Issue 12

CONNECTING ALL OF SCOTLAND

By Douglas White, Head of Advocacy, Carnegie UK Trust

As we move towards the Scottish parliamentary elections next year it is inevitable that thoughts turn to the likely key issues in the election campaign – and what the main policy priorities will be for the next Scottish Government.

Since the current parliament was elected in 2011 Scotland has made significant strides towards improving access to digital technology for its citizens, businesses and charities. Back in 2011 fewer than two-thirds of Scottish households (61%) had broadband at home. Now Ofcom data shows that nearly four in five (78%) of Scottish households are online, whether by a broadband connection or a mobile device. Indeed the same, recent Ofcom research reveals that more than six in ten of us in now own a smartphone – a remarkable statistic when it is considered that only four years ago barely a fifth of mobile phones in Scotland were such devices. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters (73%) of Scottish households now have the opportunity for a superfast broadband connection if they choose it, with plans in place to extend this coverage to 95% of premises by the end of 2017. The switchover to digital TV – which feels a very long time ago – was also completed during the current parliamentary term.

Given this progress, it might seem reasonable to ask whether digital technology should remain a key priority for government over the next five years or whether there are now other issues that it should turn its attention to.

…. it might seem reasonable to ask whether digital technology should remain a key priority for government over the next five years or whether there are now other issues that it should turn its attention to.

It is clear however, that the rapid pace of change in digital technology, the new opportunities that it offers on an almost weekly basis and the transformational potential that it has for public services, the economy and for citizens means that there is more to do than ever if Scotland is to be truly digital nation. Digital isn’t a short-term policy concern – it represents a complete transformation in how society operates and organises. As such, the role of the next Scottish Government in helping to harness the power of this technology for the benefit of people, service providers, companies and charities across Scotland is more important than ever.

There is much that can be done over the next parliamentary session – and many new challenges, opportunities and possibilities that will emerge during that time. But here are some immediate thoughts on the key priorities for the ongoing, growing, digital agenda in Scotland.

Aim for 100% access.

The delivery of telecoms infrastructure to the most rural and remote parts of Scotland has long been a challenge due to issues of geography, topography and population density. The Digital Scotland Superfast programme now in place will deliver fibre broadband to 95% of homes by 2017 – a highly significant step. Work is also underway to test new, innovative technologies with the aim of further enhancing Scotland’s digital networks by the end of the decade. Alongside these major developments it is critical that the ‘final 5%’ of the population, unlikely to be reached by the mainstream programmes, is not left behind. Community Broadband Scotland was set up three years ago to help this very group, supporting rural communities across Scotland to develop their own, viable broadband solutions. The CBS model – which involves both funding and the provision of hands-on financial, technical and engagement advice and support to communities delivered by expert, on-the-ground advisors – is proving to be an approach that works. It is innovative, engaged and has generated interest from policy makers in other parts of the UK. It’s essential that this important work continues to attract support and investment over the next five years.

….we know that up to a fifth of people in Scotland are not online – and as patterns of digital exclusion tend to match those of social exclusion, the digital divide is only serving to reinforce already entrenched inequalities.

Continue to focus on helping all everyone benefit.

The advantages that digital technology can offer for individuals are well established – enhanced employment prospects, higher levels of educational attainment, improved access to public services, cheaper goods and products, new forms of communication and engagement. But we know that up to a fifth of people in Scotland are not online – and as patterns of digital exclusion tend to match those of social exclusion, the digital divide is only serving to reinforce already entrenched inequalities. Tackling this problem is a challenging and critical public policy priority. The Scottish Government’s Let’s Get On digital participation strategy, published in 2014, gave a welcome strategic focus to this question. The establishment of the Digital Participation programme at SCVO to help citizens and charities across Scotland get online goes further by creating for the first time a focused, practical mechanism for addressing this issue on a Scotland-wide basis and the programme is already delivering many positive results. But more investment and support for these activities will be needed in the new parliament. Research by the Tinder Foundation put the cost of achieving universal digital participation in Scotland at £100 million – so it’s clear that investors from the public, private and charitable sectors all have a vital contribution to make to this critical policy agenda.

Drive forward the transformation in public services.

The benefits of increased digitisation of public services have long been recognised, not just in terms of possible savings to the public purse – but more importantly, in the improved flexibility, speed and experience for citizens. However, the digital transformation of services is not straightforward and delivering this agenda is likely to be a key priority over the next five years for public agencies at both national and local level in Scotland, as demonstrated by the recent step up in activity at mygov.scot. Meanwhile, the need for an effective ‘assisted digital’ programme will remain critical for those unable to access digital services directly themselves.

Help grow the digital economy.

Digital technology, of course, is not just transformational for citizens. It also revolutionises business, with huge potential benefits for companies small and large, as well as the wider economy. Previous research by Booz & Co estimated that being a global leader in digitisation could increase the UK’s GDP by up to £63 billion per annum. While such headline figures may have limited relevance for many organisations, there is little doubt about the value that digital can offer to businesses across Scotland, in terms of new delivery channels for goods and services, access to new markets, streamlined supply chains, more efficient stock management procedures, improved productivity and more flexibility in location or operating practice. However, the 2015 Lloyds Business Digital Index estimated that a quarter of SMEs in Scotland lack basic digital skills, such as the ability to send and receive emails or make effective use of search engines. Meanwhile, there is a need to ensure that the Scottish education system properly equips pupils with the skills required for employment in a digital world.

The extent to which these issues become matters of debate at the 2016 election itself remains to be seen – but there appears little doubt that the next five years of government in Scotland is likely to be increasingly digital.

Douglas White, is Head of Advocacy, Carnegie UK Trust

By Douglas White, Head of Advocacy, Carnegie UK Trust

Issue 12

PREVIOUS ISSUES

Looking for a previous issue? Use the menu below to select an issue.