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What does a new digital strategy look like?

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

I am delighted to hear Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden letting us know the government will be launching a new digital strategy in the Autumn. I could not agree more there is a lot of potential to reboot the economy by reducing the costs and transactional friction by using technology. So far it is all motherhood and apple pie. The obvious question, So what would a New Digital Strategy look like? Mr. Dowden helpfully gives us a few clues, but he also asks for suggestions. So here are mine.

A good start would probably be to look at the last Digital Strategy. It was launched in March, 2017, so we don’t have to look too far. It comprised seven strands; Building World Class Infrastructure, Teaching Digital Skills, Making the UK the best place to start a digital business, Helping every business to become a digital business, Making the UK the safest place to live and work on-line, Maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens on-line and unlocking the power of data in the UK economy.

To make it worthwhile you bothering to read this, I have combined the aims of the “New” with those of the 2017 or as I will call it, “current”, strategy. Then I have done a little research and attempted to discover how far the UK has succeeded in achieving those aims. Then I have looked around to see if anyone else has come up with a promising digital strategy. Finally, I have listed a few pet peeves which I think would make good milestones along the path of making the UK ready for its “digital reboot”.

Strategy Headlines

1. Data. The “New” approach means securing adequacy and creating the best data regime possible. The current one aims to unlock the power of data in the UK economy. The biggest thing in the regulation of data recently is the implementation of GDPR while we were an EU member state and the subsequent effect of Brexit. Of course, from exit day the UK became a third country for the purposes of international data transfers. This means that after the end of the transition period, the lawful transfer of personal data from the EU into the UK without ‘appropriate safeguards’ (see article 46 of GDPR) will only be possible if the UK achieves adequacy status (as per article 45) and joins a list of 12 countries. The regulations attempt to make the UK version of GDPR as robust as the EU version and hopefully achieve an adequacy decision quickly. However this is very unlikely to happen by 1 January 2021, which means data controllers and processors must put in appropriate safeguards to maintain the free flow of data. The EU Commission has stated it will endeavour to adopt an adequacy decision by the end of 2020, provided applicable conditions are met.

2. Digital Skills. “New” includes looking at ways to build a highly-skilled digital workforce across every region of the UK, so that people can shift into the digital or tech sectors or indeed digitise their own businesses. The current strategy also makes teaching digital skills a priority. Levels of under qualification amongst teaching staff is a major barrier to transforming government-led digital initiatives from theory to reality. The Computing Curriculum introduced in 2014 has the power to make a significant dent in the digital skills gap. However, the skills the course requires in order to deliver it are a major step up for teachers, and 75% reported that they were not confident in delivering the new curriculum, according to the British Computer Society, albeit in 2019.

3. Infrastructure. The New Strategy "means providing world-class, next generation infrastructure in, so that everyone can take those advantages and those opportunities wherever they live - for example using their 5G network to launch the next killer app". Building World Class Infrastructure was also on the agenda in 2017 and, most recently Boris Johnson has committed to has also committed to invest a further £5bn (here) to ensure that every home can access a “gigabit-capable broadband” service by the end of 2025, which is focused on helping those in the final 20% of hardest to reach premises. The proposed time-scale for this is regarded by many as being highly optimistic (i.e. the roll-out will most likely still be on-going for a few years past 2025).

4. Regulation. It means ensuring our regulatory regime for digital is pro-competitive, pro-innovation, agile, and proportionate. We must avoid unnecessary layers of regulations and ensure we have a coherent and consistent approach to drive growth. In 2017 this was described as Making the UK the best place to start a digital business. According to the most recent Harvard Business Review study, the UK comes second to US, so we only have one step up to go.

