A few months ago the Welsh Government announced Digital 2013, “Wales’ Premier free ICT event”, at the swanky Celtic Manor resort. After a slightly stuttering start (early versions of the website suggesting that all applications to attend would be reviewed, plus the site didn’t load properly in some browsers – criminal for a “digital event”), the speakers and sessions have slowly been revealed, and many in the tech startup community feel a little bit confused by what’s on offer. Not least me.

As new iterations of the website have gone up, it’s become clearer that this event is about digital *skills* above all else. And as such, it has little immediate relevance to the ground-level entrepreneurs and developers, who just don’t have the time or resources to take such a macro view of such issues.

Beyond this, I can’t really put my finger on why I feel slightly negative about this event, but there’s a few “alarm bells” for me…

  • It is supported (and more importantly apparently heavily influenced on the content side) by those behemoths Cisco, Microsoft and HP, at a time when UK government is specifically trying to reduce the influence of such companies in the procurement of digital contracts, where smaller, leaner startups are capable of delivering digital solutions at a tiny fraction of the cost to the tax payer.
  • The heavy use of the phrase “ICT”. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone outside the public sector use this term for at least 5 years.
  • I can’t see a single session that I have any great interest in attending. I kind of feel like I’m going as an obligation.
  • There seems to have been little or no engagement with the startup community in putting this event together.

This isn’t government-bashing. I think WG have a tough job to do, and on the whole do it fairly well. It’s not necessarily their job to hold the hands of a cutting edge industry when they are entrenched in an organisation that is inherently slow-moving. I’ve said before that I believe they need to create the conditions that allows the entrepreneurs to lead the way, but it’s unfair to expect them to be on top of all things digital at all times. So why not use the community to help inform you about what represents them?

Is it just as an event that it has been mis-branded, or mis-communicated? If it is “Wales Premier Free ICT event”, then why is its brief so apparently narrow? Why am I hearing from many digital/tech entrepreneurs who are finding it so difficult to find sessions that appeal to them?

If anything, I think this may speak volumes about Welsh Government’s focus when it comes to the digital industries. I sometimes feel the tech and digital startup community, which contributes many millions of pounds to the Welsh economy, falls in the priority gap between “creative industries” and their approach to ICT – which seems to be infrastructure, skills, procurement etc. All things that have little daily importance to tech startups. Their focus on “ICT” appears to be primarily at a macro level (and it could well be argued that that’s exactly where it should be), leaving no room for those of us building scalable startups to be heard. There was apparently very little interest from them when it came to the launch of Cardiff Start a few weeks ago. The community is itching to engage with government and help them provide a better entrepreneurial landscape for Wales. But if most emails to their senior staff on these issues go ignored, it’s no wonder that their events won’t reflect the needs of the community.

There are some great, engaged people at Welsh Government, such as David Ball in the creative industries team, or Paul Osbaldeston, who comes from years of private sector experience in digital, and they have launched very useful schemes for supporting the digital industries (e.g. the Digital Development Fund), but as a sector we often feel underserved. I suppose if we didn’t then there wouldn’t have been as much of a need for Cardiff Start to be formed.

I hate writing blogs like this. I have good friends, and people I admire, who work within WG, and I always try to be the last one to criticise. But as a whole organisation Digital 2013 feels like an event that demonstrates how they need to do so much better at engaging with the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

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