Issue 1: December 2011

INCREASING DIGITAL PARTICIPATION LEVELS IN SCOTLAND - WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN NEXT?

By Martin Sloan, Associate, Technology, Information and Outsourcing Group, Brodies LLP

GovCamp Scotland - what needs to happen next?

Last month's GovCamp Scotland conference concluded with the signing of a charter by the Scottish Government and a number of key public and private sector bodies, which committed those bodies them to bring together their collective skills and resources to increase digital participation levels in Scotland. The conference followed on from high profile reviews of ICT in Scotland, such as the McClelland review of ICT infrastructure in the public sector (published in June this year), and last year's Digital Scotland Report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Although the Scottish Government's ability to legislate in this area is limited, there are a number of areas where it can take a lead on policy and provide funding to encourage participation in the digital society.

ICT in the public sector

Whilst a number of examples of effective ICT innovation in the public sector are highlighted in the McClelland report, it makes clear that public bodies are some way behind the private sector in the adopting ICT. It highlights opportunities for greater collaboration between public sector bodies to procure and operate ICT jointly. In particular, McClelland identifies a number of areas where a large number of local authorities or colleges use the same package or system, but are not procuring or hosting that system jointly, leading to inefficiencies. This confirms the findings of a survey of 39 local authority chief executives and finance officers carried out for Brodies by Ipsos MORI last year.

At present, collaboration through shared services is far from common, although the majority of respondents agree that collaborative working, shared services and outsourcing will increase over the next few years. Interestingly, the main fears about outsourcing identified by the Brodies/Ipsos MORI survey are lack of accountability and governance. However, these fears are perhaps unfounded as accountability and governance are the principles that should be at the very core of an effective outsourcing contract.

The Scottish Government has a key role to play in encouraging greater collaboration and efficiency. This could be through the development of best practice guidance in areas such as governance and disseminating information about what has worked well in practice, calling perhaps on experience in other jurisdictions. Additionally the Scottish Government might encourage wider discussion on alternatives to capital investment in new shared platforms such as revenue funded service provision and cloud computing.

Infrastructure

If the aims of the GovCamp Scotland charter are to be achieved, it is essential that the public sector, businesses and citizens have access to fast broadband links.

A recent Analysys Mason report shows that Scotland is lagging behind Wales in the race to roll out fast internet access. Whilst fibre to the cabinet (if not fibre to the premises) is now available in large parts of Edinburgh, Glasgow and other urban areas, it is clear that the wider roll out of broadband connectivity will require substantial public assistance. This does not require a change in legislation but simply sufficient funding to help telecoms providers put in place the necessary infrastructure.

The recent news that BT and Commendium are the last men standing in relation to the procurement process for Highlands and Islands Enterprise's Broadband Delivery UK funded broadband pilot confirms that the business case for parts of rural Scotland does not currently stack up for potential rivals such as Cable & Wireless and Fujitsu. If the hurdle is the access charge for BT's ducts and poles infrastructure, then the Scottish Government needs to lobby OFCOM to ensure that these charges are set at a rate that does not have an adverse impact upon broadband roll out and competition.

The McClelland report highlights the inefficiencies within the many different telecoms networks operated by various parts of the public sector, where multiple, often overlapping systems exist for education, health, the police and local government.

The McClelland report highlights the inefficiencies within the many different telecoms networks operated by various parts of the public sector, where multiple, often overlapping systems exist for education, health, the police and local government. Both McClelland and the Digital Scotland report propose that these networks are better utilised by creating a single network that reduces the amount of so called "dark fibre" (unused capacity on a network). Such a network would help build a high speed backbone for Scotland, which could be further developed through the use of initiatives such as tax incremental financing (TIF) and the Scottish Futures Trust's non profit distribution model. Such a network may help to make upgrades to the final mile more commercially attractive.

Digital inclusion

With the exception of discussions on the need for improved broadband connectivity, one area that, sadly, was not addressed in detail at GovCamp Scotland was the importance of e-inclusion. As we become increasingly dependent upon services delivered through digital channels, it is critical that sections of society are not excluded from participating or benefiting from the digital economy.

From a social perspective, this means ensuring that those unable to afford computers or internet connections can access computers and internet kiosks that are publicly available, for example by using libraries, schools and community halls to provide a central hub in each community. As local authorities seek to rationalise their assets, local accessibility may come under increased threat unless the reconfiguration of service provision takes account of digital inclusion, particularly where a lack of public sector provision will result in social exclusion.

However, inclusion is also about accessibility, in particular the usability and accessibility of digital services amongst the elderly and people with disabilities, where poor design can cause users to encounter difficulties when using websites or mobile apps. Here, the Equality Act 2010 and the recently published British Standard for commissioning accessible websites have a strong role to play in ensuring that service providers (whoever they may be) make their services accessible to users with disabilities.

For those in the public sector, the proactive Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act means that public bodies should not simply be making their existing online services accessible, but should also be at the vanguard of utilising the web and mobile apps in innovative ways to deliver information and services that disabled citizens traditionally find difficult to use. For example, publishing information in an accessible electronic format (which will reduce the need to print in Braille or large print), or allowing citizens to transact online where previously a service had to be carried out in person/by paper.

Such steps would benefit citizens as a whole, as accessible design generally also means better usability and compatibility with different devices, such as tablets, kiosks and internet enabled TVs, which is key given the move away from the PC as the principal means of accessing the internet.

The missing signatory

The most notable absentee from the list of signatories to the GovCamp Scotland Charter was the Westminster government.

Whilst Holyrood can legislate, provide funding for, and support initiatives in a number of areas such as economic development and local government - following the UK government's lead on opening up access to public sector data, and improving ICT education within schools - many key areas are reserved to Westminster. For example, the regulation of broadcasting and telecommunications; mandating the use of smart meters by utilities providers; intellectual property rights (for example, implementing the findings of the recent Hargreaves Review); data protection and access to information and even the public lending right are matters outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

If the digital society is to flourish, it is critical that - in the absence of constitutional change or further devolved responsibility to the Scottish Government - Holyrood and businesses with an interest in the Scottish market work together to lobby Westminster (and, increasingly, Europe) to ensure that the legislative framework helps to promote, rather than stifle digital development in Scotland. Perhaps the GovCamp Scotland charter will provide the forum to allow this to happen.

On the 6th December the Scottish Government published its Infrastructure Investment Plan. The plan sets out targets for the roll out of broadband in Scotland, and acknowledges a number of recommendations of the McClelland Report. The Plan states that detailed proposals (including how the plans will be funded) will be published by the Scottish Government in early 2012.

Martin Sloan blogs regularly at http://techblog.brodies.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @lawyer_martin. Email: martin.sloan@brodies.com
          

By Martin Sloan, Associate, Technology, Information and Outsourcing Group, Brodies LLP

Issue 1: December 2011

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