5. Competitiveness. “It means getting the UK’s best small and medium-sized shops and businesses - stretching from Lands End to John O’Groats - making better use of tech and trading online, expanding their customer base from the local high street or retail park to a national or indeed even international marketplace... I want a wave of new micro-multinationals across the UK.” Not sure what this translates to. Stated in this way it is an aspiration, rather than a strategy. However I agree with the sentiment and in 2017 this was represented by the phrase, “helping every business to become a digital business”. I have some thoughts on this which I set out below.

The sharper eyed amongst you will have noticed there are two extra goals, or strands, in the current strategy which are not mentioned in Mr. Dowden’s speech; “Making the UK the safest place to live and work on-line and Maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens on-line”. The government has committed £10Million to combating security threats ( I am tempted to say the reason the speech writer omitted this was because some of it went to Jennifer Arcuri, but that would be somewhat cynical and less authoritative than EY’s 2018-19 Global information security survey, which documents half of all local authorities in England still rely on unsupported server software.

Maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens on-line was undoubtedly left out following the recent Track and Trace App debacle. For a minister noted as being in the mould of Alastair Campbell, I cannot see any career minded speech writer including that particular Petard on which his boss would undoubtedly be hoisted.

On the topic of digital government, one obvious step towards a digital future for the UK would be to introduce on-line voting. You cannot currently do this in the UK, although a trial was run in Gateshead in May 2019. I am all for it, but if you want to make up your own mind there is an electoral commission research document here

While we are considering the effectiveness or otherwise of UK Government IT initiatives, I wholly endorse this analysis of what digital government success looks like. In essence it covers:

1. Success of digital projects

2. Price competitiveness of government digital projects

3. Relative effectiveness of government IT systems

4. Usage, usability and usefulness of government digital platforms

5. Security of government data

6. Timeliness of completion for major government IT projects

7. Data use in policy, strategy formulation, organisational design and delivery

What would I like to see?

Finally, as Mr Dowden asked for suggestions, here are mine. I am currently working on a more holistic approach to helping UK SMEs embrace the digital future, but in the interim, here are a few suggestions for immediate tactical wins.

  1. Cyber squatting is the digital form of ticket touting and there ought to be a fast track way of clearing registered but unused domains to benefit businesses which will actually put them to use. I appreciate there are measures in place, but they are too complicated and take too long.

  2. There needs to be a common standard allowing real competition in payment transaction processing to bring down costs and remove PayPal from a de facto monopolistic position. Again, competition in the market is improving the situation, but the establishment banks are still not sufficiently challenged by FinTech disrupters under the Open Banking system.

  3. International currency exchange charges must be discontinued. They cost banks nothing, so why are we made to pay for them.

  4. Some basic registration and control of on-line recruitment, building professionalism, stopping providers from charging subscription fees, guaranteeing jobs actually exist and the agency has a contract to source candidates, preventing aggregators from harvesting details and increasing the productivity of the HR supply chain.

I will put these up as a survey on the Screen Matrix blog site, so if anyone feels strongly about them they can register their passion.


The “New” strategy seems rather like the existing strategy, with the exception of a couple of strands it would not be politically adept to have mentioned. However, the desired end result would be good to see, so I shall try to be pragmatic about the political aspects of launching initiatives. In terms of Regulation and Competitiveness, it looks like with more investment and support from government it would actually be possible to achieve the government’s goals. We are not far behind and the US has its own troubles with which to contend.

On Infrastructure, Data and Digital Skills, it is hard to see the UK government meeting the very aggressive targets they have set themselves. I hope they do, but I also want to see feet being held to the fire if, having promised so much, they don’t achieve it.

On “Making the UK the safest place to live and work on-line” and “Maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens on-line” there are very real failings which need to be addressed. Investment into the former has been announced and hopefully lessons will have been learned from recent failures which will address the latter.

As a lesson in the government art of selling someone the same car twice, this is pretty much par for the course, but this really matters and having proclaimed their commitment to the cause it would be particularly disappointing to see the opportunities slip away in yet more “omni shambles”.


Jeremy Nicholson

Screen Matrix 2020

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