Digital Government And Inclusion Will Be A £24bn Election Issue

Using technology better could save the government £24 billion by 2020, according to a Technology Manifesto from the Policy Exchange think tank. MP’s from the major parties have started campaigning on it, calling for tech to be at the centre of next year’s General Election.

The government needs to digitise more services, and rebuild the underlying tech to use standard systems not bespoke IT, the Manifesto urges, and warns that civil servants need to have a stronger grasp of tech through better use of initiatives such as the Government Digital Service.

Politicians from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties signed up to these ideas, at a public Policy Exchange meeting in London – and then started to argue over the best way to implement the ideas.

The Tech Campaign starts here

Eddie Copeland, co-author of the report, welcomed the start of the digital election campaign at the Policy Exchange meeting in Google’s Campus London building: “We need more people talking, not agreeing,” he said. “We need more tech savvy MPs.”

Tech developments have already saved the government £500 million in 2013, with procurement changes, and the single website replacing more than 300 departmental sites. These changes will add up to more than £1.7 billion a year after 2015, Policy Exchange says.

To do more though, means staff cuts, he warned: “It is transformative only when it changes the way people work,” he said. “That means breaking down silos, it means sharing more data, and it will almost certainly mean that fewer staff will be needed to perform particular tasks. The next government must not shy away from the hard but inescapable need for organisational change.”

The current government is having successes, including a new version of the online car tax system which will eventually do away with paper disks sent in the post, said Nadhim Zahawi MP (above), a member of the Number 10 Policy Board, and one of the founders of the YouGov market research group before becoming MP for Stratford on Avon.

Government must also support tech startups better, he said, making sure they can get their difficult third round of funding to grow in this country.

Close that Digital Divide!

Labour’s Chi Onwurah, a hardware and software developer turned MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, criticised the Conservative record on inclusion, saying that the Digital Divide is increasing and must be bridged, as it is “important not to leave anyone behind”

Government services have been digitised with a view to cost-cutting rather than empowering citizens.  Sometimes digitisation further empowers the “geek elite” she said, while the Government seemed to have abandoned 10 percent of the population in cyberspace.

Tech also needs to stop losing the skills of women, she said.

Labour is gearing up to a tech election campaign with consultation underway about digital industry, the skills isssue, and Digital Government, she said.

Do tech because it is fun?

Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and former research chemist Dr Julian Huppert reckons that the country should be engaging in tech because it is fun, it is creative, and it is the source of our next economy.  “We can’t lead the world in agriculture. We can’t lead in manufacturing,” he said. “It has to be technology.”

Huppert called for a commitment of three percent increase in investment in swcience research every year for the next fifteen years, explaining that Government investment actually has the effect of increasing investment from the public sector in a field – pulling funds in rather than displacing them.

Enthusisastic people given access to data can achieve a lot of cost saving, Huppert said, citing systems that map cycle routes developed by cyclists themselves. There are limits to this sort of action, though, pointing out that massive systems for the Department of Work and Pensions will never be written that way.

Tech needs immigration

The new party on the block, UKIP was not represented – but given it denies climate change no one seemed to miss it. However, all those present seemed to agree on something which would make Nigel Farage see red: the tech industry actually needs more immigration, not less.

“It’s really terrifying how much rhetoric there is against immigration,” said Huppert. “We have to get skilled people to come here. We should have a positive attitude.”

Of course Huppert was criticising a Coalition government of which he is a member. Onwurah suggested Liberal Democrats are starting to abandon the Coalition to make their own case.

It seems that next year’s General Election will be at least a three horse race, with parties ready to engage in technology and bring their own particular angle to the contest.

Quiz: the triumph and the tragedy of public sector IT!

Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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