Tech 100: ‘We want our entire business to be digital by 2020’
Tom Meade, Registers of Scotland digital director, on efforts to bring the body up to date
Tom Meade - Image credit: Registers of Scotland
The juxtaposition is startling: an organisation embarking on one of the biggest digital transformations the public sector has seen in the same year it marks the 400th anniversary of the world’s oldest national land register, one it is responsible for overseeing.
“There is another way of looking at it,” says Registers of Scotland digital director Tom Meade.
“That is Scotland was first in the world to have a land register and what we want to do is reposition ourselves in being world leading again in terms of our land registration.
“And with the kind of changes we’re implementing, the kind of digital services that are going to be coming online very soon, I can see that happening quickly.”
It is three years in the making. The first focused on stability, the second centres around efficiency and the third will see what Meade considers “radical improvements”.
“It certainly was daunting,” says Meade, casting his mind back to his appointment in September 2014.
Registers of Scotland, which is responsible for compiling and maintaining registers relating to property and other legal documents, had not come out of an Audit Scotland probe two years earlier well, having brought to an early end an outsourced IT partnership.
“But one of the very positive things coming in was I could see there was a very collegiate executive management team, there was an appetite to change,” adds Meade.
“I guess there was a lot of frustration they hadn’t made the progress they had wanted to make over the last 10 years and the Audit Scotland report called out some of the issues that happened there.”
Within a year RoS had gone from three releases a year to 52, from an average of three days downtime per release to zero days downtime, from £25,000 per release to £500 per release, from 90 bugs in one release to 12 bugs in 52, from 110 hours of downtime to 20 hours and from 30 per cent of calls resolved by the organisation’s service desk to 70 per cent.
The size of their server estate, meanwhile, has been reduced by more than 70 per cent.
The body has been preparing for the first release of a new case management system this month.
“That will be the start of getting things a lot more efficient,” says Meade.
“We’ll be beginning to take away physical case bags, taking away a lot of printing of paper we do and start moving stuff electronically around the business.
“We have already implemented a new scanning solution and a new document archive and this is the bit that ties it together.”
If there is less “redundant activity”, as Meade puts it, then it stands to reason the time taken to process applications will also be reduced.
“We have service standards we work to – commitments about how quickly we turn around our work – and this will, in the first place, give us a lot more certainty around those working times,” he adds.
“What it will also allow us to do over time, as we start to get those efficiencies is to reduce those, so it means our fulfillment becomes a whole lot faster.
“For solicitors, if they send in an application it will get dealt with a whole lot faster, if they have queries about it we will be able to determine what stage it is at a whole lot faster. All of that will become a whole lot easier.”
It is what this lays the foundation for – the handling of large parts of cases automatically – that Meade declares to be the real dividend.
“We are not there yet, we will still have a lot of knowledge case workers.
“But there are a lot of activities we do now and that we will do with our initial release of case management that require people to do stuff on systems that over time we’ll be able to remove,” he says.
“What that will do in the longer term – not this year but next year, which is when we really begin to transform ourselves – is we will be able to provide fully digital services for our customers so they don’t send us in any paper, and a number of the different types of applications they send in will be able to be dealt with automatically and immediately.”
Reaching that point will be dependent on legislative changes, consultation on which closed in February.
Customers have already signed up to be so-called beta launchers once services are considered ready to go live, allowing feedback in real time.
A new discharge service for mortgages has just been released to the wider market, for instance, after testing with the Royal Bank of Scotland and a few solicitor firms, reduced the process to a matter of minutes.
It is symptomatic of the agile way of working Meade reckons has become the “new norm”.
In essence, software is tested constantly as it is being developed rather than waiting until the end to discover changes are necessary.
“It is still challenging for people because the skills you need for it aren’t right throughout the market yet but if you were any new company starting up you would be daft to not be using agile from the start,” says Meade.
“The systems we are delivering you could potentially put into production at the click of a button because we test to the right level all the way through – we have that discipline. It’s the same with ScotLIS.”
ScotLIS – short for Scotland’s Land Information Service – is perhaps the biggest change on the horizon, opening up a one-stop shop for information about any piece of land or property in Scotland.
The notion of a land and property data information system for Scotland isn’t new, of course.
Ministers tried this before some 15 years ago, however that project never made it past the pilot stage, one because of limitations with technology, and secondly – according to RoS keeper Sheenagh Adams – a “lack of political backing”.
“I guess the challenge we have is where to start,” admits Meade ahead of October’s launch date.
“A land information service for Scotland could be absolutely everything and it can’t be absolutely everything.
“We have to take our lead from potential customers and the public of what they actually want so we’re doing a lot of user experience, testing and research to see what this service should really be.
"What we’re looking at initially is building a service that focuses on the property and conveyancing market so that gives people a lot more information about who owns what bits of lands, what kind of rights are associated with bits of land – they may be values of land – and then over time we will start adding different datasets to it.”
It is the “scale of change” with this and other developments that Meade acknowledges will be their “biggest challenge” in the year ahead.
“You can build these new systems but unless you prepare people for them, train them for them, handhold them through the changes, explain why you’re doing the changes, that can be very, very difficult,” he says.
“That is probably the biggest challenge we’re facing internally I would say.”
That said, he suggests the three-year digital transformation programme RoS have embarked on will not be the end of the road.
“From an executive management point of view we want our entire business to be digital by 2020,” he says.
“That means that registrations, when they come through, are hardly touched by human hands because the more you touch with human hands the more chance there is for making mistakes.
“I don’t mean that disingenuously, but it is just a matter of fact – people forget things or can mistype things or drag things into the wrong place when they’re drawing things. These things happen.
“That’s our vision for 2020 and what that does is it provides a much more robust, quicker service for our customers and it also allows us to start to use our data in much more creative ways.
“We sit on a mine of data, we are going to start exposing some of it in its most basic form through ScotLIS.
“But there are going to be different ways we are going to be able to start combining our data with other peoples’ datasets to create much richer datasets for people and that will give people much better ways to be able to make decisions.
“If I want to move house, I might be able to find in one place a lot of the information around crime rates, around infected land, around historical sites, around whatever else – floodplains – that might be of interest to me if I am making a buy decision.
“That is what it is about really – it is releasing that value back to the Scottish people.”
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