Interview: Colin Cook, Scottish Government acting director of digital

Colin Cook, the Scottish Government’s acting director of digital, says that the devolution of powers from Westminster presents opportunities to build digital-first services.

Cook highlights standardisation of government payment processes as an area for attention – Photo credit: Scottish Government

Colin Cook starts 2017 determined to set standards in his new role. The ability of those delivering digital public services to meet them may well determine whether he finishes the year in the same post.

“We’ve got to embed an assurance process that has real teeth around the management of digital and ICT programmes,” the Scottish Government’s acting director of digital says.

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“I will be working very closely with Anne Moises, the chief information officer, to really embed that and the digital first standards that underpin it.”

In essence a set of criteria – 22 to be exact – has been drawn up with the intention of guaranteeing a minimum standard when it comes to the development of digital services.

“They’ll ensure there is a clear understanding of user needs and that they’re reflected in the way services have been designed and developed,” says Cook, who was head of the digital public services and business transformation division within the Scottish Government until former digital director Mike Neilson departed for Brussels in November 2016.

“And yes it will give us the opportunity to stop projects if they’re not fulfilling a clear user need and being developed appropriately – that is absolutely essential.

“The Government Digital Service down south have operated with a very similar set of standards – I think ours are slightly broader, but they’re a very similar approach.

“I think it has borne fruit in terms of driving forward their digital public services agenda and I am really looking forward to seeing it implemented in Scotland.”

As a starting position the criteria, known officially as the Digital First Service Standard, will be compulsory for all central government digital public services and internal Scottish Government corporate systems, although Cook believes local government could follow suit.

“I do think we’ve got the basis of something they will look at and see whether it makes sense for them,” he says.

It is no secret government’s reputation for delivering big IT projects well suffered in 2016, largely as a result of the fiasco that was the CAP Futures programme.

That much Sarah Davidson, the director general for communities, acknowledged to PublicTechnology’s sister publication Holyrood in November.

Audit Scotland found “little accountability in the programme for IT delivery” and that “programme planning was consistently optimistic”, just two in a long list of less than positive findings.

“Sarah said we’ve obviously learnt from our past experiences,” adds Cook. “They [the standards] represent good practice so I hope we would have introduced something very similar anyway because I think it is professionally the right thing to do.

“But clearly the Scottish Government and other governments have learned from the past and this is about making sure the processes we follow are the best they possibly can be and the tightest they possibly can be going forward.”

Cook describes further devolution of powers from a UK level as a “huge opportunity”, pointing to the “greenfield opportunity to build services in a digital first way” that the devolution of social security powers to Holyrood presents.

However, given the problems that hampered the payment of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies, Cook could be forgiven for feeling an added sense of pressure in his new role.

“I think we’re always under pressure to show we manage public finances appropriately and we spend public money wisely,” he says.

“If you look at some of the other things we’re doing in Scotland, I’ve just come back this morning from the CivTech project, which was part of my old division – it’s now part of the new directorate – that’s an entirely new and different way of engaging with the private sector and bringing their expertise to bear.

“So we are already showing we are prepared to learn and innovate. But I take my responsibilities for how we use public sector money very seriously, as all civil servants do, and the introduction of an assurance process with teeth will hopefully strengthen the way in which we work.”

That much was publicly questioned in the same month Cook took up his new role following reports more than £5.3m had been spent on the Scottish Government’s ‘digital ecosystem’.

It prompted one MSP to claim “the Scottish Government has seen it fit to throw millions at a project that hardly seems essential”. Why should it be considered as such?

“Well the digital ecosystem is about developing common ways of working, standardising processes, simplifying them, supporting them with common technologies,” says Cook.

“Now that has a number of benefits. Firstly it makes it easier for people to engage with us because they become more familiar with the ways in which government operates and how they apply for things and engage with government.

“Secondly it makes it quicker, easier and I believe more efficient for us to build services because rather than reinventing the wheel we can pull upon components of a service that have already been developed and they’re being built or procured once for Scotland not multiple times.

“Ultimately it’s about the efficiency of our public services and that’s why it’s an investment worth making… It’s far more than a series of new websites, fundamentally it’s about the way in which public services are delivered and the public sector operates.

“We’re looking, for example, at how we pay out money across the public sector.

“Now, if you can get a common process for doing that and you support that by a common technology, this is something that happens in multiple places and in different ways and if we can bring all that together, then I’m sure you can see both how you can improve the efficiency of the process itself but also improve the management information and the performance-metric information that goes around it. That can only be a good thing for the public sector.”

Cook and his colleagues are now looking for a director to expand its CivTech digital public services accelerator scheme.

Very little about the pilot, which reached its conclusion last week, appears to fit with what one might expect of a programme run by government.

“It is worth remembering it was our initiative, it was something that was set up by government and it shows we can do things differently,” he says.

“The great thing is different parts of government are going into CivTech, having a look and learning from it and that’s hugely important because all parts of government are trying to build their understanding of digital, trying to find new and different ways of operating.

“If we can take people into a live example of how different practices, different ways of thinking, different ways of managing projects, different ways of engaging with the private sector are actually working in practice then the learning opportunities are huge.”

Of course, spend on such projects in their infancy pales in comparison to the big-ticket items, rollout of superfast broadband being the main one.

Ministers have vowed to deliver 100 per cent superfast coverage by 2021 following an initial £412m investment to reach 95 per cent of premises by the end of this year.

Community Broadband Scotland was established to help reach the most remote, rural communities, although concerns continue to be aired that parts of the country are being left behind.

“If you look at what we’ve done over the past few years, we set a target, we said we would deliver to 95 per cent of people by the end of 2017, we’ve hit the interim target and we’re on track to meet that 2017 target,” says Cook.

“If you judge us by our past record in that respect, we have a professional project team under Sara Budge [Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme director] and we’re delivering against it.”

Cook stresses the 2021 target “will be at the heart” of a new digital strategy that is due to be published next month.

“The reason the current programme is designed the way it is, is we wanted to create a spine of fibre across the country and the whole country that would enable us to build, provided the backhaul for other services and provided the underpinning for new and different technologies,” he says.

“That was a very deliberate decision, that’s why we provided so many undersea cables to bring in island communities for the first time as an early part of the contract.

“Right from the beginning we’ve recognised that what the Scottish Government can do with its partners particularly in local government is invest in the fibre spine and to take that out to areas where commercial deployment would not have gone on its own.

We have been very successful at that and I do think we have created the basis of our future connectivity whatever forms those take.”

Cook will oversee that until the summer at least, after being handed the top role for up to six months in the first instance. The window may be short but he is clear on his priorities.

“Externally I have to make sure we put in place a really robust process for project assurance, because we need to have tough standards and we need to apply them and we need to demonstrate the benefits of having those things in place. That will be number one.

“And then secondly looking internally at the way in which I run my team.

“I have some huge talent across the digital directorate and I just want to make sure it’s as well integrated as it might be, bring some of the new elements of the digital directorate in with some of the teams that run the internal systems and make that a really powerful, potent force for change going forward.”

Cook remains diplomatic, though, on his own position going forward.

“That’s a matter for the director general and the civil service [to decide],” he responds, when asked if he wants the digital director role on a permanent basis.

“I just want to do the best I can in this period at the moment.”

Colin Marrs

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