Greater devolution offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to accelerate digital government

So Scotland is not going it alone – and in all probability the whole of the UK will be better for that decision.

The independence drive engaged voters in Scotland like never before, and also revealed the deep dissatisfaction across the rest of the UK with the status quo of Westminster politics.

It now looks likely that not only Scotland, but also Wales, Northern Ireland and the English cities and regions will get some form of greater devolution and more local powers. The details are yet to be worked out, but one thing is for sure – any such moves present a once in a lifetime opportunity to speed the switch to more digital public services.

From an IT perspective, there are two conclusions you can draw regarding greater devolution. First, it would be a calamity to try to adapt existing, clunky old government IT systems in Whitehall or in local authorities to support devolved powers. Those systems are so fixed and inflexible that the cost and effort would be a waste of time.

Second, that devolved powers cannot mean an extra layer of IT bureaucracy sitting between Whitehall and councils. There will no doubt be a knee-jerk desire to simply put a new front-end on to existing systems to give the appearance of more local autonomy. This would rapidly become an exemplar of the old cliché, putting lipstick on a pig.

Devolved powers are instead the ideal opportunity for what has become known as government as a platform. Each devolved authority will have a large number of common requirements – making and receiving payments, booking appointments, managing resources, purchasing and invoicing, and so on.

Currently, those functions are performed repeatedly in Whitehall and town halls in isolation, using siloed and usually proprietary systems, with little or no data sharing.

In a new devolved arrangement, why waste the time and money going through repeated procurement exercises to buy numerous incompatible and closed systems. This is instead a time for the public sector IT and digital community to come together and develop standardised platforms for these generic functions, made available as open source code for any authority to use.

Every devolved authority can then build the local, personalised extras they need, on top of those standard platforms. By using common data formats and open standards, greater information sharing will enable new services designed to make citizens’ lives easier. Moving home? Just click a button to transfer all your details to your new local authority.

Politicians benefit too – with more measurable, transparent services, lower costs, and greater policy-making flexibility.

The new impetus for change across the public sector presents an opportunity that digital government leaders must grasp.

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