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Alternative ICT Strategy

The Alternative ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland

By September 2012, the Scottish Government is scheduled to deliver an ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland[^ictstrategy].  This is a huge opportunity for Scotland to reform the public sector's use of ICT into a service that facilitates the move into a citizen centred, efficient public sector tailored to the varying needs of a diverse and distributed population. Unfortunately, it could also turn out to be a missed opportunity.

Here is my 'alternative' ICT Strategy document.  It is a work in progress so this blog entry will be changing over time.[^gist]  This is what I would like the government ICT strategy document to look like!

Core technology building blocks

To deliver public services in Scotland, the government has adopted some core technologies on which everything can be built.  These technologies are well defined, current, standard and adaptable.

The Internet

The Internet is the principal highway of communication in the world.  Rather than re-inventing the wheel by producing a separate Public Sector Network (PSN[^psn]), Scotland is going to use the Internet.  It will invest resources to ensure that every community in Scotland has high-speed internet and that there is sufficient redundancy in the system to provide reliability and resilience.  The Scottish Government will encourage research into technologies that reduce the energy consumption of the internet infrastructure by reducing power use and allowing redundant capacity to be switch off when it is not required. Work will be carried out to take existing dedicated public sector infrastructure and make it PSN compliant until such times as dedicated public sector networking is no-longer required. This PSN compliant sub-network will be referred to as SWAN (the Scottish Wide Area Network).[^swan]

Cloud Hosting

Wherever possible public services will be hosted in the cloud using technologies that are agnostic to the cloud service provider.  There will be no Scottish government specific cloud (G-Cloud[^g-cloud]) but the public sector in Scotland will, given the required security clearance, have access to services offered to the UK public sector on the UK G-Cloud.

All confidential data relating to Scottish citizens will be stored on servers physically located within Scotland where there is absolutely no ambiguity over legal jurisdiction.

Services which do not relate to confidential data or only process confidential data in memory, through access controlled from Scotland can be located on servers anywhere in the world. However, in purchasing these services preference will be given to services located closest to central Scotland by Internet distance as this reduces the carbon footprint of transmissions.

For clarity this means that, given sufficient cloud hosting capacity within Scotland, at a moments notice, in the event of some international crisis, it would be possible to transfer all public sector processing within Scotland and all relevant data would already reside there.  However, under normal circumstances, the public sector would be free to innovate using any service that provide a suitable balance of service quality, cost and ease of use.

In all cases data will be electronically secured to a level which is sufficient to prevent unauthorised access but is not excessive such that it prevents or overcomplicates legitimate use.

HTML5

Whilst the HTML5 standard is still being developed, it has become the point of technological convergence for web based services.  The latest desktop web browsers: IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari support it as does the WebKit engine behind chrome which sits on Android and iOS mobile devices.  There is a Chrome plug-in available that provides HTML5 support for older versions of Internet Explorer on Windows.

All public services will be delivered as web services using HTML5 on standard devices that support it.  All systems will be open-sourced and the private sector will be encouraged to develop alternative ways of interacting with these services.  The public sector will have local freedom to adopt alternative solutions where they are felt to provide cost effective benefits to the community.

99% of existing hardware infrastructure within the public sector can support Internet based web services so no extra hardware investment is required up front to support this strategy.  In many cases, when computer systems require to be upgraded they can be replaced by Raspberry Pi[^raspberry-pi] computers that will act as fully function internet clients at a fraction of the cost of computer systems in use today.  These savings will be used to fund the one-computer-per-pupil programme described later in this document. 

Other technologies

Other technologies can and will be used in small scale pilots and in circumstances which specifically require them.  However, all the systems built to use these technologies will be open-sourced and any dependency on a propitiatory and unsubstitutable technology will be clearly documented and explained.

Procurement of hardware

In the past the government has tended to favour large scale procurement of hardware with the view that the larger the purchase the better the deal. However, in practice it turns out that large purchases are very slow to procure and the costs of administration and delay can outweigh any apparent economies of scale. It is also the case that such procurements are often far too large to be tendered for by companies based in Scotland.

