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From golden hellos for CIOs to 100Mbps broadband for all: How to fix tech in Britain

silicon.com manifesto: 17 ways the UK must rebuild its technology landscape
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Written by Nick Heath on

silicon.com manifesto: 17 ways the UK must rebuild its technology landscape

With the general election now confirmed for 6 May, the political parties have been unveiling the policies that they hope will help sweep them to power.

Now it's time for the tech industry to have its say.

silicon.com has created its own manifesto, drawn up with input from the UK IT industry association Intellect; the Corporate IT Forum - the body representing the largest users of enterprise IT; and Andrew Miller, chairman of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee.

The silicon.com manifesto sets out the policies we believe are necessary for the future of technology in this country, from dealing with Britain's changing broadband landscape and tackling government IT, to the thorny issue of the skills shortage in the IT industry.

silicon.com election manifesto

It's time for political parties to stop fudging the issue of how they will roll out a next-generation broadband network
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Broadband and online

Do the sums on next-generation broadband

Both parties have paid lip service to the idea of rolling out superfast broadband across the UK in the coming years.

The Tories have said they will subsidise the rollout of next-generation broadband to areas likely to be underserved by commercial providers using money - about £120m each year - taken from the BBC licence fee. Labour wants to subsidise its own planned superfast rollout using money raised by a 50p tax on every landline in the UK, generating up to £170m each year.

To date, the amounts political parties have put on the table to fund the rollout of a fibre broadband network pale in comparison to the £29bn it is estimated will be necessary to roll out a network capable of delivering speeds of 100Mbps, particularly in light of the fact telcos believe they will only be able to deliver half of the network without subsidy.

The next UK government should begin its term by launching an in-depth study of how much it will cost to fund near-universal, high-speed broadband access in the UK. The government should be able to lay out its concrete costings for the network before the public, along with a coherent, transparent plan to deliver the necessary funding for its creation.

Guaranteed broadband speeds of at least 100Mbps for close to 100 per cent of the country by 2017

While the parties may be happy to talk up the potential of next-generation broadband, they're considerably less keen to discuss the cold, hard facts of when the networks will be in place and what speeds we can expect from them.

So far the government has failed to clarify a timetable or minimum speed for its promise to provide access to superfast broadband for every UK home, while the Tories have said they will put measures in place to support the building of a 100Mbps network but have not said when it will be completed.

We believe, however, a 100Mbps network must be put in place for close to 100 per cent of the country by 2017.

Raising the floor for broadband speeds to 100Mbps will put the UK level with the nations with the fastest broadband in the world, where such speeds are already common.

Universal high-speed access will facilitate new business models, create new cloud-based services for consumers and enterprises, and foster new ways of delivering public services, such as high-definition videoconferencing between patients and GPs.

Access to the 100Mbps service - whether through fibre broadband or a mix of other technologies - must extend across the UK so that small rural communities are not left out.

Tax breaks, government subsidies or other incentives should be provided to telcos that agree to roll out fibre connections to isolated rural areas, where the low population means it will take those telcos longer to recoup their investment.

Kill the Digital Economy Act

This highly controversial law has been rushed through Parliament in the face of strong public opposition and without the necessary debate.

Its measures for tackling online piracy of copyrighted material - including disconnecting the internet access of persistent file-sharers - have been roundly criticised as being unworkable, expensive and fraught with difficulties.

The act was rushed through ahead of the 6 May election as part of the wash-up - Westminster's equivalent of last orders where one draft bill after another is passed in an attempt to tie up any loose ends before Parliament is dissolved.

Fast-tracking such a contentious and complicated piece of legislation onto the statute books is asking for trouble.

If, as Gordon Brown himself says, the internet is the electricity of the digital age, it is irresponsible to be cutting off citizens who are only suspected - not proved - to be guilty of wrongdoing.

The next parliament needs to go back to the drawing board, scrap the Digital Economy Act and put in place new legislation to tackle the issue of online copyright theft that gives the issue the consideration that it deserves.

A 100 per cent connected nation

While the Labour government has already launched a programme to get 270,000 low-income families online, more must be done to help older consumers embrace the internet.

The benefits are clear: it's an opportunity to cut social isolation, increase access to healthcare and other vital services using telemedicine and other online channels, and also cut the cost of delivering public services online - a boost to the public purse.

