Digital skills crisis Contents

4A strategy for digital skills

91.Following the previous Government’s publication of its industrial strategy for the ‘Information Economy’ in 2013, it set up an Information Economy Council to take it forward, comprising Government, business and academia.161 The current Government has set up a Digital Engagement Council in its place “to drive further cross-sector activities and partnerships, and focus on segments of the population who will benefit most from increased digital capabilities”.162 It has also been developing a ‘Digital Strategy’ during the course of our inquiry.

92.In its July 2015 response to the report of the Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills, the Government promised details on the Government’s digital agenda in the autumn of 2015, and suggested that it would be produced alongside or soon after the 2015 Spending Review.163 As we described in Chapter 1, Ed Vaizey told us in December 2015 that the Government’s Digital Strategy would be published towards the end of January 2016,164 and that the Government subsequently launched a consultation on 29 December, seeking views on four themes: “unlocking digital growth, transforming government, transforming day to day life and building foundations”.165

93.The minister told us in March 2016 that the Digital Strategy had “been written” and was awaiting a publication slot in the Downing Street ‘grid’.166 He told us that the Strategy would not have “any particular new funding attached” to it, and that the Strategy “is looking at the aspirations for the next 10 years”.167

94.On ‘transforming government’, one of the Government’s intended themes for the Strategy, there is more to do. In our recent Big data dilemma report we highlighted that the Government’s work in making its databases ‘open’ had “put the UK in a world-leading position”, but also that “there is more to do to breakdown departmental data silos, to bring data together in order to further improve public services and data quality”. We noted the “great strides” by the private sector in identifying opportunities for bringing different datasets together and that the Government’s Digital Catapult had “a vitally important role in facilitating private sector data sharing in a ‘safe’, trusted environment”.168

95.There is also a lack of digital skills within the Civil Service. Dr Ellen Helsper of London School of Economics told us that “Government is one of the biggest employers in this country. It also has one of the biggest client bases in the country; Government services reach everybody [ … ] Leading by example should be a fundamental part of the Digital Strategy”.169 A National Audit Office survey in December 2015 found, however, there was “widespread acknowledgement of a digital skills gap [where] most organisations see digital and technology as mostly about IT”.170 These differing views can underestimate the importance and value of digital skills.171

96.Many of our witnesses thought that the Government’s digital initiatives (paragraph 97) were too fragmented and called for a more cohesive approach. Currently, government ‘digital’ responsibilities sit in three departments: the Cabinet Office, DCMS and BIS. Ed Vaizey acknowledged the issue when he told us:

If you look across the silos of Government, there are two different joining-ups that need to take place. One is the link between BIS, DCMS and the Cabinet Office on the top-level digital stuff—digital in business, digital infrastructure and the tech investment environment—and the Government Digital Service, which is the Cabinet Office. Then there is the trickier task of the cross-Government departments. Education will have a big focus on digital learning; Health will have a big focus on how you make the health service more digital so that you can treat patients in the home; Transport will have a huge focus on digital both in terms of making the trains run better through to mobile on trains and driverless cars [ … ] and Energy in terms of smart meters. It is in almost any department. We need to think hard about how we join that up.

We have a Digital Taskforce that brings Ministers together to get the issues on the agenda and move it into the centre, if it needs a push, but we have to think about whether we need central; expertise that can help particular departments with specific digital projects that they may want to make happen. Should those be happening in separate silos?172

97.But our inquiry has demonstrated the importance of a Digital Strategy that goes beyond improving skills in Government. Go ON UK believed that

there is a significant skills gap in the UK, from basic to advanced skills, that is unlikely to be closed based on Government’s current plans and ambitions. The skills gap represent a major risk to productivity and prosperity in the UK.173

Helen Milner from the Tinder Foundation told us that

I do not think that the Government ever articulated what they think the goal is [ … ] There should be much more clarity about it not just being a good thing, but actually something that the Government significantly believe in.174

98.Ecorys UK Ltd, who undertook research for BIS and DCMS on the current and future demand for digital skills in the UK economy, made four key recommendations in January 2016:

Go ON UK put forward their preferences for the content of the forthcoming Digital Strategy:

We need a much more joined-up and co-ordinated approach to skills at all levels. There needs to be more investment in skills programmes at all levels, but there is not a one-size fits-all solution. We need to test and learn some different approaches and identify the four or five key approaches that we can scale up across the UK to help that broad range of individuals to gain the skills they need.176

Nick Williams from Lloyds Banking Group warned that:

What we do not need is a competing, conflicting Digital Strategy that consumes resources and does not deliver the existing objectives of the Government. I would encourage us to think how our Digital Strategy can underpin and deliver today’s existing objectives, and even accelerate some of them. I would use it as an enabler for the Government to deliver their existing plan rather than creating something in isolation that will be prioritised against other objectives at the same time.177

Margaret Sambell from the Tech Partnership told us that “employers very much hope that the Digital Strategy will encompass the gamut of the skills base that the country need to be competitive in a digital world.”178

99.We found that the digital skills crisis was present in all stages of the education and training pipeline. The publication of the Digital Strategy, and formulation of a coherent cross-Government policy, is thus long overdue. We cannot understand why the Government has put off publishing the Digital Strategy—15 months after the Lords Digital Skills Committee’s call for a ‘digital agenda’—even though it has apparently been written for some months.

100.Given the significance of the digital agenda for UK plc and to ensure that the Strategy has sufficient weight in Government, and its cross-departmental elements are appropriately joined up, we recommend that the Digital Economy Minister attend Cabinet and a Minister in each relevant department be identified as responsible for delivery of the Government’s digital agenda.

101.The gap between the digital skills that children and young people take into their working lives and the skills actually needed by the digital economy demonstrate that the problem is more than simply demand outstripping supply. It indicates that the UK’s approach to developing digital skills—although on the right track with a reformed school curriculum for computing, digital degree apprenticeships, and the Tech Partnership coordinating industry response—is still suffering the effects of long term historic weaknesses.

102.The forthcoming Digital Strategy therefore needs to be more than just a catalogue of initiatives. It needs also to be more than just a programme of work for Government departments. We need to change the UK’s cultural perception of digital technology. By setting out a vision for the future, to be delivered by collaborative work between industry, educators and Government, the Strategy should be more than “aspirational”—a Strategy that actually delivers.

103.The Digital Strategy should be published without further delay. It should include benchmarks and defined outcomes that are necessary to measure levels of success and decide on next steps. There should be goals for developing better basic digital skills, for increasing the number and diversity of students studying computer science, for increasing digital apprenticeships and for fostering digital champions, a plan for greater awareness of business-led initiatives, and a framework through which the private sector could more readily play a collaborative role with communities and local authorities in initiatives to raise digital skills in local SMEs.

161 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Information Economy Strategy (June 2013)

162 Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DIG0060)

164 Science and Technology Committee, The big data dilemma, Fourth report of Session 2015–16, Q248

165 Department for Culture, Media and Sport, UK Digital Strategy – the next frontier in our digital revolution (29 December 2015)

166 Q151

167 Q153

168 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, The big data dilemma – Fourth Report of Session 2015–16, HC 468, paras 42, 56

169 Q37

170 National Audit Office, The digital skills gap in government (December 2015)

171 Ibid

172 Q155

173 Go ON UK (DIG0054)

174 Q21

175 Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Digital Skills for the UK economy (January 2016)

176 Q137

177 Q34

178 Q5

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10 June 2016