Associate Feature: Into the future
Innovation, enhanced productivity, and digitisation. These three factors are repeatedly cited as being key to kick-starting economic growth right across the UK. The suggestion that a front-runner on all these fronts might be a public body directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament may well raise a few eyebrows. Yet Registers of Scotland (RoS), the national body responsible for keeping registers of land, property and other legal documentation, has undergone sweeping modernisation in recent years. This process accelerated significantly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and could have surprisingly far-reaching implications for the country.
"When the lockdown happened in March 2020 — although we had done an awful lot of modernising and improving our digital systems — we were still relying on physical paper documents arriving by post,” says Jennifer Henderson, Keeper and Chief Executive of the Registers of Scotland. “We were yet to roll out a system that enabled customers to send us documents digitally. That was partly because we wanted to ensure we were in a good place to receive things digitally. But the issues with relying on paper and the physical post became very evident, very quickly.”
The organisation faced an enormous challenge to transition to a remote workforce and roll out a digital customer platform, fit for purpose in a new socially distanced world. Internally, it had to rapidly upskill long-serving employees who were very familiar with the historical approach to manually receiving and processing documents. Meanwhile, it continued training or introducing staff capable of building and delivering the digital systems. Externally, it had to ensure there would be strong customer uptake for the new platform. The best way of ensuring this was by working in lockstep with clients throughout the development process.
“A big part of the challenge has been educating and persuading people that there is a better, digital way of doing things,” says Henderson, with regard to the platform. “We had already done a lot of the background work — thinking about how we would design a customer interface — so we were able to build and roll out a system very quickly. When it became a necessity, customers were, unsurprisingly, very keen to be part of the user experience testing — and we were able to build on established user experience approaches that were already familiar to customers.
When lockdown hit, Henderson recalls, the housing market was asked by the Scottish Government to pause as much as possible for three months along with many other parts of the economy. It was within this tight three-month timeframe that RoS was able to accelerate development and roll out its new system, a service that was positively received once the market was again allowed to open up.
Indeed, the reception was so positive that customers expressed an overwhelming desire for the changes to become permanent. “We’ve emerged at the other end of lockdown having achieved a true step-change in how customers send applications to us,” says Henderson. “That has unlocked significantly faster and more accurate processing at our end. Covid has been absolutely awful but out of it, and working alongside our customers, we’ve delivered something that transforms the experience of transacting on property in Scotland, and that will stay forever.”
While the organisation’s immediate customers are primarily solicitors who directly gain from improved efficiency in the system, Henderson stresses that the ultimate end customer is the public. On this front, RoS’s rollout of its ScotLIS system provides citizens with a user-friendly tool to locate and access completely up-to-date information relating to any property in the country. The intention is to bring enhanced efficiency, transparency and reassurance to the market, for homebuyers and sellers, but also for institutions and companies that invest in property.
“One of the things the World Bank looks at when assessing the strength of an economy is how efficiently the land registration system works,” says Henderson, “because land and property are such underpinning elements of the economy. So we’re aspiring with our land registration system to get Scotland up those World Bank rankings. We deal with 500,000 applications a year, mostly to the land register. Those include mortgages, sales or people selling off a field that will eventually become a set of new houses. This is hugely dynamic. It is a lot of data and the only way to make that accessible in real time is by having a really strong digital underpinning to it.”
“We get efficiency benefits from receiving and processing things digitally, but so too do the solicitors. It should be saving them time, money and effort and meaning a better quality product” - Jennifer Henderson, Keeper and Chief Executive of the Registers of Scotland
With regard to the organisation’s immediate customer base, RoS has experienced a transformation in the way its relationship with solicitors works. Gone are the days of chasing and gathering paper records of old deeds, with customers occasionally “running through the door of our offices because they’d missed the post,” as Henderson explains. With the ongoing introduction of digital signatures, the days of multiple copies of documents being physically mailed to various parts of the country, before being hand signed and forwarded on, are numbered.
The organisation is seeing three clear benefits from this, namely speed, accuracy and cost, which amount to significant improvements in efficiency. “Reducing the amount of time that it takes solicitors to carry out these processes means they can deliver a more efficient service for their customers,” says Henderson. “We get efficiency benefits from receiving and processing things digitally, but so too do the solicitors. It should be saving them time, money and effort and meaning a better quality product.”
RoS’s last bastion in the transition from paper to electronic documents was the Register of Deeds, which went online on 1 October. However, the organisation does not view the move to digital as a project that has been completed. Rather, it sees its digital future as an ongoing evolution that will continually be enhanced in response to users’ experiences and changes in technology. As such, it will continue to play its part in collaboration with customers in the wider digital transformation of Scotland’s economy.
“We have colleagues who learn new digital skills and then might stay with us for a very long time or may move on elsewhere,” explains Henderson. “But that’s good. They’re taking those skills they’ve learned into other parts of the Scottish economy. We also take people with entry level digital skills from a range of professional backgrounds, put them through intensive training with (digital skills academy] CodeClan and see if they can hit the ground running. And we’ve found that they absolutely can. But digital training isn’t a skill set you learn once and then apply throughout your career. Our employees are constantly learning, being challenged and delivering things they had never delivered before to keep pace with the latest technology.”
For the individual employee, the automation of many of the more “repetitive” tasks, as Henderson explains, should mean more rewarding and enriching jobs. The organisation is focused on shifting the balance of its workforce’s skill set away from processing and towards digital strategy, development and maintenance. Yet there will always be some requirement for human involvement in the registration process.
“I would never suggest that the entire registration function will ever completely be done by a computer,” says Henderson. “There are elements of that registration decision-making that absolutely require a person — unique cases where we’ve never seen anything like it before and it requires a person with great expertise to work out what to do. It’s about freeing up the intellectual capacity of people to do the things that only a human can do.”
Alongside the benefits for RoS’s employees, customers and the wider population, its innovation is providing wider benefits in the form of Geovation Scotland Accelerator, a joint venture with Ordnance Survey. The programme provides funding and coaching for entrepreneurs and access to data, with a focus on projects that tackle the climate crisis.
“We’ve had some real success stories,” says Henderson. “Typically, candidates will be one-person operations looking to evolve into fully fledged businesses, scaling up and creating jobs by using RoS’s underlying data to deliver solutions to real-world challenges. Factors such as: ‘Where do we put charging points when we’re thinking of the roll-out of electric vehicles?’ They can fully leverage our data to support that type of decision making.”
Policymakers too can reap the benefits of this vast new dataset, Henderson says. RoS’s modern platforms and data systems are able to efficiently provide politicians and civil servants with information and insights for use in the development and decision-making stages.
“I always think about our datasets as spanning the micro to the macro,” she says. “At a micro level, all those individual pieces of data about a specific property can be used by solicitors or citizens in the home buying or selling process. At a macro level, we can look at what’s happening to house prices as a whole over the course of a year, how much turnover is there in the market or how many properties are never turning over. The Land Reform Bill is currently being consulted on, and our data is very important for that type of evidence-based decision making. If we were to go back 30 years, providing that data would have been a much harder, slower and less transparent process.”
The world has gradually started settling into a new post-pandemic normal in which technology is even more central to the global economy. The challenge for RoS is to keep pace with future developments in terms of both cyber security and the evolution of its platform, while also seeking out new ways to enhance efficiency even further.
This article is sponsored by Registers of Scotland.