Manifestos - making the UK the IT place to be

March 2015

ParliamentThere will be a general election soon. In preparation many bodies have produced manifestos to try to influence government policy in the IT space. Are they asking for the right things? Brian Runciman MBCS reports on some of the manifestos and highlights some BCS reaction from a recent policy meeting.

According to Nesta UK (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) political manifestos have actually been quite successful in incorporating new trends - for example the rise of automation and the creation of the internet. However, they also caution that ‘they rarely set out clear policies for taking advantage of new trends, or for mitigating their risks.’

Noting that government is also poor at predicting the shocks that such trends can cause and taking into account the increasing speed of change in the digital landscape, getting the approach to national digital strategy right requires expert input.

As techUK has noted, the tech sector has outperformed the rest of the private sector over the last 10 years, and it recovered far more quickly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It will be even more important during the next parliamentary term and beyond

Key themes

The key themes that come out of these manifestos are:

  • UK startups and innovation;
  • tech in government services;
  • digital skills;
  • identity assurance and security;
  • European integration and global integration;
  • the workforce;
  • the legislative landscape;
  • the tech itself.

UK startups and innovation

The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec) report that the ‘UK’s internet economy makes over 8 per cent of GDP’ and predict that this will grow to 12 per cent by 2016. Also noting that the UK was the fastest growing economy in G20, it draws attention to the role of micro-entrepreneurs in creating innovative services. This means that innovation often has its roots in the startup environment, making it key to continued UK growth.

One problem Coadec draws attention to is that of funding, noting that whilst seed funding can be easier to get, taking ideas, products and innovations forward, which needs more funding, is increasingly tough.

Like many of the eight main themes there is cross-over with other areas. In this case job creation. The link is made explicit by e-Skills, in quoting the 2007 Kauffman Foundation study, which says that most job creation comes from entrepreneurship.

Coadec wants to create an ‘environment to encourage permission-less innovation where possible.’ eSkills adds a practical aspect to this with their view that every country in Europe needs a ‘jobs through e-entrepreneurship’ campaign. techUK sees even further, asking that we make the UK a ‘global hub for talent with a smart migration policy’ to attract wealth creators to the UK economy who can use and disseminate the skills needed to make innovative ideas fly.

What is BCS’s take on this? Simply that we should aspire to make the UK a melting pot for innovation.

The UK should be the destination for innovation in IT, and the organisations that can make this happen go beyond the exciting start-ups at digital roundabout to the bodies that take the lead in the profession, government, policy bodies and more.

Indeed, the BCS Entrepreneurs Specialist Group aims to engage with entrepreneurial communities to grow the digital ecosystem for the benefit of members and society, provide a real-time forum for existing and would-be entrepreneurs to network with an expert group of innovation stakeholders from government, established and emerging technology enterprises and digital support clusters.

Tech in government services

A phrase that comes up several times in the government services space is ‘government as a platform.’ Whilst it may be tempting to see this as buzzword creation, both Coadec and the Policy Exchange put some meat on the bones, with the idea that government should release APIs for government services, allowing others to innovate ‘on top’ of them.

techUK also discusses the use of commoditised and utility solutions to standardise functions and the sharing of data. If there is a need for bespoke services, which techUK concedes there may be, it adds the useful corollary that these be implemented in ways to promote further growth - for example allowing SMEs to reuse the intellectual property (IP) they may have originally developed for government contracts.

More specific suggestions come from the Policy Exchange, which thinks that the civil service competency framework should be updated to include IT skills and techUK suggests the next government should appoint a chief privacy officer to oversee and maintain public services.

As BCS notes, services are increasingly digital by default - and that’s a good thing. The Institute necessarily has this default position - indeed BCS already does a lot of good work in tandem with government, including influencing at the policy level. More specifically in recent years the Institute had a pivotal role in introducing a proper computer science curriculum for schools - and continues to support users with ECDL.

Digital skills

The need for improved and ongoing support for digital skills comes out loud and clear in nearly every manifesto available. As eSkills comments, one of the problems is Warholesque: ‘Today when you graduate you are set for, say, 15 minutes.’ But it also adds in the problem of the narrow field of view because ‘national IT policies tend to focus on developing basic IT skills.’

One of the problems is the digital inclusion gap. It is difficult to deliver digital skills when only 83 per cent of the population is online (Policy Exchange compares this to the 98 per cent plus penetration in Norway and Iceland).

The new computer science curriculum, which, as noted above, BCS was instrumental in bringing into being, is mentioned in several manifestos. Coadec notes that the suggested £3.5m to support teachers in their teaching of the new curriculum amounts to only £175 per school - unfavourably comparing that to the £15,000 per school that Jersey has provided - albeit with fewer schools.

Policy Exchange is even more parsimonious with its £3m pot for a competitive grant to fund third parties to deliver teacher training for the new curriculum.

