Digital changes everything, for everybody - not just the geeks

02 Oct 2014 |Written by Helen Milner OBE


This blog post was originally written at helenmilner.com

This week it’s been the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, and I popped along to talk digital with MPs and sector colleagues, and of course to compare and contrast with last week’s Labour offering.

Again, what was fantastic here was the support from key people for digital matters in general. Ed Vaizey, Matthew Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Francis Maude - these are people very much on the leading edge of this agenda, supporting it, shaping it, and understanding its nuances.   

I was delighted to hear even George Osborne check off technology and innovation in his speech as the ‘key to our future prosperity’, and heartened to hear Ed Vaizey say he wanted the Government to talk about digital more and more often. The latter was in a very interesting fringe about the Internet of Things.   

In its simplest form the idea of an ‘internet of things’ is a fridge that spots you’re out of milk, and automatically orders you more. Or a smart pill-box, that can tell your Dr if you’re taking your medication, and generate a repeat prescription. The implications, however, are much wider and far reaching than that.   

I was particularly struck by something David Evans from the British Computer Society said, that we were soon going to live in an age with more sensors in our homes than the UK meteorological sector has in the whole country. That’s pretty life changing stuff, and a vision of a new, efficient, competitive digital world that everyone should be able to choose to be a part of.   

The following discussion was interesting and wide-ranging, and I was struck by the number of Tory MPs - and Ministers - who really ‘get’ it. However, if there was a problem for the wider digital agenda at the Conservative party conference, it's that the number of people who ‘get it’ seems limited.  It has not embedded in their general consciousness in quite the same way as it seems to have done in the Labour camp. There are staunch and committed supporters, yes, but for everyone else this is still seen as a technology issue - a bolt on. A matter for the Government Digital Service (GDS), all tidied away over there.     

I attended a fringe about the benefit system and was surprised that when asked what more needs to be done to help people get into work, the only mention of digital came from White Dee from Benefits Street, someone with recent experience of unemployment. This got me thinking that the internet is the norm for normal people but what I really want to see is digital at the centre of policy making - everywhere. I don’t want this to be a matter for just Francis Maude as Minister for GDS, or Ed Vaizey as Minister for Digital & Culture and Communications, because it is also pivotal to other key agendas - to Disability Minister Mark Harper MP, to Minister of Care and Support Norman Lamb MP, to Minister for Pensions Steven Webb MP - to everyone in every department.   

If we are going to be that globally competitive, fair and successful nation George Osborne described, digital is a cornerstone.

The fact is that this should not be about technology; it should be about policy. Digital changes everything for everyone and I’m looking to the Conservative early adopters to lead from the front, and bring the rest of the party along for the ride - up to the election and beyond.

This time next year we will know the Government that the people have chosen. Whoever they are I really hope they understand the massive potential that technology can bring for positive change to our nation.