Taking the first steps online can seem daunting, costly or just plain unappealing to those yet to get on the net. Therefore those over retirement age should be given a free broadband connection and desktop set-up, as well as regular in-home assistance by dedicated professionals to guide them through the process of getting online, using public services and connecting with friends, relatives and care-givers.

Government IT

Accelerate major IT deals

Government must reduce the time it takes to complete the procurement phase of an IT project from the current average of 15 months to 40 weeks.

This would bring it into line with where IT industry association Intellect believes it should be if it used standardised procurement models, tools and contract terms.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) should work with industry groups and other experts to draw up a standardised approach to IT project procurement to try and reduce the time it currently takes.

It should also consult with these parties during the procurement process to check that contracts are manageable and likely to succeed.

Get the users involved

When building a new computer system, the people who will use it every day should be the first people, not the last, to get their hands on it.

A major criticism of the £12.7bn National Programme for IT was the Department of Health failed to ask doctors and nurses what they wanted from new systems.

Panels made up of frontline public sector staff must be able to demand changes to major government IT projects from the get-go.

These user panels should have the power to trigger revamps at the design, procurement and implementation stage of the projects.

Time to axe large IT projects

No major IT project should be timetabled to last longer than two years.

The Labour government has been dogged by lengthy delays in delivering IT projects costing billions of pounds and lasting for a decade or more, such as the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) or the National Identity Scheme.

Smaller, shorter and cheaper projects would have less scope for budget overruns and there would also be a greater chance of the managers overseeing those contracts staying in place for the project's duration - significant given a change in a project's management is often blamed for the failure of such projects.

Shrinking the size of government contracts would also allow smaller companies to bid for central government deals. This would end the status quo where only the largest IT suppliers can afford to deliver services to Whitehall departments, leaving central government with only a limited choice in pricing and delivery.

But governments should avoid setting an arbitrary financial limit on the value of IT contracts, as suggested by the Tories with their proposal to squeeze contracts to less than £100m wherever possible. This is because sometimes contracts larger than this will be unavoidable - for instance, in the case of the £7.1bn Defence Information Infrastructure contract, where upgrades to UK military bases across the world are taking place.

A more piecemeal approach to IT projects will require strong management to ensure that the many different suppliers' workloads are not overlapping, and to ensure the individual components of the larger computer system are able to work together - with regular review board meetings with the OGC executives to ensure the projects are on track.

Put ministers in the firing line for major IT projects

Ministers should face the chop if major IT projects under their department start haemorrhaging money or slip years behind schedule.

One of the top reasons for the repeated failure of big government IT projects is a lack of clear management by civil servants and government ministers, according to the parliamentary spending watchdog the National Audit Office.

An easy answer to this would be to put a minister's head on the block when it comes to major IT projects and give them overall responsibility for making sure the implementations are successful.

Staking a minister's political career on large IT projects should help focus their mind on ensuring that they succeed and avoid the common problem with a lack of accountability and guidance on such schemes.

Westminster parliament

Here are the issues silicon.com thinks the next government should be getting to grips with
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

If you can't beat them, steal them

Lack of project management is blamed time and time again for the failure of major public sector IT projects.

If there really is such a dearth of talent for overseeing major tech initiatives then why not poach the best CIOs from the private sector?

The best CIOs from the private sector should be offered £20,000 on top of their existing salary to head up major government IT projects, and a further £20,000 bonus after two years in the post if their tenure has been successful.

While the public sector might baulk at finding the large amounts of cash needed to lure away private sector CIOs, if such a move can prevent the eight figure overspends that have blighted projects such as the Defence Information Infrastructure then they will save the taxpayer money in the long run.

Government must come clean on gateway reviews

The government should be forced to publish the findings of the gateway reviews of IT projects within six months of them taking place.

Gateway reviews are the appraisals that take place before any major government project is given the go-ahead that assess whether that project is likely to be successful.

These gateway reviews, carried out by the government spending watchdog the Office of Government Commerce, award each project a green, amber or red traffic light status based on their chances of success.

The government has often resisted making the findings of these reviews public, as was the case with the review of the ID cards scheme, whose release was held up by a four-year legal battle in the courts.

The findings of the gateway reviews of the ID card scheme warned that the perceived benefits of the scheme were "not on a scale to justify the costs", findings that would have been useful in informing the public debate around the scheme.

This ability to delay or withhold the publication of gateway reviews does not benefit the taxpayer nor the IT projects in question and should be blocked.

Open the doors on government data

Whitehall departments should be forced to release the non-personal data they collect within six months of the next government taking office.

