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Interview: Ivan McKee, Scottish innovation minister

Scotland’s innovation minister talks to Computer Weekly about the country’s new digital strategy, the importance of inclusion, and why the strategy is underpinned by ethical thinking

The Scottish government recently published an ambitious digital strategy, aiming to forge an ethical digital nation.

Scottish innovation minister Ivan McKee spoke to Computer Weekly about why the strategy is so important, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has shaped the context in which the strategy has been delivered.

The strategy itself is underpinned by a series of principles, including building a skilled digital workforce, digital leadership and culture, and for Scotland to be a technology-enabled, inclusive, ethical and user-focused country.

McKee says a lot of work has been done to ensure the strategy is positioned correctly and reflects the current societal challenges in Scotland.

“The more we looked at it, it became obvious that there are certain things that underpin this, and the ethical piece is hugely important, and the inclusion piece as part of that is hugely important as well,” he says. “And then you build from there in terms of the technology, the economy and the government transformation.

“If we don’t get the ethics and inclusion piece right, then the rest of it is kind of built on sand to some extent, so I think we’ve got to nail that.”

McKee also highlights the importance of building public trust in what the government is doing, particularly when it comes to the use of data.

“Having public trust in what you’re doing with data is hugely important,” he says, adding that this underpins the “effectiveness and the roll-out of the other aspects of the strategy”.

The economic aspect of it also comes into play, says McKee. “If you are a country and a location where people trust that you will use the data correctly, it’s becoming much more of an attractor. People want to partner with you and work with you. I am really keen to position that as a core part of the strategy.” 

“Having public trust in what you’re doing with data is hugely important”

Ivan McKee, Scottish innovation minister

But becoming an ethical digital nation doesn’t happen overnight, and McKee is keen to point out that it is hugely important to ensure no one is left behind. The Scottish government already has a Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme, worth £463m, which aims to improve broadband coverage across the country, particularly in rural and remote areas.

This sits alongside the Reaching 100% (R100) programme, which involves building infrastructure to ensure that the “vast majority” of people in Scotland have access to superfast broadband. The aim was to provide 30Mbps broadband to every home and business in Scotland by 2021, but in January 2020 that target was pushed back to the end of 2023.

In November 2020, the Scottish government also launched a scheme, as part of its Connecting Scotland programme, to hand out 23,000 iPads and Chromebooks to low-income families and care leavers. To ensure they have access to the internet and can gain confidence in using it, the government is also giving them mobile data for up to two years.

The strategy highlights the importance of not just connectivity, but digital skills, and ensuring that everyone, regardless of location or socio-economic status, can benefit from a digital nation being built.

McKee says the government continues to work on its R100 programme and dispel any “not-spots” in the country, as well as the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic and digital access.

He says the Connecting Scotland programme has “provided devices and packages to a whole range of individuals who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get connected. We’ve had a real focus on that, and that’s an area we’re going to continue to focus on going forward”.

Changing the culture

Scotland’s previous digital strategy was published four years ago, when the country faced different challenges and a different economic environment. The new strategy has a “much more solid foundation in terms of ethics, inclusion and skills”, says McKee.

“Covid has brought things into sharp focus, and accelerated stuff that was going to happen anyway, and it’s really impressed the need to move that forward,” he says.

McKee adds that one of the interesting parts of the strategy is about the transformation of public services, especially around the things the government has been able to do, and the services created during the pandemic that were previously thought impossible.

“It has been a very good springboard to look at government services and accelerate that transformation to be able to provide a broader range of services more efficiently, more quickly, to more people and to organise ourselves using digital tools to be able to do that more effectively as well,” he says.

Read more about Scotland’s digital plans

  • As part of its Connecting Scotland programme, the Scottish government is giving out 23,000 iPads and Chromebooks to low-income families and care leavers, along with two years of mobile data.
  • The country’s updated strategy aims to equip Scotland for technological transformation post-coronavirus and focuses on building an ethical digital nation.
  • Key Scottish population belt identified as the first territory for investment as part of UK government’s £5bn investment in next-generation broadband.

However, a digital government requires a huge culture change, which is not always easy to achieve. McKee says it is also about “digital thinking” and “agile, connected team working” with a fast-response approach to tackling problems.

As part of the strategy, the government aims to make its Scottish Digital Academy the skills provider of choice for Scotland’s public sector. The plan is for the academy to offer skills in areas such as cyber security, cloud and service design.

McKee says work is currently taking place on how to take the transformation agenda forward within government.

“What do we need to do at a leadership level to embed that kind of thinking?” he says. “What kind of training do we need to support that kind of thinking throughout the organisation? Because if we’re going to do things differently and break down organisational barriers and think more in terms of the processes we’re trying to configure and the outcomes we’re trying to deliver, then the ways people work will be different in terms of how they interact in the organisation.

“That’s another hugely exciting piece of work that has come off the back of our digital strategy.”

A different world

But it’s not just the pandemic that has changed the landscape in Scotland. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) and the fallout from Brexit has also had an impact, as Scotland needs to find new ways to ensure it remains an attractive destination for talent and investment.

In October 2020, the Scottish government launched its inward investment plan, which set out how the government will focus on nine key sectors where the country has global strengths that can offer significant future prospects. This includes technology such as software and IT, digital business services, healthtech and fintech.

“We have a very clear strategy on what we think we’re good at in Scotland, who we want to attract and how we’re going to do that,” says McKee.

The government is also about to launch a global capital investment plan, focusing on how the country can attract investors to support Scottish businesses to grow. However, Scotland is also keen to attract the right talent to the country and its businesses.

“On the talent side, we’d obviously love to have more control over immigration policy in Scotland, which is something we don’t have and we ask for all the time,” says McKee. “So we’re very much at the mercy of the UK government’s very restrictive and unhelpful attitude to immigration.

“We do what we can there. We obviously want to work hard to maintain our links across the EU, but wider than that as well. But we are also focused on how to attract talent from the rest of the UK to come to Scotland. How do we do that? What would people want to see to come to Scotland, what are the advantages we’ve got? And how do we position those to attract talent?”

Ahead of writing the strategy, the Scottish government, together with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, launched a public consultation, seeking to ensure the strategy represents the country and its stakeholders as a whole. McKee says the number of responses received helped “fine tune” the direction of the strategy.

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