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All-party recipe for digital UK



As the political calendar returns to normal with the opening of the main party conference season this week, lobby groups are busy bending ears with suggestions for upcoming party manifestos. On the digital front, TechUK, the organisation formerly known as Intellect and, before that, the Computing Services and Software Association, has set the ball rolling with a policy wish-list "Securing our digital future".

Little of its content will be controversial. The manifesto assures politicians "UK voters believe that innovation has a vital role to play in improving health and social care, the provision of better public services such as education and the availability of secure and affordable energy."

It opens by reminding readers of the strengths of the "tech sector" which "has outperformed the rest of the private sector over the last 10 years and recovered far more quickly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis". Looking to the next five years, "The UK has an opportunity not just to be one of the world's leading digital economies but to use digital technologies to address the long-term social and economic challenges that will determine our future". 

Realising that opportunity requires strong leadership, the manifesto recognises. For a start "all government departments should have a ministerial post that clearly has digital within its portfolio". Together, these ministers "should come together within a strengthened ministerial digital task force". TechUK also wants a chief privacy officer in government - and a "digital trade czar" based in the foreign office. 

Familiar demands for long-term thinking on R&D and action on skills shortage appear in a section on securing the UK's position. Amid a predictable section on the urgent need to fill broadband "not spots" is an interesting idea. "Enable better access to public land and street furniture." To help improve broadband capacity, "public bodies should have a presumption in favour of enabling access to their buildings, land and street furniture for use for network infrastructure".

On international matters, the manifesto comes out strongly in favour of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - and says that as Europe's leading digital economy, the UK should lead European policy. Given the current gulf between the UK and other contenders for leadership over the "right to be forgotten" this may be an ambitious aspiration.

TechUK is generally kind to the current government's approach to digitising public services, though predictably it stresses the private sector's role. A core recommendation is to "work with technology suppliers to bring a greater scale and pace to the digital transformation of government". Digitalisation of government services could be completed by 2020 with the 150 highest-volume government transactions all converted to the digital by default standards by that time, it says. "This will equate to 95% of all citizen and business interactions with government." 

Praising the approach taken by the Government Digital Service, it says "There is no reason why the same principles that have been developed for central government by GDS should not be applied consistently across other services such as health and emergency services."

However it notes there is still some way to go on at least one of the government's objectives, increasing the role of SMEs. "Greater transparency on the costs of delivering public services would enable suppliers to identify new opportunities for cost savings and come forward with innovative new ideas. Although an early ambition of the coalition government, this still hasn't been fully achieved and requires further standardisation in the way that costs and KPI are reported so that comparable costs and performance data can be shared with industry." 
Introducing the manifesto,

Victor Chavez, president of TechUK, sums up: "Digital technologies are today transforming all aspects of our business and personal lives as well as the delivery of government services. Our collective opportunity is now to move on to be one of the first developed economies to use digital technology to stem the long-term rise of debt; raise productivity; generate new high value jobs; and build a safe and inclusive digital society."

That overall message should get an easy ride from the party conferences. The devil as ever will be in the specifics.

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