Innovation and changeDigital TransformationIs the Government delivering on its digital strategy promises?

Is the Government delivering on its digital strategy promises?

More than 12 months since the Government published its digital strategy, is it delivering on its promises?

In March 2017, after a year’s delay, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) finally published its long-awaited digital strategy. Reception was mixed, with critics suggesting that, after all that wait, there should be rather more detail and less marketing-speak. Those who had expected sweeping tech sector investment programmes and game-changing strategies were left disappointed.

Yet there were some significant commitments amid the jargon. The authors made some headline promises of future tech sector investment, and there were plenty of lofty targets too. The strategy wasn’t particularly thrilling, but neither was it a total washout. And the Government has made a number of significant announcements since the strategy was introduced, delivering and expanding on its key promises.

This article looks at each of the four key planks of the digital strategy: infrastructure, accessibility, skills and protection. It examines the pledge in each area, and assesses the progress made. The strategy continues to divide opinion (much like the Government which produced it) but this appraisal is intended to be sober, neutral and constructive.

Infrastructure

Of all the sections of the digital strategy, infrastructure – more specifically, broadband – received the most concrete commitments. The Government vowed to achieve 98% 4G broadband coverage (defined as 24 megabits per second) by 2020, building on the work of Broadband Delivery UK, a programme to connect remote parts of the country. The DCMS also promised to pump £1bn into 5G broadband – one of the biggest tech sector investment pledges anywhere in the document – and teased further announcements on ‘full fibre’, the replacement of rusty old copper broadband cables with ultra-fast fibre-optic ones. Philip Hammond duly delivered, announcing a £200m funding package in the Spring Budget and a £195m challenge fund in the Autumn Statement.

How well has the Government performed in the 16 months since the digital strategy came out? Not badly at all according to Matthew Evans, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, the Government’s key thinktank. Evans told GovTech Leaders that “we’re already quite close” to hitting 98%, adding that “Government has come quite a long way in starting to set out its ultrafast ambition… and are now starting to lay out how to get there”.

Indeed, it’s clear genuine progress has been made, at least on 4G. Although several low-coverage areas remain (including the City of London), the superfast project hit a key milestone of almost 95% in January, and it did so on time. Critics lament that much of the work has been gobbled up by Openreach/BT, suggesting the Government hasn’t done enough to encourage smaller ISPs. But Evans says the picture is changing as “there was a clear decision taken by BDUK to lower the barrier to entry and this has seen significant uptake from the likes of Gigaclear.”

On 5G and full-fibre, the picture appears murkier. Ofcom chief Sharon White has suggested Britain is being left behind, and indeed only 4% of UK premises currently have access to full-fibre broadband. This compares to 95% in Japan and South Korea, and 70% in Spain – a country not known for its digital leadership. Although significant projects are being led by the private sector, it’s clear the Government needs to do more.

Accessibility

Building world-class digital infrastructure is meaningless if people, and businesses, aren’t going to use it. Matthew Evans suggest 5G will be vital in “helping to digitise industrial sectors and provide specialised services,” but with the UK showing low take-up of digital technologies and less commitment to R&D than its rivals, it’s clear that demand has to be stimulated as well as supply.

The Government alluded to this in its digital strategy, talking boldly of “making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business”. The DCMS authors vowed to encourage “innovation-friendly” regulation while confirming a £4.7bn investment in R&D, announced in the previous Autumn Statement.

Although there have been few significant regulations since the strategy launch, there have been myriad funding pledges. Perhaps the most notable is the AI Sector Deal, a £1bn investment in AI announced in April. Backed by 50 leading companies, the deal will provide teacher training, regional hubs, and even a giant new supercomputer to galvanise Britain’s AI sector. Alongside this headline policy, the Government has promised to increase R&D spending to around 2.4% of GDP over the next decade and unveiled several smaller incentives, including R&D tax relief for small firms and the Nationwide Gigabyte Voucher Scheme, which helps SMEs fund their full-fibre switchover.

