Politicians do digital.... again.
There was an exciting new double act on r4 this morning. Tony Blair and William Hague were releasing their new hit “Do more Digital strategy uk, and you’ll win win win”. Ok, so maybe it was a bit more of a remix, but these two very authoritative and commanding politicians have produced a report about how much of a deficit in digital and innovation thinking the current political leaders of all shades are suffering from. You can read it here https://www.williamhague.com/s-projects-side-by-side
There can be something inherently cringeworthy about politicians talking about technology - they can so often sound like middle aged parents who have just worked out how to connect to the Wi-Fi across multiple devices - its all suddenly terrific and worthy of huge doses of optimism. Just innovate! Go on ! Innovation can solve all our woes. However, there are many important ideas in their report and my cynicism and tone come only from over a decade of work in these issues and a hefty dose of frustration at the slow rate of change. I served as the UK’s digital champion (I KNOW, but I promise I didn’t name myself) from 2009 to 2014, I helped establish gov.uk and I have worked on inclusion and responsibility in technology. There have been multiple reports, think tank research pieces, internal government models and endless conferences about the rate of the UK’s digitisation and so as I listened to the two heavy weights this morning, 3 main thoughts were in my mind.
Firstly, I cannot believe anyone still has to make the case for the increased pace, scale and investment into technology, but it seems they do. Even reading some of the media write up of the dynamic duo just now, there is an undercurrent of “but do we really want to invest or prioritise in tech when ( delete as appropriate) a) kids are on their phones all the time b) we have a cost of living crisis c) we need to regulate big tech. These are all issues related to how a Prime Minister should think about tech, not separate issues. It isn’t a choice. The digital world is speeding up, not slowing down - the choice is about how much we want the UK to capitalise on this growth from an economic and wellbeing perspective. I was a strategy consultant in 1994 working in media and telecoms and I was sent to South Korea to look at their investment into the “information superhighway”- remember that? Well, it was significant and arguably, 30 years later the uk has yet to deliver on a similar ambition.
Secondly, although TB and WH did touch on this, I think they massively underestimate the necessity to improve the digital understanding across all areas of government and secondarily the public sector. I can only assume that it is partly why there has been jumpy progress over the last decade. MPs, peers and civil servants have wildly different digital nous. Then think about the heads of CCGs, schools, social services - through no fault of their own, making decisions that are fit for the modern age is hard. I am meant to get this stuff and I feel I know nothing! Comprehensive in job learning is needed, well resourced. As another example, I recently finished Ian Dunts excellent book ‘How Westminster works’ and he describes the completely opaque MP selection process - imagine if questions about tech were part of the interview?
Finally, and this is where I really sound like a cracked record, in my opinion, the biggest gains come from making sure every person in this relatively rich, relatively compact country has a good internet connection they can afford and the skills to use it. This is not headline grabbing stuff. But it matters, deeply. Imagine being one of the million or so adults looking for work who cannot use the internet and yet 99% of the jobs are only advertising online. Or one of the families where 3 kids are sharing one phone to help with homework. Or the woman I met who told me she regularly has to chose between food and data. We can do so much better with relatively little investment.
WH and TB have more power than most to get shit done and so I really hope that their new hit zooms in at number one of the Sunak Spotify, even if I think they’re more of a tribute act :-)
Totally agree, been fighting the fight with various startups and tech companies over the past ten years and since the pandemic it’s been like wading in treacle getting basic investment in tech, I can’t even get a good mobile reception and I’m based in Cardiff. Government incentives have dried up after we left the EU, R&D tax credits all but gone. I think the digital ID is a good idea, but suspect in reality it means several billion quid going to Accenture and Infosys, rather than kick starting a vibrant tech economy, utilising our wealth of creative tech talent.