The general election is fast approaching and one of the key concerns for the future incumbent of Number 10, Downing Street, whichever political party they represent, is how to secure Britain’s digital future.
Technology is a hugely empowering phenomenon, but it can take a back seat as policy, understandably, focuses on the traditional “big issues” of housing, immigration and healthcare. However, the next government has the opportunity to incorporate technology into its policy from an early stage and benefit from improved collaboration and efficiency.
It seems that this year, the major parties recognise the importance of the digital economy to the UK’s future. The recently released manifestos are keen to stress how technology will be used to advance the entire country, but whether or not the next government will follow through with these promises remains to be seen.
In any case, we’ve taken a look at the five most important issues that we’d like to see recognised by a truly Digital Government.
An easy one to promise, but less easy to deliver. Superfast broadband is a vote-winner, because it concerns a form of technology that pretty much everyone understands and appreciates – the Internet.
As a result, all the major parties are making assurance regarding better connectivity in the years to come. The Conservatives are committed to 95 per cent broadband access by 2017 and promise to rollout ultrafast networks as soon as possible. To varying degrees, Labour and the Liberal Democrats also reiterated the need for the UK to have a strong broadband infrastructure in place by the end of the next parliament.
The main aim of a digital government should be to put Britain on a level playing field with the rest of the world when it comes to online access. Recent statistics from Akamai give the UK a worldwide ranking of 18th concerning Internet speeds, behind Latvia, Romania and Denmark. If the UK is to compete economically on the world stage, it needs better online access.
Expand Tech City
Silicon Roundabout, or Tech City, has been one of the genuine positives to emerge from the UK economy over the last few years. The area has been supported by a mixture of government funding, multi-national companies and domestic entrepreneurial spirit to help create jobs and new businesses.
However, if one was to ask people in Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow about the benefits of Tech City, you probably won’t receive many answers. One of the key aims for the next government is to ensure that the economy is not as London-centric as it has been in the past and one way to ensure this is to encourage digital businesses to take root elsewhere.
The Tories have pledged to treble the current startup loans initiative, but gave no indication as to whether this would focus on certain geographical areas. The Lib Dems, however, are committed to the creation of more technology clusters, including Tech North and Tech Cambridge.
For a digital government to look after the best interests of the entire country, it must look beyond the capital.
The problem with cyber security and national governments is that they are both usually reactive, content to wait for a problem to happen before solving it.
Of course, that could lead to disastrous results, so the next government needs to be vigilant against cyberattacks that could strike at any moment and come from anywhere. The Conservative manifesto promised to “strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs,” but some will be concerned that this will translate into more government surveillance and even less privacy.
One useful recommendation from the Labour Party manifesto is ensuring that every external company that works with the Ministry of Defence must sign a cybersecurity charter.
The real test for the next government, however, is getting the balancing act right between robust security and maintaining individual privacy.
Technology is only as useful as the people operating it allow and with that in mind the next government must try to improve the level of digital education in the UK.
The introduction of the Computing curriculum in schools is a start, but simply giving children the option of learning code is not enough. Schools must try encourage pupils to take the subject by stressing how important programming is to the present and future economy. There should also be a drive to get more girls interested in coding, as the uptake is currently low.
Digital skills courses are also key for the next government and could have far reaching benefits. By giving people the know-how to use technology, the government could help bring down unemployment and improve the economy.
If the next government is to truly embrace digital technology, it must look closer to home before it starts pushing policies externally.
Making sure the government is as digitally aware as possible is a great way of cutting down on bureaucracy and improving efficiency. The government has already looked to embrace technology to an extent with its Government Digital Service (GDS) and the G-Cloud, but more can still be done.
The Liberal Democrat’s proposal to introduce a Technology Impacts Assessment is one way of determining what benefits new technology can bring and needs to be implemented across all areas of government activity.
Read more: General Election 2015 manifesto round-up
If national and local governments are fully-equipped with the best technological tools available to them, it is likely to lead to improved productivity and better results for society as a whole.