Give us a digi-Czar and more bureaucrats, begs UK tech-services biz

Come on everybody, let's upload all our stuff into Government by Cloud

Houses of Parliament in night-time

+Comment New policy proposals published by tech services trade group Tech UK (formerly Intellect) today seek to grapple with its members being marginalised by recent Government fads.

Many of the proposals are familiar - ring-fencing the science budget, making the hiring of skilled foreign tech workers easier, and urging Government to develop so-called "smart" energy grids and digital health initiatives. The one new headlining proposal is gimmicky - appointing a Cabinet-level Digital Czar "to develop and execute a single digital strategy that rolls up the digital economy, digitalisation of government and digital inclusion" - with a Digital Busybody at Ministerial level dropped into every department.

But a few things have changed since Intellect (as it then was) last created a manifesto, in 2011. One is that the state now has a sprawling IT contractor of its own, GDS - the Government Digital Service - doing jobs that commercial services could do. (For example, The Economist reported that GDS had built its own UX lab, rather than using outsider UX testers).

Tech UK gently points out that G-Cloud, an online catalog of tech SMEs, is in trouble because buyers often don't know what they're doing, so tend to be risk averse. As for GDS, which is a new direct threat to many smaller UK tech suppliers, they've opted to ride the tiger: congratulating it for its success, and hoping it throws the SMEs some crumbs.

Another is that the Government has "redefined" tech to mean lots of things that aren't tech, a linguistic assault on self-respecting tech services professionals. So, according to definitions endorsed by the Cabinet Office, public relations companies are tech companies. So are food outlets. And the 'Bank of England' is actually a tech startup. Really.

Another significant change since 2011 is the acknowledgement that there is a crisis of trust around the state gathering ever more citizen data, particularly medical and financial data, and spreading it around. The scheme, in which you had to manually opt-out of your data being used, opened "a loophole a mile wide" according to campaigners, and was postponed. In addition, HRMC wants to sell your tax history. The Cabinet Office wants access to everything.

How does Tech UK grapple with these issues?


1. The re-definition of "tech" to mean something that isn't tech came about as part of the Coalition's focus on creating a top-down "tech cluster" in East London. Tech UK points out that many UK tech services jobs are already in established organic tech clusters around Universities, such as Cambridge and Manchester. It could have, but didn't, add that there isn't a successful example of a top-down tech cluster anywhere in the world, and the beneficiaries of the Coalition's focus are mostly in the public sector: it's created a new administrative class. Tech UK could have reprimanded the loose language, but didn't.

2. It isn't clear what the Minister for Digital Things would do that the Cabinet Office - the free-spending Government-within-the-Government - doesn't already do, which as you can see, is rather a lot.

3. The more that Whitehall's web-centric and design-centric IT firm, GDS, does in-house, the less opportunity there is for the private sector. Four different professors warned in 2013 that GDS had shown little sign it understood the depth of the problems in transforming Government digital services, and so far, GDS' progress has been glacially slow. Only 25 "exemplar" (ie, low hanging fruit) transactional services will be online by the time of the next election, including blockbusters such as er, booking prison visits. One that has rolled into Beta, registering to go on the Electoral Roll, was strongly criticised for its amateurishness and the Government was advised to stop the rollout. (That request was ignored).

A bolder Tech UK could have pointed out:

"Look, we actually know how Government computer systems work, and how to put them together. GDS should stick to what it knows best - choosing nice fonts and icons and pretty buttons for the web pages - and leave the horrible grown-up stuff to the UK private sector."

But Tech UK chose here to congratulate GDS on its "success", and sees no contradiction in expanding the state's IT capacity. Odd.

4. Tech UK does recognise there's a trust issue in uploading citizens personal information to the state. Its solution is to appoint "an Advanced Data Analytics Unit, an independent data ethics committee, and the appointment of a Government Chief Privacy Officer in order to strengthen public trust in the government’s use of data."

This falls short of the statutory oversight demanded by Peers back in May. And Tech UK wants an education campaign - for the UK to be "a world-leading trusted domain for data protection" must mean increasing public awareness. This makes it sound as though the public is at fault. Clear and bold initiatives could have included making it clear the citizen owns their data - and the state has a contractual relationship with the individual. It could also have called for penalties for data leaking and misuse - bureaucrats and contractors who use data they shouldn't, or who lose data, could go to prison. The problem with a Chief Privacy Officer is that he'll be held captive by the people who want to use the data - such as The Cabinet Office, GDS, or the "Advanced Data Analytics Unit" Tech UK wants to see.

Anything short of this won't get very far in gaining public trust, we'd venture to suggest. ®

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