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Parliament committee sets out delayed digital strategy concerns

Neil Merrett Published 18 July 2016

New report urges clarity over Brexit impact on Whitehall's digital aspirations; improved data and departmental coordination also among core recommendations

 

The House of Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has highlighted the need for better coordination between public sector organisations, as well as the improved quality and use of real-time data among its key concerns for an upcoming Whitehall digital strategy revamp.

Due to be published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the delayed digital strategy aims to outline the government’s five year intentions with regard to planning for the economy, public service delivery and skills among a number of other topics expected to be impacted by technology.

The committee's report into ‘the Digital Economy' also called for details of how last month’s referendum that favoured the UK leaving the EU will impact digital thinking across Whitehall. The new strategy is expected to published this summer – six months later than initially intended.

“We regret this delay, and call on the government to explain the reasons for it, and why they initiated a three-week consultation over the Christmas break on what the government should include in the strategy,” said the report.

The committee said it expected DCMS' official reply to their report, as well as the final strategy itself, to detail current EU negotiations that were underway with regard to the digital economy.

Focusing specifically on current structure within Whitehall, the findings backed a need for better collaboration between government departments around digital innovation in order to improve the overall efficiency of the public sector.

“For the government to have a holistic view of the different digital initiatives that each department is undertaking, the minister responsible for the digital economy should take the lead in overseeing digital projects,” said the findings. “We recommend that this issue is addressed in the Government’s Digital Strategy.”

Among its core recommendations, the committee’s report said that “reliable data” should inform and drive the strategy as a means of allowing for stronger policy making, taxation systems and resource allocation that will be required to underpin a successful economy.

“We recognise the difficulty of measuring the digital economy, but the government should look to the work of the Office of National Statistics, and explore ways of collecting real-time data in the digital economy, and ensure that established Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes are agreed and used, in different parts of the digital economy,” said the findings.

The committee said that this required approach to Whitehall data “did not exist at present”.

“Policy making cannot therefore be reliably expected to support as much as possible the digital economy, one of the UK’s key drivers of improved productivity,” said the report.

The report also backed a need to ‘future-proof” public policy, where possible, to limit the amount of regulatory reform required to adapt to the continued emergence of disruptive technologies.

“We recommend that the government sets out clearly its key objectives for the regulation of disruptive change. Our view is that they should promote productivity, innovation, and customer choice and protection,” said the findings.

“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) must be at the forefront of the regulation debate, with BIS ministers initiating cross-Whitehall co-ordination with colleagues from relevant departments to explore the regulatory opportunities that exist within the digital framework, and to ensure that regulations are in place to take account of new technology."

Among its conclusions, the committee’s report also warned that the decision to exit the EU would undermine the UK’s influence and potential “dominance” in the proposed European Single Digital Market.

“We could have led on the Digital Single Market, but instead we will be having to follow. The government must address this situation, to stop investor confident further draining away, with firms relocating into other countries in Europe to take advantage of the Digital Single Market,” said the findings.

Although the single market was not included in the committee’s inquiry, the report said it remained important for the government to clarify whether the UK and its businesses community would continue to have a role in the single market.

Industry association techUK, which last month urged the government to immediately publish a draft of the current digital strategy plans to open up its proposals for further consultation, said it welcomed the latest Commons report on the strategy review.

Charlotte Holloway, techUK's policy director, said it was right for the committee to back refocusing the strategy in light of the EU referendum outcome.

“Whether it be access to the Digital Single Market, data rules, a welcoming environment for skilled digital workers, and more, one of the first tasks for newly-appointed Digital Economy minister Matt Hancock MP will be to work closely with industry on these areas,” she said.

"The UK’s huge potential in digital must be matched by clear prioritisation of the tech sector’s needs in forward approaches to renegotiation. We must now pull out all the stops to make the UK the most attractive place in the world to locate and grow a tech company.”

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