Event report: promoting innovation in the public sector at SOCITM Scotland 2017

Written by Jenni Davidson on 29 November 2017 in Feature

This year’s annual SOCITM Scotland conference placed a heavy emphasis on cultural change to foster innovation  

SOCITM Scotland conference 2017 - Image credit: Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

Fostering innovation was one of the themes to emerge from this year’s SOCITM Scotland conference, with success, failure, culture change and working with frontline staff and users among the areas explored to find solutions.

Julie Kane from the Scottish Government opened the conference with a run-through of some of the key points of the Scottish Government’s digital strategy, the Scottish approach to service design – through the lens of the new Scottish social security system – and increasing digital participation as part of the inclusion agenda.

Kane mentioned a number of funds for modernisation in the early 2000s that the Scottish Government had put “an enormous amount of money and effort into transformation”, but it had moved on now in terms of thinking.

“I think that at the time, we hadn’t really thought about the culture aspect of it and it was very much about us doing to others rather than actually thinking about what was it they felt they needed from us,” she said.

Kane suggested the digital strategy was “quite challenging” in terms of it covering everything from the connectivity to deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband access by 2021, digital participation, digital literacy and skills, working with public sector partners to ensure digital services are secure, and using data to unlock innovation.

She described the approaches taken to designing Scotland’s new social security systems.

It includes a multidisciplinary team in a single location, releasing early and often to the public as soon as possible, keeping things simple and designed to be used by as many as possible, and an agile way of working with an emphasis on principles that treat people with dignity and respect.

The top priority is to ensure the “safe and secure” transition of benefits for 1.4 million people, she said.

Kane also illustrated the work that is going on in inclusion – and the scale of the problem – citing an example of an impoverished high-rise area in Glasgow.

The Demonstrating Digital project, a partnership between the Wheatley Group, BT, Power Ethernet and the Scottish Government, combined the delivery of wifi with the opportunity to develop skills.

The aim was for step changes to occur rather than some “pie in the sky target” of 100 per cent.

It achieved 66 per cent using the internet daily and 70 per cent saying they would be willing to pay for an internet connection – but 35 per cent would struggle to pay for it.

Geoff Connell, SOCITM president and Norfolk County Council CIO, shared some of the most interesting digital-enabled innovations he had seen in delivering public services. ‘CIO’ should stand for chief innovation officer, he joked, saying that it was “far more interesting than just keeping the lights on”.

He noted, though, that while austerity may promote innovation, a lack of capacity, investment, skills and risk aversion are also barriers that need to be overcome.

Among the interesting innovations he mentioned were traffic light sensors that detect speeding cars and set the next set of traffic lights to red to slow them down, a digital mousetrap that will signal if it’s caught a mouse, avoiding the need for environmental health officers to check every trap, and geocaching to aid dementia sufferers.

Ideas should come from everybody, ideally, including customers and frontline staff, Connell said.

However, he also raised the issue of the culture in the public sector perhaps preventing innovation. Whereas in the private sector people who come up with good ideas will generally be recognised and rewarded, he suggested that in the public sector those who propose innovations may fear they will make themselves redundant, and their contribution might not be valued enough to ensure they are kept on.

Providing insight into how digital innovation is working elsewhere, Eddy Van der Stock on V-ICT-OR, the Flemish ICT organisation, a sister of SOCITM, highlighted public sector digital in Belgium.

More complicated than Scotland, it has three languages, six governments, three regions and 589 municipalities, 308 of which are covered by V-ICT-OR in Flanders.

In Flanders, centralised digital building blocks, such as ID verification, the national register, the social security bank and a national platform and procurement solutions, are rolled out from central government to the municipalities.

There are also toolkits, for example, for information security, but levels of adoption and IT maturity vary greatly across the region, he said.

Issues include a silo mentality, implementation, supplier relationships, the difficulties of finding good generic components and applications, skills, policymakers finding it “too difficult” and the difficulties of translating strategy to operations.

Solutions have included creating centralised support, organising the 308 Flemish municipalities into 22 regions for collaboration, creating roadmaps and building blocks and supporting public-private cooperation.

They even created a card game to facilitate translating policy principles into technological actions.

Van der Stock said he wanted to create “rainforests” rather than “plantations”: ecosystems with private and public sectors working together.

An interesting example of that innovation is the creation of a ‘digital declaration of death’, a free, cloud-based app, used by all the Flemish municipalities, paid for entirely by funeral companies.

Card games also featured in a workshop by Code the City, a group that uses open data to solve civic issues.

Led by former Aberdeen City Council digital transformation manager Ian Watt, the workshop distilled the early stages of a hackathon weekend to 40 minutes, using cards to create a scenario for which solutions were developed.

Other workshops looked at a digital first approach to public services, the SOCITM Top Talent programme and cyber security.

In a session on harnessing Scotland’s digital potential, Rui Cardoso of the Scottish Government’s CivTech innovator, Liz McGettigan from SOLUS, Morna Simpson of Girl Geek Scotland and Richie Somerville of the University of Edinburgh shared their views on the next steps needed to deliver the benefits of technology in the public sector.

Morna Simpson revealed that according to her contacts, Scotland is viewed as a country with “a lot of innovation potential”, but it was felt that there is an issue of culture in councils that prevents digital innovation occurring in-house.

Somerville suggested the challenge was developing people to show what could be achieved, while Cardoso posited that the CivTech programme showed we were sitting on a “goldmine” of economic development because other countries would be facing the same problems as we are.

However, a private sector supplier in the audience suggested that the public sector struggles with being genuinely agile, wanting “the moon on a stick” on a fixed budget.

Finishing the day, Charles Reeves of Aviva talked of innovation and creative problem-solving through a change of culture.

Fear inhibits our ability to succeed, he said, but the challenge is that the unknown is where the potential of innovation exists. Failure often grows out of confirmation bias and fear, he said.

“Even the most rational among us are taking decisions based, at least partially, on emotion and bias.

“Mistakes, however, are how we as a species have evolved, how we gained the greatest knowledge, how we accomplished the greatest things that humanity has. It’s how we learn,” he said.

Real failure only actually happens when we don’t learn from our mistakes, Reeves told attendees, and the goal should be to make better mistakes and to learn from them.

Agile is a process that allows us to fail more quickly, he said.

But, he added, if your culture fights against what you need to do, innovation and transformation alone are never going to achieve success.

There is evidence that the culture of the Scottish public sector is changing, but for it, or the Scottish public, to fully embrace failure, further change may be needed yet.




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