A Tech Strategy for an evolving society

UK think tank Policy Exchange recently published its Technology Manifesto, outlining a vision of how Britain can become a “world leader in using technology for positive ends.” The centre-right organisation’s report homes in on three main goals: building a connected and digitally skilled society; making Britain the leading e-commerce hub outside of Silicon Valley; and developing smarter government through the use of technology and data. We take a look at the arguments and recommendations in the Manifesto.

The authors say that getting online is of key importance for citizens, with career and educational opportunities opening up that scarcely existed ten years ago. However, the UK is “still a long way from achieving this goal for everyone.” Almost ten million people do not have basic online skills like using email or search engines. The report argues that Government should aim for the UK to have the world’s highest rate of digital skills by 2020, and that while the sum of £875 million thought to be needed to make this happen is “considerable,” this investment can lead to almost two billion in savings every year by making more services digital-only.
Broadband is another area requiring greater commitment from Government. The report says: “Instead of stipulating a specific absolute minimum speed [current policies aim for 24Mbps for 95 per cent of the population by 2017 and 2Mbps for the remaining five per cent], those not covered by the superfast broadband policy should be guaranteed access to baseline connectivity that rises relative to the median speeds of the whole country.”
Other recommendations include: reforming the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to make it easier to roll out high-speed broadband; prioritising internet safety education; and making a “clear commitment that it will only seek to block websites that are illegal,” so that decisions to block content are declared publicly. The authors say that data protection legislation should focus on “the use rather than the collection of data,” emphasising safety and fairness without hampering innovation, and that where public services involve the disclosure of personal data, citizens should have control over how it is used. Finally, the report calls for a “competitive grant pot” of £3 million annually to fund the upskiling of teachers.

According to the Technology Manifesto, the companies with the greatest power to boost the economy are “high-impact, high-growth technology businesses that can give birth to new industries, create thousands of jobs, and make a major contribution to UK GDP.” Some of the obstacles in the way of the digital economy are: a shortage of UK STEM graduates, combined with visa regulations that turn away digitally skilled people from overseas; a lack of investment, in particular a failure to attract foreign direct investment (FDI); and insufficient help for startups in protecting copyright and intellectual property.
The authors recommend reinstating the two-year Post-Study Work Visa for skilled STEM graduates from overseas, removing restrictions on universities endorsing students for the Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa, and doing away with the salary threshold in Tier 2 Visa requirements. Other suggestions on getting around the skills shortage include signing up top graduate employers to schemes that enable the most skilled graduates to work in or found startups, and granting employers ease of dismissal in exchange for forfeiting non-compete clauses and intellectual property claims on employees’ work.
The report advises that Government should aim to bring in half of all software FDI in Europe, and that annual reviews and technology impact assessments should be carried out to ensure that legislation keeps pace with technology. The authors also call for Government to lead negotiations on the European Digital Single Market and to tackle crime by allocating more money from the National Cyber Security Programme (NCSP).

With public services “under constant pressure to deliver more with less,” the report calls to intensify efforts to make government “smarter.” While the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has streamlined the online provision of government services and made impressive savings since its creation in 2010, the authors say that more needs to be done: “The government provides more than 770 transactional services, but around half of these do not offer any digital option at all.” The Technology Manifesto says that there needs to be a greater focus on using standardised technology across Government departments, making use of data analytics, and harnessing open data to “spur innovation.”
The authors recommend making the most used 150 government transactions digital by default and committing to the Government as a Platform (GAAP) model, in order to reduce departments’ dependence on bespoke software. They say that the Civil Service competency framework should be updated “to ensure that every individual working in government has a baseline level of ability in critical thinking, quantitative analysis and digital skills.”
Some of the other recommendations for Government are: making electronic purchasing the default choice; eliminating paper transactions; installing an Advanced Analytics Team in the Cabinet Office; and requiring public sector bodies to declare on a government data portal what non-personal datasets they hold.

The report argues that the biggest challenge for policy makers is keeping up with the staggering pace of technological change: “New technologies offer opportunities and risks that have no precedent; regulation too often reflects the pre-digital era.” The authors’ key message is that it is no longer good enough to treat technology as an adjunct to the ‘main’ policy areas: “From education to healthcare and from energy to transport, no policy area is immune from its influence. It is the foundation on which Britain’s economic future will depend.”


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