Government receives 'wake-up call' on digital

Deserving to be on a par with Maths in schools -- and treated as important as water -- is Digital, which ministers have received a loud “wake-up call” about from peers.

In fact, a new report from the Lords committee set up to probe the UK’s digital prowess calls for Digital to be a core subject at school, and a utility “accessible to all” the public.

Only when the internet is treated as a utility, “as vital for people as water or electricity”, will ‘not-spots’ or patchy use of the medium be properly addressed, the report says.

If such issues aren’t tackled, especially where they harm the UK’s ability to compete, the report warns that the next government will fail to secure the nation’s status as a digital leader.

But as well as boosting the role of digital in the classroom (not least because half of IT teachers don’t have a post-A-level qualification related to IT), the government must get its own house in order.

In particular, the government due to be voted in from May must put a single 'Digital Agenda' at the heart of government, and front it with a new cabinet minister dedicated to Digital, the Lords say.

The peers recommend these two steps because today there is “a distinct lack of government coordination on digital initiatives,” as current digital ‘activity’ covers four ministers, a taskforce, a committee and a unit.

According to the Lords and their report, ‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future,’ such a lack of joined-up resources is “glaring evidence” of the need to create a single digital agenda driven by one minister.

Baroness Morgan, chair of the Digital Skill Committee, reflected: “We are at a make-or-break point for the future of the UK -- for its economy, its workforce and its people.

“We have a choice as a country about whether we seize this opportunity or whether we fall behind. This report declares that the UK must aim to be a global digital leader, and only clear leadership from the government will get us there.”

However industry must help too. Specifically at the higher education level, where the report points to an “urgent need” for private sector input so graduates are taught “job-relevant” digital skills.

More apprenticeships (“and better” ones) need to emerge, says the report, as does “a culture shift in our attitude towards cyber security”, where training enough people with the right skills is an ongoing concern.

The report adds that such people are infrequently women, partly due to IT in schools still being seen as a ‘boys club,’ and because girls’ influencers are not up to speed on the broad range of technical careers that young women can now have.

Small and medium-sized enterprises could do more too, the Lords believe, as a third of such firms are currently without a website, mainly due to issues of skills, awareness and/or finance.

The peers said: “We heard that SMEs drive innovation and growth, and that digitally empowering the UK SME sector could unlock £18.8 billion of annual revenue and stimulate the creation of 58,000 new jobs.”

To incentivise and support all these parties – business, education and individuals – so they act in a way that is conducive to the UK’s digital health, the report casts the government with the biggest role.

Indeed, the government “should act as the ‘conductor of the orchestra’” states the report, adding: “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.”

Baroness Morgan enforced: “This report is a wake-up call to whoever forms the next government in May. Digital is everywhere, with digital skills now seen as vital life skills. It's obvious, however, that we're not learning the right skills to meet our future needs.”

Feb 23, 2015