The UK Government’s Digital Service minister has paid tribute to the “tremendous vibrancy and strength” of the Scottish tech sector in a flying visit to Edinburgh innovation hub CodeBase.

Oliver Dowden, the Minister for Implementation at the Cabinet Office, visited startups at the UK’s largest technology incubator yesterday after he was invited to the capital by CivTech – the Scottish Government’s public sector tech accelerator scheme.

Mr Dowden, who this week launched the second round of the UK Government’s own £20m GovTech Catalyst competition – which features Scottish Natural Heritage as one of five public bodies which is seeking to solve a business ‘challenge’ (SNH wants to find a tech solution to improve the way it alerts developers to planning restrictions) – said there was a lot of “cross-fertilisation” in terms of aims and ambitions between Civtech, launched in 2016 and GovTech, whose first round was launched in January 2018.

He said: “All roads lead back to data and clearly Edinburgh’s a big leader in data. We are doing our thing through a GovTech Catalyst; there’s an awful lot of cross-fertilisation and sharing of ideas between the lessons that are being learned through CivTech and the lessons that we are learning through GovTech.

“I think what they both have in common is [that] historically with procurements you look too much at the existing solution and re-procure the solution. What we’re trying to do through GovTech and what CivTech is trying to do is to say, ‘what is the actual problem and how do we have a.. way of initially understanding that problem through a competition that looks at lots of different options before you go through a more formal procurement?”

Mr Dowden said schemes like GovTech and CivTech are a way to ensure government can reach smaller suppliers in the tech market which may be where the “greatest areas of innovation” lie but they have been alienated in the past by the traditional, opaque procurement processes; however, he said that there is now a pressing need to move from the “micro challenges” that have been addressed through the schemes to the “broader” challenges around government delivery of services.

He said: “At the moment the challenges are focused around very important but very specific things, but over time using that model to look at some of the more structural problems that government faces.”

In that sense, he said Government must ensure it works to “break down barriers” and that there is a “flow of ideas” between the private and public sector. The UK Government has been lauded for the way it streamlined government services onto the GOV.UK platform – but the senior leadership within the Government Digital Service which masterminded the development has since moved on; recently, there has been criticism that the GDS has lost its way. Many departmental bodies have since sought to reassert their own distinctive approaches towards technology – for example, HMRC – and there have been question marks over big projects such as Verify, which is an online identity assurance programme.

Mr Dowden says, however, government must continue to innovate, otherwise there will be an “enormous” gap between the way it delivers its services and how people consume music, entertainment and goods online – through the likes of Spotify, Netflix and Amazon. And he insisted that Verify would continue to be supported but with an emphasis on ‘increasing the amount of commercial flexbility’ around the platform to the point where it no longer “needs the additional subsidy”.

He said: “I’m confident we’re on this path and we’re actually accelerating progress now, but clearly what we also need to do is do this alongside the private sector as well. So, working with DCMS and others we need to continue to encourage identity in the private sector through banks having verified identity there, us having verified identity in the public sector, having interoperability between the two, so you foster that development .”

He added: “I think we can make the experience of government a much better thing, so whether it’s the use of data analytics in health or whether it’s the use of robotics and over time AI [artificial intelligence] in processing everything from tax returns to welfare payments through DWP, it offers the prospect of a better, more accurate and more efficient service,” he says.

He said: “I want to make sure that the kind of ease, convenience and diversity that we are seeing more and more in the private sector is also available in the public sector. I think that’s the right thing to do because people expect their public services to reflect what they have in the private sector; it’s the right thing to do in terms of delivering greater efficiency and it’s the right thing to do in terms of delivering better outcomes. We’re on the cusp now, we’ve been talking for a long time now about data, but I really think we’re on the cusp of a data revolution in terms of our ability to use data analytics. Government holds huge amounts of data and if we get this right, the UK is incredibly well placed, a.) to improve the services to citizens but also to foster a genuinely globally leading sector in terms of the use of data.”

Mr Dowden said he would like to see government open up its data and, as per the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, which has a big focus on AI, to use that information to improve the way government delivers its services to citizens. He said there is a “huge amount of legacy” to overcome, in terms of the way the bureaucracy works in the UK – and that we cannot be like Estonia, which is often trumpeted as the leading tech nation (Estonia started from scratch, effectively as a ‘new country’ when its independence was restored in 1991).

But he said: “There’s a tremendous vibrancy and strength in Scotland and in particular in Edinburgh. Scotland is a real global leader in data – it’s getting that aspiration but also the practical steps towards that there’s the same sort of energy around the tech sector here that you get in other hubs around the world in tech, so it’s really exciting and encouraging to see that scale and rapidly growing scale.”

At CodeBase Mr Dowden met one of its founders Stephen Coleman, who established the hub on Castle Terrace, which has supported more than 400 small businesses.

Mr Coleman said: “It was really good to talk to the Minister. He seemed to understand that start-ups are a critical part of the economy.

“And he understood that creating a culture of ambition and collaboration, like we have at CodeBase, is critical to the sector’s success.”

On Brexit, perhaps one of the threats to the sector’s success, Mr Dowden moved to reassure the sector on the implications of a no-deal scenario, adding: “Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the Government’s top priority.

“We recognise the need for data flows between the UK and other countries to continue unhindered as Britain leaves the EU. As a responsible Government, we have long been planning for all scenarios, including a no-deal scenario. That is why the ICO has published guidance to help businesses and consumers prepare in the event of a no-deal scenario, and a number of specific technical notices were also published last year to help firms with their planning on this front. 

“We remain in constant dialogue with industry and are determined to minimise any disruption to data flows.”