With technological advancements around data protection and state surveillance of internet traffic, the UK is heading into its first tech-aware General Election.
Computer Weekly hosted a debate with the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties looking at their technology manifesto for the UK.
This will be the first UK election post Ed Snowden’s revelations and UK voters are aware of the extent the UK security services and GCHQ have tapped into their internet communications.
It is also the first UK election that will be fought in the era of cloud computing, a technology which has the potential to slash the cost of public sector IT.
But risk adverse government procurement and legal issues have hampered the widescale adoption of cloud, open data and open source in government.
Then there is the question of Europe. Leaving Europe would hamper UK tech’s ability to compete.
UK minister for culture and the digital economy Ed Vaizey said Europe represented an opportunity for UK tech businesses. “The digital single market is a great opportunity for a business based in the UK to sell to a consumer in another member state with the least amount of friction. It is important for us to push that. Our agenda is to make sure Europe makes crucial reforms. The European economy is stagnating. We want to reform the EU to push an agenda for growth.”
But the uncertainty that exists as the political parties tackle UKIP is already damaging the tech industry. Speaking about his own constituency of Cambridge, home to one of the UK’s first technology hubs, Liberal Democrat spokesman Huppert said: “As David Cameron runs up a white flag to the UKIP tendency and every time gets into more and more trouble, when I speak to companies in Cambridge they are very worried about the outcome of the referendum and also the [referendum] process – the uncertainty and the business chaos. I don’t think anyone would say the European Union couldn’t be reformed, but then I don’t think Whitehall couldn’t be reformed.”
Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister for digital government Chi Onwurah, called for greater support to help startups break into international markets. She said: “At a government level we need a louder voice in international forums.” While this is one of the roles of UK Trade & Industry (UKTI) she said that UKTI needed more skills around the digital economy: “There are some technology and cultural barriers. The kinds of services and scale we want our companies to achieve will only be achieved if we are open too and even quite aggressive at doing business globally.”
Huppert has spoken on many occasions about the risks of state surveillance. Now, following the Prime Minister’s mission to give security services a backdoor to open encrypted internet traffic, he warned: “We need to make sure we do not do anything daft that drives the rest of the world away, which is why the Prime Minister’s desire to have backdoors in technology would absolutely slam doors around the world to a huge amount of exports. If you knew that any British product necessarily had a government security services backdoor, no bank would buy it; no business would buy it.”
Making GDS local
The question over whether Government Digital Services (GDS) can scale locally was discussed at the Computer Weekly debate on government digital policies.
And while Vaizey may not have specifically referred to it as a private or hybrid cloud, GDS has this potential for government. “You have this concept of government-as-a-platform, where we have saved billions of pounds by providing a gateway through to government services,” he said.
In fact, fellow panellist, Onwurah, said: “What I want to see is that we develop platforms that local government, national government and third-party providers can share in the delivery of services for the citizen and save money.”
TechUK CEO Julian David said: “Government has an opportunity to bring more innovation into public sector procurement, from companies of all sizes, across the country.”
But there is a sense of reluctance according to BCS membership director, David Evans. While historically a few major suppliers dominated government IT procurement because they offered low risk, Evans said there are certain IT risks that cannot be outsourced, meaning small businesses are a viable prospect. But this does not mean large companies should be excluded, he warned.
Huppert said: “I see an element of fear around what happens with open source and open data,” he said. “The economic benefits of making data open is that you make more money than if you retained it. People will do things [with open data] because they are passionate.”
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