Computer Weekly Editor's Blog

May 12 2010   5:18PM GMT

10 urgent IT questions for the new government to answer

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

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So we finally know who our new government is. The buzz on Twitter has claimed that the UK is now the ConDem Nation, but already there are glimpses of the new administration’s plans for IT – not least of which will be the inevitable scrapping of the hugely unpopular ID cards project.

Technology featured more heavily in this election campaign than ever before – take a look back at the exclusive articles penned for Computer Weekly by Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and the Tories’ Francis Maude to see how much thought had gone into IT issues.

There are plenty of questions that the new government has to answer across every sector of public life, but there are some big issues in IT that will need to be tackled as a priority if we are to achieve the goal that every party agreed on – making the UK a world-leading high-tech economy.

These are the top 10 IT questions that our new political leaders must address with urgency:

What happens to all the contracts signed for now-scrapped projects such as ID cards and ContactPoint?

IDcards and the ContactPoint children’s database are dead – both the Tories and LibDems wanted them scrapped. But costly contracts remain in place with IT suppliers who will not simply walk away without compensation. What happens to those contracts, and how will they be amicably – and inexpensively – wound up?

Who will fund next-generation broadband roll-out?

Labour’s plans for a 50p per month “broadband tax” foundered when the controversial Digital Economy Bill was rushed through parliament before the election. But the issue of high-speed broadband roll-out has not gone away. The Tories believe that the market will ensure that our digital telecommunications infrastructure is upgraded – but the likelihood of the market reaching out to rural areas is as remote as their broadband exchanges. A high-speed broadband network is critical to our economic future and we cannot be left behind – so how will roll-out be funded, and how will we ensure that rural areas do not miss out?

What are the plans for IT skills development and the IT curriculum in schools?

It is widely recognised that the IT curriculum in schools is not fit for purpose. Indeed, it seems to actively turn children off the prospect of a career in IT. A radical overhaul is needed. But lifelong IT skills development needs support too. The Labour government launched various initiatives that never really addressed the growing skills gap and many experts predict there will be a significant shortfall in IT skills available to meet demand in the next five years.

If the Tory plan to cap non-EU immigration affects firms’ ability to source low-cost IT skills from India, then companies will simply set up captive operations in countries that have no such qualms – and the IT brain drain will increase.

David Cameron has also promised a big reduction in quangos – so what is the future for the IT sector skills council e-Skills UK that has done much to promote IT skills development? The UK needs a coherent plan to deliver the IT skills that the economy increasingly needs.

What happens to public sector IT spending and the government IT strategy?

Government CIO John Suffolk published his government IT strategy earlier this year, and he recently told me that he knew exactly what would happen to the plan with the advent of a new government – but wouldn’t tell me what it was. Civil servants have been briefing the former Opposition parties for some time, as is the protocol in an election year, but those briefings would not have envisaged a coalition government.

The Tories will press ahead with their plans for £6bn of public sector spending cuts and IT will not escape the knife. IT professionals in Whitehall, in local government, in education and health will be waiting to see what their future holds, and key projects will be in limbo. Cameron has promised a £100m cap on IT contracts.

Clarity will be urgently needed on the future of IT projects, both those underway and planned, to avoid drift and over-spending.

Does the NHS IT Programme have a future?

What to do with the biggest, most controversial, and most troubled public sector IT project of them all, the NHS National Programme for IT? Labour had tried, not entirely successfully, to rush through re-negotiated contracts with key suppliers BT and CSC to tie the hands of the new government, but it is clear that radical surgery is required to get the programme back on track – if it is to survive at all. The health service needs new, modernised IT, and however it is delivered, it is needed soon.

How to tackle illegal downloading?

Labour’s Digital Britain plan – a welcome if not overly ambitious initiative – somehow turned into a Digital Economy Bill that seemed to have been written by the entertainment industry lobby and targeted illegal downloaders as if they had lost their legal rights online. A more realistic and reasoned approach is needed that recognises the illegality of copyright theft but encourages the entertainment industry to develop new business models that equally recognise the way that more and more people consumer their digital entertainment products.

Do we still have a digital inclusion strategy?

Martha Lane Fox has been a high profile digital inclusion champion, targeted at finding ways to get the 20 per cent of the population that are not online connected to the internet and able to make the most of the economic opportunities the web offers. Does she still have a role in the new government? And what is the future of initiatives such as the Home Access programme to provide low-cost PCs and broadband connections to low income families?

What next for open data?

Gordon Brown enthusiastically embraced the concept of open data, launching the data.gov.uk web site and appointing web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee to advise on making public sector data publicly available on the internet. The Tories and LibDems have indicated their backing for the plan, but it needs high-level support to be sure that Whitehall departments and other public sector bodies do what is required to open up their data.

Will IT projects be made more transparent?

The Tories have promised to make the Gateway IT project monitoring reviews public, to show which projects are in trouble and the actions being taken to prevent more of the major IT disasters that we have seen all to often in the past decade. Contracts with suppliers have been kept secret under the grounds of commercial confidentiality, but here too the Conservatives have previously promised reform. Is it going to happen?

What will be done to support UK innovation?

The Tories, as the traditional party of business, would be expected to support small businesses and startups, but those firms need to know what support will be available. We don’t need grand plans to rival Silicon Valley, but we do need to know that innovations and inventions in the UK can make money for the UK, instead of being snapped up by foreign rivals, as has been the case so often. Innovation is the future of UK IT as a global player, and we need is a government that helps and allows it to happen.

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