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Event report: Putting users at the centre at the annual Holyrood Connect conference

Kate Forbes speaking at Holyrood Connect 2019 - Image credit: Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

Event report: Putting users at the centre at the annual Holyrood Connect conference

“If I have learned anything in the past year, it’s that, yes, there are huge opportunities when it comes to technology, yes, there are enormous challenges, but we’re only going to be able to deal with both of them if we collaborate,” Kate Forbes MSP, Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, told Holyrood’s Connect conference, having been in the newly created post for just under a year.

Forbes told delegates that what had struck her since she took up the position was how often we fixate on the emerging technology, but what excited her more was improving outcomes and changing people’s lives by changing the nature of the services that are provided.

“And my aims and priorities are quite clear, I want to understand what our users want and then design services to meet their needs, because digital is only transformational when it is about people, and our users are the people of Scotland and they are the users of services, right across the public sector and that’s where the need to collaborate comes in, so that we can design and deliver services that are truly focused on the citizen.”

While collaboration is something of a buzzword in many different corporate strategies, Forbes highlighted that it’s one thing to talk about collaboration, it’s quite another to start sharing budgets, to agree joint strategies or to share infrastructure.

However, where Scotland has an opportunity is that because of its size, you can get everybody you need round a table, she said.

Scottish local government is one part of the public sector that is already collaborating so successfully that the model has been picked up by local authorities in London.

The Digital Office for Scottish Local Government was set up two years ago as an experiment, but it now has all 32 Scottish councils on board and has secured funding for two more years until 2021.

Under the title ‘Tinker or transform’, Martyn Wallace, chief digital officer at the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government, took delegates through the three ‘eras’ of local government digital, from being process-centric (focused on big IT systems) to transaction-centric (focused on websites and moving transactions online) to the third and current era, which is outcome-centric, looking at how services can be redesigned to deliver better results for citizens.

“We need to move away from thinking that service redesign is mainly about cost reduction,” Wallace said. He highlighted the importance of the Scottish approach to service design, that is, designing the right thing and designing the thing right and warned against hasty “solutionising”.

“Design fails if we jump into solving the problem too quickly,” he said.

On a slightly different theme, while many fears have been raised about future job losses due to automation, Wallace suggested that in fact, it should allow more time for conversation and make jobs more meaningful.

This was picked up in more detail in a session on robotics and the digital workforce hosted by AI company UIPath. It’s not about replacing occupations, it’s about replacing specific activities, said Alastair Roriston of UIPath.

According to a report from McKinsey, 30 per cent of tasks in 60 per cent of jobs could be automated, and feedback on UIPath’s robotic process automation system found that 71 per cent reported a reduction in manual efforts, 57 per cent better customer service and better employee engagement and 25 per cent reported fewer employees leaving.

Roriston also cited examples from government and the legal profession where workload was reduced to allow staff to focus on more significant tasks.

Baldeep Dogra of BlackBerry highlighted the changes that the company has undergone in the past few years from being a handset provider to a supplier of software and services. He identified what the company has to offer public services through a mission-critical communications platform.

Along with AI, another area garnering a lot of media attention recently is 5G and its potential uses. 5G has just been rolled out for the first time in Edinburgh.

But Charlie Boisseau from Commsworld, a digital connectivity solutions provider, looked at why 5G may not be the answer to everyone’s problems and how building gigabit fibre infrastructure could become a “ubiquitous platform” for digital pubic services.

The fourth sponsor of the event, Silver Peak, joined a session with Nicola Graham of Aberdeenshire Council and SOCITM and Hugh Wallace of the Scottish Government’s payments project on the challenges of developing shared technology platforms.

As last speaker of the day, Colin Cook, head of the Scottish Government’s digital directorate, returned to the earlier theme of the need to collaborate and to centre digital developments on the needs of citizens.

“The overwhelming message, and the one I’ll try and repeat, is about our need to continue to collaborate, and collaborate not just across ourselves in the public sector, but also through to the third sector and particularly with industry,” Cook said.

For the Scottish Government, a digital organisation is one where not only does it understand the needs of users, but also designs services, whether online or offline, in a way that meets those needs, Cook said.

Cook summarised the Scottish approach to service design as a commitment that users are in the room when decisions about services are being taken.

“You can have the best user research team in the world, but it’s only any good if you’re actually taking decisions on the basis of what they find and you’re actually using that information to make a difference,” he added.

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