My Response to Ed Vaizey on future UK Digital Strategy

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-digital-strategy-the-next-frontier-in-our-digital-revolution

I’ve spent the last 15 years working in tech and the last 5 working with (mostly) startup companies to develop their digital strategy and helping to facilitate and manage development as well.

In that time, I’ve seen some amazing things that Government has done and some things that have been unhelpful as well.

I think the biggest point I want to make is that the tax system is overly complex for business, specifically for micro businesses. If you want to create more business in the digital space you need more entrepreneurs, and for that you need incentives. At present, the bureaucracy needed to run a digital business is disproportionate to the value it provides. I know there are startups out there changing this, but without the incentives…

Suggestion: Either rework the business tax system to encourage better entrepreneurship and investment or rework (something that I think could be a vote winner with entrepreneurs) or rework the investment schemes, so they are not so complex for the entrepreneur to understand.

Oh… and get rid of Employers National Insurance! Why tax job creation?

Digital Growth

Currently, entrepreneurs are focussing on East London, due to Tech City and it’s growth. It is becoming a hub for investors (both angel and institutional) and is regenerating the area well. However, what is needed is a series of hubs in Tech City and in major hubs around the country, that are meeting places and work places. The government (both local and national) has failed to understand that business support services (like business link and the catapults) should not be rewards for supporting the creation of another “web design agency”. Too many “me too” businesses are created without teaching the skills of entrepreneurship. These companies should be supported but not to the detriment of the entrepreneurs.

To this end, a series of government led “open hubs” (co working spaces) in strategic locations could be a huge growth mechanism. These hubs should be open to all, and “rough and ready” — a good example is Campus London cafe. Don’t need big spaces, and these should primarily be encouraged in cities, such as Milton Keynes (my home), Brighton, Birmingham, etc.

Local governments have space that is empty. They should be encouraged to provide a decent internet connection and basic facilities to individuals to “start up”.

Oh, and guidance must be issued to local councils on what constitutes “state aid” and what doesn’t. They are far too slow to react to opportunities. As a director of a community energy organisation that had massive potential, we lost out on installing over 1MW of solar panels due to the local council believing that renting the roofs we needed to the community energy company constituted “state aid”.

Suggestion: Local council run/central govt supported “co working hubs”

Suggestion: Guidance to local councils on how to encourage digital hubs — co-working, rates relief, what is and is not “state aid” etc

Transforming Government

This is simple. Following on from the success of the GDS, the next step is to make everything an API. The mantra has been “web first” then “mobile first” and it is becoming “API first”.

What this means is instead of thinking about how something is consumed, it should be about ensuring that the underlying structure of the logic and interaction is in a clear and simple interface. One that can be replicated.

This isn’t simple, but it would transform government and IT projects, specifically in the NHS.

The major problem with IT projects is that in the past, the only companies who could deliver them were enterprise level (big companies) with big teams. This is no longer true. However, the upshot of this is that the big companies built in long term contracts, and once built, the systems were “supported” by those companies. This led to big installations, with massive costs and maintenance, which after 3 years were obsolete (new tech, new ideas, new govt).

The government needs to procure for shorter periods, and force suppliers to deliver as an API first. This way, other suppliers can build on top of that API, but also, the original supplier cannot get away with overdelivering and overcharging in the same way.

Suggestion: API First approach

Authentication is a problem. Govt needs to deliver a centralised but anonymising (where appropriate) solution for government to use. Look at Amazon Web Services Cognito, API Gateway and Lambda as an approach to consider replicating in some way. A blog post I wrote recently might help here: https://medium.com/@PaulDJohnston/in-praise-of-aws-cognito-and-lambda-b145f9d643ba

Suggestion: Centralised but anonymous authentication solution for others to build upon.

Transforming Day to Day Life

My biggest problem with government strategy at present is where the ideas come from on this. My experience is that Universities are often behind the times by a couple of years compared to the entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs operate in a different world, where an idea has to be developed and tested within (say) 6 months to work. A funding round that gives a University 2 years is out of date when completed, so which is the better approach? Probably better research is done, but is it viable on completion? Not necessarily. It depends on the market and the size of the opportunity, but are we really identifying the “current” problems, or the issues of yesterday. We’re moving so fast, that we’re behind the times tomorrow, let alone in two years.