On the same issue the UK Digital Skills Taskforce says a ‘minimum of £20m over the next Parliament’ is needed to assist teachers.

One suggestion to combat this issue comes from Coadec, which suggests incentives for startups to help train teachers. Where an entrepreneur would find the time may be another question - a job too far?

Conversely, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) says that investment in skills is ‘too heavily focused on young adults at expense of over 24s.’ And with the issue of extended working lives coming nearer then life-long learning becomes even more necessary.

As e-Skills notes the ‘full potential of egovernment will only be seen when the European population is connected to the internet and e-skilled.’

For the population at large e-Skills suggests a European standard for e-competency, calling for EU-wide indicators of digital competencies and media literacy. This follows an EU report showing that only 25 per cent of people self-report a high level of digital competency.

Some of this is about philosophy of course, as NIACE acknowledges with its view that ‘adults need to take ownership of their own learning and development.’ They put forward the idea of a personal skills account for all adults linked to an entitlement to career reviews to help people decide what skills development will work for them.

In the higher education space, Policy Exchange suggests removing the cap of 10 endorsements per academic institution from the Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur visa.

BCS has a lot of traction in the digital skills space - and it takes the view that there are certain baseline competencies that are needed to make digital skills training effective. These skills are needed to support growth - not just in education and large business organisations, but also SMEs and the civil service. This is not just an education piece - there is a disconnect with actually policy.

Lessons can and should be learnt from recent history. In the UK the education system has failed to educate those coming into IT, with a historic failure to educate at the school level in computer science disciplines and, whilst there is progress now, it could be said to be 20 years too late.

Technology is already at the core of all businesses. The House of Lords is currently undertaking a review of digital skills, and cyber skills have been added as an important part of this inquiry. BCS sees this as a good starting point in the vital upskilling process that needs to happen.

However there are caveats to this discussion. BCS notes that there is a strong sense of déjà vu about some of these initiatives. Similar discussions took place in Peter Mandelson’s knowledge economy drive in the 1990s. Now these things must be actioned.

One route that needs pursuing is ensuring that there is a tax regime that stimulates growth, especially as the EU already looks to the UK as a good exemplar in this area. 

And what about IT professionalism and digital skills in the civil service itself? Reportedly, no government departments are pushing for continuous professional development - an area BCS understands, can promote and views as vital for the development of the industry.

To help the public at large take advantage of digital services it was suggested by BCS that there could be incentives and help made available so the public can all use them. There also needs to be confidence in the system, as there are still fraud issues and perceptions of cyber-danger that put users off. People will be reluctant to access online services if there are no assurances.

End-to-end services should be securely coded. The example of GDS, which has developed products and services that people want to use, was mentioned. But, in the end, BCS wants people to use digital services because they are the easiest way rather than because of incentives.

Identity assurance and security

For members of the public this is a big issue. The Policy Exchange put forward the concept of an independent data ethics committee. Its idea is that this would include not only representatives from government, business, the charity sector and legal groups, but from citizens groups as well. It sees the creation of a Code for Responsible Analytics to guide the government in the responsible use of data. If this included collection and re-use issues, that would be a good approach.

European and global integration

A European Commission report from 2014 ‘Does digital tech create or kill jobs?’ suggests that the skills gap is larger in UK than in the rest of the EU. techUK mentions tech exports and recommends that the next government should appoint a ‘Digital Trade Czar based in FCO.’

The work force

A number of the above points could be added to the issues around the digital and IT workforce. Coadec usefully asks how the UK can improve talent access. (see ‘Further Reading’ links). Should the UK improve access to non-EEA countries?

Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas come up again here: Tech City can make 200 Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa applications - is that enough? Certainly Coadec recommends relaxing the eligibility criteria, with the idea of enriching the local workforce.

For BCS an interesting angle here is professionalism, long a campaign point. eSkills talks about the new principles of the 21st century: ‘collaboration, openness, sharing, interdependence and integrity.’ We may well ask where professionalism is here.

The legislative landscape

The legal aspects of IT, from data protection, use of big data and perceptions of the public to the allowing of data use to benefit UK business are huge - and get bigger when the EU and global context is taken into consideration.

Coadec comments on data protection, mentioning that because startups and SMEs lack the resources of larger companies they can be particularly affected by well-meaning but poorly thought out provisions. They also acknowledge the historical problem: pre-digital law and regulation do not take into account such things as ‘the value of user ratings, social trust, GPS tracking and verified online IDs.’

Again a general philosophy could be a good starting point. Policy Exchange maintains that there should be a presumption that a citizen is in control of their own data - very much in keeping with web-creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s recent comments on the subject, with which BCS agrees.

It goes on to say that DP legislation should focus on use rather than the collection of data, quoting the stunning figure that HMRC has 80 times as much data as the British Library.

