No, the UK is not the most digital economy in the world. Here’s why.

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

It’s easy to get a rather polarised view of the UK’s digital economy if you’re looking across areas like Tech City, the Investigatory Powers Bill, or the ONS’ measures of digital access.

Are we a booming startup nation and innovation champion? Or are we a country’s that’s trying to end end-to-end encryption and one that’s made little progress on basic skills?

The latest data from Barclays’ first Digital Development Index, which benchmarked 10 leading digital nations, warns that productivity, innovation and growth are all at risk here.

The UK came in fourth place on the new index, behind Estonia, South Korea and Sweden, in terms of overall ‘digital empowerment’, but skills were highlighted as a major concern.

Although Barclays says there are some positive policies in place, this doesn’t seem to be translating into good skills on the ground.

In terms of protecting our devices, the UK lags behind countries like Brazil, South Africa, India and China, where people are more likely to use password generating software, change passwords regularly or keep confidential payments data off the web.

The UK ranked seventh in terms of technical skills, with many developing nations soaring ahead in key web development roles, according to the survey of 10,000 people.

  • Only 16 per cent of people in the UK would be very comfortable building a website, compared to 39 per cent in Brazil and 37 per cent in India
  • Only 11 per cent of people in the UK would be very comfortable creating a mobile app or game, compared to 22 per cent in the US, 27 per cent in Brazil and 33 per cent in India

The survey also found that most UK companies are failing to train staff for new digital opportunities. While 38 per cent of UK workers said their employer offers this kind of training, in China and the US that reaches 48 per cent, and soars to 67 per cent in India.

A recent Science and Technology Committee report estimated that a lack of digital skills costs the UK economy £63 billion each year.

Overall, Estonia leads on vocational and workplace skills, while South Korea was deemed to have the best broadband policy and compulsory digital education.

“At a time when the UK is considering its future outside the European Union, we have to remember that competing in the digital economy isn’t simply a European question,” explained Ashok Vaswani, CEO at Barclays UK. “It’s a global race that will define how prosperous and successful we are for decades to come.”

“With the referendum sending a clear message that too many parts of the UK do not feel they are sharing in the promise of global prosperity, now is the time to take everyone in society forward in the digital age.”

With the loss of Ed Vaizey as Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy following Theresa May’s rise to power, a role that straddled DCMS and BIS, the long-promised Digital Strategy could start gathering dust.

This policy area now looks like it will sit with Matt Hancock, the new Minister of State for Culture and Digital Policy, within DCMS.

We’ve got in touch with the relevant department to find out exactly if or when we can expect a fully fledged plan for digital Britain.

Barclays has a range of skills initiatives in the UK, including its Digital Eagles programme, which offers free training to people up and down the country.

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