No going back to the old normal: a roundtable discussion
“When we're appointing people to teams now, we're quite happy to take someone if they live in Argentina, whereas that might not have been considered before,” said Peter Tolland, head of directorate programmes at the Scottish Government, as an example of what has changed since the COVID pandemic.
“And we've done that,” he continued. “We have people working from their second homes or their homes in different countries now.
“We have collaborative meetings that are set up and they have people joining those meetings that would never have done it when they were face to face.
“So we're actually spreading the reach of these groups much wider, they're becoming more international, things are working across time zones.
“So it would be very difficult to give all of that up. And we're starting to see very positive impacts from that.”
Not everyone was moving at the same pace, though, Tolland said, revealing that he sometimes opted to “seek forgiveness” after the fact rather than asking for permission beforehand.
“We are pushing the envelope a lot,” he said. “We are sort of seeking forgiveness more than permission when we're doing some of these things. But we are finding that the benefits are absolutely real.”
Tolland was taking part in a Holyrood roundtable discussion looking at the changes brought about by the COVID pandemic and considering how the changes will affect digital transformation and working practices in the future.
Sponsored by cloud security specialists Zscaler and chaired by Zscaler director of digital strategy Nathan Howe, the roundtable brought together senior IT managers from across the public sector in Scotland, from the Scottish Government, local government, the NHS, VisitScotland, the police and the higher and further education sector.
Key recurring themes to the conversation were the vastly accelerated pace of change caused by lockdown, the positivity towards rolling out new technology during the pandemic, and the strong desire not to lose the gains and revert to how things were before once the pandemic was over.
“For four months of this year, it was it was utopia, you know, you wanted something done, you make a decision, do a risk assessment and off you go,” said Murray Husband, head of digital for East Renfrewshire Council.
VisitScotland had already been rolling out Office 365, but “overnight, COVID was the biggest catalyst for that usage that you could possibly have”, said Mike Slack, the tourism body’s head of IT.
“We were well set up, and therefore, relatively smoothly managed to move into that.
“Obviously, there were differences around the organisation. But I think, for me, what's interesting is it's created that equity, so everybody's in the same sort of position, so everybody's joining Teams meetings.
“What will be interesting is when we start to head back into the office, how that looks.”
“Unprecedented can't really be overused in the current climate”, said Andrew Hendry, chief digital and information officer at Police Scotland.
He said the force had moved “probably 15 years ahead of where we were” culturally in the space of eight months.
The plans for digital transformation hadn’t changed substantially, Hendry said, but they had speeded up.
“COVID created a need for a change, whereas previously, there was a want for change,” he said.
“And people's wants weren't always aligned, whereas now that solid need is there and it's allowing us to accelerate change”.
But Hendry also warned that they must “really try and not sleepwalk back into any of the old ways of working which we don't want to keep”.
“I think the first thing I would say is, in this unprecedented situation that we all find ourselves in, the key to moving forward is for everyone to have a strategy,” said Nicola Harvey from City of Edinburgh Council.
She said it was “fantastic” that they’d managed to get people working remotely and using Teams, but as the vaccine is rolled out and people revert to a more blended way of working, it was important to have a plan for what that would look like and what kit would be needed.
“The other thing I would say is decisions do get made to try and operate very quickly and security has to be at the top priority of all of this as everyone starts to work remotely,” she added.
One of the challenges that Fife Council was now considering, according to Jane McMinn, service manager for strategic platforms, was how to “foster the informal communications that we had before”.
She said: “People would hear about things just because they were in the office and hearing things that were being talked about elsewhere.
“So we have kind of been looking at as well how we can use that kind of blended meeting way to get more communications, and face to face-type communications out that would have been happening more informally in the office as well.”
Culture change was important, said Martyn Wallace, chief digital officer at the Scottish Local Government Digital Office.
“I think that’s the big thing,” he said. “We can talk about kit, talk about collaboration, but you need to look at the culture.
“And we need to look at security culture as well, because you can deploy all the kit you want in the world, you could work with the best and biggest partners, but unless you bring the people along with it [you’re not going to get anywhere].
