The role for Scottish Government in digital services
Who am I to write about this? I don't work for the Scottish Government, I don't live in Scotland and I don't use Scottish public services. I am a bystander, but one who has worked in local and central government on digital transformation and ICT modernisation. And having established a variety of shared services across local public agencies, I can see huge opportunity in Scotland.
This was nowhere more evident than at this month's annual Holyrood ICT Connect conference, which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. There was a strong mix of suppliers, local public services, health professionals and the Scottish Government, all talking about the topic of digital public service in Scotland.
The opportunity of devolution, the willingness to share infrastructure and the geography of Scotland lends itself to (demands) a common approach. It's not hard to see how digital services can be instrumental in social wellbeing, economic success, equality of opportunity and better, more efficient public services across Scotland, from cities to the most remote rural areas. These are all priorities of the Scottish Government.
If technology infrastructure can be harmonised across Scotland and if public service resources (teams, money and building assets) can be pooled in key areas, this will reduce costs and improve service delivery. Individual public organisations can then share common digital means - such as systems, networks and information - which will lead to faster, better and joined-up delivery and decision-making for service users.
Indeed, Scotland, with its natural advantages of scale and autonomy, could very well set the lead for the rest of the UK in areas such as health and social care integration, protecting vulnerable children and adults better, putting the public in control of their interactions with government.
Central to the conference was the importance of striking the right balance between local delivery and national government leadership. It struck me that there is a strong will to change and a genuine recognition of the need for national and local public services to work together.
There was also a clear recognition of the importance of relentlessly putting the citizen at the heart of digital design and that because ICT is fast-moving, processes for its acquisition, adoption and exploitation need to be faster and more flexible. It is the ability to put it into practice that is the real challenge.
The Scottish Government needs to set a vision for the whole of Scotland for digital services. Much of this can be based on the existing work of the Government Digital Service (GDS), which has already set out a stall for the challenge of digital transformation: policies, standards and national priorities in areas such as cyber security. But it needs also to be set in the context of the specific priorities, politics, democracy and geography of Scotland.
That being said, it is then up to local public services in Scotland to collaborate better in delivery and, in my view, ICT leaders need to set an example by working together in sharing IT skills, tools, management, methods and solutions wherever possible.
I know this is not easy - I heard the phrase "turkeys voting for Christmas" on several occasions over the two days of the conference. But for ICT professionals it will be "collaborate or die". There is a huge ICT professional opportunity from digital change and no shortage of exciting and innovative technology projects.
Protecting the status quo is not an option and protecting ICT professional jobs actual requires embracing change within the function, acknowledging the need for different skills, governance, technology, joint delivery and agile methods which allow service leaders to innovate more freely with low-cost open source tools.
So whilst the Scottish Government can set the direction, create the policies, establish funding mechanisms and change regulations which are conducive to digital delivery - and even help to shape the market around some of the essential common infrastructure components - in the end it will depend on a willingness to work together and to compromise on some local ambition in the interest of joining up services.
It means, for example, not all trying to run traditional ICT estates in competition with each other. That is too slow, cumbersome, expensive, narrow and inflexible, and typically at too small a scale to give enough space to be innovative.
Scotland can set a lead in health and social care integration. It can demonstrate how the management and sharing of personal data can be done in ways which protect the interests of the individual. It can show how a nation can use new technology such as social media and Internet of Things for the benefit of citizens. Scotland can be the exemplar of shared ICT to enable shared public services across urban and rural areas, between different public service agencies, and between neighbouring authorities.
This doesn't mean that everything should be centralised, nor that local political ambition and priority must be compromised; far from it. In many ways it means more local autonomy, but on the basis that some sovereignty is ceded to secure common ways of working and that some resources are pooled to achieve economies of scale and common outcomes.
Overcoming current fragmentation will also increase public trust both because citizens can see the full picture of public services they can use but also because they can be confident in common standards, such as data protection, openness and privacy.
Benefits systems, for example, can be shared between agencies best placed to determine the needs of individuals linked to Universal Credits. Systems can be securely connected across a common shared infrastructure, funded from joint resourcing mechanisms.
Digitally excluded citizens can be supported across organisations and sectors, increasing the level of take-up of digital services. Contracts and supplier engagement can be handled both locally, in terms of responsiveness of systems, but also nationally through common G-Cloud procurement mechanisms.
In this way more time and effort can be spent on exploitation and use of ICT and less purely spent on tendering, procurement and supplier monitoring against SLAs.
This has the added advantage of allowing data and information to be collected, maintained and shared between multiple agencies, providing better data quality and better customer insight, so other services can be better tailored to individual needs. Not only does this mean a better service, but it also begins to help with the problem of demand management which, for local government in particular, will be so important in future in reducing avoidable contact, unnecessary costs and wrongly judged interventions.
I could go on with many more examples. My hope is that Scottish Government and local Scottish public services can work together to achieve an outcome which will be an international exemplar, proving just what is possible from digital ambition by striking a balance between national policy and vision, whilst reflecting local delivery, diversity and priority.
Jos Creese is President of BCS, The Charted Institute for IT, and now independently advises both public and private sectors on digital and IT planning.