The public sector needs to unlock the potential of the ‘mountain’ of data it holds in order to boost economic growth and improve services, Scotland’s digital minister said today.

Kate Forbes, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, said that data “holds the key” to innovation in all industry sectors that will help shape the country’s reputation as a leading digital nation in the years to come.

She said that providing it is safe, secure and wrapped in an ‘ethical’ framework, public sector organisations should consider their data assets as a source of innovation for the tech sector, in order to improve the way the public sector serves citizens and spearhead a new generation of products and services.

Forbes, who was speaking in Edinburgh at the launch of the UK Government Digital Service’s nationwide ‘Sprint’ events, told delegates: “We are all working collectively to serve the community by improving services we offer, by harnessing the benefits of data and of digital, not just as ends in themselves but ultimately to be able to solve some of the thorniest, biggest social challenges that have plagued this country and our society for a long time. And data is key to understand first of all what the problem is, and then how to solve it. The data industry is expected to contribute about £20bn to Scotland’s economy by 2020 and it holds the key to innovation in all sectors and will help shape Scotland’s reputation in the tech sector for years to come.”

She added: “The public sector sits on a mountain of wealth of data and we want to become a global centre of data excellence. We’re already fortunate in Scotland to have some of the best data in the world, we have universities with world-leading expertise in data analytics, machine learning and AI and a growing business sector that are looking for opportunities to innovate and to use that data.”

Forbes highlighted how the Scottish Government is taking a service design-led approach to innovating and changing the way services are delivered to end users. She recognised the internal challenges she faces when trying to “persuade colleagues” that digital should be a top priority – particularly in an era where resources are constrained – but she gave the example of how a new system for distributing social security benefits in Scotland is being developed through a focus on consulting the ‘end users’, namely ordinary people who rely on disability living or personal independence payments.

“We built a user experience panel of over 2,000 people to help shape that service,” she said, in front of a predominantly public sector audience at Edinburgh’s EICC. “Imagine if you have applied for social security benefits in the past and have to provide the same information multiple times on paper-based forms to multiple different places, with a long wait whilst that information is processed. And now imagine if you could harness the power of digital so you don’t have to provide the same information multiple times and there’s a single place where you can access information on the progress of your application. All of that because we started listening to users to understand what actually matters and what their actual experience is,” she added.

In a wide-ranging digital keynote speech, Forbes, who used an iPad as an aid, reflected some of the experiences she has had in a newly-created role since taking up the post nine months ago, which she described as “the best job in government”. She said that during that time she had come to learn that whilst we should not “fixate” on digital as an ‘end in itself’, she said that digital could potentially solve “nearly all of the challenges” that she had come across in the public sector, and more widely in the country at large.

One of her observations, however, was that whilst she had visited organisations that were “incredibly advanced” in the way they had deployed technology, others were only at the beginning of their digital transformation journeys; she said more could be done between those organisations to share ideas and truly collaborate.

She added: “I don’t want to diminish the work that any of us do, but most of us are engaged in the business of bringing in information and regurgitating it for other people. In light of that, not to simplify or undermine the work that you all do, with some organisations that are able to do it in ways that totally transforms users’ needs, why are we not better at working together to use those changed and transformed services and applying them right across the public sector? But of course that would only happen when we continue to sort of tear down barriers and collaborate better. We’ve got more than 160 organisations in Scotland delivering public services and it’s vital that we look for opportunities to collaborate.”

She said: “And again I don’t want to undermine the work that any of us do, but see those citizens out there – when they’re looking for services – often, usually, they don’t distinguish between each of the public sector organisations, they just want to engage with the public sector or government, or whatever it is, whatever the name is that they give it, and they want to be able to make that a simple a process as is possible.”

Forbes paid tribute to the way that initiatives such as CivTech – created out of the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate – and the way in which it has ‘turned procurement on its head’ by making it easier for the public sector to engage the tech sector, which will ultimately make “services easier to use, quicker to build and cheaper to run”. And off the back she said that Scotland also had a great opportunity to pitch itself as a place for digital innovators to come and invest, with govtech a great example which is stimulating interest among highly-skilled technologists attracted live and work in countries where they have an opportunity to build platforms for public utility.

Skills, however, was the big challenge, she observed; Scotland must fill 12,800 “new entrants” into tech roles in the next 12 months alone just in order to keep pace with demand but she said that country’s strengths as a place where “tech for good” can thrive – where the public sector is innovating to solve some of the “thorniest” social issues it faces, is an opportunity to attract those motivated by using their tech skills to “make a difference in the world”.

She said: “The way that the public sector is approaching digital transformation is acting like a massive catalyst in the tech sector and the way that we engage with them has made it clear to them that the timing is right to use digital and they should start investing in looking for the solutions to the challenges that we face.”

She said the country’s aspirations are reflected in the National Performance Framework and that: “When it comes to the Scottish Government, and more widely the public sector, we can meet and help and support those aspirations by finding new ways of engaging with the market, with the tech sector and opening up the public sector contracts to new businesses with new ideas by encouraging public sector investment, investors to come to Scotland and see for themselves the talent and opportunities that we have on offer and lastly by ensuring that the public sector uses its data assets; that rich wealth of data that we sit on, where of course that it’s safe, secure and ethical to do so, as a source of innovation for the tech sector.”

She said: “Ultimately whether public, private or third sector we want to develop an attitude, a culture, a behaviour, a way of thinking, a can-do attitude to send out the message that right across the world that Scotland has the people, the data, the culture, the investors, the infrastructure, the partners to make it absolutely the best place for businesses and organisations to succeed.”