“So unless you bring them on board and you also change the culture for managers to look at outputs, outcomes and support, especially mental health in these conditions, when people are living at work, so to speak, you're not going to get anywhere.”
It was also noted that the pandemic had highlighted the digital divide, both in terms of economic inequality and within the public sector workplace, where certain roles do not involve using digital technology or some people are less enthusiastic about the latest tech than others.
The NHS had made a deliberate choice to keep things as simple as possible, said Steven Flockart, director of cloud engineering and digital operations for NHS National Services for Scotland.
“One of the things we've tried to do as much as possible is try to stick with consistency within our technology,
“We're trying not to introduce too many new things that advocate too much change for people because, as we all know, it's been a big change and a big adaptation for a lot of people to have to work from home on an everyday basis.”
It was about “not adding to the burden” and recognising that “not everybody is always down with technology, they don't always want the latest, greatest shiny tools”.
According to Steve McIntosh, regional CISO at further and higher education membership organisation HEFESTIS, while one of the challenges in further and higher education had been a move from assuming everyone was on campus and securing the campus perimeter “to the identity of the user as the main perimeter”, they’d also found that some did not have the means for that individual remote access and had to respond to that.
“What we've seen particularly in areas that have got high levels of poverty is really the digital divide, you know, people not maybe having the devices or the connectivity.
“So there has been a lot of either repurposing equipment that has been on campus.
“There's been lots of computers that were in libraries or labs or staff desktops or meeting rooms that have been repurposed and shipped out across the country really, in what has been a huge logistical operation just to get people connected.”
Husband noted that East Renfrewshire Council had had to change some of its processes to take account of the fact that some of its staff had no access to work-related digital technology.
“I think something else we're starting to see now is whilst in the offices it's fine and all that great stuff, it's fantastic for the information workers in the organisation, you have a significant number of frontline staff who have either no or little access to council technology – [although] they might have some personal technology.
“So we changed how we did our staff comms, for example. We learnt from previous winter weather issues, where we use social media to communicate with our staff, whereas now we have online resources for them you can access from different places.
“You have text messaging, quite traditional approaches, but actually the aim is to kind of be the lowest common denominator to speak to our staff.
“So it's great having Teams and all those tools for those who are using them, but there's a vast majority, a vast number of people in the council who don't on a regular basis.
“So I think that's one of the things we were assuming we were talking to everybody at the start, and we quickly realised we weren't.”
In terms of sustainability, Murray had noted a changing attitude from the positivity of the early days of the pandemic and a tendency to push for what there was before – and more.
“Early on, you know, kind of March, April, May, it was very much all in the same boat, all kind of pushing together, a lot more acceptance of assuring and challenging, and people were a bit more patient and those kind of things, especially with IT service.
“Definitely in the last maybe two, three months, that's changed, the kind of attitude is… I want to do everything I was doing before, but probably a bit faster, but we're going to have less people because we have to make savings.
“So for me, that's kind of the challenge I'm facing at the moment is this, it's kind of fed the beast, but unfortunately we're not able to sustain it.”
McMinn also raised the issue of sustainability.
She said: “I'm certainly concerned about some of my staff who have been going above and beyond what's required. And that's not sustainable.
“So it is really about looking at the focus on the things that really do matter and the things that we can really change quickly and try not to get bogged down in that bureaucracy.”
Slack echoed Murray’s comments about the positivity towards IT early on, but suggested that could still be harnessed and built on for lasting change.
“It was actually overwhelming. I've never known anything like it in any of my reasonably long career,” he said.
“We've normally been the whipping boys of the organisations that I've worked in, whereas actually, we got comments coming back like we're the true heroes without capes and all this sort of thing. And it was phenomenal.
“Again, actually, I think that will subside over time. And as, again, Murray mentioned, I think expectations change, and people want more and demand the service, quite rightly.
“But how, again, can we can we ride that wave, I suppose, of positivity that we've currently got, and actually I still am within our organisation, I'm finding the doors are a little bit more open than they were previously in all sorts of places because we've sort of built a really good reputation through that period.
“So how can we use that to build on it going forward?”