Government turns to big tech firms to help deliver long-awaited Digital Strategy

Wide-ranging plan includes announcement of new "Digital Government Partnership" to encourage innovation in Whitehall – as Labour's Louise Haigh blasts "recycled announcements and meagre commitments"

By Rebecca Hill

01 Mar 2017

The government has published its long-awaited Digital Strategy, which sets out plans to increase digital inclusion, data skills and industry links.

The strategy, published on Wednesday, has seven sections, covering connectivity, skills, cyberspace, digital government and data, as well as a focus on specific sectors and the wider economy.

Much of the strategy restates existing funding or policy commitments, but there is an emphasis on creating stronger links between government, industry and academia as a way to ensure that the UK remains a leading digital economy after it leaves the European Union.

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New announcements in the strategy include a Digital Skills Partnership between government and industry to coordinate digital training programmes across the UK and a Digital Government Partnership to encourage digital innovation in Whitehall itself.

It also includes plans for a review into artificial intelligence, which was trailed on Monday, and the creation of a series of tech hubs in developing countries to boost international collaboration.

Among the existing commitments is a recap of the government’s National Cyber Security Strategy, which was published in November last year and focuses on active defence, deterring attacks through regulation, and encouraging innovation in cyber security.

The Digital Strategy also follows the recent Government Transformation Strategy, which was published two weeks ago – and the section on digital government offers a précis of some of the main points made in the earlier document.

This includes the emphasis on evolving the culture of the civil service through better understanding of agile processes, increased digital skills training and closing the gap between digital and policy.

However, the Digital Strategy also announces that the Cabinet Office will launch a Digital Government Partnership in the summer that aims to increase collaboration with external partners. A technology fellowship scheme will bring in “outside experts” to help policymakers generate new ideas and experiment with new technologies.

Elsewhere in the Digital Strategy, the government pushes the Government Digital Service’s flagship digital identify verification scheme, GOV.UK Verify.

The programme, which has been in development for half a decade, currently has around 1.1m users, but the government has said it wants to increase this to 25 million registered users by 2020.

Verify has historically struggled to get buy-in from some of the larger departments, with HMRC coming under fire just last month for developing a separate identity assurance scheme for its business users.

However, the Digital Strategy says that, in a more digital economy, businesses will need “a trusted framework” to help them tackle online fraud and that widespread use of Verify would allow people to use the same account for both private and public sector services.

Meanwhile, the section on data brings together a range of various government announcements, including plans for more data sharing between departments, the appointment of a government chief data officer, a commitment to implement the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation by May 2018 and work to build up public trust in the use of data by both government and businesses.

A major focus of the promotion of the strategy is a pledge to tackle the “digital divide”, referring to people’s inability to use digital technologies, either due to a lack of skills or infrastructure.

The government said it needed to take a more targeted approach to digital inclusion, which includes efforts to make libraries the “go-to provider” of digital training and support, and £1.1m for training projects through the NHS.

"Warm words"

The Digital Strategy also sets out plans for a Digital Skills Partnership to coordinate the wealth of skills and training programmes across the UK. It will be led by government and involve businesses, charities and voluntary organisations, and aims to offer basic training for adults and prepare children for lifelong technology use from an early age.

Businesses making pledges through this partnership include BT, which is expanding its programme to help primary school teachers teach computing science, and Google, which is running a summertime scheme to boost growth in seaside towns.

Meanwhile, Lloyds Banking Group will offer face-to-face digital skills training to 2.5 million people, charities and small businesses by 2020, Barclays will teach basic coding to 45,000 children and the HP Foundation will create an online learning platform for disadvantaged groups.

The government also emphasised the need for a greater diversity in tech workforces, for employees to develop data analytics and cyber security skills, and to prepare for the impact new technologies such as AI, robotics and connected devices will have on workforces.

On connectivity, the government said it planned to look at it “in a more holistic way”, adding that it would focus on what people need and want from connectivity, “instead of focusing on the type of technologies” on offer.

The Digital Strategy reiterated the £1bn investment in digital connectivity that was made in the 2016 Autumn Statement, which aims to fund full fibre broadband plans and 5G, with a 5G strategy expected at the Budget on 8 March, and reiterated the commitment that the Universal Service Obligation, to be brought in by 2020, that will offer every home access to high speed broadband.

However, Labour’s Louise Haigh, shadow minister for the digital economy, slammed the government for failing to live up to the expectations of those in areas lacking connectivity.

"This strategy has been delayed for well over a year and the recycled announcements and meagre commitments will leave many wondering whether ministers have the vision our digital economy desperately need," she told CSW's sister title, PublicTechnology.

"The government had warm words for digital infrastructure – the lifeblood of our economy in the decades to come – but the reality is millions are being left in the digital slow lane and today’s announcements are more a case of what was not said rather than what was.

"Our major cities, towns, swathes of our rural communities and thousands of small businesses are being left behind, and the government’s failure to use this strategy to commit to universal superfast broadband represents a missed opportunity. The government are uniting rural farmers, urban coffee shops, and business park start-ups in a coalition against them.

"This country deserves better than the second-best, out of date digital infrastructure the government are insisting they rely on."

Haigh added that, with 12 million people lacking basic digital skills, the commitment set out in the strategy would only train a third of them, which she said "does not come close to meeting the challenge of digital illiteracy”.

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