I don't send official advice to Ministers these days. But if I did, it might go a little something like this.
20 May 2015
Submission: Digital and Technology Policy 2015-2020
Summary: Digital and technology policy is a critical enabler for a growing economy, stronger society and more effective public sector. The importance of getting a whole range of interconnected policy choices right will only increase over the next five years. This submission outlines some of the most important issues for you to consider.
Following the 2015 general election it is time to take stock across the full range of domestic and international policy briefs. This two-page submission provides a very short overview of some of the most pressing issues in UK digital and technology policy. It is necessarily selective, and in the space available can only begin to sketch out the sorts of questions that you and your team will have to tackle. Nevertheless, it should provide you with a useful overview and a frame for more detailed discussions over the weeks and months ahead.
This submission highlights five broad policy areas that will shape the digital and technology agenda for the next parliament. Although responsibility for them falls across a number of different government departments, all are interlinked and all have a direct impact on citizens and businesses. You will achieve the biggest impact, both in economic and social terms, by considering these topics in the round and using your convening power at the heart of government to drive progress in a coherent and determined manner.
Eight in ten households have broadband, and already more than a quarter of these are on superfast connections. There are investment plans in place to extend superfast broadband networks to cover 95 per cent of the UK, and the latest round of 4G licences includes a requirement for at least one operator to cover 98 per cent of the UK. There are three big strategic issues on the horizon. First, finding a solution for the final five per cent, where there may never be a commercial case for the capital investment required. Second, ensuring that mass-market provision is able to cope with people’s rapidly increasing appetite for bandwidth. And third, enabling sufficient innovation and competition at the top end of the market where there is increasing demand for ever greater performance. You will need to confront the natural monopolies that can arise in telecommunications networks, and ensure that the regulator has the wherewithal required to operate effectively in a rapidly changing market.
For most people the internet is just another part of day-to-day life, but for some the digital world remains out of reach. As things stand, two in ten adults in the UK lack the basic digital skills required to get things done online. Compared to their peers this group tends to be older and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. There is no silver bullet for digital inclusion; 10 million people will need help on a one-to-one, side-by-side basis, and there is no escaping the fact that this is resource intensive. Closing the digital divide will cost around £1 billion over the lifetime of the parliament. You are likely to find that the best delivery vehicles are beyond the state, with charities, mutuals and social enterprises better equipped to deliver the local and hyperlocal interventions required. Although funding this would not be a trivial undertaking, the investment would more than pay for itself by removing the last major obstacle to shifting the public sector to a true digital-by-default model for service provision (see below).
As more and more of our lives move online some difficult issues are getting magnified, with attendant questions to be resolved about the role of the state. Dealing with cybercrime, access to pornography, control of personal data and surveillance are all areas that need a more sophisticated approach, because over-simplistic or technologically naive solutions risk massive collateral damage and / or being self-defeating in the long run. In particular you will need to manage the risk that, in the rush to be seen to be acting, your actions erode civil liberties and undermine markets. Previous suggestions for a ban on end-to-end encryption and default blocking of websites both represent a considerable consolidation of state power and disempower citizens. This set of issues contains some of the most challenging trade-offs and presentational decisions that you will have to make. Doing this transparently and with clear accountability and oversight will go a long way toward finding a better way through.
The digital, high-tech and creative economies are essential to our future prosperity, job creation and success in the global economy. We have already covered some of the prerequisites for this, like world-class digital infrastructure and an operating environment that enables trust-based transactions to take place. Beyond this the biggest issue by far is around skills. The UK is not alone in facing a dramatic shortfall of good software developers, engineers and other scientific and creative professionals. In the long run this can and should be solved by reforms to science and technology education, starting in primary schools and running all the way through to funding universities and R&D. In the short run you will face increasing pressure to revisit your stance on immigration, or risk many high potential businesses leaving the UK to access global talent pools (or, indeed, establish themselves overseas in the first place). You can also expect more instances of disruptive, tech-based businesses colliding with incumbents seeking special protection, and continued scrutiny of the tax rules for multinationals.
Significant progress was made during the last parliament building up digital capacity at the centre of government. In the years ahead you will need to finish the job, by bringing all government transactions into scope for end-to-end digitisation based on user needs. Alongside this, the work that is starting on “government as a platform” should help you close down wasteful duplication of common components like bookings and payments systems that should be re-used across the public sector. All of this has the potential to deliver very significant savings; you can use some of this to fund deficit reduction, and some to fund increases in front-line capacity in priority areas like health and social care. There is also unfinished business on open data and transparency, and a pressing need to start driving digital efficiencies through the labyrinth of local government.
For much of this the devil will be in the detail. In addition to taking advice from officials across the relevant departments, you would be well advised to bring in external expertise - particularly in areas where the technological considerations and / or the ensuing moral and ethical issues are complex. Doing this early will help avoid unnecessary about-turns later, and help restore trust that government is prepared to treat these issues seriously and in an open and informed manner.