The Digital Strategy Review: Why we can’t let this chance slip through our fingers

It’s very rare that a government produces a policy paper that says many of the right things, but the Scottish Government’s review of its Digital Strategy is one of them. Quite rightly, the Scottish Government has identified an immense opportunity for improvement, for all citizens. A potential breakthrough, even. But there’s also a very good […]

It’s very rare that a government produces a policy paper that says many of the right things, but the Scottish Government’s review of its Digital Strategy is one of them.

Quite rightly, the Scottish Government has identified an immense opportunity for improvement, for all citizens. A potential breakthrough, even.

But there’s also a very good chance that this opportunity will still slip through our fingers.

The plus side

First, let’s take a look at the plus side. On top of ensuring that all organisations, both public and private, rethink their operating models to embrace the economic opportunities by ‘going digital’, the Strategy Review identifies many things that need to happen if digital technologies are to work to benefit citizens and society as well as the economy as a whole. Its checklist of goals include the intention to:

  • Balance and sustain economic, social and environmental wellbeing. We know this work has the potential to contribute strongly to the National Performance Framework
  • Reinvent our public services to make them more personal, accountable, adaptable, efficient, sustainable and worthy of public trust;
  • Ensure the third sector is supported in developing digital capabilities and introducing new digital business models;
  • Safeguard and enhance wellbeing through the greater use of digital technology;
  • Incorporate green thinking into all digital solutions
  • Be open and ethical in working with others to meet new moral, environmental, regulatory and security concerns.

The Paper talks of promoting economic and societal resilience and ensuring fairness, equity and inclusivity, including participation in community and democracy, and accessibility by all – where no-one is unable to participate because of poverty.

It seeks simple and easy to use public services which ‘collaborate to deliver end-to-end service journeys to boost people’s wellbeing’ and which are proactive (for example enabling automatic entitlement without individuals needing to claim themselves, and prevention/early intervention).

And, of course, it seeks high ethical standards to protect personal privacy, give people control of their personal information and ensure transparency.

So what’s not to like?

Three pitfalls

What’s not to like is that while this Review is long on excellent intentions, it is short on practical ways to realise them.

It risks opening up a huge gap between word and deed, the danger being that excellent intentions fail to materialise because key issues and challenges are overlooked and not confronted.

Three such challenges stand out in particular.

  1. Tech fixation

First, in one sense, the title says it all. The government is reviewing its digital strategy. This phrase has an instant agenda-setting effect: it frames the question, and therefore the answers, in terms of the deployment of technology. The review is fair in the way it addresses ways in which technologies impact peoples’ lives (for good or ill) but it largely misses the critical tissue that connects them: data.

Most of the impacts the review talks about don’t relate directly to technologies per se. They relate to how data is collected and used.

To address these impacts, Scotland doesn’t just need a digital strategy, it needs a strategy that addresses the connecting tissue between technology and people: it needs a data strategy. In particular it needs a strategy that nails critical issues relating to personal data: who should have the power to do what with personal data, in what circumstances, using what processes?

Unfortunately, the review doesn’t even ask these questions, which means its chances of providing good answers are slim.

2. System design and structural flaws

Second, the review ignores a very large elephant in the room: structural flaws in how data is currently collected, used and shared. Flaws which:

a) Create many of the problems we experience today (including invasions of privacy, imbalances of power and reward, social exclusion, and systemic, endemic inefficiencies);

b) Which represent a central obstacle to the Scottish Government’s ability to realise most if not all of its laudable goals.

The structural elephant in the room is this: currently, large organisations have de facto monopoly control over how our society collects and uses data. The way these organisations work – via a series of separate, isolated, often competing data castles, each doing its best to hoard as much data as it can – creates fundamental structural obstacles to the safe, efficient, fair, inclusive, wellbeing-oriented data economy the Scottish Government wants to build. Quite simply, if this centralised, organisation-dominated structure remains intact, none of the Government’s laudable goals – especially relating to fairness, equity and inclusion but also efficiency, reduced duplication of effort and innovation – can possibly be realised.

The ‘organisation-centric’ nature of today’s status quo is nobody’s fault. It’s how the system evolved. But like the chick inside the egg, the collection and use of data needs to break free of its original limitations if its full potential is to be unleashed.

We need new and different data infrastructure, not to replace existing organisational centres of expertise which have their purposes, but to transform their role and function. In particular, we need new data infrastructure that:

  • Turns today’s series of isolated, separate, moated data castles into a safe, efficient, trust-building data sharing network – a mesh – so that everybody who needs to access data for bona fide purposes (for beneficial service provision, not exploitation) can do so.
  • This data-sharing network needs to empower citizens as active participants in the system with their own agency. 
  • Citizens also need to have the practical ability and power to collect, store and use their own data for their own purposes and they need to be able to exercise control over who has access to their data for what purposes. 
  • This doesn’t just create a counter-balance to concentrations of corporate data power, it creates new person-centric data assets of immense value and potential.

Without such a citizen-centred data sharing infrastructure it is hard to see how even a tiny fraction of what the Scottish Government says it wants can be achieved.

Yet, unfortunately, the Review doesn’t even entertain the thought of such a possibility.

3. Join the dots! Please!

In times of crisis, people naturally want to launch initiatives to address pressing issues. But if we are not careful we risk suffering from initiative overload, where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and where too many cooks end up spoiling the broth.

It looks like this may already be happening with this Review, because another arm of Government – Digital Identity Scotland – has already noticed the importance of data and has already identified the need for such a citizen-centric infrastructure, and has already launched a procurement to start building it.

Yet, the Review doesn’t refer to this procurement or any of the work leading up to it.

Have your say

The Review has only just launched. The deadline for submitting responses is Christmas Eve, so there is plenty of time to read it and contribute. To repeat: it is indeed rare for a Government policy statement to potentially set the nation on the right direction.

This needs full support, especially when the forces in favour of protecting the status quo are so powerful. But it needs more than support.

It needs insight into ways to actually make it happen. Get your thinking caps on!