At the start of this year, the Cabinet Office launched data.gov.uk, a website that aims to link to all non-personal data sets held by Whitehall.

Today, there are still only just over 3,000 sets of data from across government departments on the site, a fraction of the total available.

This rate of release is too slow if the government is really serious about putting information in the hands of the public and allowing them to find colourful new ways of presenting and mashing up the data using apps.

Each department should be forced to release datasets within six months and have to publicly justify any refusals to release any non-personal data they hold.

Get serious about open source

Government bodies should be forced to choose open source software.

The Cabinet Office has previously pledged that public sector bodies should favour open source software when given the choice between an equivalent open source and proprietary package. However, last year a roundtable discussion involving open source vendors heard that certain public bodies were still asking for proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office, and not considering open source alternatives.

Therefore government bodies should be forced to choose open source when given the choice between an open source package and proprietary package of similar quality and cost, with regular audits by the Office of Government Commerce to ensure tender documents are not being worded in such a way as to favour proprietary software.

Open standards throughout government

Public sector bodies must only purchase software from a list of packages that are known to work with a wide range of other software.

With Westminster needing to find billions in IT savings, it should be seriously considering the efficiencies that software interoperability could provide.

In word processing, for example, documents created using either Microsoft Office Word 2007 or Open Office 3.2 Writer word processors are able to be opened by both Word and Open Office because the applications are interoperable. This kind of interoperability will help broaden the choice of software available to the public sector and avoid lock-ins.

Ensuring public sector bodies only purchase software packages from a known list of interoperable software would also both reduce the cost and hold ups involved when different bodies needed to share data, and cut the chance of mistakes due to information having to be rekeyed into an incompatible piece of software.

If a software package needs to be built from scratch then it should be designed to use data standards that make it interoperable with as wide a range of other software as possible.

Government should also put pressure on proprietary and open source software makers to make more of their applications interoperable with each other.

Cybercrime

Pump £200m into fighting cybercrime

Currently the government has only allocated a few million here and there to tackle the problem of online crime - £7.2m for the Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU), £4.3m for the Office of Fair Trading cybercrime unit and e-crime training for trading standards officers - despite estimates from the OFT that online fraud cost UK citizens £3.5bn each year.

Investing £200m into fighting online fraud would ensure that police are given the training and equipment they need to tackle the threat.

This funding boost would ensure proper funding for the plethora of agencies tasked with tackling cybercrime since the National High Tech Crime Unit was rolled into the Serious Organised Crime Agency in 2006.

The need to take the threat seriously is made more pressing by the fact detective superintendent Charlie McMurdie, who heads up the PCeU, admitted most police officers don't know one end of a PC from the other. The £200m fund could be used to train up regular police officers in the use of technology with a view to better preventing online fraud and more effective investigation where e-crime has been found to have occurred.

The funding could also be used to finance new resources to help industry and the public fight fraud at its most basic level, for example by fraud and scam education for at-risk groups.

A £200m shot in the arm would pay for the training and equipment that British police need to tackle cybercrime
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Skills

Revamp teaching of IT skills

With business leaders complaining the UK lacks staff skilled in everything from programming to web services there needs to be a direct line between enterprise and educators, and so businesses should have a greater say in setting the curriculum for what IT skills schools and universities should be teaching.

IT industry skills body e-skills UK and enterprise IT user group the Corporate IT Forum say that businesses today need IT workers to also be trained in business and project management, as well as core tech skills.

A £5,000 golden hello for short-skilled tech roles

A government-subsidised £5,000 lump sum should help sweeten the deal for anyone considering a career as a techie.

With one fifth of IT companies surveyed by silicon.com unable to fill IT positions last year, then why not use the promise of hard cash to lure more people to the profession?

A government pot to top up entry-level salaries for in-demand tech roles, such as application development, could help stem the movement of jobs offshore.

Even a modest top-up would make IT a more appealing prospect for graduates: a recent survey found that IT graduates had the fifth highest starting salary, an average of £26,000.

Green IT

Come clean on green

Before the end of this year the government must reveal if it is on track to hit its target of making IT energy consumption within Westminster carbon neutral by 2020.

With green IT promising to both cut greenhouse gas emissions and trim IT budgets it is important for government departments to realise its ambitions to axe all tech-related CO2 emissions, as set out in the Greening Government IT strategy, when it was published in July 2008.

More than 110 green IT action plans have been submitted to government by public sector bodies and it is important to put these into action as soon as possible.

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