Select Committee on Digital Skills - Report of Session 2014–15

Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future

Chapter 5: Making it happen

Part I: A leading Government

“There have been 61 Secretaries of State in the last 30 years responsible for skills.”511—Chris Jones, Chief Executive Officer, City & Guilds

Digital opportunity

278.Our evidence showed that the changing technological landscape creates a massive opportunity for the UK.512 The fast pace of change and emergence of new industries means the UK is well-placed to harness the economic growth new technologies bring. We agree with Elix-IRR: “The value of digital capability in economic terms for the UK is enormous.”513

279.We must be ambitious; countries around the globe are pursuing the same goal. The UK ranks 9th in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index for 2014–15,514 placing it behind Switzerland, Singapore, the USA, Finland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands.515 Of these Japan has climbed three places since the previous year.

280.The world’s ‘digital leaders’ change on a month-by-month basis, although countries such as Finland, Singapore and Sweden consistently top the tables.516 While we recognise that these economies are different from the UK in many respects, from size to demographics, they have developed digital agendas for the future and research implies that consequently their global position is improving. Other ‘developing’ economies are also moving quickly. For instance, Professor Phillip Brown from Cardiff University told us: “… new technologies have allowed China and India to leapfrog decades of development and come into key areas of competition with western economies”.517 There is a sense that the digital opportunity is here for the taking. The question is: who will take it?


281.Professor Manning cautioned “it is not inevitable that technology is a force for good”.518 As discussed in paragraphs 1–13, technological changes have serious consequences for the labour market, as well as offering significant opportunities.

282.Witnesses struggled to point to a sector of the economy that was unaffected by digital technologies. For instance, Kevin Baughan of Innovate UK said: “… whether it is the creative industries that now have 80% of their films in a virtual world instead of a physical world, whether it is transportation and bringing together streams of information for more intelligent mobility, I struggle to find any one of them [that is not involved in this].”519

283.This has huge implications. Martin Wolf from the Financial Times told us that technological changes would, “along with other changes in the economy, reinforce the trends towards massive inequality in our society”.520 Barclays Bank said: “The societal shift that took place 150+ years ago led to some people feeling left behind and disenfranchised. This risk is even more acute in today’s globalised world, and the desire not to leave anyone behind is perhaps one of society’s greatest challenges.”521

284.The Government’s evidence on this issue recognised the potential labour market disruption, but was sparse on solutions. We agree with the Government that “the challenge is not really what specific digital skills future workers need, but rather what basic skills are required by everyone and how adaptable the educational, training and labour market systems are in responding to the needs and demands of the future before and as they arise”;522 but, as outlined throughout the report, we are not persuaded that Government is doing enough to prepare the UK for the future.

285.When we raised this issue with the Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey MP, he mentioned three foci for the Government:

286.Whilst these are all good things in and of themselves, they do not go nearly far enough in preparing the UK for the future.

The Government’s role

287.Elix-IRR offered a warning: “The government and big business each have a role to play in setting the UK up for digital success. Failing to act now will compromise our future business sustainability and leave UK PLC trailing behind other countries.”524 Other evidence agreed.525 It is evident that there are three major players—the Government, industry, and the education system—who must act together.

288.Currently the major players are not in synergy; our inquiry has shown that the UK is structurally weak and has not yet created the right human capital, infrastructure and business environment to support a changing society. As Karen Price, on behalf of the Tech Partnership, summarised: “We lack a conductor, a co-ordinator. There is confusion in the marketplace; every school is bewildered, employers are bewildered, and we could get so much better value if it could sit within a national framework.”526 Many other witnesses agreed it is the responsibility of the Government to provide that framework.527

289.Part of this role includes seeking out the UK’s next competitive edge. Paul Willmott from McKinsey & Company told us: “… we need to find the next sectors like [the gaming sector] and invest in them so that we remain globally competitive and provide productive opportunities for our workforce”.528 Mr Wolf linked this need to the talent pipeline: “… we have to think about what our particular areas of comparative advantage are likely to be and what sort of skills we are going to need to support those”.529

290.The evidence was mixed on where efforts should be focused. Some suggestions picked out specific sectors: Creative Skillset (Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries) urged support for the creative sector;530 Michael Gleaves from the Hartree Centre pressed for a combination of technology and design;531 and BT pushed for effectively near-universal coverage of fibre broadband infrastructure across the UK.532 For others, such as Ms Price, the UK’s competitive edge lies in doing digital well: “Economic growth is going to flourish if the UK has the talent to be a global leader in data analytics, mobile, e-commerce, cloud, cyber … [and] the internet”.533 The Welsh Government agreed: “The pace of change through the daily development of new and emerging technologies is driving a greater need for Wales to remain competitive on a global stage … a strong ICT sector is critical to Wales”.534 The answer lies in building an environment which will support both the specific and the general approach.


