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UK Government unveils its Digital Strategy as it prepares for Brexit

The UK's own digital marketplace

27 April 2017

In October 2015, the EU Commission launched an ambitious Digital Single Market programme. This programme continues to drive a variety of initiatives designed to make the EU a great place for digital business.

In preparation for Brexit, the UK Government has been launching its own strategies. In January, 2017 the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published an ambitious Industrial Strategy consultation aimed at creating "an economy which works for everyone", building on strengths and tackling weaknesses. 

On 1 March, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport launched a Digital Strategy "to make Britain the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business". Like the Industrial Strategy consultation paper, it highlights many strengths of the UK, and identifies areas where investment and focus is required.  The strategy, and how the UK performs against it, should be of interest to all UK businesses and to international businesses investing or considering investing in the UK.

The UK Digital Strategy is in seven strands
  1. Building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK.  This includes: completing the roll-out of 4G by 2020; implementing a universal service obligations for affordable high-speed broadband; investing over £1billion in next generation digital infrastructure, including full fibre and 5G; wider roll-out of free wi-fi; and tighter regulation of broadband advertising to improve customer choice.
  2. Digital skills training.  This will not only target young people, but also aims to ensure all adults who lack digital skills have access to free training, and that there is support for workers whose jobs are changing as a result of digital disruption. 
  3. The best place to start and grow a digital business.  This includes supporting the development of tech hubs and the tech ecosystem, not only for subject areas in which the UK already has a leading position, such as artificial intelligence, finTech, gaming and virtual reality, but also for other rapid innovation areas including Internet of Things, autonomous vehicle technologies, healthTech and edTech.  The support will include "innovation-friendly regulation", substantial Government funding for R&D, an effective tax climate, steps to foster investment in UK technology businesses, and identifying and applying international best practice on providing support for commercialisation.  The Digital Strategy flags the importance of continuing to attract talent from the EU and around the world and the need to provide certainty for this in the UK's future immigration system.  It promises a more strategic approach to Government procurement to drive innovation and value across public and private sector supply chains, and to help SME digital and technology providers.  It also proposes a network of UK Tech Hubs in five developing countries, aimed at boosting the UK's impact in emerging digital economies around the world, building on the experience with the existing hub in Israel. 
  4. Helping every British business become a digital business.  The report finds that many small and medium sized UK businesses are lagging behind European competitors in France and Germany in using digital technologies to manage their businesses, in areas such as back office processing, enterprise resource planning and CRM. The Government has already announced that it will provide funding for a Productivity Council to drive engagement and improve productivity through appropriate use of digital technologies.  Among other things, the Council will create open-source, user-rated "productivity hubs" enabling businesses to see which tools have been most useful to other businesses.  The Government is also promoting a range of sector-based initiatives and digital tools to facilitate trade.  This summer, a group led by the CEO of Siemens UK will report on industrial digitalisation, how UK manufacturing can become more productive and competitive through use of digital technology and automation, and what policy interventions may be helpful.  Other focus areas include: digital approaches to construction and coordination of policy around Smart Cities; best use of digital technology in retail; a review of modern employment, including new ways of working such as on-demand platforms; investment in GREAT.gov.uk, a digital trade hub for exporters; a new platform to facilitate customs declarations by January 2019; and adopting and promoting open standards for validating identity information.
  5.  Making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online. The strategy builds on previously announced initiatives including the November 2016 National Cyber Strategy and the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.  Actions include: supporting the National Cyber Security Centre to provide a single point of contact for businesses; supporting the UK's established cyber security sector; expanded intelligence and law enforcement, and development and deployment of technology in partnership with industry for active cyber defence; training programmes; maintaining an appropriate regulatory framework; and more measures to protect children from inappropriate content.  The report reiterates the UK's commitment to a free, open, but secure internet, with multi-stakeholder governance.  
  6. The UK Government as a world leader in serving its citizens online.  In February 2017, the Government published its Government Transformation Strategy. This sets out various measures aiming to give citizens and businesses a better and more coherent experience when using government services online.  The Government will also continue to use technology to make public services smarter and more efficient and to reduce cost.  It will set up a Digital Government Partnership to bring outside experts into government as Technology Fellows to help policy makers.  
  7. Unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving confidence in its use.  The Government states its commitment to keeping the UK at the leading edge of data analytics, while having in place the necessary protections to ensure data is kept safe and used appropriately.  The strategy includes: creating a strong data infrastructure; having a high level of regulatory compliance; facilitating and building public trust in sharing data; supporting data literacy and skills; support for open APIs for customer data, to facilitate the development of more streamlined applications; effective use of Government data, with a commitment to open data by default; further work to evaluate ethical frameworks for the sharing of data, and on new ethical issues including the impact of artificial intelligence (already the subject of a November 2016 report from the Government Office for Science).  The Digital Strategy re-affirms the Government's commitment to implement the EU General Data Protection Regulation by May 2018, and to seek to ensure that following the UK's exit from the EU data flows will remain unaffected. 

The Digital Strategy report ends by framing itself in the wider context of the Industrial Strategy plan, saying that there is an "open door" challenge about how government and industry can collaborate in the digital space. Government will convene a forum for government and the tech community to work together to support the growth of the UK digital economy.