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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

NI, Wales and Scotland are setting their own agendas for govtech

The digital chiefs of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland all took to the stage at Sprint 19 on Thursday (20 September), where they explained that collaboration with each other, as well as with the Government Digital Service (GDS) was crucial to their digital transformation efforts, and that with some projects they are now not just following the lead of GDS or the UK government as a whole, but are in fact leading the way.

Caron Alexander, director of digital shares services of the Northern Ireland civil service, shared the stage with Colin Cook, director digital, Scottish government, and Caren Fullerton chief digital officer of the Welsh government. All three have slightly different roles; while Alexander’s role covers digital transformation and IT, Cook’s role also focuses on digital productivity – incorporating the country’s broadband programme. Fullerton meanwhile is primarily focused on delivering services to staff, but also works on delivering services to the public and advises ministers on digital policy.

All three have been working on their own versions of some GDS services, such as their own country’s versions of the GOV.UK platform. In addition, they have essentially been preparing themselves for the years ahead by getting their IT infrastructure to the standards necessary.

“We’ve been on a similar journey to GDS in Scotland, with the difference being that we didn’t have a slew of services that were designed after 1945, as we’re a relatively new national government we didn’t have a lot of things needing to be reinvented, so it was more about how to prepare the government for new services that we can take on,” said Cook.

Meanwhile, the Welsh government has taken an “insourcing” approach to its IT and moved all of its systems to the cloud, including a desktop transformation project for its staff.

“It was about fixing the plumbing, giving us the opportunity to transform ourselves to develop systems… we’re adopting digital, data and technology (DDaT) capabilities and also delivering new services like our cloud-based, bi-lingual digital tax system,” Fullerton explained.

Another big project the Welsh government has been working on is the expansion of digital schools initiative Hwb – which has had some criticism over the last few years. Fullerton said that the platform is shifting from an information-based system to a service-based delivery platform to help students.

Alexander gives the example of Northern Ireland’s new online schools admissions system, which enables parents to apply online for pre-school or primary school places, as proof of a digital change project which the country has had success with; it launched in January this year.

While all three digital leaders and their teams have learnt a lot from GDS, they have also learnt from each other.

In fact, Fullerton said that the three digital chiefs and their teams often meet without GDS involvement.

“We have so much in common and we can learn from each other’s services. We had a conversation last week about the digital economy and digital health – and Colin has responsibility for some aspects of both of those things and so do I. There aren’t many other people that have those things. We also both have a shared records system with an interesting Australian supplier and so we’re working out how we can transform our use of that together,” she said.

Cook said that his team have looked at the shared services elements of both Northern Ireland and Wales governments to learn best practice in certain areas, in the same way that the Scottish government also learns from the private sector.

“I hope the same goes for our relationship with GDS where it gets away from random benchmarking where we turn up once and then we come back, and instead get to a much more natural way of working with each other,” Cook said.

All three digital chiefs also want to go from following the lead of other organisations, including GDS, to becoming leaders in their own right.

Alexander suggested that this is already the case but that their teams need to communicate this to the public more often, while Cook believes that now is the time to show that by producing projects and ways of working that others use as a template.

“Digital is about breaking down barriers and working in different ways, and I think we’re doing things in Scotland, or are going to do things in Scotland, which if we work in a different way could actually be picked up by GDS and taken forward by GDS, or by DWP or by other parts of the UK government – this is what we should be trying to do,” he said.