Scotland's digital transformation: a process of evolution
‘Digital transformation’ as a concept can seem pretty vague, ranging from the mundane - such as improving the tech abilities of workers – to implementing concepts that were once considered science fiction; such as installing ‘smart bins’ that know when they are full or introducing robot street sweepers.
Countries around the world have built huge economies around their digital sectors, often concentrated in large, global cities such as Hong Kong, San Francisco and London, and Scotland also has grand ambitions to improve the “skills, culture, public sector and inclusive infrastructure” of a “digital nation”.
“Digital transformation aims to address challenges that Scotland, like many countries across the world, face now and over the coming years as we tackle the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on all aspects of our lives,” said Peter Tolland, a programme director at the Scottish Government, specialising in digital services.
“It means focusing on people in the widest possible sense, using technologies to transform the way we deliver public services in Scotland.”
The Scottish Government published its digital strategy, “A Changing Nation: How Scotland will thrive in a digital world”, in March 2021, which describes how the government will attempt to deliver these aims against its National Performance Framework.
In a statement accompanying the publication of the strategy, Ivan McKee, the minister for trade innovation and public finance, said: “Scotland’s future will be forged in a digital world. It’s a world in which data and digital technologies are transforming every element of our nation and our lives – people, place, economy and government.
“In the past year, the coronavirus crisis has changed our way of life fundamentally. Many of us have worked successfully from home. We’ve come to rely on home shopping, online education and new and creative ways of using digital technology to keep in touch with family and friends.
“But it has also demonstrated the problems that come from digital exclusion. It has reminded us all that whilst technology can transform lives for the better, its essential that we ensure that no one is left behind.”
The strategy vows to “bring vulnerable people with us”, and ensure that demographics that frequently lack digital skills, such as older people, are not locked out of public services because of technological advancement.
The strategy also aims to “make it possible for all businesses to be secure digital businesses, supporting them to adapt and be successful in the digital economy”, and to “place national and local government at the heart of an ecosystem of organisations, across the public, private and third sector, working together in new and different ways to meet public needs”.
The report reads: “As we become a truly digital nation, the nature of government, at a national and local level, will change.
“The people we serve expect services that are responsive and tailored to their needs and they expect to hold us to account for the quality and efficiency of these services.
“This requires us to both re-think how we design and deliver services and change the operating model of the organisations that provide them.”
Two of the more tangible promises contained within the digital strategy include delivering broadband coverage for everyone is Scotland and improving rural 4G mobile coverage, which as well as allowing individuals to engage more fully with digital services, will also build the infrastructure necessary for tech businesses to flourish anywhere in Scotland.
“The updated digital strategy commits the Scottish Government and local government partners to re-designing public services around the needs of users and transforming the organisations that deliver them,” said Tolland.
“This includes commitments to government based on a digital business model with common standards and operating platforms, operating as part of an ecosystem of organisations across the economy to stimulate innovation and create commercial opportunities and the development of digital skills and culture.”
While digital transformation as concept can sometimes appear quite vague, experts outside of the government consider Scotland to be a world leader in an exciting field.
Ross McCulloch, the founder of digital skills company Third Sector Lab, which focuses on charities, said: “It's often more helpful to think of it as digital evolution, rather than transformation.
“A lot of people, with regards to transformation, would imagine that it’s about writing a big strategy, and everything in that strategy will come through, they'll come up with the money to do it and it will just be fine. And actually, that rarely works.
“I guess what we encourage organisations to do is think about what are the kind of small steps that we can make and how can we put users first and really, at the heart of it.
“A big part of this is that this is really a design challenge, not a digital challenge. So how do we understand users? The problem in the past, particularly with the public sector, has been too many people have tried to buy their way out of it, and listen to their expensive consultants who will sell digital solutions that they say will solve every problem, without really thinking about user needs or sustainability.”
One aspect of the Scottish Government’s approach, however, has been to take digital learnings out into other organisations, by founding the Scottish Digital Academy as part of the government’s digital directorate, which nurtures “digital skills, building capacity and capability to support transformation and digital public services”.
“Ensuring that the Scottish Government and wider public sector has the right people with the right skills to design and implement digital solutions is a challenge that we continue to address,” said Tolland.
“The Scottish Digital Academy provides high quality professional learning and agile coaching to support digital skills and leadership across the public and third sectors in Scotland and our focus is to ensure our leaders have the strategic capabilities to understand technology developments and its implications.”
The Digital Academy has since updated the knowledge and skills of Police Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, and Dundee and Angus College – putting the Scottish Government’s digital strategy out into the real world.
Lee Dunn, the head of the Scottish Digital Academy, said: “So I guess the strategy line is that we want to be a thriving digital nation. So that's looking internally within the country itself to make sure that we have those inclusive, accessible products and services, which are safe and which are secure, especially under the current global climate in which we operate, especially around security risks.
“Also, we want to have that competitive edge both in terms of economy and in terms of talent, because Scotland doesn't just sit by itself, it sits with the rest of the UK and it sits within a global set of nations so we have to remain competitive, and we have to remain comparable to everybody else.
“So it's about driving transformation. Making sure that we are keeping up with everybody else, if not leading in certain areas as well. If you look at something like AI, then there's potential that we could lead in that particular area.”
The Scottish Government’s digital strategy is considered to be “leading the way” by McCulloch, thanks to putting users at the centre of design: “The government has actually done quite well with the services in place.
“The Scottish approach to service design, which was developed by the government, is based on the ‘double diamond’ model of the Design Council.
“And the big focus of that is to put your users right at the start of the design process, and putting that effort into design work before you go deploying digital services.
“That‘s underpinning a lot of the stuff that you're seeing coming out of government digital services and probably will start to run into the third sector as well as well. So I think, the government is probably leading the way in terms of thinking.”
Compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland is thriving, according to McCulloch: “Just today I’ve been doing some work with an organisation down in Wales, and they saying Wales is about a decade behind Scotland.
“In certain parts of the UK there is a jealousy that a lot of stuff in Scotland isn’t doing too bad.”
Dunn agrees, saying Scotland is actually “quite far advanced”: “I think that we're doing very well in Scotland, if you take transformation in its widest sense.
“I think that we're quite far ahead and that we've established a lot of opportunities for collaboration in co-construction across the public sector, and we include industry in that as well. So we don't just do things in isolation, we work with industry partners, too. So I think that we're quite far advanced.
“A lot of what we do is centred around digital skills, and I think we’re actually quite far down that road, compared to other parts of the UK, and that’s really to do with the level of investment we’ve made to date.”
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Tolland says the Scottish Government frequently looks abroad for inspiration: “The Scottish Government has engaged with other countries to share best practice on establishing Scotland as a leading digital economy and start-up location.
“Economy Secretary Kate Forbes recently visited Denmark and Finland, countries with a track record in good support for start-ups, on a fact-finding mission and we also regularly engage with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Digital for SMEs Global Initiative (D4SME) to promote knowledge sharing and learning on how different types of small and medium sized enterprises can seize the benefits of digital.
“Being an outward looking country is crucial for growing our tech sector in areas like the skills pipeline, investment and innovation.
“The Scottish Tech Ecosystem Review also emphasised the need for Scotland to learn from mature ecosystems which is why phase one of the Ecosystem Fund supported organisations like FutureX, Scottish Business Network and Startup Grind to deliver international initiatives focussing on regions like Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Tallinn.”