291.It was clear from a range of witnesses that the Government was lacking the necessary comprehensive digital agenda which made the most of the digital opportunity.535 The evidence from Professor Dame Wendy Hall of Southampton University was illustrative of the external perception of the Government’s efforts:

“My problem is that there are too many things going on. We have Joanna’s [Baroness Shields’s] efforts, we have [Baroness] Martha Lane Fox’s efforts, we have the new Digital Skills Taskforce that is run out of DCMS [Department for Culture, Media & Sport] … Yes, and then there is Your Life and so on. I find it hard to understand what is going on”.536

292.Evidence from the two Ministers did not reassure us that there was sufficient coordination. We were told that the current digital ‘activity’ the Government is responsible for includes four Government Ministers, a Taskforce, a Committee, a Unit and “various other random issues”.537 This does not demonstrate a cohesive digital approach to us. Indeed, our body of evidence demonstrated a great deal of Government activity, some of it very good; but it does did not come together in a cohesive way. The Government’s organogram (see Appendix 9) highlighted the wide variety of initiatives, but this activity lacks a central vision. This contrasts with the Scottish Government’s 2011 Digital Strategy (see Appendix 10), which “sets out what the Scottish Government will do to secure Scotland’s digital future”.538 Indeed, the Scottish Government highlighted that “Reports on the progress made in implementing this strategy are published annually.”539

293.The UK Government’s Digital Strategy540 sets out its ‘digital by default’ approach, outlining how all Government services have moved online. The GDS is responsible for rolling out the Digital Strategy. This demonstrates a degree of pulling together of initiatives, albeit internally. Indeed, the UK recently part-founded and hosted a new global network of leading digital governments: the ‘D5’.541 Yet there is still significant joining-up to be done externally.

294.Part of this is about recognising the scale of the digital opportunity, and challenge, within the structure of Government. As Lady Shields summarised: “Everyone is doing great things but in a very small, micro way, and we have to think about how we identify and scale these best practices. I think that is what a Cabinet level [Minister] or a Committee like this could do.”542 Bristol City Council emphasised the role of all departments within the Government: “… some parts of government have a really strong understanding of digital technology and how it can help to solve city or urban challenges, but that is yet to be completely recognised across all aspects of government”.543

295.There is a huge opportunity for the new Government in May 2015. The incoming Government will need to join up better, be much more strategic as it coordinates and delivers policy, it will need to advocate and to champion change and sometimes it will need to reassure and safeguard. This does not mean bigger Government or necessarily more expenditure, but it does mean a smarter Government that uses technology better and tries to support all of its citizens to use technology and to benefit from its impact, as well as supporting the clusters of firms and organisations that can lead the digital economy.

296.We agree with Professor Judy Wajcman from the London School of Economics: “We need some targets and we need to have some kind of national force behind these things. We have now 30 years of reports about these problems. I think we understand them well but we need a bit of political will.”544

297.The Government should act as the ‘conductor of the orchestra’ and play an enabling role, focused on business and education. Although the Government is tackling many issues through a range of initiatives, their efforts would be more effective if they were better coordinated. The Government needs to take responsibility for leading the UK through the seismic changes brought about by changing technologies.

298.The UK is looking towards an exciting new future; to rise up and meet the challenges ahead, all sections of society must be engaged. An important theme running throughout our inquiry was the urgent need for industry input across the board. A key question is how industry buy-in can be achieved. One way to achieve this is by communicating better; the Government needs to do more to communicate the benefits of investment in the future and current talent pipeline to industry. The Government could incentivise industry to take a leading role. This might mean financial incentives and/or tax breaks for industry. Whatever the methods, the Government must step up to the challenge and bring industry with it.

299.The Government’s ambition must be to exploit technology with an aim to develop a digital economy second to none. The Government should work to identify and prioritise the UK’s growth sectors. Consequently, the Government should develop an ambitious ‘Digital Agenda’ for the UK: at its heart should be the Government’s vision for the UK to keep up with the best leading digital economies across the board in five years’ time.

