UK Government Digital Strategy

On 1-Mar-2017 the government announced a Digital Strategy. At best it was a woolly document, stringing together some initiatives that are already underway with expressions of hope. I was unable to find a clear indication of any additional funding.

I recently came across Richard Feynman’s “Do not fool yourself” comment which is very apt for this strategy.

Let’s address each section in turn (I will ignore Ministerial waffle and Executive Summary)

  1. Connectivity – building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK

Not much to argue with there except that the UK is well down the world table in terms of infrastructure – we are not eve the top 10 – well behind Romania, so we have some way to go there. Fast universal connection has been promised for years but has not materialised.

  1. Digital skills and inclusion – giving everyone access to the digital skills they need

Again, not much to argue about but note that the UK is ranked 28th in the PISA maths rankings and 14th in Science despite having the 4th highest provision of computers per pupil. So, the access should be there, the indication is that it isn’t being effectively exploited.

This is to be delivered by companies like Barclays – whose own IT is archaic and BT – whose customer service is appalling. There is not much to learn from these companies except how to do things badly.

  1. The digital sectors – making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business

If only this were true. It isn’t and outside London it is even less true. For example the north only has 4 companies in the top UK’s  “FutureFifty”. By population there should be 10-15 – depending on how rigorously you define the north . “Long-term there will be a “Treasury-led review of Patient Capital, to understand better where there are barriers to the growth of long-term investment.”

To succeed in the global market companies need this patient capital and there is not much of it about in the UK. Any strategy should also protect UK companies from predatory acquisitions as happened recently with ARM . ARM is a strategic company, unlike Cadburys, who also promised to increase jobs after their take-over by Kraft and then cut them.

  1. The wider economy – helping every British business become a digital business

I am all for this where it is appropriate (we don’t really want our power stations to be digital because of the security issues) but despite leading the world in ecommerce (apart from China and the USA), UK ecommerce businesses face major problems with Brexit. Huge efforts will be required to overhaul ecommerce systems and only those companies that do not export will be immune.

  1. A safe and secure cyberspace – making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online

This is also a good thing and long-overdue. For too long (at least 10 years) foreign companies have been stealing the IPR of British companies, including defence technology.

  1. Digital government – maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens online

There are big problems ahead here because the ambition to provide single cross-government platform services, including by working towards 25 million GOV.UK Verify users by 2020” is unlikely to be met. The problem being that GOV.UK Verify has major holes and if it gets 25 million users by 2020, I will do a Gary Linaker and appear on television in my underpants. Note the weaselly words (working towards 25m users).

  1. Data – unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving public confidence in its use

Much easier to say than to do. Despite Brexit the UK will implement GDPR but since the government itself breaches GDPR and is nowhere near able to unlock the “power of data in its own systems – “Fine words butter no parsnips”  to use a north of England expression.

Poverty of ambition

A small amount of money (£17.3m of already announced funding) is going into AI, which is one of, if not the, most critical digital technologies that we need to invest in. AI was heavily funded by the Alvey programme in the 1980s. Then came the second  “AI winter”. AI is a fascinating subject not only intellectually rigorous but full of interesting debate about its effect on our lives. I have been involved with AI since 1984 when I founded a company using Lisp Machines to tackle difficult problems, (mainly in defence/intelligence and finance).

£17.3m is not going to help much. The real thing we need are more UK nationals with at least a 10k hour BOK (Body of Knowledge) in AI related topics and our universities are failing to produce these. Each one of these costs around £250k to produce and we thousands i.e. a minimum of £250m.

AI is critical because it encompasses technologies such as autonomous vehicles, machine learning, automated translation, but other key technologies also need massive investment. Quantum computing is a game changer (and is getting investment) – critical to security. Blockchain is also getting funding

 

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