Agency, which will play a key role in making good on ambitions to ensure that 5% of defence funding is dedicated to research and development – plus a further 2% to enable delivery of new innovations. These plans will deliver on the objective of “accelerating the modernisation of our Armed Forces and investing in technology that is advantageous on the modern battlefield”, according to the manifesto.

The security and defence plan begins not with visions of the future, however, but with a lengthy reminder of the what the current government has done while in office. A notable entry in this list of achievements is the claim that ministers have stood up to the perils posed by Chinese tech firms – and, in particular, the risks posed by Huawei. The vendor is not always mentioned by name by ministers but has, rather, often been referred to somewhat euphemistically as one of a number of “high-risk vendors”.

But, in this case, the manifesto proclaims: “We have ripped out Huawei from key parts of our telecommunications system and reduced Chinese influence in our critical national infrastructure and sensitive technological sectors.”

Despite this claim, after a 14-month review – overseen first by former PM Theresa May, then by her successor Boris Johnson – ministers originally approved Huawei to contribute as much as a third of the kit needed to build the “access network” that will support the UK’s 5G infrastructure. This decision, made in January 2020, was then reversed six months later. The target is now to entirely remove the vendor’s technology from the network by the end of 2027.

Cyber national service
Media coverage of the Conservatives’ proposal to reintroduce a programme of national service may have focused on visions of forcing today’s TikToking teens to take up arms and don combat fatigues, but it is worth noting that – if it ever came to fruition – the policy would also include an option for specialist cyber military service. This would involve “a year-long full-time placement in the armed forces or cyber defence”, according to the manifesto.

“This placement will be competitive and paid, so our armed forces recruit and train the brightest and the best,” the document adds.

Cyber operations are now a significant and growing part of the UK’s military, with the National Cyber Force (NCF) being established in 2020. In a climate where ministers increasingly call out cyber aggression from Russia, China and other hostile states – as well as criminal gangs – the remit of  the NCF is to lead the UK’s “offensive cyber” activities against enemy targets.

The unit, which is being backed by £5bn of public funding over the course of its first decade, is jointly run by the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ and brings together staff from the two organisations, as well as from the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, an arm’s-length body of the MoD dedicated to the research and development of new technologies.

For those 18-year-olds that do not wish to spend a year in the military, the compulsory programme will also offer an option for “civic service”, comprised of one weekend a month performing duties such as those of a “special constable, NHS responder or RNLI volunteer”, according to the manifesto.

Sam Trendall

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *