Digital cannot deliver transformation if it is just a platform for bad policy

Neil McEvoy of Digital Scotland explains why country’s new social security programme is a change for technology and policy to unite to make a difference

Scotland is now in process of transitioning eleven new social security powers being delegated to the Scottish Parliament from Westminster to implement locally.

For the country and the SNP Government, this is a truly defining moment. Not only does it embody their vision that Scotland differentiates itself as a more socially conscious and compassionate nation, but it will also demonstrate their ability to run large-scale government systems. If it goes wrong, it throws into question their ability to run an entire country and thus their inherent capability for independence.

The risk is also accompanied by an equally large opportunity. 

Scotland is pioneering an integrated approach to health and social care, a common-sense agenda that recognises the interconnected nature of social needs and challenges. Those in poverty experience greater ill health, and so better, early intervention to address those issues will decrease pressure and costs for healthcare while also boosting the economy and improving the lives of those individuals.

Proving tangible social outcomes from this approach will offer the world an exemplar of how noble beliefs coupled with an effective system design does work, that more socially progressive policies achieves a better, more cost-efficient government while also living higher socialist ideals.

The critical success factor is the ‘integrated’ dimension. Operating within closed siloes is still the primary challenge today that government organisations struggle with, explicitly reported on by Scotland’s Auditor General, who described that ‘Disjointed IT is holding back care integration in Scotland’.

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The Scottish NHS has just awarded a contract to three suppliers to provide GPs with online IT services. But will this simply create another isolated silo? 

The Auditor General highlighted that the root issue is a lack of sharing information between existing systems, not the need for new ones, and supporting reports identified immature APIs and a lack of data sharing agreements as the primary bottlenecks and roadblocks.

Hence the integrated health and social agenda is such an important policy because ultimately it requires all of government to work in a joined-up manner.

Local authorities also deliver some parts of social care services – for example, one key function for the new social security powers is Employment Support, and as this RFP tender shows, councils like East Renfrewshire are also commissioning and delivering services for the same purpose.

So, the challenge is how will these synthesise together, how does Scotland avoid these becoming yet more duplicated, disconnected siloes, costing taxpayers more but achieving less for them?

Transformational Digital Government
This leads us into the consideration of what exactly is transformational digital government.

The technology strategy for implementing the devolved powers is documented here, a programme led by directorate CDO Andy McClintock. It tells a great story, one of agile, user-centric delivery that has become the default expectation of government IT these days. But that alone won’t achieve a transformed social security system.

The former Department for Work and Pensions digital chief Mayank Prakash has described how the department’s technology overhaul as the largest successful IT transformation in Europe. However, it’s well documented how the actual Universal Credit policy has been a monumental failure, the biggest since the poll tax and central to an exploding rise in food bank poverty and inhumane suffering for many people.

Of course, you can distinguish between policy and its IT implementation – and argue that the latter can be considered a success if it achieves what is asked of it. And it would be entirely unfair to scapegoat IT for the failures of policymakers.

However, if Scotland were to repeat the same philosophy we too would have a great digital platform that implements a terrible policy – and by no means can that be thought of as a success for the people of Scotland.

Therefore, we must define it not as simply the successful digitisation and automation of online services, but as a capability that is truly able to transform the lives of our citizens. It must function to reduce homelessness, to alleviate suffering and hardship, to provide practical, tangible solutions for helping people back into work, and not simply shift the administrative management of poorly designed policies north of the border.

That’s a much bigger, more complex challenge. But one I believe the nation of Scotland is ready and willing to embrace and achieve.

Sam Trendall

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