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What will it take to make the UK's 2022 Digital Strategy a success?

Failure to see the plan through will see the UK become the “low-skill, low growth backwater of the developed world”

When the government published its latest Digital Strategy, observers quickly pointed out that it’s simply the latest in a long line of documents, roadmaps and policy documents signposting Britain’s touted future digital prosperity. Indeed, critics of the 2017 Digital Strategy suggest it’s yet to materially impact the digital economy across the UK. The new roadmap does, however, centre around a series of frank admissions absent from bold ambitions of the past.

Indeed, more needs to be done and at a much faster pace, according to chief strategy and transformation officer at the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), Megan Lee, speaking last year on the creation of her organisation. Taking over the reins from the widely maligned Government Digital Service (GDS), the CDDO is the organisation spearheading the new programme. She heralded its creation, at the time, as an opportunity to empower a single organisation with a clear mandate to act as the strategic centre for data cross government buildings, while supporting and iterating digital products, platforms and services. 

Several months on, the government has lifted the lid on a three-year roadmap that aims to boost the UK’s digital prospects and turbocharge the economy. In the context of several other concurrent strategies and proposals, it remains to be seen how successful these latest efforts will be.

What does the Digital Strategy propose?

The 21-point plan outlining the digital transformation of the government, spanning IT infrastructure to skills, is bold and ambitious. It comprises six key 'missions' including a focus on sustainable technology, single-point access to government services, investment in digital skills, better financial management and the digital transformation of public services.

For industry watchers, however, a lack of detail across these plans continues to be a worrying factor. “Since 2016, there has been a notable lack of leadership from central government and, as a result, momentum and innovation in a world of joined up data and cross-government services, stalled,” says Ben Johnson, CEO of BML Digital.

Deryck Mitchelson, Field CISO at global cyber security firm Check Point, however, tells IT Pro the strategy offers a positive roadmap: “I like what I see in this strategy, as I think it has identified and is discussing the right things. For example, how it will underpin economic growth, generate jobs, and generate the service marketplace and product services are key to fostering more digital growth and development in the UK.”

At the strategy’s core is the overarching aim to transform every touchpoint the public has with government services, from single sign-on (SSO) for identification to focusing on delivering a mobile-first experience. With the worst of COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, however, will we see a renewed determination across government as it evolves its digital services? 

For some, the timeframe of 2025 for the completion of most of the proposals is too short-sighted. For instance, techUK brands the plans a ‘missed opportunity’. Of course, whether each government department can digitise as the strategy outlines remains to be seen. To its credit, though, the UK is well placed as a digital leader to strike, with the OECD ranking it second to Switzerland in terms of having a comprehensive digital strategy. Delivering the ambitious targets set out in the latest roadmap is much easier said than done. 

Can the government deliver its Digital Strategy?

The government does seem to have a new momentum for change; proposing, for instance, changes to how GDPR operates with the Data Reform Bill – now known as the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill.

“The government’s strategy is certainly feasible. The question is whether it is aspirational enough?” asks Peter Jackson, co-founder of global data consultancy firm Carruthers and Jackson. “Currently I don’t know the answer to this, but it requires the government to deliver in its own backyard. Will they invest in digitalising their own departments whilst also supporting the innovators in the market?”

Dr Bill Mitchell OBE, director of policy at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT agrees, adding: “On the whole the plan will require many government departments to proactively collaborate not only with each other but also with many other stakeholders in the private and public sectors, and internationally as well as nationally.”

With many in agreement the strategy is indeed very ambitious, the biggest question marks remain over whether it can be delivered, and how likely the government is to do what’s necessary. Specifically, a monumental amount of public funding will be necessary to ramp up e-government and digital-first services for the public sector, which may seem a tall order for a new Conservative prime minister likely more preoccupied with cutting taxes.

It feels, however, now more than ever, that failing to follow through on these plans will spell disaster for the UK in the long-term, particularly with countries around the world beginning to tap into the powerful potential of digitisation. As Mitchell concludes: “We all need this plan to work, otherwise the UK will become a low skill, low growth backwater of the developed world.”

Can the Digital Strategy be a success?

Much of the new strategy is focused on evolving how individuals access and use government digital services. But, as industry analyst Rob Bamforth explains, business innovation is also a core component of the strategy. "Much of it looks focused on business innovation (hence so many mentions of unicorns), and loosening controls et cetera” Bamforth outlines. 

“And there is a strong nod towards some advanced innovation – such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and quantum computing – but not enough on service innovation and core capabilities. I would have liked to see a lot more emphasis on digital transformation and development processes and skills, security skills, operation technology (OT) skills and the Internet of Things (IoT) and technology integration into processes.”

It’s essential to place the 'new' strategy into context. The already announced National Innovation StrategyNational Data StrategyNational Artificial Intelligence Strategy, and the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy are distilled into the current strategy document. For businesses and citizens alike, streamlining the timetable and connecting what had been largely siloed government departments is a significant step towards a digital future in which all can benefit.

Ben Johnson, CEO of BML Digital, is optimistic about how the new strategy will unfold. “Overall, the CDDO roadmap represents another opportunity for the UK to move through the pack into a leadership position when it comes to digital government,” he says. “The ground we have lost is substantial, but there are good examples across Europe and beyond that the UK can use to recover quickly and once again lead the pack.”

There’s much to be optimistic about in the new digital strategy. But, as with all things, the devil will be in the detail and how the very short proposed timetable for change will be implemented. Ultimately, its success will rest on how well government departments can break down their traditional siloes to deliver integrated and seamless services to citizens and businesses alike.

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