300.This Digital Agenda should be the responsibility of a Cabinet Minister in the Cabinet Office, who would assume ultimate responsibility for driving the Digital Agenda across all Government departments.

301.The responsible Cabinet Minister should evaluate the UK’s Digital Agenda on a regular basis, seeking to drive the UK’s digital competitiveness. The Minister should report to Parliament annually against the measures within the Digital Agenda. We recommend an initial progress report to Parliament by summer 2016. We note that a similar practice is already undertaken by the Scottish Government.

302.Our Committee has completed its work with the production of this report, but it has highlighted an issue of critical importance that will need continuing oversight; we urge the Liaison Committee to consider how best to integrate such a commitment into the future work of select committees in the House of Lords.

Part II: A Digital Agenda for the UK

303.A Digital Agenda should articulate the Government’s ambitions for the UK, including the broad objectives it wants to achieve (and by when). This Agenda should focus on the delivery of these objectives—that is, what will be done practically to achieve them. Countries such as Estonia545 and Sweden546 are excellent examples of how this can be achieved (see Appendix 11 for an excerpt from Sweden’s digital agenda).

304.Our single major recommendation is that the incoming Government establishes a Digital Agenda for the UK to produce radical, rapid and continuing change. The illustrative Agenda below contains the objectives which we think such an Agenda should incorporate, including examples of how these objectives could be met. In its response to this report we invite the incoming Government to comment on the focus of our illustrative Digital Agenda and to commit to designing its own, with specific detail on how it intends to meet its objectives.

The UK’s Digital Agenda

Access to digital technologies

305.Objective 1: The population as a whole has unimpeded access to digital technology.

306.This includes:

(a)facilitation of universal internet access: the internet is viewed as a utility; and

(b)removal of ‘not-spots’ in urban areas.

Skill levels

307.Objective 2: The population as a whole has the right skill levels to use relevant digital technologies.

308.This includes:

(a)a culture of learning for life, with responsibility shared between the Government, industry and the individual;

(b)a commitment to meet the target set in the Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy, that by 2020 everyone who can be digitally capable, will be;

(c)a commitment to increase significantly the number of girls studying STEM subjects at further and higher education, including vocational education;

(d)a target for 10% of the workforce to have high-level digital skills by 2020; and

(e)facilitation of a bigger role in skills development for industry.

Risk management and cybersecurity

309.Objective 3: Recognition of the risk and benefits of cybersecurity; the UK has a sufficient talent pool with the knowledge and abilities to keep its hard and soft infrastructure secure.

310.As part of this:

(a)cybersecurity is placed higher on the public agenda;

(b)cyber-education starts at the school level (and is extended to broader society and those not in formal education); and

(c)both individuals and businesses—especially SMEs—are targeted.

Schools and teachers

311.Objective 4: No child leaves the education system without basic numeracy, literacy and digital literacy.

312.As part of this:

(a)digital literacy is taught as a core subject alongside numeracy and literacy, embedded across all subjects and throughout the curriculum;

(b)more focus is placed on building links with employers (including somebody from industry on the governing body of every school); and

(c)delivery of the new computing curriculum is seen as a priority. In particular more investment in training new teachers and speed and urgency to train existing teachers, involving the third sector and industry.

Further education and apprenticeships

313.Objective 5: A world-leading further education system for digital skills, brought about by a comprehensive employer-led review of the further education offer.

314.This review could be commissioned at the start of the new Parliament, to be completed within six months, and conducted by the Tech Partnership. The review could examine what is needed for the future of further education, including:

(a)a consistent and agile offer across providers;

(b)facilitation of strong partnerships between industry and further education;

(c)more apprenticeships across the board—and more digital apprenticeships. All apprenticeships should include a digital skills element;

(d)an accreditation and qualification system that is fit for purpose; and

(e)a revamped skills funding system to promote short, flexible courses and apprenticeships.

Higher education and research and development

315.Objective 6: A responsive higher education system and world-leading research and development.

316.This includes:

(a)a higher education system that works with industry to align courses to employer requirements; and

(b)a review of spending on research and development aimed to ensure the UK is comparable with other leading economies.

Employment guidance

317.Objective 7: A central, online employment guidance resource. Parents and teachers are more fully aware of the opportunities offered by digital technology.

318.As part of this:

(a)access to the employment guidance resource is through social media and other channels; and

(b)change is brought about by a wholesale review.

Business involvement and support

319.Objective 8: The right conditions for industry set by the Government.