From now on the government will, wherever possible, allow procurement to be carried out at a local level.  However, to ensure that this is carried out in a cost effective way, all procurement costs will be published within one month of the transaction along with all contractual terms. This work will be carried out in coordination with the Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies[#SG-Benchmarking-2012-06] which will be standardised across every public body in Scotland to address issues with the existing process[^benchmarking-issues].

No procurement can or will take place under company confidential contractual terms without a public written explanation.  By publishing this information prices can be driven down and local purchasers can compare costs from local suppliers and make informed choices based on this information.  A central government procurement team will be made available to provide skilled procurement and administrative support so that the cost of procurement is minimised.  The central team will fulfil the administrative burden of publishing procurement details.

IT Hardware and Infrastructure support

Central government, as well as maintaining its own hardware and infrastructure will offer hardware and infrastructure support to local services at no less than full cost price including an appropriate share of all the associate overheads.  However, this support will be prioritised to new, smaller and remote services and larger and more established services will be encouraged to establish or buy in their own support locally where it can be tailored to local needs and can be located close to the need at lower cost.

As with hardware procurement, all costs will be made public and shared across the public sector within a month of any contracts being signed to provide the Management Information (MI) to enable sharing of cost savings without tying organisations into restrictive shared services contracts.

Public sector software development

Wherever possible the public sector will choose to use existing standard 'off the shelf' software to deliver services. In contrast to previous policies the assumption will be made that 'free' open source solutions are the first choice unless there is a good case for using a commercial product. Wherever a commercial product is used instead of an equivalent open source solution, a justification for this decision will be published along with the invitation to tender.

Whenever software has to be custom built for the public sector, this software will be open sourced by default[^open-source]. Any exceptions will have to be justified along with a published explanation of the reason for the exception. Under normal circumstances commercial confidentiality will not be an acceptable reason for closed sourcing software built specifically for the public sector. As we transition to this policy there will be a number of public sector software systems which will contain new open source elements that depend upon legacy closed-source systems. By the end of 2013 a full list of these will be published along with a proposed time-scale for phasing out the closed-source dependencies. Note that this specifically relates to software custom built for the public sector and does not prevent the use or dependency upon standard close-source software libraries, tools or packages.

The general principal is that public money invested in the development of software for the public sector should result in publicly available software which can be openly used and developed over time. By doing this we are working to removing the unfair advantage currently afforded to the current supplier to government. This will also enable smaller companies to contribute to parts of an overall system.

The Scottish Government Digital Service (SGDS)

In order to manage this central repository of publicly owned open-source software, a new Scottish Government Digital Service (SGDS) will be set-up modelled around the early successes of the Westminster Government Digital Service[^gds]. This service will take over the work of the Direct Scot portal and begin its work by developing a number of simple services for the public sector throughout Scotland. As well as open sourcing and taking over the development of the the Scottish Public Sector portal: "DirectScot"[^directscot], the SGDS will also work with research groups in Scotland to develop and open source the core Revenue Scotland tax calculation models which will be used to process all tax calculations for Revenue Scotland. The SGDS will work closely with the vibrant and world class developer community in Scotland and will encourage contributions and ideas from that community.

Technology in education

Open source, open data and education

The Scottish Government sees a great opportunity to bring together open data and computer systems for public services with the needs of education to provide students with interdisciplinary learning opportunities for learning information technology skills.  A significant proportion of learners struggle to engage and find relevance in curriculum content.  However, the government will be open sourcing almost every aspect of public sector computing systems including data processing, statistical analysis, financial processing, graphical design, user interface design and animation.  This means that there are opportunities from primary education through to college and university to use real-life examples as case studies, projects and exercises.  But unlike education as we know it today, the work produced and submitted, in whole or in part, can be incorporated into the services of the nation within days of the work being completed.

Imagine for example a primary school project to enhance or redesign the Visit Scotland web page for a local tourist attraction where the end result was used for real within days of the project ending.  Imagine a university accounting project to report on weaknesses in the code used by government to compare regional expenditure on roads maintenance.  How about a computer science project to improve the algorithm for choosing the shortest public transport route between locations used by the public transport infrastructure of Scotland.  This is truly win win for everyone.  Even the private sector benefits by being able to build products and services on a rich and vibrant infrastructure of open systems and data.  Such products and systems would have a global market.