Suggestion: Shorten research projects at Universities for this kind of research

Learning is changing. Young Adults, Students and children are more “on demand”. Why should we have to wait for a school day to begin to teach them? What would a 24–7 school look like? What would on-demand teaching be like?

We might have an opportunity here to develop the school of the future. Where children and students can learn at their own pace, and in their own environment. It may not benefit all, but if you’re attempting to drive a digital economy, this is where schooling is going.

There are university courses based entirely online now. There are no schools yet (not really). This would have to be centralised or regulated, but it could easily be done. Children are very used to using online learning to develop their skills (mymaths is what my kids use for example) so why should we not encourage them to expand this idea.

We still need the social aspect, but the social aspect of most classes in school is minimal except group working. The sport, arts, volunteering agendas however, may benefit from a more “flexible” form of schooling. Maybe it should be only 3 hours a day in school doing the social elements, with those schools acting us hubs for online learning for the rest of the school day, and children being able to learn in multiple different ways.

This would be a superb way of generating the generation of the future.

Suggestion: The future school — online and offline and supported and regulated and different.

Make schools more like hubs of learning and teachers more flexible in the approach. We can still have exams, but exams taken when the child is most ready. Be that 13, or 18. More courses can be offered, and a different style of support can be created, with teachers becoming closer to a mentoring influence.

Healthcare is a fascinating problem. too. The issue here is that there is not enough focus on the right areas. The universities get the bulk of the investment here, but the entrepreneurs miss out due to timescales to deliver against (basically, it’s virtually impossible to break into the market which has a sales cycle in years). The universities are too far behind.

The easiest approach would be a healthcare specific tax break for investors. Something that would encourage longer term investment specifically in healthcare solutions. I’ve seen numerous startups fail at the hurdle of “needing more investment on an unproven idea”.

Suggestion: Incentivise longer term investment in entrepreneur led healthcare (not university driven).

Also, the NHS is enormous. The digital solutions driving it are increasingly out of date. The NHS must adopt an API first approach as soon as possible to ensure that solutions can be updated and changed without enormous charges.

Suggestion: API driven NHS

Building the foundations

First things first, super fast broadband should be a given across the board, as soon as possible. The government should penalise any providers that have not enabled super fast broadband in all places within a year. We should then spend 5 years developing our “moonshot” to make the UK the fastest and most reliable internet in the world.

Suggestion: Moonshot idea of fastest broadband worldwide in 5 years

Encryption and security are a big deal. The problem is that the government at present believes that legislation will provide security. It won’t. It can’t. Any techie worth their salt can (with freely available tools) create a personalised and secure solution that will be very hard to decrypt or hack into. It won’t be perfect, but the problem isn’t whether you can hack one person, it’s whether you can hack them all.

Encryption is not a threat. People are a threat. I know this sounds like the Gun lobby in the US, but the cat is way out of the bag, so stop trying to legislate or force people to reveal things that they have chosen to encrypt.

The techies will always be at least one step ahead (probably nearer ten steps) than any legislation, so aim to provide the right environment, rather than demonising technology.

Suggestion: stop trying to criminalise the ability to communicate. It’s pointless.

The skills shortage is immense. I have tried to explain to my teenagers that they are going to have to have programming skills at some level to get the top kind of jobs in future. This is going to happen. No job in 15 years will fail to be a programming job. Computer Science isn’t the point. It’s logic, it’s patterns and it’s best practice that needs to be taught. Alongside this, we need to bring in philosophy and ethics. It’s vital that we give people both the right tools and a moral compass to utilise these. This would probably go further than trying to criminalise encryption in securing our country.

Suggestion: Update the “digital” training agenda to “patterns, logic and best practice” (think doing computer games) and go back to teaching Philosophy and Ethics for all

Conclusion

In all this, I’m excited by the possibilities of the future of UK Digital. Government is often told that it’s getting in the way, and this moment is an opportunity to step up and move forwards fast.

Digital skills outside the UK are focussing on the measurable and the deliverable. They are often things like “have we got x numbers of computer science graduates?”. We cannot compete on numbers with India, and China, so we should stop trying. We should focus on what we do better than anyone.

We are the best innovators in the world. It’s in our DNA as a nation. We can build an environment that nobody can match and this worldide cultural shift that we’re moving on, could be how we make Britain “great” again.

Written by

ServerlessDays CoFounder (Jeff), ex AWS Serverless Snr DA, experienced CTO/Interim, Startups, Entrepreneur, Techie, Geek and Christian

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