Event report: honesty and collaboration at 2017 Holyrood Connect digital conference

Written by Jenni Davidson on 12 July 2017 in Feature

Holyrood’s 6th annual Connect conference and awards brought together technology professionals from across the public sector to discuss the progression of Scotland’s digital ambitions

Holyrood Connect conference 2017 - Image credit: Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

“I’ve reached digital nirvana,” the new Scottish Government head of digital, Colin Cook, joked as he opened this year’s Holyrood Connect conference.

This came after chair Claudette Jones had challenged speakers to be honest about the issues they were facing and announced she didn’t want to hear anybody saying everything was working perfectly.

Honesty, collaboration, and the sharing of expertise and resources were key themes of this year’s conference. Cook’s opening session looked at the Scottish Government’s digital strategy, which was published in March.

It is a strategy for Scotland, not for the Scottish Government, “and we mean that”, he said.

“We’re not going to transform this country and we’re not going to transform the organisations we work in unless we work together,” Cook said.


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The strategy is wide-ranging, covering skills, digital government, data sharing, mobile and broadband connectivity, supporting digital business and more.

However, one of the key differences he pointed out between the new strategy and the previous one is that now the focus is on the economy, whereas in 2011 it was on connectivity.

“I think we have now got to a position where we can talk and we can engage more around how we use technology, rather than just around connectivity,” he said, while acknowledging that not all parts of Scotland have good connectivity yet.

Claire Mack of the SCDI outlined work she had been involved in on smart places, the benefits for the economy and the needs of both young people to be prepared to enter the jobs market and of those already there, mooting, for example, the possibility of a public sector MBA in terms of training.

Quoting Microsoft, she said that in the future, all jobs will have a digital aspect, although not all jobs will be digital, but noted too that we have to accept that not everyone will make the digital transition.

Also on the theme of collaboration, Martyn Wallace, Chief Digital Officer for the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government, outlined progress in the first nine months of the office’s existence.

During this time a list of 50 possible tasks has been reduced to 18 programmes in three key areas: digital leadership, digital skills and digital services. These will go live this month.

A priority is to challenge ideas about what councils are or are not allowed to do, he said. While some councils are using Office 365, for example, others are saying, ‘You can’t do that, it’s not PSN compliant and it’s not data protection compliant’.

“Well, how come I’ve got four councils doing it and how come you can’t do it? How do we interpret the rules once? This is just ludicrous in my mind.”

He encouraged the public sector to “break the rules” to make something happen rather than getting stuck in myths.

Wallace also suggested that examples of good work within councils are not well publicised. “We have got some great innovation across our councils but we don’t talk about it so much.

“It could be because we call it a pilot,” he suggested, adding that he had banned the word ‘pilot’ from the office, because “we have more pilots than British Airways”.

He said: “I want version one, it’s agile methods…and we keep moving forwards, because we can’t go backwards, we can’t sit with what we’ve got just now.”

Some people who are already embracing innovation and risk taking are those involved in the Scottish Government’s CivTech accelerator, which was introduced by Alexander Holt, who also encouraged more risk taking in the public sector, saying people need to become more at ease with the ‘F-word’: failure.

Perhaps surprisingly for an auditor, Gemma Diamond from Audit Scotland continued this theme of taking risks and not being afraid of failure, as she talked about the organisation’s recent report on lessons learned from IT projects.

Referring to Wallace’s encouragement to be bold, she said: “I absolutely wholeheartedly think that’s what we need to do. We all understand that innovation, that’s where the good stuff is, that’s where change happens.

“But as Martyn alluded to, there’s ways of doing that. It doesn’t mean we take risks with our eyes closed.

“We go in with our eyes open, we put mitigations in place, we put controls in place, we limit the amount of money that goes into these things, we have checks and balances so we know straight away if it’s working or if it’s not working.

“We kill it off if it’s not working and we share the learning across the public sector.

“There are ways of doing innovation and taking risks in a managed way that fit in with the public-sector way of doing things…if we want to do things a bit differently, we just have to think what can we do to make that happen.”

She also encouraged having open conversations on topics that were problematic or in development.

“I think there’s a role for us all to start to challenge the norms that we come across, so when somebody says to you, ‘Oh, are you really sure you want to report that when reporting on progress, do you really want it to be that qualitative, do you really want to put that negative picture out there?’

“And we say, ‘yes’, because we actually want to have an honest conversation about it, so it’s about us all, at every opportunity, challenging some of that.”

This theme of honesty was taken up by Simon Haston of Aberdeen City Council.

“I’m not standing here in any way pretending that we’re a paragon of virtue for transformation,” he said.

“I don’t pretend we’re a digital council. We’re not. But we are trying really, really hard.”

The two areas of challenge, he said, are legacy and capability.

He said: “I don’t know how many meetings I sit at where people say, ‘Simon, why can’t we be like Amazon and Netflix and all those cool dudes that are doing fabulous things,’ and my response to them usually is that as an organisation we’ve been here for about 300 years – and indeed, some of our staff have been there 300 years as well – we spend 1.4 per cent of our budget on technology.

“We have 450 systems and well over 1,000 services.

“So yes, I can be like Amazon, if I just stop everything, start again and you give me 40 per cent of the budget…and we recruit brand new staff. That usually keeps them quite quiet for at least 10 minutes.”

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