The UK Digital Strategy – what we know (and what we don’t)

We sift through the rhetoric, so you don't have to.
16 June 2022

The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, MP. Source: Shutterstock

The UK Government has expanded on its plans for a broad brush digital strategy aimed at making Britain “the best place in the world to start and grow a technology business.”

To understand what the digital strategy actually is, you’re going to need a buzz-saw to hack your way through government spin phrases, because if you ask Chris Philp, Minister for Technology and the Digital Economy, as people did at the strategy’s official launch at London Tech Week, he’ll tell you that the goal is to “bring cross-government tech and digital policies together in one unified roadmap for ensuring that digital technology, infrastructure and data drives economic growth and innovation in the coming years. The plan will lead to new jobs, skills and services that benefit and level up the whole of the UK”.

So, that’s clear.

In fact, even though the announcement brought some broad areas of actual technology policy into the spotlight and pledged to do something to push them forward, the whole thing so far feels like the outside edges of a strategy jigsaw puzzle. You can see how big it is, and what the factors are that constrain it, but the hardcore detail of exactly what will happen is still frustratingly vague.

What We Know

We know the digital strategy will be divided into six areas of interest:

  • “Digital foundations” – focusing on the underpinning nuts and bolts of a transformed digital economy – universal high-speed broadband, cybersecurity, digital regulation and the legal uses of data, etc. It’s worth noting that the strategy emphasizes the government will use a “light touch, pro-innovation regulatory regime.”
  • “Ideas and intellectual property” – the UK’s so-called “innovation ecosystem,” from universities to the private sector. Much of the fundamental work on this was covered in the 2021 Innovation Strategy, though the new version takes its work forward.
  • “Digital skills” – enhancing digital education and career awareness of the tech industry. Funding here will be geared towards providing the tech sector with a growing pool of new recruits, to help grow the sector over the mid-to-long term.
  • “Financing digital growth” – Easing access to startup capital for tech firms, through lenders like British Patient Capital and the British Business Bank. Focus will also be given to growing and building on the existing success of the UK’s fintech sector.
  • “Spreading prosperity and levelling up” – Behind the buzzwords, this will allocate priority and funding to key government priorities like enhancing productivity.
  • “Enhancing the UK’s place in the world” – focusing on leveraging the UK’s belief in its “strategic advantage in digital and tech” to sway worldwide decisions in science and technology. It’s easy to dismiss this as a flag-waving exercise to assert an undue economic and scientific influence now that Britain has left the EU–but there is at least some substance beneath the hype. British tech startups have raised more than £12bn in the first half of 2022, and the UK tech sector as a whole is worth £150bn ($182bn).

What We Also Know

We also know that many of the details in the new announcement are actually reheated details from previous announcements. Of more than 100 specific points in the strategy, things we already knew include:

  • A plan to increase gigabit broadband coverage in the UK to 85% by 2025, moving to 99% by 2030.
  • The launch of the Digital Skills Council, to tackle a current deficit in the digital skills that the future tech workforce will need to expand its scope.
  • A scheme to boost AI adoption outside London and the South East (traditionally the richest area of the country).
  • Rolling out mobile network coverage to at least 95% of the country by 2025.
  • Raising R&D investment to £20bn per year by 2024/25.

What We Don’t Know

At the moment, there are key areas left unexplored by the strategy, most importantly any detailed plans to reform the UK’s data protection laws in the post-Brexit, post-Cambridge Analytica, post-GDPR era, and any idea of quite how the current government’s “light touch, pro-innovation” regulatory style will apply to the likes of AI. In fact, there is as yet no detailed indication of whether such a regulatory style can be effective with the likes of AI.

Further legislation is likely to address such questions in more detail in the coming months – assuming an increasingly beleaguered UK government can negotiate Brexit and Northern Ireland issues, a cost of living crisis, the crippling economic impact of Covid on public funds, and its NATO commitments to the war in Ukraine. There’s also the small matter of a Prime Minister whose particular character traits are causing the electorate (but not his own political party) some alarm — the prospects of a spell in Her Majesty’s Opposition tend to focus minds on electorate-friendly legislation, not the fine detail of technology policies.

We also don’t know yet whether the plans and intentions outlined in the digital strategy are actually viable, given that host of other headline-grabbing priorities. Billions of pounds worth of R&D investment is a good economic idea if you’re trying to innovate your way to a new techno-destiny, but it may be hard to win over a public that’s facing both a fuel and a cost of living crisis to see its merits.

And with a national election in (at most) two years, the long-term wisdom of the digital strategy may yet find itself playing second fiddle to more immediate vote-winners like tax cuts and fuel cost mitigation measures.