Issue 1: December 2011

WIRING UP THE SCOTTISH PUBLIC SECTOR

By Prof. Richard Kerley

Like most governments here and elsewhere, the Scottish Government has found great value in turning to expert advice on challenges that face Scotland. One of the 'go to people' of the past few years has been John McClelland CBE, former IBM, Digital and Philips person, Chair of the Scottish Funding Council; a driving force behind the greater systemisation of procurement and tendering in the public services, and most recently the author of a major review of ICT Infrastructure in the public sector: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/06/15104329/0

He’s been a candid friend and stern critic and has acknowledged many of the achievements of public service organisations. His recent report will clearly have a major impact in government and other public organisations.

The report on ICT, published earlier this year and therefore some months before the recent GovCamp took place, takes an interesting perspective. Although the brief for McClelland was fairly functional, directed at '...the strategic management of investment', he has taken a far wider view of the purpose that ICT can serve in society. This was itself an interesting departure for an IT industry lifer, whose advice on procurement has been criticised by some as being formalised in tone and leading to over-mechanistic processes.

In discussing Digital Scotland, McClelland has taken a wider and more visionary view than he could have done – a view wider and more visionary than he was asked to do by the government. When he spoke about his work on the ICT project to the Scottish Parliament he contrasted different views of how better ‘wiring’ might help Scotland and the Scottish public services.

The first aspect was functional - and he went on to identify key opportunities there - "The report commented on ICT’s benefits, which fall into two important areas. Perhaps the more traditional purpose is supporting internal efficiency, enabling productivity and supporting the operations of public sector enterprises and bodies effectively“.

However he also emphasised to the Parliament Finance Committee that while this might be sufficient in some settings, this alone was not wide reaching enough for government and society -

“The second purpose, which is very important and perhaps offers the public sector a unique opportunity, is improving service quality and in particular access to services through the use of ICT. The two areas, then, are efficiency and productivity and quality and access.

In the report, I included a short vision for what I classified as a digital public sector. I emphasised that that should be citizen driven, should respond to citizen needs and expectations and should be citizen-centric. A citizen is also a patient and an employee, and businesses are part and parcel of using and receiving public services.”

In the report, I included a short vision for what I classified as a digital public sector. I emphasised that that should be citizen driven, should respond to citizen needs and expectations and should be citizen-centric. A citizen is also a patient and an employee, and businesses are part and parcel of using and receiving public services

The detail of the study is at face value highly persuasive, though inevitably, and as is often the case with such reports, fine grained discussion of the ‘what and why‘ of some eye-brow raising legacy arrangements is rarely shown. It discusses some very successful developments, but also points out that there are areas of public service IT weakness in both conception and practice. At the heart of his criticism and therefore implicitly something to be addressed in further action is the yearning for self-sufficiency. That is, the extent to which many public service organisations, despite common features; the same legal framework and common functions, not only often insist on self-sufficiency but also sometimes fail to share practice and experience (whether good or bad) as often as they might. He describes this as ‘stand alone self-sufficiency‘ with public service organisations in Scotland estimated to have more than 120 data centres or similar organisational units.

McLelland, in short, itemises across the whole landscape of the public services areas of overlap, shortfall, and sometimes simple failure to effectively use collective strength to get better results from suppliers who take a substantial part of the budgets allocated to public service ICT. The extent of this varies across functions, but the report cites one supplier that has applications in 28 of the 32 councils in Scotland and there appears to be no co-ordinated approach to dealing with that supplier. Similarly, in relatively confined application areas, 11 councils have the same revenues and benefits system and 19 have the same customer relations management system; again no apparent co-ordination of purchase or support. Clearly there will be ad hoc, often informal, contacts across council boundaries but such a range of un-coordinated common purchases does suggest that some IT suppliers may be getting an easier time of it than they should otherwise do.

In Health services the position is somewhat better with shared services provided through the National Services Scotland Board, which runs applications and systems common to functions in all health boards. Despite this, as the report observes “...each board has its own standalone ICT function including some local development and self–sufficient data processing facilities.”

The ‘efficiency ‘ aspect of his report clearly contains a powerful message - whether it will voluntarily be heeded by the organisations and people who maintain those 120 + data centres is something we’ll have to watch with interest. The key issue is how to achieve organisational motivation to make changes and make – quite considerable – savings, probably with better outputs.

The ‘Vision for a Digital Public Sector‘ is interesting, both for its sweep and breadth of ambition, and also for some aspects that are inadequately acknowledged. The way in which the routines of daily or weekly life could be improved if we achieved all the McClelland ambitions are significant. All routine transactions with public bodies completed through the net, a single citizen portal as the entry route for enquiries about all public services, smart home care for older people, telemedicine, a common ‘smart card‘ for facilities and services from sports centres to concessionary transport, scans and X-rays transmitted through the ether in days or even hours. Fascinating - quite readily achievable - and yet in some ways not addressing some legitimate concerns and worries.

The common citizenship card that would enable us to do so many different things and gain access to so many different services is not so different from the Identity Card project expensively promoted and pursued by the last Labour government and scrapped by the Coalition. McClelland does not suggest compulsion (nor would he of course) but he simply does not mention this as an issue. What we overlook, partly because it is such a benign benefit, is that access to concessionary transport in Scotland now requires the possession and presentation of a compulsory identification card. Now I am relaxed about that (and I have to declare an interest here) but we should not overlook the publicly unacknowledged capacity for that nice helpful piece of plastic with photograph to monitor where we travel and when.

In some ways more importantly, which is referred to and discussed in the report though not at length, is that not enough sector attention is given to the implications of class differentiated digital penetration in Scotland. Although broadband access is available to the overwhelming majority of areas and homes in Scotland, actual domestic broadband access is still lagging. The number of homes that have and use the kind of kit I have written this on and you are reading it on is stuck at between 6 and 7 in every 10 homes. There are many hundreds of thousands of people for whom the digital dispatch of their X-rays is possible; they just have no means of receiving those same X-rays except in the local library, community centre, or internet cafe. Not a good environment to open up potentially very bad news.

To be fair, John McClelland wasn’t asked to review 'digital participation' but he did. As importantly, both technically and financially he has given the 'supply side' a critical review and some recommendations that demand consideration by every organisation and decision maker who is engaged in hoping and helping to build Digital Scotland.
       

By Prof. Richard Kerley

Issue 1: December 2011

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