A week is a long time in politics and the past seven days have certainly seen a flurry of technology and digital announcements from the British Government. These suggest that wholesale change is afoot. But is it? More on that in a moment.
Last week’s launch of the 2022-2025 Roadmap for a Digital Future was certainly a bold initiative to transform central government services by making them as accessible as a banking app. In part, this will be through a single sign-on to gov.uk services via a new face-scanning app to authenticate citizens’ photo IDs. However, as was widely reported, the event itself became mired in self-defeating controversy.
Fortunately, London Tech Week (13-17 June) has given the embattled UK administration another opportunity to wave the flag for all things digital.
On Monday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak rightly highlighted the extraordinary role that the UK’s technology innovators, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and venture capital investors have played in giving Britain a loud and convincing voice across a range of markets, including FinTech, Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, quantum technologies, and more. In some of these spaces, the UK is second or third to the US, outperforming China in at least one (FinTech).
However, after highlighting that 950 UK tech companies have raised a combined £12.4 billion ($15.1 billion) in venture capital investment since January alone, and celebrating Britain’s 37 home-birthed tech unicorns to date, Sunak then struck a less convincing note. He suggested that low growth was linked to falling innovation in the UK economy, a moment of bad faith after trumpeting British entrepreneurship.
The reality is that blame for April’s 0.3 percent decline in the economy has largely been put on Brexit, which has made trade with the UK’s biggest market, Europe, slower, bureaucratic, and more expensive – at least according to many commentators outside of Whitehall.
Other G7 economies experienced the same economically damaging pandemic, of course, but are now performing better, despite the UK’s earlier exit from restrictions. Incredibly, a potential trade war now looms with Europe over changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. None of this can be blamed on a dearth of technology innovation.
Indeed, the UK Government’s own data – presented at London Tech Week – show that the UK tech sector has grown two and a half times faster than the rest of the economy over the past five years. This proves that start-ups are booming in spite of the political climate, and not because of it.
It’s worth adding that those companies’ traditional route to success with customers, rather than wealthy backers, would have been through growth in Europe (now more difficult, unless those companies set up shop within the EU), or in the US (with whom the UK currently has no trade deal and the likes of Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden himself have fired warning shots about not getting one due to the NI Protocol situation.
All told, the UK must beware of now being seen as the place where mega-wealthy US investors and technology behemoths can simply buy up good ideas and companies on the cheap.
How many strategies?
As previously reported, the government also launched The Future of Compute Review this week, and a new strategy for using data to reshape health and social care: all good news.
But the most significant launch was that of the latest Digital Strategy from the government – its first since 2017. This contains elements of all of the above initiatives, plus the numerous other strategies published in recent months, such as those for data, AI, space technology, and more.
Arriving by autonomous car - which at least didn’t crash! - Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Nadine Dorries called the UK a “global tech superpower” and Europe’s leading destination for starting and growing digital businesses.
Meanwhile, Digital Minister Chris Philp told a London Tech Week panel:
Developed economies face long-term challenges around growth, productivity, and real wages. Just as Thatcher unleashed the power of the market to transform our economy in the 1980s, unleashing the power of the tech sector will transform our economy today.
The problem is that the evidence suggests it has been doing that for years – see above – and the economy now faces fundamental challenges that tech innovation alone won’t overcome.
So, what is in the Strategy? As with the Roadmap for government transformation, it has six headline aims:
- Better infrastructure supported by light-touch regulation (unless you’re Huawei, of course)
- Stimulating UK R&D in areas such as quantum computing, semiconductors, and AI (Sunak said on Monday that the government’s own investment in R&D would increase by 50%)
- Financing digital growth through Innovate UK and the British Business Bank (who were actually already doing this under the Industrial Strategy until it was scrapped due to internal Conservative gamesmanship)
- A joined-up, national approach (Good luck with that! The 'god awful' areas - (c) Heather Wheeler MP - might have something to say about that, let alone Scotland, Wales and, once again, Northern Ireland.)
- Global leadership (which to a degree the UK is already providing)
- A new Digital Skills Council to help tackle the UK’s longstanding skills gap (which people have been talking about since the mid-1990s and successive governments of all political persuasions have failed to rectify.)
At least one organization was not entirely convinced by the Digital Strategy this week. Inconveniently for the government, it was the tech industry trade association, techUK. In a statement, techUK cautioned:
While this Strategy is welcome, it is short-term, with the majority of actions listed already happening or set for completion on or before 2024/25. Should all these deliverables be implemented without delay, the Strategy would need to be updated by the end of 2024 to remain relevant.
The Strategy is also missing a longer-term vision or statement of intent about the role that digital technologies could play in tackling the systemic problems that face the UK. For example, the UK’s historically low economic productivity, how to revolutionize our national infrastructure or adapting to the challenges of an ageing population.
Frustratingly, the latter points were key elements in the now-scrapped UK Industrial Strategy.
The statement added:
This feels like a missed opportunity, given the enthusiasm the UK Government has shown toward making the UK a science and technology superpower and the role such a vision or statement of intent would play in sparking debate and discussion about future policy action.
It also would have been welcome to see (as has been done in the government’s Innovation Strategy), some key targets or metrics identified, by which the government is seeking to judge success across the six essential areas for action.
In short, it is light on new ideas, and even lighter on measurable goals. techUK has said it will continue to “work closely with the Government in the delivery of the Strategy”, while seeking to forge a longer-term vision for digital and technology transformation. All to the good.
But surely this is precisely what any strategy ought to have delivered in the first place, rather than a repackaging of existing programs? Arguably, this makes it less of a strategy and more of a tactical document, the remit of which runs out at the General Election.