Government ‘gets tech and ready to listen’

The top of government understands tech and is putting its money where its mouth is – but needs more data-backed arguments from industry about what works, national technology adviser Liam Maxwell told education technology professionals last week.

liam maxwellSpeaking at the second annual Edtech UK global summit in London, Maxwell said this month’s budget and industrial strategy demonstrated the government’s understanding, especially on digital skills and infrastructure.

“At the senior level in our government people get why tech is so important,” he said. “Please be aware that the top people really want to make things work and they will put money behind helping you succeed.”

As national technology adviser, Maxwell’s job is to expand the government’s relationships with digital industry and ensure the civil service makes best use of technology for effective government.

“What’s missing is the connective tissue between you and them. That’s our job,” he said. “Many of the ideas we have stolen from people and used in government policy have been in there because they have been great ideas. Please come to us with them, because we want to hear what you have to say. You are much more in touch with the market and in touch with what is needed.”

“Data wins the day and if you have data and you have a strong argument make your case today, because we really want to listen,” he added.

Maxwell welcomed the fact that “technology was right at the heart” of the chancellor’s budget last week, containing “a whole series of measures we have been pressing for, which puts a lot more money where our mouth is in terms of the digital economy.”

That budget meant the expansion of Tech City into a UK-wide Tech Nation, more money on connectivity and “making sure that our data infrastructure is fit and proper and purposeful for a nation that is going into a digital age”.

The budget confirmed that an extra £30m would go towards digital skills courses, with £100m going towards trebling of the number of trained computer science teachers nationwide to 12,000.

“90% of all jobs are going to involve some level of digital component,” said Maxwell. “Most of them are going to involve a lot of digital skills within them, so it’s incumbent on us to help produce great digital skills.”

But he acknowledged that more needed to be done to boost in-work digital skills. “The apprenticeships target means we are trying to get many more people education at work,” he said. “But we need to make sure that we can give many more opportunities for education when people have left the formal education establishment.”

He said the government should use the data it holds to identify people with the best skills to hire, “yet we lock it away where people can’t get to it. The reason is privacy, but in some circumstances if you want the ability to hire people, we should make more use of it.”

Maxwell was speaking in a session on policy across government with Alex Waters, edtech policy lead at the Department for Education, Louis Barson, head of future sectors at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Sally Gear, head of professional for education at Department for International Development.

He said changes to the government’s digital marketplace supply chain had meant that 52% of the £1bn in work on digital innovation for the public sector now came from SMEs, compared to seven years ago when 85% of business went out to just 12 companies.

“We have a government that understands that we want to buy from the best and not the biggest,” said Maxwell. “Small players and large players being able to work together is a very good thing.”

The summit, at east London’s Crystal, was organised by Edtech UK, the strategic body created to help UK edtech businesses scale and take a bigger share of a global market valued at $250bn. Chief executive Ty Goddard said technology was now “being catalysed across government” in a series of initiatives around digital skills, the budget and the new industrial strategy.

Other speakers at the summit included Games Workshop founder Ian Livingstone, Omidyar Network investment director Vineet Bewtra and Micro:bit Education Foundation director Adam Leach.