Scotland’s Digital Future: A Strategy for Scotland

A response from CIVIC

On 3 March the Scottish Government launched its new strategic plan for Scotland’s digital future. It will be significant for our communications infrastructure, for how government intends to engage with the Scottish people and for public sector expenditure in Scotland.

The strategy cites a report that puts the average cost of an online transaction at just 8 pence, compared to £10.53 for a face to face transaction or £3.39 for a telephone transaction.

The implication for how the government expects to interface with its citizens in the coming years is clear. In what is expected to be a protracted public sector recession, citizen demand will remain high, while resources become ever more scarce. Where possible, government agencies will be encouraged to bring their services online.

The strategy cites a number of areas in which web applications will play a more significant role: entitlement cards; secure storage and sharing of citizen data; storage and sharing of property data; e-procurement and planning, to name but a few.

At CIVIC we’re enthusiastic about all these things: for the geeky types who work here it has always been more a question of when these developments will take place rather than if, and the pace of change has been frustratingly slow.

And what we’re seeing in Scotland’s new digital strategy is a tentative unfolding of the arms towards, if not quite a vigorous embrace of, open data standards – the idea that publicly accessible data held in robust and structured formats is something that can work for the public good, and help drive innovation in the economy.

And we feel that any attempt to open up data to consumption by third parties has some useful side effects too, like compelling data managers to consider security, long term management, and promote the adoption of rational, easy to understand data structures.

But while a move towards more online transactions is adopted in the strategy, the Scottish Government would appear to have no problem with the implication that there may be 32 local systems developed for the collection of council tax, or the payment of parking fines, or the reporting of minor crime. And that’s a bit odd, because there have been some notable achievements that have seen Local Authorities and government working well together, such as the www.tellmescotland.gov.uk site that delivers information public notices (things like planning and licensing applications) from across Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

Both as tax payers, and web developers we would expect to see a move towards simplification, automation and a reduction in duplication, but this principle is nowhere to be found in the strategy.

CIVIC is also concerned that there is no indictment of the monolithic ICT partnership agreements that have dogged the public sector for years, locking Local Authorities and government agencies into hyper-inflated costs charged by large technology corps. We would like to see more cost transparency on public sector ICT, and we believe this would open the way for more responsive, cost effective solutions form Scotland’s smaller IT firms.

It’s a kind of achievement to write 50 pages of a national Digital Strategy without once mentioning Open Source, and this is disappointing. Open Source – the ability to view and potentially adapt code which you have the right to use because it is either free or available through a license, should surely be a requirement for any Government that is seeking to be in charge of its own destiny.

It’s not just about freedom from corporate control either: the Open Source movement is happily aligned with volunteerism, community and citizenship, ideas which are bandied about a lot elsewhere in government, but not so much in this Digital Strategy.

CIVIC is an independent creative digital agency and has been delivering high profile digital and technical projects in the public and private sector since 2001. Few companies in Scotland today have CIVIC’s strength in combining technology and design into a functional solution. CIVIC’s unique blend of form, function, technology and design enables the agency to make great digital ideas work online. For more information, visit www.civicuk.com

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