320.This includes:

(a)facilitation of industry involvement across the board;

(b)an awareness campaign about the need to improve digital skills among SMEs; and

(c)information, advice and guidance for businesses readily available through local networks.

Regional ecosystems and clustering

321.Objective 9: Regional and sub-regional strengths are recognised and encouraged. Regions build on their local specialisms, facilitated by the Government.

322.This includes:

(a)a higher education system that is closely linked with industry and regional economies; and

(b)Government intervention when a Local Enterprise Partnership or locality is weak.

512 Q 15 (Professor Alan Manning), QQ 27–28, 31 (Kevin Baughan, Michael Gleaves), Q 53 (Antony Walker), Q 66 (Paul Willmott), Q 74 (Marcus Mason), Q 134 (Iain Wood), written evidence from Andrew WS Ainger (DSC0015), City & Guilds (DSC0044), RCUK (DSC0055) and Humber LEP (DSC0060)

513 Written evidence from Elix-IRR (DSC0046)

514 WEF, ‘The Global Competitiveness Index 2014–2015’:–15_Global_Image.png [accessed 6 January 2014]

515 This is up one position from 2013–14, but still down one place from its 8th place position in 2012–13.

516 See: WEF, ‘Networked Readiness Index’: [accessed 30 January 2015]; Booz & Company, “This Is for Everyone”: The Case for Universal Digitisation (November 2012): [accessed 30 January 2015]; and World Wide Web Federation, ‘The Web Index’: [accessed 3 February 2015]

518 Ibid.

521 Written evidence from Barclays Bank (DSC0047)

522 Written evidence from HM Government (DSC0084)

524 Written evidence from Elix-IRR (DSC0046)

525 Q 126 (Rachel Neaman), Q 192 (Gerard Grech), Q 195 (Angela Harrington), written evidence from IET (DSC0049), Innovate UK (DSC0070), HM Government (DSC0084) and iRights (DSC0108)

527 Q 59 (Antony Walker), Q 74 (Angela Morrison), Q 118 (Nick Coleman), Q 125 (Rachel Neaman), Q 128 (Karen Price) and Q 231 (Megan Richards)

530 Written evidence from Creative Skillset (DSC0095)

532 Written evidence from BT (DSC0091)

534 Written evidence from Welsh Government (DSC0123)

535 Q 59 (Antony Walker), Q 74 (Angela Morrison), Q 125 (Rachel Neaman), Q 128 (Karen Price), Q 142 (Iain Wood), Q 181 (Nick Coleman), Q 231 (Megan Richards) written evidence from Prospect (DSC0064) and Go ON UK (DSC0079)

536 Q 219. ‘Your Life’ is a campaign aimed at boosting participation in science, technology, engineering and maths (the ‘STEM’ subjects) at school and beyond. See: [accessed 2 February 2014]

537 Q 250 (Ed Vaizey MP): “… I do think we are getting better, not just by me being a joint Minister but also by the establishment of the Digital Taskforce, which is chaired by Francis Maude, with Jo Swinson from BIS [Department for Business, Innovation & Skills] as a vice-chairman alongside me. It is now bringing together three or four different elements of the digital agenda. Infrastructure is one of them, and I do not know how much this Committee will concentrate on that but we have already brought together more than a dozen different digital infrastructure projects in which the Government have an interest. That is not only delivering savings but making sure that we have a much bigger impact for the money we invest. It is bringing together skills—I think Nick is a member of the committee or turns up to the committee when it is relevant—and issues such as investment in digital technology and various other random issues, if I can put it that way, that are very central to the digital agenda: the Internet of Things, investment in 5G and so on. That is point number two, and that is supported by the Digital Economy Unit that sits across BIS and DCMS [Department for Culture, Media & Sport]”.

538 Scottish Government, Scotland’s Digital Future: A Strategy for Scotland (2011): [accessed 5 February 2015]

539 Written evidence from Scottish Government (DSC0128)

540 Cabinet Office, ‘Government Digital Strategy—December 2013’: [accessed 17 December 2014]

541 HM Government, ‘D5 London 2014: leading digital governments’: [accessed 30 January 2015]; and HM Government, ‘D5 Charter’: [accessed 30 January 2015]

543 Written evidence from Bristol City Council (DSC0126)

544 See QQ 15–25 (Professor Wajcman’s opening remarks)

545 Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Digital Agenda 2020 for Estonia: [accessed 7 January 2015]

546 Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications, ICT for Everyone: A Digital Agenda for Sweden (November 2011): [accessed 7 January 2015]