William Newton is UK director at WiredScore, which certifies buildings for their internet connectivity
As the government returns from summer, newly reshuffled Matt Hancock MP is taking the reins as the Minister for Digital and Culture. But there’ll be no gentle bedding in; he immediately comes up against some big challenges.
He’s faced with a technology sector bruised and fearful about its future following Brexit; a severe skills shortage; strong demands to maintain George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse investment; and most concerning – no digital strategy.
Why do we need a plan?
The government’s digital strategy is long overdue. Specifically, we need a committed and credible plan to strengthen the dual pillars of an increasingly tech-driven economy: digital skills and infrastructure. The UK’s digital economy makes up the greatest percentage of its GDP of all European nations, but this should be a cause for action not complacency.
Our inability to fill roles that require digital skills costs the UK £2 billion annually. Until recently, highly skilled immigrants have provided some relief to companies; however, should Brexit negotiations result in even more stringent immigration controls, the cost to the UK economy could skyrocket.
The UK needs a clear strategy on how to upskill the nation, both in terms of the current working generation and the next – which includes an immigration system that welcomes rather than shuns top tech talent.
Despite repeated designations as a ‘top priority’ (even Jeremy Corbyn listed it in his ‘Digital Bill of Rights’), the lamentable state of Britain’s internet infrastructure continues to limit businesses across the country. Nearly a third of British SMEs are still without access to super-fast broadband and 130,000 businesses receive speeds below 10Mbps.
Whether accessing cloud-based software, ecommerce platforms or even just sending emails, technology is pretty fundamental to most businesses. It’s tough to ‘move fast and break things’ when you can’t upload an attachment to your email.
And with an exit from the European Union on the horizon, clarity on the UK’s involvement in the Digital Single Market is essential to ascertain what role the country can take in asserting its digital leadership.
Retaining access is crucial – and thankfully part of Theresa May’s plans – with the House of Commons BIS Committee already having warned how uncertainty around a post-Brexit Britain’s access to the Digital Single Market could further drain investor confidence, with organisations relocating to other European countries to take advantage of it.
Put your Brexit money where your mouth is
But beyond strategy, what is needed to help the UK become a truly digital nation is investment. Throughout the referendum campaign, the Leave campaign assured us that our exit from the EU would result in a substantial return of funds to Britain, which could then be used to invest in our services and programmes.
And in these turbulent times post-Brexit, we need to make sure that this money materialises and is invested, with consideration, to best bolster the growth of the UK economy.
As the UK discovers its new place in the world economy, there are few certainties. But one of them is that all of us citizens, not simply tech entrepreneurs, will need to be comfortable in a digital future. Our jobs are going to be more tech reliant. If ever there was a sure bet for investment, digital skills would be it.
We need more children, especially girls, studying STEM subjects at secondary school and university. To do this, we need to attract the best candidates into teaching and provide them with the resources needed to do so successfully. We need to demystify tech to make it seem more approachable, chiefly by promoting female tech leaders. We should also focus some of this parliament’s promised 3 million apprenticeships on digital jobs.
As more citizens participate in a digital economy, greater demands will be placed on our digital infrastructure, only amplifying the need for further investment in broadband and connectivity. Whatever happens with the ownership of Openreach, providing greater incentives and more deals to ISPs to roll out better broadband to all areas of the country will provide the greater coverage as well as speed that’s needed for the whole of the UK to be included in the 21st Century.
Since he’s already spent some time overseeing the government’s own unfinished digital transformation, Matt Hancock will understand the necessity of supporting British businesses in their pursuit of digital.
But with all the power grabs already occurring in the new cabinet as the new departments jostle for money, securing such funding won’t be easy.
The big question is – does he have a strategy and will he fight for it?