UK Government: it’s time for the digital economy to count

This week the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of the House of Commons released a fascinating report into the state of the UK’s digital economy. Far from being a dry snoozefest, the paper provided a surprisingly sharp insight into many of the issues facing our industry.

The paper’s timing is part of its story. The report was completed on 12 July but published on the 18th. In those six days we had a change of government, the accession of a Prime Minister with a questionable approach to digital, and a clearout of the entire Parliamentary digital strategy team. Through that quirk of timing, the BIS paper doubles as a final report into the previous government’s achievements and shortcomings. It also creates a road map for the new government to build on – or, perhaps, to ignore.

it’s the Standard Industrial Classification Codes, stupid

For web professionals, the paper’s biggest achievement was to acknowledge an issue which I have been vocal about for years, one which is root cause of so many of our problems: the absurd undercounting of the digital economy in UK economic statistics.

For those who are not aware of this issue, the problem is as simple as it is stupid. The digital economy still does not exist in the UK’s official economic taxonomies – the Standard Industrial Classification Codes – which are only updated once a generation or so. This means that virtually all digital output, as well as the web professionals who create it, are officially categorised as “other economic activity not elsewhere classified.”

The exclusion of the digital economy from UK economic taxonomies is not an issue of ego or vanity. If government has no idea what an industry looks like, it cannot judge the impact of policies and legislation until it’s too late. In the years since I first starting writing about this, our industry has learned the hard way what happens when a policy about e-commerce is legislated with no freaking clue about what e-commerce is. Nobody wants to go through that again.

The real digital exclusion

The undercounting of the digital economy – “digital exclusion” at its most literal – was bad enough three years ago. Since then we have seen the explosion of the digital sharing economy. We have also seen a brutal austerity policy which has forced many people into dubious self-employment to get them off of unemployment rolls. Much of that self-employment involves the digital sharing economy. Yet the digital sharing economy, like the digital economy itself, simply does not exist in UK economic statistics. This adds insult to injury to already vulnerable “self-employed” workers within it who have no employment rights or safety net.

In other words, the problem has only gotten worse.

An equally absurd consequence of the failure to update the SIC codes, adds the report, is the revelation that the UK’s massive games industry does not exist in economic taxonomies either. The paper quotes the CEO of one game developer as saying “the gaming industry ‘created no jobs and no economic value’, according to official statistics.” Well, of course it creates no value – it’s “other”.

All of their work, and all of those digital professionals, are only good enough for “other”.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m a little bit tired of being told that nothing I do is good enough.

I matter. My work matters. Our work matters.

We are a hell of a lot better than “other.”

Enough is enough.

What’s the next step?

The BIS report recommends that
the Government should look to the work of the Office of National Statistics, and explore ways of collecting real-time data in the digital economy, and ensure that established Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes are agreed and used, in different parts of the digital economy.

The SIC codes were last updated in 2007. This isn’t just absurd – it’s stupid. Updating the classifications is a “quick win” which could be achieved in no time at all.

But whose job is it to make sure that this task is done the right way using the right taxonomies?

After all, much of our ‘digital exclusion’ is our own damn fault.

Our lack of professional organisation – rather, our stubborn refusal to organise – has prevented us from liaising with government on the issues that impact us all.

If government does not know we exist, it is because we have not bothered finding our voice, much less making it heard.

It is our job to hold government to account in making sure our industry counts in UK economic figures.

Time to get to work.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.