What the country needs to see in the Government’s imminent digital strategy
The government’s digital strategy is expected imminently.
For most of 2016, the Government have been promising its release and quietly, subtly they have been attempting to dampen down expectations.
We absolutely shouldn’t let them because this is a time when expectations and ambitions need to be urgently ramped up.
The former Digital Economy Minister agreed at the end of last year; when still in post he announced that the Digital Strategy would signal “the next frontier in the digital revolution”.
He said and I quote “Early next year, we’ll set out a new Digital Strategy for the UK, looking to the next five years. Working with colleagues across government it will set the agenda for the rest of the Parliament on digital, so that the UK continues to lead the way.”
He set four ambitions as part of that strategy: “transform day-to-day life”, “transform government”, “unlock digital growth” and “build the foundations of a digital economy”.
But one year later and the Government have so far remained silent. Industry, tech start-ups, consumers and commentators are worried it is late because they have so little to say and the fact they are looking to sneak it out at the end of the Parliamentary session tells you all you need to know about this Government’s ambitions for digital: second-best, an after-thought.
But we shouldn’t let their ambitions dampen our own, so that’s why we should be shouting about what we want to see. This strategy should lay the foundations for the next frontier in this revolution.
Built on two principles: Access anywhere and access for all.
1. Access anywhere:
The starting point is that everyone must shares in the benefits of our modern digital society. Broadband and mobile coverage are no longer nice-to-haves but essentials.
75% of businesses report broadband is critical to their needs and the number of individuals accessing data from smartphone has doubled in just four years to nearly two thirds of the population.
Britain though is languishing in the slow-lane. For ultra-fast broadband we don't even make it onto the table for European economies so poor is our coverage and for 4G coverage as Lord Adonis’ report showed the UK is well behind much of the developed world; many A-roads, rural areas and even city locations struggle to access it for all networks.
The weak target the government set industry is simply not good enough and if the Government are still only aiming for 90% voice & text 2G coverage by 2017, nowhere near acceptable.
So we need to see the Government set ambitious new targets for broadband and mobile and we need to see government plans and carve-outs for the roll-out of 5G so we don’t find ourselves at the back of the queue once again in the years to come.
The Universal Service Obligation highlights the Government’s limited ambition, particularly for rural communities; just 10mbps, well below superfast status.
There is no doubt that there is a coalition of support for a much more ambitious USO. However, I fear that if the Government presses ahead at basic broadband speed by the time it is introduced, the USO will already be becoming seriously outdated and, indeed, by 2020, it may feel like a relic of a bygone age.
2. Access for all
A few figures paint a stark picture. 700,000 better-paid, intermediate-skilled jobs have gone in a decade and if current trends continue technological change in the future could make that situation worse not better. Nine million low-skilled people could be chasing four million jobs.
Meanwhile, perversely, there will be a shortage of three million workers to fill 15 million high-skilled jobs by 2022.
That’s why we need an urgent effort to drive up digital inclusion. It is not just important; it’s urgent.
Because with 12.6 million people in the UK lacking basic digital skills, if we do not quickly embrace this technological change we risk the exact same communities who were left behind when our manufacturing base collapsed being left behind as our digital economy starts roaring.
But at the moment social exclusion and digital exclusion go hand in hand with some 60% of those without basic digital skills having no qualifications either.
And the UK has removed access to free learning for most adults and the adult education budget is suffering a real-terms cut.
For older adults the Government will only fund digital training up to GCSE; offering no opportunity for the vast majority of people to retrain and get a job in the process.
We need a bold programme which targets communities left behind for three decades and brings the benefits of the digital revolution directly to them:
That’s why we back a programme to get Britain as close as possible to 100% basic digital literacy, making sure nobody is left behind.
And we’re calling on the Government to urgently introduce new policies that move people from low pay to a living wage by acquiring new skills.
It’s why we also back the introduction of a Second Chance Career Fund to help older workers at risk from technological change to retrain and why we think public funding should be made available to people over the age of 24 with low-skills who want to retrain and get into skilled work.
For Labour, digital inclusion is an issue of social justice.
But a proper strategy wouldn't stop there. There's much more to do.
Protecting the digital workforce
But while the digital economy is heralding an unprecedented opportunity for many; for the more than a million workers employed within the industry the reality is often very different.
Too often they will find themselves overworked, underpaid and exploited by bosses they never meet and who do not even fulfil their basic duties as an employer.
This is the dark side of our digital economy. A force which, for consumers, is heralding an era of choice and flexibility is on the flip side allowing enormous companies to exploit workers in novel, cynical ways and make a tidy profit in doing so.
Uber is the totemic example of that: their “workers” who pay them commission for every taxi-ride completed are not guaranteed breaks, holiday pay or even the national living wage. Indeed, astonishingly Uber did not even recognise them as their employees.
It is a bitter irony that a force which is making this one of the most inter-connected eras in history, has left many workers more isolated than ever before.
For the Tories, who have promised to look out for those ‘just managing’ they seem to have been blindsided by the challenges facing those most enterprising of workers in our economy. The Digital Economy Bill currently going through Parliament does not even give one mention to workers, such is its lack of ambition or indeed comprehension. That’s why we desperately need action.
But with digital increasingly transforming our lives there will be a need to build digital resilience.
For our children increasingly making use of smart-phones without the controlling influence of parents; for those who need to be brought up to speed on cyber resilience & security.
That’s why Labour want to see online education become a key part of the school curriculum. So children can learn best methods to keep safe online, can ask questions in a safe environment about what they may see online and to teach them about healthy relationships which may be affected by what they see online.
It is enormously disappointing that the Government rejected our small measures in the Digital Economy Bill on this area, but Labour Lords will be pushing the Government to act.
And with cyber security resilience for UK firms taking a troubling tumble in the past year, we believe legislative action is needed on cyber security reporting.
The landscape around data ownership has completely altered since the Data Protection Act was introduced. The parameters and ethics of big data need to be considered and we need to have a national debate in the form of a commission looking at how our personal data is used.
The news that the insurer Admiral had been banned by Facebook from trawling for data on their platform to set insurance premiums was welcome, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. The Government must take this seriously.
Government as a digital champion
To oversee all this will require concerted government action and a digital champion at the heart of government. That is one of the fundamental recommendations of the Lord Adonis' infrastructure report:
With the continuing troubles facing the Government Digital Service, we have seen the downgrading of digital at the heart of a transformation in the face of intense Whitehall opposition. But this gets to a broader point about the lack of clear leadership at the heart of Government. Put simply, to oversee this enormous change in our economy we need a champion at the heart of government.
As Lord Adonis said “there must be a single part of government, with senior ministerial and official leadership and supported by a well-equipped and powerful unit, that is responsible for setting the UK’s overarching plan for digital infrastructure and ensuring that it is delivered in a coordinated way.”
That's why the digital economy needs to be given the priority it deserves in Government.
The Government promised the Digital Strategy would lay the foundations for the fourth industrial revolution. Let’s hope we’re not disappointed.