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Place digital at the heart of public service reform

Our new report focusing on the digital transformation of public services in Scotland has highlighted the need to accelerate the pace of change to ensure Scotland reaps the opportunities offered by new technologies.

The report: ‘Smart Citizens, Smart City Regions – Delivering Digital Public Services in Scotland’ has been published by Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), ScotlandIS, The Royal Society of Edinburgh and BT Scotland and calls for distinct and high level leadership through a newly-created Digital Leader for Scotland role.

A digital leadership role would provide a driving force and would report to the Scottish Cabinet to ensure that digital transformation gets the high level support and oversight needed to make it successful.

  • The Digital Leader for Scotland would lead Scotland’s digital transformation, driving public and private data sharing which will underpin the development of new and more targeted public services.
  • The Digital Leader would create a compelling vision for Digital Scotland and ensure that progress is tracked. The ultimate ambition in transforming Scotland’s public services is that the process and outcome will contribute to economic growth through enhanced productivity of public services.
  • Public service productivity lags that of the private sector and digital transformation could offer a solution to help see Scotland increase productivity as a critical driver of long-term economic growth and higher living standards in Scotland. 

The report acknowledges that change due to technology will be a constant process but warns of the need to get up to speed now to maintain a steady position in the future. Infrastructure rollout has presented some enormous challenges for Scotland but these are steadily being overcome. There will be a need to apply new thinking around how citizens use services and how data led service design will change the way in which Scotland’s public sector delivers in order to offer more targeted and efficient services in the future. 

Polly Purvis, CEO, ScotlandIS

“Despite a stated political commitment in Scotland to deliver a new generation of digital public services, this is proving difficult to deliver quickly and at scale and Scotland risks being uncompetitive with respect to other nations.

That commitment needs to be driven through to the delivery organisations and effective adoption will result in improved services and significant efficiencies, enabling citizens to interact with government, as they do with the private sector, at a time and place of their choosing.

As this new generation of services is developed, utilising the large number of small and medium sized (SME) digital companies in Scotland with innovative ideas can be of real benefit to the public sector. If encouraged and supported they can deliver fresh ideas quickly and at competitive prices. The CivTech pilot accelerator has been an encouraging step highlighting new ways to harness the innovation that start-ups and SMEs can bring.  We now need collectively to build on the existing engagement between the public sector and the SME community and increase that cooperation significantly.”

The report makes a number of recommendations on how to support Scotland and its citizens on the digital journey. It has been estimated that digital transformation in Scotland could see savings of £130million to £200million based on savings calculated for transformation at a UK level.

The recommendations in the report focus on these key areas:  Leadership, the Pace of Change, Digital Skills within the Public Sector and Education.


  • The Scottish Government should appoint a high-profile Digital Leader for Scotland to lead Scotland’s digital transformation: to drive public and private data sharing; devise and project a compelling vision for Digital Scotland; progress action towards this vision; and contribute to economic growth through enhanced productivity of public services.
  • The Scottish Government, working with local authorities, should devise a set of metrics that allow for annual benchmarking of performance against the Digital Scotland vision. An annual ministerial announcement of progress would demonstrate leadership commitment.
  • The Scottish public sector must build a relationship of trust with citizens that will underpin faster rollout of digital public services and put citizens in control of their digital lives. The development of a trusted ‘data bank’ mechanism that covers data collection, sharing and storage of personal data of citizens will require top-level leadership.

 Pace of Change

  • An audit of local authority functions and public services such as health and policing should be conducted by the service leaders, the recently appointed local authority Chief Digital Officer and Scotland’s Digital Leader to assess the impact of digital transformation on employment and to identify and prioritise the services that can be digitalised most easily and/or that will result in greatest impact.
  • Public service providers must acknowledge that some people will simply never be able to manage their lives in a digital way, so there is a need to create a central complex needs or extra help unit that works across all services to support non-digital service users.
  • To drive the behavioural changes required to make digital public services the channel of choice among users, the Scottish Government should create a programme of citizen digital champions: people who regularly use public services to support their needs and with whom other users can identify.  These champions can tell the story of their experience and provide reassurance to those about to start their own journey.

Digital Skills within the Public Sector

  • The Scottish Government, working with local authorities and other public bodies, should establish a digital workforce development programme (similar to the Digital Champions model for top-level officials) that actively supports public sector staff at all levels to invest in their own digital understanding and skills, and apply these to the workplace.
  • The creation of a ‘Public Sector Digital MBA’ would create a pool of talent operating across both technology design and user needs analysis. This should be a flexible programme where individuals would undertake secondments across multiple organisations to progress and advise them on their own digital journeys.


  • The Scottish Government must provide high-level leadership to demonstrate the priority that should be given to embedding digital skills across the school curriculum, and to computing science as a core science. It should work closely with education and industry stakeholders to support and build on current successful initiatives and to further develop close partnership between the private and education sectors.

Digital is here and it can be an enabler, but we need public sector leaders in Scotland to light the way. 

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