What role will technology play in parties’ manifestos for 2015?

by Eddie Copeland

What role will technology play in parties’ manifestos for 2015?

That’s the question I’ll be putting to Nadhim Zahawi (Member of the No. 10 Policy Board), Chi Onwurah (Shadow Cabinet Office Minister) and Dr Julian Huppert (Member for Cambridge) at an event on 4th June at Google Campus. The answer matters: From education to healthcare, and from energy to transport, no policy area is immune from technology’s influence. Its importance for the economy can hardly be overstated. Harnessed well, technology promises to bring opportunities and benefits that were the dreams of science fiction just a decade ago. Mishandled or ignored, it risks unleashing new and damaging threats on a scale that we have barely begun to grasp.

It’s therefore troubling that so few MPs demonstrate much interest in technology. Attend any tech-related event in the Westminster village and it’s the same handful of political faces that appear time and again. That needs to change. Technology is no longer peripheral to life, and nor can it be to policymaking. Politicians may not care about technology per se, but they will almost certainly feel strongly about the areas it affects. Their constituents will care about how well their children are being prepared with the digital skills needed for the future workplace; local businesses will want to know when they will receive a decent broadband connection; citizens will ask why government services require paper form-filling when the rest of the world has moved online.

To urge politicians from across the political spectrum to put technology front and centre of their thinking for 2015, Policy Exchange has written its own Technology Manifesto, with support from EMC and Google. The manifesto will be published in June and will argue that all parties should be aiming to achieve three main goals during the next parliament: 1) to develop the most connected and digitally skilled society in the world; 2) to ensure the UK is the best place outside of Silicon Valley for tech entrepreneurs to start a business, and 3) to use technology and data to make Britain’s the smartest government in the world. Britain is well placed to achieve each of these aims, but success will require the proactive attention of the next government. In their manifestos, parties will need to spell out how they will work to deliver them.

Goals for 2020

Connected and Digitally Skilled Society – Much is riding on Britain developing a connected and digitally skilled society. Getting online is essential for individuals to access the best – and sometimes even the most basic – opportunities for shopping, business, communication and education. PwC has estimated that using the internet saves the average family in the region of £560/year. Being connected therefore has significant implications for social mobility. Businesses need a connected society to sell to and digitally skilled employees to give them competitive advantage in the global marketplace. For the economy, between £14billion and £63billion could be added to GDP if the UK was a world leader in digital infrastructure, services and skills. Meanwhile, digitisation of public services will only reduce costs for government and improve service delivery if citizens actually use them. With around 9.8 million people in the UK still lacking even basic digital skills, parties need to show how they will invest in both infrastructure and people.

Best place outside of Silicon Valley to start a Tech Business – Britain is well placed to be a major force in promoting tech entrepreneurship and the role of tech in the wider economy. The UK is the highest net exporter of computer and information services among the G7 countries. We have an online trade surplus of $1billion – more than the USA and Germany combined. E-commerce will be worth over £140billion to the economy by 2016. Even marginal increases in these activities could provide a major boost to UK GDP. So how will each party ensure that British tech companies and tech clusters have the best chance of success in the fiercely competitive global marketplace? What will they do to help shape the European Digital Single Market to bolster British exports? How will they ensure that we can fill the 1 million tech vacancies that are expected before 2020?

Smartest Government – As for developing the world’s smartest government, at a time where much of the political narrative is still driven by austerity, digital government offers a means to do more with less, by being smarter. Significant progress has undoubtedly been made during this parliament: the creation of the Government Digital Service has developed the award-winning gov.uk and is streamlining online transactions; G-Cloud is gradually making it easier for Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to sell to government; and the UK is now a world leader in open data. But there remains much to be done. Progress to date has been in small pockets: parties need to explain how they will use technology and data to reform the wider public sector, including not just central government but local government and healthcare services, too. How will they ensure open data is not just a passing fad? Is there more to digital government than simply digitising forms?

A Partisan Issue?

Suggesting that technology should feature heavily in the party manifestos inevitably raises the question of whether technology is a party political issue. The answer is surely yes. Though technology itself does not endorse or legitimate any single political philosophy, it is a powerful instrument through which parties can deliver their wider policy objectives. It can enable larger or smaller government. It can make government more powerful, or give more control to citizens. It can be closed or more accessible. It can centralise or enable greater localism. What matters are the ends to which it is put and the means it uses to achieve them.

In March this year, Labour launched its Digital Government Review, led by Chi Onwurah. Chi has made it very clear in speeches and blogs that she considers digital government to be a political issue. Labour has argued that the government has been too focused on using tech to drive efficiency rather than using it to improve social outcomes, and is concerned by the level of digital exclusion. To date, the Conservatives have been relatively quiet about their plans for tech after the 2015 election, but one might fairly assume it would feature a continuation of themes started in this parliament. Francis Maude and his team are clearly convinced of the benefits of technology for government transformation and will seek to drive further change through GDS. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have been most vocal on the subject of civil liberties, with speeches from Nick Clegg on the appropriate limits of government surveillance of citizen data.

Whilst recognising these different party priorities, politicians should also acknowledge important areas where there is a need for consensus and continuity of action by successive governments. Delivering a connected and digitally skilled society must be an on-going commitment that does not end in 2020. The UK will only grow its tech sector by repeatedly telling the world that it is the best place to start a tech company. For that, actions will speak much louder than words. As for digital government, technology can give more power to citizens, make government more accountable, and make it smaller and more efficient. Let no-one pretend that using technology is a zero sum game.

Most of all, parties need to spell out their vision. They must, of course, deal with issues of digital exclusion, assure that transactions and data are handled ethically, put in place proper protections for data privacy, and use technology to drive efficiency. But these should be steps along the route to achieving something more. Clichés that technology has transformed the world are pervasive precisely because they ring true. Let the parties now tell us how they will use it to transform Britain.

Follow Eddie Copeland on Twitter @EddieACopeland

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