In this opinion piece, Rob Anderson, Principal Analyst for Central Government in the GlobalData Public Sector team looks at the technology-focused aspects of the main political parties’ manifestos for the upcoming general election and assesses the impact for GovTech providers under the new administration.
Anyone hoping for a government where its policy decisions are strongly underpinned by technology-led solutions are going to be hugely disappointed by the offerings outlined in the published manifestos from across the political spectrum. With the spectre of Brexit still hanging over the country it’s probably not surprising that GovTech is seemingly reduced to a sideshow. Nonetheless it’s disappointing that no side in the debate has produced any well thought-through papers to outline how some of the key issues that we face could be alleviated by services reimagined using innovative digital tools.
So this year we don’t have any thought-leadership pieces like the 2009 Centre for Policy Studies “It’s Ours – Why we, not government, must own our own data” penned by Liam Maxwell, a future CTO of government. Nor has any party produced anything akin to Labour’s “Digital Britain 2015” review of Digital Government. Even the recommendations from this year’s report by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, “Transforming Government for the 21st Century” seem to have been largely ignored. The work ‘Technology’ appears at most 20 times in any manifesto (LibDems), “Innovation” 18 times (LibDems again) whilst “digital” only clocks a maximum of 15 mentions in the Labour document and just 3 in the Conservative publication.
That’s not to say that the future is totally bleak for tech companies looking to provide support to the new government. Our forecasts at GlobalData Public Sector illustrate that public bodies will continue to spend around £14bn per annum with external suppliers for the foreseeable future, and the shift to cloud-based and user-centric data-backed services will continue. It just looks like it may not accelerate quickly enough to satisfy to the expectations of a 21st century population that wants the type of on-demand, ubiquitous access service it receives from retail, media and entertainment providers.
The most eye-catching promise for the tech industry is probably Labour’s free full-fibre broadband for all, but the reality of that gaining approval even if Labour win control of Parliament look slim. Vague promises to support tech start-ups and boost investment in innovation by the Conservatives and the LibDems are not quantified in terms of additional finance, though both parties support continued R&D tax credits in contrast to Labour’s planned review of that funding stream. Tinkering with the departmental structure of Central Government as heavily advocated by Labour will of course have an impact on technology roll-out, as will the increased investment in the health, justice and education sectors proposed in varying degrees by all parties. A replacement for Universal Credit in the event of a Labour government will have incumbent suppliers despondent whilst others prick-up their ears at the potential for building an alternative solution in tandem with new policy development.
Of course, the future business environment for tech companies in the UK is still in the balance, inextricably linked with the end result of the protracted EU Exit process. After three and a half years of debate, even the sagest of fortune-tellers are struggling to predict what the future holds for the country beyond 2021, with their Brexit crystal balls figuratively lying smashed into little pieces in frustration.
Whatever happens on December 12th, and if the past four years have taught us anything it’s not to believe all the polls of voting intentions, the likelihood is that no single party will have a large-enough majority to railroad its own policies through Parliament. So expect some big compromises and cross-party bartering. The civil service will continue to progress the majority of key tech programmes and transformation activities that require digital-enablement, so there is no reason to believe that the rich fields of public sector opportunity will suddenly fall fallow. Just don’t go betting your business on a huge upswing in business.