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Proposing a “Digital Policy Framework” for the Sheffield City Region

Last month Mel and I went to a workshop and came out with the beginnings of a policy agenda...

Last month Mel and I attended a workshop convened by the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership that invited the participants – about 20 of us – to think about what a ‘digital strategy’ for the city region might look like.

This is a big and complex topic for debate, and much of the session was spent trying to collectively understand the question that was being asked. However, as the session went on it became increasingly clear to me, and others, that instead of a ‘digital strategy’ conceived in terms of delivering digital services, or smart city initiatives or specific economic development projects – as if the ‘region’ were a single organisation – what is really needed is to articulate an approach to the digital economy and to the development of digital capability across the region’s population and institutions that sets the direction of travel and encourages all the other actors in the region to align with each other and the key institutions such as the Local Enterprise Partnership and the Combined Authority.

In other words, what I think is needed is a digital policy framework for the Combined Authority that can be endorsed by the soon to be elected mayor.

As was pointed out during the workshop, what it really boils down to is this: Once the mayor is in post along with their officers, they will be lobbied hard by all the various economic and institutional interests in the region. We, as Sheffield Digital and the community of digital firms and professionals we represent, have an opportunity to shape how the Combined Authority ultimately prioritises and allocates its substantial devolved resources to the development of digital capabilities across the region.

So, I asked myself: What might such a policy framework look like? What things do we want to be on their agenda when it comes to the digital development of the region over the next ten years and more? And how should we go about collectively developing the framework over time, as a community?

Below is my first attempt as answering those questions, first an outline of what I think the framework could consist of, and secondly a proposal for how we discuss and develop it going forwards.  Both of which are very much open for debate.

Key policy areas:

(in no particular order)

Digital transformation of public services

  • Digital by default service to end users.
  • Data sharing, interoperability and openness.
  • Digital working internally and cross-boundary.
  • Digital leadership within the public services.
  • Engage with local suppliers.

Digital Skills

  • A regional strategy across all educational stages.
  • General digital skills and capabilities as well as specialist skills at all ages and levels.
  • Engagement with industry.
  • Visible and joined up pathways.

Policy Advice on the Digital Economy

  • Listen to, support and act on policy recommendations from national agencies, such as Tech North, BIS, DCLG, Innovate UK, BCS, Digital Catapult, etc.

Digital Leadership

  • Leadership programmes to develop digital understanding and competence among all public and private sector decision makers.
  • Specialist digital leadership development for leaders of local and regional digital programmes.
  • Put in place the appropraite governance structure to provide oversight and ensure transparency across the region’s digital policy agenda.

Digital Ecosystem Development

  • Support agencies, groups, networks, hubs and initiatives that aid the development of the digital economy across the region.
  • Seek to connect and address gaps in provision where opportunities are identified.

Engage with New and Emerging Technologies

  • Ensure the institutional awareness of and engagement with specific current and emerging digital applications and technologies, such as smart cities, internet of things, artificial intelligence, data analysis, cyber-security, etc.
  • Engage with local specialists and the universities to better understand the implications and opportunities, and support the resulting activity.
  • Represent the region in appropriate national and international fora relating to these applications and provide a bridge between them and the regional technology ecosystem.

Support Local Cross-sector Collaboration

  • Actively promote the engagement between different economic sectors and appropriate local digital specialists in order to catalyse innovation in the spaces between them.

Digital Business Support

  • Ensure business support for digital tech businesses is included in the regional business support offer.
  • Ensure the support offered is fit for digitally enabled business models and contexts.

Promotion and the ‘Maker’ Agenda

  • Develop the identity of Sheffield as the ‘Maker City’ and extend it across the region.
  • Understand, develop and promote the aspect of this identity that relates to making digital products, services and experiences.
  • Ensure the region’s digital tech firms and achievements are part of this narrative, as well as other promotional identities within the region such as Sheffield the Outdoor City.

Digital Infrastructure

  • Ensure the digital infrastructure, i.e. broadband connectivity, is fit for purpose across the city region.

How should we develop policy?

The above is obviously a very rough sketch of the things I think are most important to the development of the region’s digital tech capabilities. I have tried to limit it to around ten headline points in order to keep it easier to understand and disseminate, but that’s not to say that additional items can’t be suggested or added. Ultimately we will probably need a formal process for doing so, but in the meantime here’s what I suggest:

  1. I have posted this outline draft here on the website for comment, and this feedback can be provided in the following ways:
  2. We will arrange an open ‘round table’ discussion for anyone interested in discussing any or all of the policy areas in the framework, which will be held in the Autumn. This event will allow time to debate each of these areas outlined as well as the framework itself and related activities. The intention is for these open policy discussions to be held regularly on an ongoing basis, maybe quarterly.
  3. Following the initial round table, we will flesh out the framework, based on all the feedback received, and publish it to the website in a separate policy area as a versioned document.

So, this is what I propose. It is a first stab and it’s all up for grabs. I should also note that these ideas are neither all mine, nor are they new – most of them are already being pursued by various people in different parts of the region. What I am trying to do is present a policy agenda that’s comprehensive, realistic and impactful enough to be game-changing for the region.

As I said, I more than welcome input and feedback – please tell me what’s missing, stupid, redundant, woolly, ill-conceived, and plain wrong by any of the means I described in point 1 above.