The UK Government Needs to Deliver on Digital Skills

With the newly announced UK general election fast approaching, the possibility of a new government looms. An election provides an opportunity to reflect on the current administration’s performance and the future direction of policy development.

Subjects such as the economy, immigration, and climate change are expected to dominate the election campaign and ultimately determine who garners the most support from voters.

While not the most politically contentious topic, delivering on digital skills is essential to the future of the United Kingdom and regardless of the election outcome, the government must do more.

learning digital skills

Why a Focus on Digital Skills is Paramount

The world of work has become increasingly digital and digital literacy is now a non-negotiable for individuals, businesses, and communities. Consequently, the government has a responsibility to equip its citizens to meet the evolving demands of a digital economy. Failure to do so would leave a significant portion of the population ill-equipped to fully participate in the modern workforce and undermine the UK’s competitive edge globally.

The government is aware of the importance of delivering on digital skills. This is evidenced by the Home Office Digital, Data and Technology Strategy 2024 (DDaT), first published in 2021, which outlines a comprehensive framework aimed at enhancing digital capabilities. However, despite efforts to increase digital proficiency, a significant skills gap remains, with demand for tech talent outstripping supply.

Successfully cultivating a robust digital talent pool would:

Factors which explain why there is a positive relationship between digital skills proficiency and GDP. Conversely, the current failure to improve the digital proficiency of the workforce is carrying implications both for individuals who cannot take advantage of technological opportunities and businesses which encounter problems with finding skilled talent, maintaining cybersecurity and keeping pace with their global counterparts.

Democratising opportunities and equipping citizens with digital competencies is also essential for promoting social inclusion and empowering individuals to fully participate in the digital society. As our reliance on technology continues to grow, those lacking digital literacy will be left behind, potentially exacerbating existing societal divides. Examples of underrepresented groups at risk include neurodivergent individuals, veterans, refugees, the elderly, and people living in rural areas. With economic competitiveness and social inclusion on the line, inaction is not an option. The government must prioritise delivering digital skills.

The Foundational Drivers for Change

The necessary starting point is a robust, nationwide skills framework that captures the breadth of new and emerging skills the nation needs and promotes upskilling and reskilling to fill critical gaps. This framework could also underpin the development of a standardised digital skills curriculum in collaboration with educational institutions and industry experts.

By effectively integrating digital literacy into the school curriculum from an early age, the government can give the next generation the best chance of thriving in a digital economy. Essential digital skills such as coding, data analysis, and cybersecurity awareness would play a central role in the curriculum.

To democratise access to opportunity, emphasis should be given to accommodating underrepresented groups who are eager to bolster their skills. Latent potential can be unlocked through digital training programmes, targeted towards people from diverse community groups. Unfortunately, with individuals from these groups already experiencing barriers to employment, it is crucial for efforts to be made to prevent inequality from worsening as digital skills become increasingly important. For any nationwide digital skills programme to be effective, it must also be inclusive.

In addition to a nationwide skills framework, a comprehensive skills inventory of the current workforce could also play a valuable role in informing the scalable development of skills. A clear understanding of the competencies possessed by the workforce and an overview of areas where additional development is needed can be used to guide the prioritisation of training efforts. Technology can play an important role in turning this concept into reality.

A good first step would be to develop a centralised national skills portal to aggregate data and provide a holistic view of workforce capability. AI could then analyse the data to map the current skills landscape, while machine learning algorithms can predict future skills requirements based on industry trends and forecasts. These tools would help to optimise the UK’s digital skills strategy.

Once target areas for improvement have been identified, it is important to provide the correct means for reskilling and upskilling. The government could consider introducing innovative training programmes and subsidised courses for those seeking to enhance their skill sets. Tax breaks could be offered to companies investing in talent development and partnerships between the government, educational institutions, and private-sector companies could be utilised to implement effective training programmes and scale efforts.

Monitoring and evaluating these initiatives must also be carried out. Tracking progress, measuring outcomes and continually identifying areas for improvement is essential to refining strategies over time. It is important to note that efforts will need to adapt to the evolving needs of the economy and the workforce.

Cultivating a digitally skilled workforce is critical for the UK’s economic future and social fabric. Though a challenging prospect, prioritising a nationwide digital skills strategy that embeds digital literacy from youth, provides inclusive upskilling pathways, and leverages technology for skills mapping will enable the UK to deliver the skills the workforce needs to drive future prosperity.

By James McLaughlin, UK Vice President at WithYouWithMe