Updated digital strategy will be a “proportionate” response to the economic and social shock of the pandemic

A refreshed national digital strategy for Scotland will be a “proportionate” response to the economic and social shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Scottish Government’s digital director.

Colin Cook revealed some of the detail behind government thinking on an updated national vision for digital, which will be based on an increased level of cooperation with industry, local government and third sector, following a number of partnerships formed in response to the coronavirus.

Learn more about the Consultative Document at Digital Scotland 2020, where Colin Cook, Digital Director for the Scottish Government will be giving the Keynote.

The Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate worked closely with local authorities and the voluntary sector on the creation of the Connecting Scotland programme earlier this year, which sought to put digital equipment and data in the hands of some of Scotland’s most digitally excluded and socially marginalised groups during lockdown. To date, the programme has now been allocated £43m in government funding and will benefit 50,000 people by the end of 2021.

It is in that spirit that the directorate has embarked on a joint public consultation with the umbrella group for local councils – COSLA – in the development stage of the refreshed digital strategy, a process that is now open until December 23.

Describing that partnership work as “collaborative” and demonstrating a willingness to “break down rather than reinforce organisational barriers”, Cook laid out a six-point plan that will provide the backbone for that vision during a talk – Developing Digitally in the Face of a Pandemic – that he gave as part of the UK-wide DigiLeaders event last week.

He said: “We are asking for your views as part of the consultation to help us identify, and more importantly to learn and embed the lessons of the past six months, to keep our foot on the digital accelerator and refresh our national digital strategy, so that – and this is the critical thing for me – so that the strategy, the ambitions and the actions in that strategy, are recognised as being a proportionate response to the level of social and economic shock we’re all experiencing.”

Cook said that the pandemic has “changed and arguably destroyed some of our traditional assumptions and business models” and it is only natural that the updated national digital strategy – which was originally conceived in 2017 – will have to respond accordingly. The impact of the virus has meant government has had to act with speed and agility in the way it deploys its services, which are increasingly moving onto cloud-based platforms. Migrating to the cloud is an argument, he added, that has now been “won”, with regards to the provisioning of government digital services and demand for digital has also moved from being merely acceptable to a “preference” for those who apply for various public services.

But above all, he said, services must be inclusive, adding: “As we’ve made the move to digital – and more and more people have adopted digital technology in their daily lives – it’s also made it more obvious than it’s ever been that exclusion from the digital world can limit our life choices and our life chances. And that, as you might expect, is a critical issue for policy-makers in the public sector. We may not fully understand the extent of the economic and social shock we’re experiencing, but we do know it’s redefined our perceptions of normal.”

The six points to the plan will therefore be based on:

  1. Inclusivity – ensuring that all citizens, regardless of geography, background or ability are able to get online and benefit from digital technology. Digital infrastructure will also be seen as critical national infrastructure and connectivity will go beyond fixed broadband, ensuring mobile connectivity and future services based on smart networks can deliver new services.
  2. Building a digital nation where public services work for all and are personal, accountable, adaptable, efficient, sustainable and worthy of public trust. Crucially, they will be built around the user, rather than the organisations and services providing them, in line with the ethos of the Scottish Approach to Service Design, and that citizens will have control of their own data.
  3. Transforming government – national and local – into ‘truly digital organisations’ where digital skills and cultures can be leveraged, that use technology in an appropriate and considered manner and where services are delivered via commodity, cloud-based technologies which free up the organisation’s resources. Those services will increasingly be based on common and shared platforms and through partnership approaches.
  4. Creating a digital and data economy with government supporting business and companies to build digital capabilities and skills, through various funding mechanisms, to embrace and adopt technology whatever their sector. The approach will also seek to “create value” from national research data.
  5. The Scottish Government will commit itself to the recommendations of the recently published tech ecosystem review by former Skyscanner executive Mark Logan. The review has recommended creating a network of ‘tech scalers’ – backed by an initial £4m government investment – to support a vibrant startup community.
  6. Forging a “distinct” place on the international stage whereby Scotland’s tech sector is recognised for high standards in digital and data, where ethics, privacy and regulatory frameworks are “critical” in building trust and can be embedded as principles that inform how the way services are designed and built.

Among new developments that Cook mentioned are the creation of a new research data organisation – Research Data Scotland, which will be run by Chief Statistician Roger Halliday – as well as plans to establish a ‘centre of excellence for process automation’.

He added: “We’re also developing and accelerating the use of common digital and data standards that will make it easier to join up services and developing a public sector data catalogue which will make it easier for everyone to see what data is held, and to understand how to access it.”

He also described how much of the ambition of the refreshed digital strategy has already begun with the development of common platforms for identity, payments and publishing, although conceded that “progress has not always been as fast as we would have liked it”.

But he added: “There is always that danger that we don’t learn lessons and we don’t capitalise on the last six months and we get attracted by a strategy of going back to where we were before. And that’s why I think digital leadership is more important than it’s ever been before, because we have to be the people who say lessons are only lessons if you actually learn and act upon them and we’re the people, I think, who can take our organisations in that direction. I think what we’re finding already from the consultation is that is a really shared view, that there are organisations and industries and third sector groups who really do want to do things differently and I think it’s a very positive environment to be in.”