It's been a while since Scotland had something resembling a national strategy for public sector ICT. In the early 2000s it had the 21st Century Government Unit and the Modernising Government Fund provided money for workstreams such as data standards, smartcards, a national land and property database, e-procurement and various customer contact initiatives. More recently, although there have been fresh initiatives, there has been no one office to co-ordinate the effort and no national framework for progress.
But the Scottish Government is now looking to build a fresh momentum. The Department for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth commissioned the McClelland Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector, received the document in July and published its response document in September. The latter effectively provides the beginnings of a strategy, to be fully developed by spring of next year, to provide a more coherent approach to the development of public sector ICT over the next few years.
It is starting from a position in which, according to the McClelland report, the country's public sector has been relatively slow to adopt new technologies. A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government says this reflects a preference for technologies that have already proven they are reliable and cost-effective.
"There has been no history of automatic uptake of the latest technology offering, software release or new hardware offering, nor investment in technology for technology's sake," she says. "New technologies are evaluated on how they can support the public sector and only if a sound business and investment case can be made are these progressed, procured and implemented.
"This means that there are few public sector organisations who would claim to be 'early adopters' of new offerings, but the McClelland review does identify a number of initiatives and projects that are aimed at the opportunities that technology-driven advancement brings."
She adds that the public sector can increase the take-up of relatively new technologies, but that spending on these has to be set against other demands on tight budgets.
Writing in the foreword of the response, John Swinney, the cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth, emphasises the importance of integrated and shared deployment of systems, and ties it to the country's wider ambitions for high speed broadband set out in the Digital Strategy for Scotland. This is reflected in two of the key features of the new governance arrangements: a Public Service Reform Board with responsibility for reform, ICT and digital public services, and reporting to it a Public Sector ICT Industry Board involving large suppliers and SMEs.
It appears that the reform board will not concentrate solely on ICT but the broader programme of reform, and the same applies for a group of governance boards for central and local government, healthcare, and further and higher education. But overseeing the implementation of McClelland's review will be a significant part of its work.
Other priorities for the next year include a mapping exercise on activity around digital public services, with the aim of delivering more services online, development of a prototype of the DirectScot portal and the collection of feedback from the public, and an examination of different delivery mechanisms for digital services. The latter is expected to tie up with the expansion of the Customer First programme.
The document also emphasises increasing the use of existing infrastructure and services, such as the Glow national learning intranet for schools and the Central Scottish Government Public Bodies Shared Services Site.
There are two stand out features, however. One is the delivery of a high level ICT architecture, with a draft due for April 2012 and an operating framework in June. This will be supported by the creation of a national technical design authority.
The other is the creation of a Public Service Network for Scotland. The government is working out the optimum way of achieving a PSN for the country's public services, aiming to create it from existing commercial networks. It has already set up a technical working group with members from all parts of the public sector.
It emphasises the PSN's potential to deliver savings, but this raises the question of why the Scottish Government is going for its own network rather than extending the PSN set up by the Cabinet Office. The response suggests that Scotland's ambitions are broader than those underlying the UK PSN.
The spokeswoman says: "In Scotland work is under way to take forward wider next generation broadband ambitions. This includes exploration of the opportunities to aggregate the public sector's wide area network connectivity requirements and any cost benefits."
Despite this, and the fact that the scale of ICT projects in Scotland does not match that of the big ones in England, there have been efforts to learn from experiences south of the border. The sorry fates of some big Whitehall projects has provided some pertinent lessons, and a Scottish Government team has met with cabinet officials to discuss the reviews of major contracts and to share what they have learned.
Another thing shared is a desire to boost the role of SMEs in supporting public sector ICT, although Scotland claims a more convincing record. The spokeswoman points out that since Public Contracts Scotland, an internet portal for contract opportunities, was launched in 2002, SMEs have accounted for 84% of the companies registering and three-quarters of those winning contracts. This contrasts with a UK government aspiration of awarding 25% of contracts to the sector.
"The level of total Scottish public sector spend (by value) that goes directly to SMEs has been over 45% for the past four years," the spokeswoman says. "Just under 60% of that amount is with SMEs based in Scotland."
There are now plans to push this forward with a new pre-qualification questionnaire, which has been out for consultation since December 2010 and will be rolled out next year, and is aimed at ensuring that the only questions asked are those relevant to the risk involved in a contract. Equally important is that their answers will be loaded into a database and can then provide a reference for further procurements, rather than forcing them to repeat the exercise.
As for funding, the Scottish Government is making £50m available to support its broadband roll out in the Next Generation Digital Fund, and is being supported with £25.5m from the EU's structural funds programme. The aim is to combine this with private sector investment to extend Scotland's broadband infrastructure, but it is still unclear how much will go into public sector infrastructure; a detailed roll out plan with funding proposals is expected in March 2012.
While the government broadly accepted McClelland's recommendations, there are a handful that could have had wide implications and are not in its response. The most notable are the creation of an ICT Futures board chaired by the cabinet secretary, and a presumption that major ICT contracts are awarded for a complete sector.
It could be argued that the reform and ICT industry boards take the place of the futures board, and the spokeswoman emphasises the extent of the governance arrangements.
"There is strong support from the different parts of the public sector, and we have now established links from those areas to the national governance arrangements," she says. "Each part of the public sector is now considering its sectoral priorities and the supporting strategies required for delivery, linked into our national priorities."
But the response to the presumption of contracts for a complete sector has met a more cautious response. "While single sectoral contracts may be feasible where there are common sectoral requirements, it would be less do-able for niche, organisation-specific requirements. However, a prerequisite for success would be the establishment of strong sectoral ICT governance arrangements to complement what's already in place for procurement."
It is early days, but Scotland has advantages that could help the strategy to make a difference more quickly than in Whitehall's experience. The fact that it is a smaller country with fewer public authorities has traditionally made it easier to get them working together, and to take a coherent approach to change.
Also, the response document's focus is on infrastructure, and is not heavily prescriptive about how authorities should shape their own strategies or what services they should provide. It's natural that the provision of that infrastructure should come from the centre, and likely that councils, health authorities, police forces and education bodies will be quite happy to see the government taking a lead.
It shows there is an intent for Scotland's public sector to get more from ICT; but it will be up to the councils, police forces, health authorities and education institutions to make sure gets the integrated and shared deployment that the government advocates.