Election 2017: Party manifestos urged to focus on IT systems for Brexit and championing digital leadership

Written by Rebecca Hill on 2 May 2017 in Features
Features

As parliament dissolves and the date of the poll marches closer, parties of all colours are working up their manifestos. Rebecca Hill asks what they could, or should, have in store for tech.

The UK heads to the polls next month - will the parties offer up digitally-savvy manifestos? - Photo credit: PA

Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election has set the UK’s political parties’ electioneering wheels in motion, but so far the policy announcements have been light on digital.

It’s unlikely that the parties will offer expansive new digital policies in the short run-up to polling day, but previous announcements could hint at where their priorities lie, and there are pressing issues that relate to tech that can’t be ignored.

The issue dominating discussions is the UK’s vote to leave the European Union - whether that’s direct policies related to the strength or ‘flavour’ of Brexit the UK gets, or because of the knock-on effect the exit will have on the economy, public service delivery and legislation.

All parties will need to have policies that look to ensure a resilient economy after Brexit, perhaps drawing on the importance of the UK’s growing digital economy, but they will also need to prepare for the impact it will have on some of the most crucial digital systems.

Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government, says that the parties will need to prioritise digitising and improving services like the right to reside and work in the UK and focus on seeing through upgrades to the customs system.

The existing system, known as CHIEF, records and automatically checks around 60 million declarations to customs of goods by land, air and sea electronically each year,. After Brexit the number of declarations is expected to increase by between 90 million to 390 million a year - and MPs have already raised concerns about HMRC’s ability to deliver the update in time.

Other priorities for the incoming government will be systems handling farming, fishing, immigration and border services, while experts have also urged parties to commit to break down silos across the whole of the public sector.

The association for local government IT professionals, Socitm, has called on councils to put digital and the forefront of health and social care integration, while Thornton says that digital services should be reorganised around citizens’ needs - which will call for common service and data standards across the public sector.


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Another recurring theme could be digital exclusion, as the people most likely to need government support are the same group least likely to be able to get online.

Boosting connectivity levels across the country could also be seen as a way to get rural communities on side, especially after the government last week rejected calls to set itself a more ambitious target for minimum broadband speeds in measures set out in the Digital Economy Bill, sticking instead to an “achievable” 10 Mbps.

In contrast, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last year pledged to boost broadband speeds across the UK to 1 Gbps, saying that it was “not fair” that people in London can get 4G anywhere, when in rural areas they “can’t even get single bar reception” - however the feasibility of, and budgeting for, the plan was questioned by experts.

Corbyn’s digital democracy manifesto was also criticised for lacking ambition and missing out on crucial areas of cyber security and public sector reform - both of which are areas Socitm wants to see addressed in the parties’ general election manifestos.

These were touched upon by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats ahead of the 2015 general election, with the former backing the principle of ‘open data by default’ and the latter calling for the digital by default agenda to extend to local government.

Of course, there have been changes in leadership and digital champions in both parties since then - the Lib Dems’ digital spokesperson Julian Huppert failed to regain his Cambridge seat in 2015 (although he is running again this time around), while Labour’s outspoken Chi Onwurah was moved from the digital brief to shadow industrial strategy.

However, Onwurah’s replacement Louise Haigh has provided effective opposition in the debates on the Digital Economy Bill and over the government’s much-delayed digital transformation strategy and the Lib Dems have spoken out against the government's Draconian rules on online pornography. 

'Maintain a strong and stable team'

The Conservatives' manifesto, meanwhile, is likely to offer a continuation of the work the party has done in the past two years, which includes a series of strategies that sing digital’s praises - albeit without offering the specifics the sector sorely needs - and legislation that paves the way for increased data sharing within government and set out plans for a fully digital tax reform (although the latter didn't make it into the final legislation, they are likely to be picked up again if the party returns to government).

The party’s manifesto is also being drawn up by a team that includes minister for the Cabinet Office, Ben Gummer, who - although being a less forceful champion for digital government than his predecessor Francis Maude - does appear to understand the challenges and opportunities technology offers government, both inside and outside Whitehall.

Indeed, Matthew Trimming, founder of consultancy META and an adviser to the Government Digital Service, says that, should the Conservatives re-enter government after the election, they should recognise this work and keep Gummer in the role, along with cabinet secretary to the Treasury David Gauke.

“They are providing strong, joined-up Treasury and Cabinet Office leadership on transformation,” says Trimming. “Why change a strong, stable team?”

Thornton echoes Trimming’s call for effective leadership and support at a ministerial level, saying that parties should identify digital champions at a senior level, and both emphasise the importance of having a good understanding of the potential of data to improve public services.

This will include quickly appointing a chief data officer - a role that is expected to sit in the Cabinet Office under civil service chief executive John Manzoni, who has lately been an outspoken proponent of data - and ensuring that there is investment in training for civil servants.

Although it is unlikely that the parties’ manifestos will address all the demands, or go into the level of detail, that digital government watchers would like to see, it would be a disappointment if they did not make efforts to recognise and highlight the importance of digital, data and emerging technologies to the future of public service delivery.

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