Do you remember our blog, way back in February about the House of Lords Digital Committee and its recommendations for the incoming government? The committee’s report was called, “Make or Break: the UK’s Digital Future”. It recommended the new government establish a single, cohesive Digital Agenda. There was quite a lot of comment about this in the national and trade media at the time; it’s always easy to jump on a bandwagon that says ‘something must be done’ and we know bad news sells papers. In fact, we did the same with our original blog piece…but what’s happened since then?
As I’m sure you have noticed, we now have a new government. They have now (July 2015) published their response to that House of Lords report. Try Googling it and see if you can find the media picking up the story. I searched on the website of one of the major computing publications and although the original story was there (dated February), there was nothing about the government’s response. That’s a pity, because, if you agree, as I do, that the Lords highlighted a lot of important issues, then the way the new government responds is not just important for our industry but for the economy, and hence the country (i.e. all of us) and therefore deserves a bigger audience. So what does the new Conservative government have to say?
Well, I am no expert at government–speak, but it seems to have been written by a Sir Humphrey. For example…
“The Government agrees that it is important to regularly review and evaluate the UK’s progress in achieving its digital objectives. A report will be provided to Parliament via a Written Ministerial Statement in summer 2016, which will give an update on progress in meeting the Government’s digital commitments.
“Processes have also been put in place to ensure that the Government frequently reviews and evaluates digital activity. In May 2015, the Government announced the formation of the Digital Infrastructure and Inclusion Implementation Taskforce which will meet frequently, ensuring that the Government’s key digital objectives are regularly reviewed, with a clear focus on expediting delivery. The Taskforce will provide quarterly reports to Cabinet, ensuring there is a sustained high-level focus on the UK’s digital competitiveness at the highest levels of government”.
Anyone who has read any books about the work of ministers and government will realise that this is textbook stuff. However, what is really interesting – and again, to be fair, good - is the response to the Lords’ committee’s fifth recommendation, viz,
“This Government is committed to meeting ambitious objectives to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of digital transformation. In addition to work already in train, attached at Annex A is a list of the publicly announced digital manifesto commitments, which will be delivered over the course of this Parliament. These set out a number of stretching objectives, which will ensure the UK has the right infrastructure and basic digital skills for the UK to adopt and be at the forefront of maximising the benefits of new technology”.
That sounds better, but it’s whether these things happen that matters. Annex A is the interesting bit. Here it is:
Annex A: Key digital manifesto commitments
- Roll out universal broadband and better mobile phone connections to ensure everyone is part of the digital economy;
- Ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable;
- Invest in infrastructure to give the most comprehensive and cheapest superfast broadband coverage of any major European country;
- Delivering superfast broadband in urban and rural areas to provide coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017;
- Subsidising the cost of installing high speed-capable satellite services in the very hardest to reach areas;
- Release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private access;
- Holding mobile operators to their legally-binding commitment to ensure that 90 per cent of the UK landmass will have voice and SMS coverage by 2017;
- Continue to invest in mobile infrastructure to deliver coverage for voice calls and text messages for the final 0.3-0.4% of premises that do not currently have it;
- Ensure the UK is a world leader in the development of 5G and plays a leading role in defining industry standards;
- Fit out trains with new wifi equipment in England and Wales;
- Provide free wifi in libraries and ensure remote access to e-books without charge and with appropriate compensation for authors that enhances the Public Lending Right scheme;
- Roll out cross-government technology platforms such as GOV.UK to cut
costs and improve productivity while actively tackling digital exclusion and ensuring digital assistance is always available for those not online.
There are some potentially weasel words in here. For example, “Ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable” (my emphasis), and then there is the “95% coverage” promised for superfast broadband (is this 95% of households or 95% of the landmass – especially given that ‘landmass’ is specifically mentioned in a subsequent commitment?). However, there are a lot of commitments that look, on the face of it, to be pretty straightforward (although at the end of the day easily ignored as non-vote winners?). It will be instructive to look at these commitments over the course of this government and see whether the promises are kept. Now before you throw things at the screen, shouting “they’re politicians stupid, of course they’ll break their promises!”, bear with me… We really will have a look at this once a year on our blog, and try to find out what, if any, progress has been made. Mind you, if there has been none, or little, I suspect the mainstream media will let us know first. Bad news sells (digital) papers! And if nothing does happen that would be the real tragedy.
Gareth Biggerstaff, MD, Be-IT Resourcing