Whichever way Scotland votes on its independence, one outcome that is assured will be the need for one of the fastest and most ambitious IT projects the public sector has ever seen.
If Scotland leaves the UK, it will need to set up IT systems to replace every one of the functions it currently shares with Whitehall – in particular tax collection and welfare payments. Computer Weekly research suggested the cost could be in excess of £1bn.
Even if Scotland votes to stay, the offer of much greater devolution is likely to mean that many of those systems will still need to be developed from scratch. The time it’s taking to develop a new welfare system for the UK – Universal Credit – shows that it’s no easy option to try to adapt current systems for a subset of the population who may be taxed or paid benefits using different rules and rates to those outside Scotland.
While Scotland has its own IT for existing devolved functions – such as NHS, education, police and justice – it’s a huge undertaking to put in place the additional government services from scratch. And that’s without even considering timescales – Scottish independence would start in March 2016, just 18 months after the vote.
Such a project would be unprecedented, but there are examples to turn to. Estonia is widely lauded as the most digital government in the world – thanks to the fact it had to start from nothing after gaining independence from the former Soviet Union. But even Estonia – a country with a quarter of Scotland’s population – took a lot longer than 18 months to do so.
Scotland may yet be forced to use existing Whitehall systems on an outsourced basis – but that would seriously hinder its ability to make the sort of political and policy changes that the Yes campaigners have promised.
Technology, of course, is not one of the issues that will decide which way Scotland votes. But it will be a critical issue in delivering the future government that Scotland will gain either way.