Policy Exchange recommends that the government conduct annual reviews to ensure that legislation and the regulatory and legal systems on intellectual property keep pace with technical change. Is this laudable goal realistic or even workable?

techUK mentions the recent and much debated ‘right to be forgotten’ and how that fits in with the concepts of free speech and personal data and reputation. It calls it a retrograde step with unintended consequences, perhaps an example of being badly ‘affected by well-meaning provisions’ mentioned by Coadec.

BCS views: EU and regulation

The UK has had an uneasy relation with the EU, beyond the toing and froing of political posturing. The Institute aims to take the global view into account too. The internet is global and therefore should be talked about in a global context - and not all EU views are shared globally. 

EU data protection and privacy legislation is seen as being too protectionist. This endangers potential innovation and growth - fortress Europe. Whilst the US view is freedom of information and speech, it is poor around the issue of net neutrality. The UK should consider itself to be in a position to enlighten and present a pathway to follow - the best of both worlds.

To its credit the EU is pushing digital skills in education, but in its regulatory frameworks is less forward-thinking. For example, there is no regulation for filtering of material linked to terrorists - no regulatory process around what should be censored.

Regulation is a two-edged sword. There is a danger of over-regulation, which could stifle business and restrict freedoms - especially as UK PLC’s success is increasingly based on services provided over the internet. 

The BCS view is that generally the UK approach is ahead in aspiration and delivery. However, there are issues around identity assurance. There is a polarisation in legislation around data and privacy - with the UK excluded from many international talks.

Interestingly in the EU, Estonia is said to be the most innovative, with the UK held back somewhat with too much legacy as it moves from heavy industry. Progress needs to be sped up.

The tech itself

What about the hardware, the metal itself?

Coadec says that the UK needs to continue to invest in superfast broadband and raise the level of ambition for digital infrastructure. Especially taking into consideration where the next areas of growth for IT are likely to be. According to figures from the techUK report, these are (with value estimates):

  • IoT $7.3bn by 2017;
  • wearables $70bn 2024;
  • 5G 40 fold increase by 2018;
  • robotics $29bn 2018;
  • autonomous vehicles £28bn by 2020.

As techUK notes these tech trends are disruptive and global.

Three interesting views come up here: Coadec suggest that ‘most investment in digital infrastructure should be funded by the private sector.’ But we may well ask where that leaves less well-populated areas, which are more expensive to get to.

The Policy Exchange gives a specific example of opening data use, saying that ‘Ordnance Survey should cease to be a trading fund and be removed from the Shareholder Executive to make their maps and data free to use.’

techUK asks for the creation of a major new IoT programme to clearly articulate the nation’s ambition to be a world leader in IoT.

BCS views: The impact on the individual

IT should always be centred on people. So, as mentioned above, this starts with the UK taking a leadership role in having skills legislation that encourages innovation.

For the elderly there seems to be no mileage in persuading them to up-skill and there is no money from government to do that. They need to cut costs and cannot afford to offer telephone support. This means that the interface needs to be functional and simple to use.

As mentioned before, Estonia is an interesting case - a place where everyone is online. Could that be the aim for the UK? This raises questions on the extent of the role of government and where it should cross-over with the private sector on, for example, the rollout of high-speed broadband to the whole population, regardless of the geographic difficulty in doing so.

The government also has a huge role in protecting citizens’ data. As technologies, app-driven experiences and online traffic volumes have increased, has the idea of consent been made no longer viable?

The BCS skills agenda should include educating parliamentarians - they are making decisions based on briefings that may not give a full enough picture. The BCS campaign strand on professionalism includes the idea of accountability - and whilst we would not expect parliamentarians to be held to the standards of a fully-fledged IT professional, education at this level is paramount.

The pace of change outstrips legislation easily. We are facing a future of work that will include driverless vehicles, computerised health diagnoses (see Watson), streams of data coming from personal databases and autonomous machines on the IoT - possibly anonymised, possibly de-anonymisable.

Individual citizens need to know where they stand, have a clear view of their rights and expectations and a way of keeping abreast with the implications of change. Notable IT systems failures in the past have made people wary, with the feeling that adequate security controls are not yet in place. We have not yet reached the point where citizens make decisions based on trust of government.

This document is ‘live’ and developing - BCS members can give their views on the issues raised - and see other comments - via the BCS Policy Hub.

Image: iStock/466772258

Comments (1)

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    Roger Smith MBCS wrote on 24th Apr 2015

    You mention the legislative landscape, but not cyber in the context of national defence, surely a growing threat.

    UKIP believes it is time for a review of what is and is not a criminal offence. The emphasis of such a review is likely to be on...processes for internet/cyber crime.

    UKIP would create a new over-arching role of Director of National Intelligence (subject to confirmation hearing by the relevant Commons Select Committee), who would be charged
    with...developing cyber security measures.

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