Government likes strategies. In the technology space alone it currently has a cyber security strategy, a transformation strategy, a digital strategy, an industrial strategy, an AI Sector Deal, and a National Data Strategy – which we called for last year – is due in 2020. Now it has a Technology Innovation Strategy too.
The new strategy has many strengths. It offers a useful overview of the work government has done so far preparing for and experimenting with emerging technologies, identifies key obstacles that still need to be addressed, and serves as a much-needed push for a more joined-up approach. But, as was the case with the 2017 Transformation Strategy, it offers little sense of precisely what the Government plans to do, and when.
Even compared to previous government strategies, the Technology Innovation Strategy is striking for the absence of concrete, measurable commitments.
Its ‘Next Steps’ include promises to launch a new online marketplace for public sector technology innovation – an early, ‘beta’ version of which went live in April for organisations to test out – and to double the number of digital, data and technology apprentices recruited centrally in government to address skills gaps. But no time frame is given in either case.
All the other plans are focused on ‘exploring’, ‘reviewing’, ‘understanding’ and ‘putting in place [further] plans’. These statements of intent are all very sensible – getting to grips with the Government’s ‘legacy technology challenge’, for instance, is long overdue. But while the strategy is a useful record of government thinking to date, it commits primarily to thinking just a little bit more.
In many ways, this is understandable. Financial commitments over discrete time frames would have been a shock when the duration and timing of the next Spending Review – originally anticipated earlier this year – remain unclear, and a new prime minister could yet reverse any substantive policy commitments. And, from the Autumn, Brexit could blow almost everything out of the water anyway.
Politics is not the only complicating factor. As the minister, Oliver Dowden, notes in the strategy’s foreword, ‘the speed at which the emerging technology landscape is changing means we will continually need to refresh and review our approach.’
The resulting focus on ‘fixing the plumbing’ is sensible. Government still needs to shake off unwieldy legacy systems, find effective ways to share data between departments and ensure it has the right skills before it can properly benefit from new technologies like artificial intelligence. In the UK, as elsewhere, government’s use of emerging technologies remains nascent, so a definitive, long-term strategy would have felt premature. And given the difficulties in predicting future technological advances, anything too conclusive would have been unwise.
That said, the strategy could have gone further. It could have given more of a sense of what new technologies might make possible, to stimulate the imagination of the civil servants who will be responsible for thinking up creative ways to apply them. And its focus rarely strays beyond ‘services,’ when the full impact of new technologies on government will be felt across the board – from internal accounting processes to policy making – and could lead to a complete transformation in the shape and functioning of the state as a whole. We hope to address the potential depth and breadth of the impact emerging and future technologies could have on government in our new programme of work.
With political and civil service bandwidth dominated by Brexit, it is positive that the Government is looking ahead at all. The strategy’s accompanying guide to using AI in the public sector, put together by the new Office for Artificial Intelligence, follows recent appointments to the AI Council and the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation last year. This all reflects the high degree of momentum around technology in government, and the minister is right to be proud, in his foreword, of the UK’s track record on digital government.
Maintaining this momentum is crucial, but it won’t be easy. Core elements of the new strategy are contingent on the National Data Strategy, which already appears to be behind schedule due to DCMS’s heavy Brexit workload, and key commitments in the strategy – such as to revise the way departments apply for funding for digital projects, which we identified as a key problem area last year – rely on the willingness of already-stretched departments to follow through.
The strategy identifies the right problems, but leaves open the questions of how and when they will be addressed. Further progress depends on how these questions are answered, but it is far from clear whether or not government will have the capacity – not to mention the ministerial permission – to do so any time soon.