An Information Economy for Digital Britain. Again?

SUMMARY:

An Information Economy for the UK? Yes please Prime Minister – but what is there that is actually new in the lastest strategy document to emerge from Britain’s digitally-friendly government?

digital-britain-logo
Once upon a time…

Flash back and it’s 2009 and the UK’s Labour government under Gordon Brown has just published The Digital Britain report – a policy document which outlined the country’s ambition to create a Digital Economy.

Flash forward to 2013 and the Coalition Conservative and Liberal Democrat government and it seems that the UK is going to become an Information Economy.

Plus ça change etc etc.

Anyway, Information Economy is what it’s going be. Or at least that’s what Prime MInister David Cameron has told us all this weekend.

Speaking at the G8 Innovation Conference in London prior to this week’s wider G8 summit in Ireland, Cameron declared:

“More than any time in history our world is being shaped by innovation, new ideas, new technologies and new companies. This is the story of the global economy.

“Countries around the world have got to get this. Jobs and growth depend on it. We’ve all got to open up our economies to innovation, we’ve got to nurture new ideas, we’ve got to bend over backwards to attract the best and the brightest. A global race is underway and it is waiting for absolutely no one.”

Yes indeed Prime Minister. Very true.

But the question that many from the country that gave the world Tim Berners-Lee would post might be: isn’t it a bit late for all this?

OK, it might help the UK catch-up, but decades of neglect and lack of investment don’t get corrected by one strategy document and a good PR exercise in front of the G8.

The plan to get ahead of the rest of the world (apparently) is contained in the UK government’s Information Economy Strategy document, published this weekend to coincide with the G8 meeting. Even that starts from the premise that the UK is in catch up mode: 

The major players in the information economy – those relatively few but massive household names – are predominantly based in the US or Asia. There are however opportunities in the information economy for other countries to play to their particular strengths, and we see this reflected in the information economy strategies of countries like Germany, Singapore, Finland, Estonia and Israel.

OK, so ambition-wise, there’s going to be no nonsense about being on a par with the US or Japan, but instead we’re going to be finding a nice niche in which the UK can flourish? If so, that’s a sensible starting point, but one that means playing to the UK’s strengths and acknowledging its weaknesses. The strategy document notes:

We must also consider those qualities that set us apart in the global market – for better or for worse. This means ensuring that our business environment remains attractive to inward investment including relevant factors, for example with respect to skills, clusters and quality of life.

Down and dirty detail?

At the highest level, the UK government wants to see:

  • A strong, innovative, information economy sector exporting UK excellence to the world
  • UK businesses and organisations, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), confidently using technology, able to trade online, seizing technological opportunities and increasing revenues in domestic and international markets
  • Citizens with the capability and confidence to make the most of the digital age and benefiting from excellent digital services.

That means it needs to ensure that there is:

  • A highly skilled digital workforce (whether specialists who create and develop information technologies, or non-specialists who use them)
  • The digital infrastructure (both physical and regulatory) and the framework for cyber security and privacy necessary to support growth, innovation and excellence.

Clearly there’s a huge digital element to all this, including:

  • A commitment to transform 25 of the top 50 public services to digital over the next year
  • Plans to give businesses a single online view of their tax records.
  • A programme to get 1.6 million SMBs online over the next five years.
  • Bringing together academia and business to develop a digital skills strategy.
  • Creating a programme of Massive Online Open Courses for computing and data science.
  • The formation of an Information Economy Council to set the agenda for future progress of the strategy and monitor its progress.
  • A new team within the Government Digital Service (GDS) to co-ordinate digital inclusion efforts.

The scheme gets plaudits from various directions.

For example, Rhian Kelly, CBI Director for Business Environment, said

“The Information Economy is vital to UK growth and the way we do business. Technologies like cloud computing and 5G help keep all businesses a step ahead in the global race, so it is right to get behind our hi-tech firms as part of a coherent industrial strategy for the UK.

“Success will depend upon the UK developing world-leading digital infrastructure and government departments working together to drive the strategy forward.”

What’s good? 

So what can we pick out that’s good? Well, the recognition of the skills angle is a welcome one. As the strategy document notes:

“To reap the economic and social benefits of the digital economy, the UK needs a strong flow of future talent, a skilled workforce and a digitally literate population. We need people who can use devices and apply technology, as well as people who can invent and develop the devices and technology of the future.”

The action points here:

  • A new computing curriculum in England which is due to start in September 2014.
  • The promotion of innovative teaching tools in schools.
  • Making it easier for people to develop and upgrade their knowledge and skills through vocational conversion courses, one year masters degrees and technical diplomas.
Victor-Chavez_PR
Victor Chaves, Intellect President

And the formation of the Information Economy Council under Victor Chavez, president of ICT vendor association Intellect, may well help forge the necessary links between government, business and academia.

Chavez states:

“Government, industry and research organisations all have a role to play in driving this forward, and that’s why the Information Economy Council is focused on bringing all three to bear on these critical issues. We need to attract talent and investment, and that means making long-term improvements to skills, infrastructure, security, and how we leverage our people and data assets. Critically, we must ensure the benefits of technology are accessible for every UK citizen.”

OK – well, clearly we have to chalk that one down to one to watch as actions will speak so much louder than even the best intentioned words.

The Council’s first actions:

  • Address the lack of clear and universally agreed metrics about the information economy sector. 
  • Prioritise the skills and standards issues identified in the strategy document. 
  • Analyse the growth challenges of small businesses in the information economy.

Verdict

Overall there is a sense that we have been here before and that this is a neat re-packaging and re-pitching of a lot of stuff that’s (a) been done before and (b) already part of government policy.

The current UK administration has taken some bold steps in its ambitions for digital government – the Digital by Default policy, the G-Cloud programme, the success of the Government Digital Service, the drive led by Martha Lane Fox for digital inclusion, the desire to increase SME engagement and so on.

A lot of that seems to have been wrapped up in this strategy document and pitched in a unified format.

In other words, it’s terribly nice as a UK citizen to know that as a nation we now have our very own Information Economy strategy.

And the various elements are all entirely commendable objectives and ambitions.

But almost everything in the strategy document has been announced before.

The difference is this time the Prime Minister got to do a speech about it.

There’s even an admission from an unlikely source that behind much of this might be that aching for modernity that gets to all political leaders at some point, but to seeming little effect.

Writing for The Independent newspaper, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable notes:

Since the emergence of the World Wide Web, politicians have merrily forecast economic transformation and social renovation. Yet behind the hype, the actual impact of the digital revolution has been uneven and change has often defied the bold predictions of ministers, investors and pundits.

Deja vu?