One of Scotland’s oldest organisations is racing into the future
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 instead are 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 work- ing to IT operations: “It’s not normally used in operations; it’s a bit of 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 throughput 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 throughput 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 inhouse 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. In part of the innovation lab, the UX centre, featuring eye-tracking software, allows 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 – 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 legislation. Every piece of a form is defined by legislation. Meade’s team has looked at changes to make them significantly easier for end users. 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.’”