Kate Forbes calls for greater political interest in national digital plans
Scotland’s finance secretary has called for a greater focus from all political parties on the role of the technology sector and the government’s national digital programmes.
Kate Forbes said she would welcome greater scrutiny from opposition parties in parliament on how the national digital strategy is improving public services and helping to support economic development.
Ms Forbes, who spoke at the Digital Scotland conference in Edinburgh yesterday, reflected on the work of national connectivity, digital inclusion and business support programmes in response to the pandemic.
She said there was good levels of awareness among citizens and businesses who have benefited from better broadband speeds at home, and have had to pivot to online operations.
But she said she would like to see more political focus on the role of government to facilitate a greater level of digitisation across the economy and society.
“Even in parliament I think there’s more work to be done from the opposition in terms of scrutinising government and being interested in digital plans,” she said.
“Usually the interest is only piqued when something goes wrong and where there’s questions about the use of data. But I think we need a much broader interest and scrutiny and accountability in parliament. Government publishes the plans, the question is whether they are scrutinised or not.”
She encouraged politicians to educate themselves on tech and not to replicate some of the “amusing examples” in the United States of parliamentarians not quite getting the tech sector.
She said: “I think it’s hard to scrutinise when you don’t fully understand it. So I think the private sector has to strengthen those relationships with the public sector to help parliamentarians and others understand really what they’re doing, rather than people just accepting the high level perspective.”
She added: “When I was a minister responsible it felt like I had quite a job of persuasion to do and raising awareness [of technology], but now particularly after the pandemic I think people have embraced it. They see no alternative but to embracing technology and so the key is not now persuading them, it’s equipping them.”
She praised Denmark – which was represented at the event by its local government IT organisation Kombit, and Netcompany, which has delivered the coronavirus passport app used by several nations, including Scotland – for its internationally recognised status as a digital pioneer.
She said: “I think we can learn lots from Denmark; it’s a small country doing exciting things. It has some of the challenges that we face in Scotland but is far more focused and persistent in unlocking the tech opportunities.”
Ms Forbes spoke following her keynote to around 500 delegates at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, on Thursday, November 25.
In a wide-ranging speech, delivered for the first in-person Digital Scotland public sector IT conference since Covid restrictions were eased, she reflected on the digital response to the pandemic.
She said the last two years had “proven the merits” of digital technology more than any minister could ever do, and how harnessing its power could help solve complex problems like climate change.
She spoke also of how the pandemic has had “profound implications” for how we work and access services and sped up our rate of digitisation.
The Connecting Scotland programme is on target to reach 60,000 people, she said, improving digital access for some of the most excluded people. And businesses have been supported by £45m in government grants from the Digital Boost programme. Government has had a linchpin role in supporting homes, businesses and public services, such as the NHS Near Me video consultation platform which helped reach people remotely who couldn’t get to see a doctor in person. She also praised local government for switching so much of its service delivery online and said how collaboration has helped unlock more value in public sector data – something she had long called for before the pandemic.
All of that brings us to where we are now, she said, with a new digital strategy that has been led by ‘actions first’. In a normal context, the strategy comes first and then the actions, but Covid had forced a rethink as government had to quickly deliver services in response to urgent need.
The opportunity going forward is to keep going on national connectivity programmes such as Reaching 100% (R100) supported by 4G infill and regional 5G test beds to ensure there is no one left behind and that geography is not a barrier to economic participation. She rarely gets thank you emails, she said, but connectivity has been one notable exception as people had been truly grateful for faster and better internet services during lockdown.
Ms Forbes said she was glad to see so many people back at a live event: “It was so great to see people in the flesh, as it were. As good as online events have been, there’s nothing that quite beats the face-to-face conversation but obviously people were well spaced out, everyone was wearing masks, and everything’s been organised extremely well.”
But she added: “I think we’ve got to manage it carefully; we are conscious that there are still too many cases in Scotland and there’s big risks particularly over the winter period when more people are indoors, so I think it’s important that businesses and organisations use their discretion in how they organise it but certainly you do aid collaboration with these in-person conversations.”