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The UK government has launched its Digital Strategy, the third strategy since the start of 2017. There is little in this iteration that has not been announced already; the majority of funding announcements were outlined in the 2016 Autumn Statement. The purpose therefore has to be to pull together the existing threads and weave a more coherent story for the future of digital in the UK. However, because of Brexit and the uncertainty over the outcome of negotiations, it fails to do this, making it less of a strategy and more of a framework for how government will support the digital economy, which feels like a missed opportunity.

The specter of Brexit negotiations to come has neutered digital strategy

In a similar vein to the recent Government Transformation Strategy, the Digital Strategy (DS) was originally due in 2016, but was delayed due to Brexit and uncertainty over the way forward. During this delay it has been distilled down to seven key areas: building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK; promoting digital skills and inclusion; making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business; making all British businesses digital; ensuring a safe and secure cyberspace; transforming government to make it more digital; and making the most out of data.

As expected, the biggest focus is on closing the skills gap. There are plenty of examples scattered throughout the paper of how government intends to work with enterprises to support the expansion of technology training opportunities for enterprises, which will increasingly find themselves operating in a digital world. The focus on technology as part of education and training is welcomed, as if the UK is to stand on its own feet after Brexit, it will need to be able to take advantage of the growth in demand for technology-enabled goods and services and to ensure that any impact on the movement of scarce skills does not unduly impact UK industries.

There is support for the infrastructure that will be required to support government enterprises as well as initiatives aimed at developing the nascent areas of artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and autonomous vehicles. There is also provision for proactive use of government data through proposals to use data such as VAT returns to identify fast-growing firms, allowing for the more effective delivery of support and advice. Furthermore, there is a commitment to continue to support the development of the data-driven economy through better legislation and frameworks, all of which have yet to be defined.

As with the recent industrial strategy, a lot of the areas identified are a recap of existing government programs, initiatives, and funding. Most of the £1bn in funding identified in support of next-generation digital infrastructure was announced last year in the 2016 Autumn Statement.

The establishment of a new Digital Skills Partnership will help to bring big businesses, start-ups, and individuals together, but the strategy does not go far enough to develop greater linkages between the different agencies that support the development of industries at the local level, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Both the DS and the recent government industrial strategy focus on emerging areas such as fintech, healthtech, AI, autonomous vehicles, and so on, but they ignore the benefits digital can bring to existing industries. Support for existing industries adopting digital solutions should be more prominent, rather than limited to "maintain a web presence" and "sell online." It seems to duck the question of how current industries can adopt digital services to ensure a competitive position post-Brexit, and how they can disrupt their industry rather than face disruption. Given that the government has had some success in this area through the Digital Built Britain initiatives, which has seen construction firms and their industrial supply chain adopt a digital approach through the use of building information modeling (BIM), it is surprising not to have seen a great emphasis in the digital strategy document. Perhaps we need a plan similar to Germany's Industry 4.0 for UK industries.

In her forward to the paper, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport Karen Bradley said the strategy was just the start to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone, and implied that it is a response not only to Brexit but also to the increasing divide between segments of the population. While the paper could be characterized as "safe and steady," given that it hardly sets out a bold strategy to take the UK forward post-Brexit, this is understandable. It would be foolhardy to espouse a long-term strategy that is held to ransom by the unknowns of Brexit, so perhaps it is better at this stage to have a framework that will allow for further change when things become clearer.


Further reading

IT Investment by the Australian Federal Government 2016–17, IT0007-000928 (January 2017)

Enterprise Case Study: Exposing Data While Maintaining Security, IT0007-000931 (January 2017)

"UK Government Transformation Strategy to drive adoption of platforms," IT0007-000937 (February 2017)


Chris Pennell, Practice Leader, Public Sector

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