Yet detractors suggest these initiatives are fairly tame. The Confederation of British Industry, for example, suggests R&D spending should reach 3% of GDP,  far higher than the Government’s target, while its investment in AI pales against the sums being generated in China and the US. Furthermore, it seems the incentives are having only limited effect. A report published in March found that many small businesses weren’t even bothering to take up 4G broadband – so selling them on more advanced digital products could be a struggle.

Digital Skills

Theresa May’s administration has repeatedly stressed the importance of raising digital skill levels, and this is reflected in the digital strategy, which talks at length about “ensuring that everyone has the skills they need” without forcing them to pay. The document also announced the creation of a Digital Skills Partnership, designed to bring Government together with private sector leaders who can provide the training courses.

The DSP is co-chaired by Phil Smith, former CEO of Cisco UK. He told us that the body has already made progress: “What [the DCMS] asked for in the strategy was for companies to set up and provide training places, and at the moment there’s been two and a half million. It’s a big achievement. It’s not the whole problem, but it’s a great start.”

Smith is referring to the face-to-face training promised by Lloyds, the DSP’s key early-stage partner. But Lloyds isn’t alone; Barclays has pledged to teach basic coding to 45,000 children, while Google has pushed the Digital Garage programme, which has already trained over a quarter of a million people. The DCMS aims to create over four million training places in total, and the target certainly seems feasible at this point.

Will this be enough to bridge the UK’s digital skills gap? The answer appears to be no. Recent surveys suggest that over half of Britain’s digital companies face a skills shortage, and the situation is unlikely to improve while the number of school pupils taking computer science continues to fall. Phil Smith admits the Government is “probably not” meeting the challenge firmly enough, adding that “there isn’t an industry which doesn’t have digital skills as a shortcoming. We need to do more.”

Protection

With cyber-crime costing British consumers £130bn last year, the Government’s stance on protection and security  is arguably more important than any other aspect of its digital policy. People may not need digital skills and they may not care about the DCMS’s tech sector investment programmes, but everyone faces the risk of being robbed by hackers and scammers.

The digital strategy certainly addressed this issue, devoting lengthy sections to both data protection – the way companies treat customers’ digital information – and cyber-security. On the former issue, the Government’s policy boiled down to one little acronym. GDPR, the new EU-wide data protection legislation, was the cornerstone of the data protection section (unsurprisingly really, given it is such a powerful and wide-ranging piece of regulation). On the cyber-security front, the Government promised new cyber defence measures, a retraining programme for adults and a pair of cyber innovation centres to support infosec startups.

Ministers can claim progress on both fronts. GDPR has been incorporated onto the British statute book, and you’ll no doubt have received a deluge of messages from key service providers about their new data protection policy. Meanwhile the Government has delivered on a raft of cyber-security promises. An updated response strategy (or ‘DEFCON 1, 2 and 3’ as some dubbed it) was announced in April, providing clearer protocols for dealing with major hacks. The Cyber Retraining Academy, a 10-week crash course to train new infosec professionals, is now up and running and a ‘startup creche’ has been unveiled in London at a cost of £13m.

Despite these policies Britain continues to suffer alarming cyber breaches, such as the massive attack on retailer Dixons which began last July – and was only discovered last month. Yet Theresa May’s administration continues to push new measures to tackle cyber-security, such as the recent introduction of a minimum set of cyber-security standards for government departments, which has earned widespread acclaim. On cyber-security, at least, the Government seems determined to be a global leader, and should be praised for its proactiveness.

Overall, though, the Government’s digital strategy has been adequate rather than spectacular. There haven’t been too many tech sector investment programmes and critics will suggest this is a major drawback; Britain cannot become a digital leader without major investment in AI, full-fibre and other essential innovations. Yet the DCMS can certainly claim it has delivered on many of the key promises outlined in its flagship strategy blueprint, and as the uncertainty over Brexit begins to clear, perhaps we can expect more dynamic policies in the months ahead.

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