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Ensuring no one is left behind? An interview with COSLA

8 min

Aberdeen, c. Julie Adams, Unsplash

Building a “vibrant” tech sector, diving into the world of AI, and managing the shortfalls of lacks of connectivity for vital areas of the public sector: Scotland’s new digital strategy is out for public consultation, seeking views from all walks of life to ensure no person is left behind. Quadrant Smart sits down with Alan Aitken, Cllr Gail Macgregor, and Douglas Shirlaw, team members of COSLA, to find answer key questions on Scotland’s digital future

The launch of the public consultation of Scotland’s Digital Strategy earlier this month comes at a time where the digital conversation has warped to “100mph” speeds across public governance, in the words of COSLA’s resources spokesperson.

Cllr Gail Macgregor, c. BBC

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, serving as the association of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, has played a key role in developing Renewing Scotland’s Full Potential in a Digital World: Updating the Digital Strategy for Scotland – something which has not always been the case for coordination between national and local government in Scotland.

“We had a national digital strategy in 2017, and we had our own local government digital strategy, but they were never joined up,” explained Cllr Gail Macgregor, resources spokesperson at COSLA.

“I think what we have now is greater collaboration between Scottish Government, the Local Government Digital Service, COSLA, and other partners. I think a strength we have now is driving forward a whole agenda.”

The commanding theme throughout the 39-page strategy is the detailed response to the rampant effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the bring digital front-and-centre in the public sector in Scotland. Whilst in the past, Cllr Macgregor says, year-on-year budget cuts for local authorities focussed local authorities on what would traditionally be deemed as ‘higher-priority’ sectors – such as education, health, and social care – digital, and its capabilities, now can be a key factor to alleviating major issues in those sectors of public service provision.

I think the strength we have now in driving forward a whole agenda

In addressing loneliness, for example, across the UK, a recent survey by the Campaign to End Loneliness found that respondents saw the need for free broadband and increased accessibility for the elderly and disabled was the highest priority to be addressed. In education, daily stories such as an entire P7 class at Glasgow Gaelic School being forced to self-isolate highlights the need for children to have not only the hardware, but also the infrastructure in place to ensure connectivity and communication between pupils, their peers, and teachers.

Telecoms mast on the Isle of Shetland, c LHOON, Flickr

“I think what we now have is a bit more of a drive and a reality that it’s actually pivotal to be delivering on education, on improved health and social care, and ensuring that vulnerable people have contact and all of the other benefits of having a good digital inclusion programme,” said Cllr Macgregor.

“I think politicians’ minds are much more focussed now on investment in these areas; where it perhaps wasn’t previously, when we were dealing with other budget cuts.”

Intriguingly, one of the ‘Potential Actions’ of the document to ensure “no one is left behind” by connectivity shortfalls broaches the subject of devolved powers in Scotland. Whilst telecoms is the reserved responsibility of the UK Government, the strategy notes, the Scottish Government has elected to “accelerate progress” of digital connectivity with additional investment.

Every single area of government, whether it’s local, Scottish, or UK, has a responsibility in this area

Could further telecoms devolution, then, be an element in bridging the digital divide north of the border? “I won’t go so far as to say that further devolved powers would help that because I don’t have a crystal ball – but I certainly think that the role of all spheres of government needs to be more joined up yet,” argued Cllr Macgregor. “Every single area of government, whether it’s local, Scottish, or UK, has a responsibility in this area. We’re starting from a point with COVID where we think the agenda has shifted 100mph.”

No silver bullet

Throughout the strategy, and a repeated point made by Cllr Macgregor, Alan, and Douglas, is the need for a mix of public service schemes to ensure no one is left behind. The R100 programme, Scottish Government’s commitment to deliver 100% of superfast broadband, seeks to deliver infrastructural connectivity for residents; the learnings from the Logan Review, written by Mark Logan, COO of Edinburgh-based Skyscanner, highlighted the need for a national network of Tech Scalers to incubate and develop a stronger pipeline of tech-focussed businesses; and the Connecting Scotland, amongst other features, provided 9000 people at high clinical risk from Coronavirus with internet connections and a connected device to stay in touch with friends and family during the pandemic, for example.

“We’ve always been aware that providing devices and WiFi connectivity solutions isn’t the silver bullet, in many respects,” Alan explained. Schemes like R100 aside, there is a cross-sector view to the strategy. Alan highlighted schemes such as the Scottish Tech Army, which recruited over 1,000 volunteers to apply technology solutions to a variety of sectors, having worked on 100 projects already.

We’ve always been aware that providing devices and WiFi connectivity solutions isn’t the silver bullet

Additionally, the Logan Review’s call for Tech Scalers and innovation hubs will drive forward the benefits of seeing computer science as the same importance as English or Maths, Douglas says: “I think the whole idea of [the Logan Review] was to question what we are doing in education,” argued the chief data officer. “We can teach English and Maths from a very early age; and computer science could be in or around there.

Douglas Shirlaw

“It’s not a silver bullet in that it’s going to be done in the next few years. A lot [of computer science focus] will have to be threaded into the curriculum, I think.”

AI: its capabilities, and its ethics

In early 2021, the strategy pledges to launch its AI Strategy, ensuring Scotland “maximises the potential” of AI. But where in local government is Artificial Intelligence already being utilised? Douglas highlighted that Aberdeen City Council, for example, launched a chatbot – AB1 – responding to questions on a series of essential services, including street lighting and education, with the ability to “learn” to deal with queries on public services. Edinburgh City Council, on the other hand, is using bots within its recruitment systems to improve efficiencies of information flows throughout the organisation.

AB-1 c. Microsoft

For Cllr Macgregor, whose portfolio includes employers, one of the key conversations to be had will be demystifying the impact of AI on the workforce, and the capabilities it may bring. “AI is very much an issue around changing workforce,” argued Cllr Macgregor.

“We will start to look at mapping of where workforce will be required, and where AI may take over, within the employer’s brief. There is quite a challenge in re-skilling and re-training people as it becomes more prevalent in the private and public sector.”

This open and honest conversation around AI – and other emerging technologies and how they will affect future livelihoods in public and private sector – was outlined by Alan as a conversation that comes down to transparency: “I think there’s always that honest conversation that’s had about a public perception around AI, and how it is viewed in terms of privacy and also in terms of – as much as anything, the role of the workforce.

Alan Aitken

“I would say that I think that conversation tends to be very honest; I think what we also are seeing is that, whilst there is an increased use across councils, we are also working very closely with the private sector and with government to ensure that that is a joined-up approach.

“I think it comes to transparency and a sort of honest of conversation that is really central to it.”

The honest conversation around what AI could mean for the future of work is emblematic of the wider digital consultation for the team at COSLA: Scottish residents can give their views on any of the subjects considered in the strategy, closing on 23 December 2020. In encouraging viewpoints from a variety of walks of life in Scotland, it will be a fascinating case study to keep an eye on as Scotland develops its digital strategy to ensure no one is left behind by lack of connectivity in its 32 local councils.

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