After 400 years, the sprint

Founded in 1617, the Registers of Scotland (RoS) does not seem the kind of place that would boast an innovation lab or user experience centre. But on the fifth floor of Meadowbank House in Edinburgh, software engineers and ‘UX’ experts sit working out ways to make an organisation, which will celebrate its 400th anniversary next year, a leader in digital innovation.

RoS is a fundamental asset to Scotland; it records who owns property and land. Without it, homes and buildings could be not bought or sold. The ground on which we stand would be up for grabs. The World Bank uses the efficiency of a country’s land registry as a measure of a nation’s economy.

However, the speed of its processes – rooted in paper ledgers bearing the spidery scrawl of quill pen and ink – could, even in recent history, be glacial. Latterly, robust management has done much to make the organisation more efficient and customer-focused.

But, as it prepares to look back over the centuries in a celebration that coincides with the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, RoS is in the midst of a digital revolution that is further transforming the way it works; providing faster services, saving money and opening up the possibility of exciting technologies for use by people and business.

Two floors down from the future, sits the present: an IT operations and development team that has already helped move RoS away from a need to rely on outmoded systems. It is modern and well-run; a place where people want to work, its IT department attracting recruits from established players like Sky and leading-edge digital companies such as Skyscanner – and it was cited last year by a parliamentary committee as an example of good practice.

Tom Meade heads the department and was brought in by RoS chief executive Sheenagh Adams as part of her aim to transform RoS into an organisation that is ‘digital first’. “What Sheenagh wanted to do was move us from where we were to a much more customer-centric, efficient organisation. I understood the ambition of the organisation, I could see how collegiate they were and I thought: ‘That’s an environment I’d really like to work in.’”

Meade was previously at the Student Loans Company, the first organisation chosen by the UK’s globally-lauded Government Digital Service to be part of its pioneering programme to make 25 major services digital by default. “It was the first big piece of government work, and agile delivery, that I was involved in,” said Meade.

‘Agile’ is one of those buzzwords that flips a switch in most people’s heads to ‘off’. But, basically, it means that instead of embarking on a long, inflexible, costly and, often, ultimately futile period of software development, digital services are instead designed, coded – and tested on end users – in chunks. It typically results in services that are quicker to go live, more effective and cheaper.

But before Meade and his team could get to that point, they had to sort the organisation’s antiquated IT systems. They ditched old servers, put them on new operating systems, recoded applications and introduced a monitoring function. By exiting two third-party support contracts, RoS has saved £1.1m a year.

Meade then introduced agile working to IT operations: “It’s not normally used in operations; it’s a bit of an anathema to it. You don’t want to be doing major change in a department whose job is ‘keeping the lights on’. But what you can do is apply it to how you work as a team, how do we get our through-put better?

“So the team self-organises and decides what’s the best way to work tickets through. You also have a ‘work-in-progress limit’. That sounds as though it slows things down, but it means that things get done, tickets get finished. It actually increases your through-put quite significantly. There’s a whole lot of science behind it, and it works.”

Those new ways of working, coupled with technology changes such as the use of virtualisation – allowing a piece of hardware to run multiple operating systems at the same time (320 servers have been taken out, reducing the footprint of the organisation’s in-house data centre by 70%) – has also saved RoS £1.6m a year by reducing the time that systems are down.

The changes represent the first stages in RoS’s three-year digital strategy launched in the spring of 2015, which aims to make the IT systems stable, efficient and dynamic. “But we don’t look at it as digital transformation; the IT doing something to the business,” Meade said. “We view it as business transformation; the business deciding what it wants to do with its IT capability.”

Using agile working, his team embarks on two-week ‘sprints’ which result in code that can be put on a production server and used by user experience specialists. The UX Centre, part of the innovation lab, features eye-tracking software, allowing specialists to observe users’ response to new online services. Solicitors are RoS’s main customers and more than 100 firms have signed-up to participate and provide feedback.

“You analyse, design, build and test, with people who understand our end users, in small increments. It allows people at every stage to see something evolving,” said Meade. “To do that, you need brilliant engineering practices, automated testing and release and the right environment in which to do the work; in our case we built a private ‘cloud’. It’s all about flexibility and the ability to adapt.”

In 2014, the IT department issued three software releases; last year there were 50 – representing new functionality into users’ hands – and they have exceeded that number this year already.

While improvements have been made to the online services, RoS is restricted in what it can change because of legal issues; every piece of a form is defined by legislation. Meade’s team has looked at changes to make them significantly easier for end users and, in consultation with its customer panel, the Law Society, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the team has worked with colleagues in the RoS policy team to draft a series of proposed legislative changes which it is hoped could be passed by next April.

“The application process should become a whole lot easier for people,” said Meade. “We also provide data services to people, which can be manually intensive for us, so the re-engineering work we are doing will make that data available in a much more accessible way, on paper, online or for big companies, machine-to-machine through an API.

“The technology we are building and how we are delivering it is really leading edge and it’s very empowering for those working on it; it’s based on the teams deciding on the best way to make it work. You get a whole lot from people and the people get a whole lot more out of it. They are part of the creative process. People are now recommending to their friends: ‘This is a great place to work.’”

Celebrating the past, looking to the future

“We’re turning business around quicker than we have ever done,” said Registers of Scotland (RoS) chief executive Sheenagh Adams, looking back over the year. “When I joined the organisation there were cases sitting on the shelves that were years old, literally. Now, 80% is coming in and going back out the door again in two days.”

But the past 12 months have also been about laying the foundations for completion of the land register – an enormous and complex task – by 2024, with all public land registered by 2019. “There has been a lot of engagement with the private and public sector. For example, we now have a commitment from the Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland’s largest private landowner, to register all his land.

“And the Forestry Commission, the largest public sector owner, has also started its programme of voluntary applications. We don’t underestimate the task, but it’s good to see things moving in the right direction. Our staff have been doing tens of thousands of miles up and down the country, talking to people and they do get it; they understand the benefits of one register, a modern map-based digital register.”

In addition to the digital strategy led by Tom Meade, RoS is setting up ScotLIS, the Scottish Land Information System which will be a platform for people and businesses to access information about land and property, and is set to go live in October 2017. As well as being central to conveyancing, it will also provide useful information on house prices, school catchment areas and environmental issues such as the location of flood plains.

In 2017, ROS will celebrate 400 years since the creation of the General Register of Sasines under the Registration Act 1617. The sasine register is the world’s oldest register of property ownership rights; a chronological list of land transaction deeds containing written descriptions of what ownerships cover.

To mark the anniversary, Scotland is looking forward to hosting the Registrars of Title Conference, which began in Australia and New Zealand as a forum to build on mutual experience and develop new ideas around land titles. It has since expanded to include registrars from around the world, including the UK, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Mauritius.

It is one event in a series of celebrations which Adams hopes will be a showcase: “We want to show that Scotland is at the leading edge, with our digital programme for example. Our customer service, our legislation are also still world leaders. We may be a 400-year-old organisation but we have a history of innovation and we are pioneering a great deal today. We continue to be very forward looking.”

As well as the conference, RoS has worked with Creative Scotland to commission a piece of art; the choice of RoS staff from a series of entries, it will be an innovative map of Scotland that will depict 40 decades beginning with text from the sasine register and ending with computer code. It is also sponsoring a Masters degree course at Glasgow University. And it is considering a series of ideas from staff, among them a re-enactment of a sasine ceremony.

“We’ve just done one in Lego,” said Adams. “One of our account managers is qualified in Lego Serious Play, which is used as training tool to improve business performance, and he’s done an enactment which is so cute and has been really well-liked on Twitter!”

Adams is also keen to underline the diversity and improved age profile of the workforce with RoS having just recruited for its fourth modern apprenticeship programme. She believes the focus of RoS is now where it should be: “When I came here, we did really what suited us. Now we ask: ‘What’s it like for the customer?’ It is no longer about what suits us. And that has been transformational. We are not perfect, but we are working hard and working closely with our customers to get it right for them.”