Computers become the new paper and pencil

For many years the level of use of computers in schools has poorly reflected their use in the world of work.  This situation has been confounded by the cost of providing computers in schools and means that most pupils have only limited access to shared computers at school.  Consequently computing has been seen principally as a subject to learn rather than computers being common place tools like pen and paper.  However, from August 2013 every pupil in every school in Scotland will have access to their own Raspberry Pi[^raspberry-pi] computer which they will take with them from class to class and class to home.  In a dramatic step forward, the curriculum will be able to rely on the availability of technology to support the individual learning of every pupil in every subject in every school and every home.

Future Glow

After some consultation, the Government has decided to withdraw from plans to adopt a closed Microsoft managed and designed replacement for Glow for Education[^glow-announcement]. Following extensive feedback received, we recognise that committing to a service delivered and designed by one company would be a waste of taxpayers money as it would lock the government into monopoly control over modifications and advancements in the platform. Indeed we recognise that the whole concept of using large multinationals to both advise government and then supply services is inappropriate and will no longer take place.

We have invited Charlie Love, the author of Glew[^glew] to work on secondment to the SGDS and work with an agile software team there to put the necessary infrastructure, support and security in place to make this service available to all schools in Scotland in pilot form by December 2012.

High speed broadband and WiFi Scotland

As well as fulfilling our commitment to rolling out high speed broadband throughout Scotland, we will also be facilitating the delivery of free public access WiFi hotspots in community centres (libraries, post-offices, etc.) within every community in Scotland. Branded "WiFi Scotland" these hotspots will ensure that everyone in Scotland is close to a point where they can connect to high speed broadband with their own WiFi enabled device. We will also be working with local councils to ensure that every community (that does not already do so) has a public access area where anyone can access the internet without having to have their own computer.

WiFi Scotland - building on a Scotland as the best place to do business

In addition to ensuring that every community has access to broadband, we will also set up a scheme to enable every hotel and conference venue in Scotland to provide free WiFi under the same consistent "WiFi Scotland" branding and logon. The cost of this scheme will be fully met by the venues but will be highly competitive and provided through existing commercial providers contracted to central government. The Scottish Digital Service will support this by providing an open data service listing all available access points throughout the country and enabling a mechanism for users to report faults or service problems so that we can work to ensure that the quality of the service is high.

We believe that this service will build on Scotland's existing high ranking as a place to do business giving business travellers and conference organisers the confidence that wherever they meet or travel in Scotland they can be confident of high speed internet sufficient to meet requirements like live video conferencing and broadcasting.

Meetings redesigned

Whilst we will always recognise the particular value of personal interaction and face to face meetings, it is impossible to ignore the huge costs associated with arranging and conducting physical meetings within the public sector. We also recognise that such meetings are not always an effective way of conducting business which may require ideas to be discussed and commented upon in a way that could be carried out more effectively online. Beginning in September 2012 the Scottish Government will embark on a one year consultation to establish a new strategy for carrying out public sector meetings. The aim of this consultation to determine when and in what circumstances we can conduct meetings that do not require everyone to be physically located in the same place or necessarily at the same time.

... to be continued

Change log

  • 4 April - added reference to cloud computing.
  • 4 April - added "Technology in educational" section and reference to savings in IT hardware through the deployment of Raspberry Pi's in some public service contexts.
  • 9 April - posted as Gist on Github (to make it easier for others to track changes) and added sections on open sourcing software and setting up a Scottish Government Digital Service.
  • 28 April - added WiFi Scotland and study on meeting redesign.
  • 25 June - updated facts relating to delayed release of government ICT strategy and the announcement of SWAN; added links to cross reference blog articles on issues raised such as the PSN and Open Source software in the public sector; and added reference to the SGDS taking on the role of developing the Revenue Scotland calculation models. Also added references to Glow, Glew and yet another policy change :)

[^gist]: The original Markdown format text of this document is stored in a GitHub:gist https://gist.github.com/2342423 where it can viewed along with a history of edits since 9 April 2012.

[^raspberry-pi]: The "Raspberry Pi" is a low cost computer designed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation charity as a $35 computer for kids. For more details see: http://www.raspberrypi.org/.

[^gds]: Westminster Government Digital Service: http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/working-for-gds/.

[^psn]: Public Sector/Services Network (the name changed during the development of the idea): http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/public-services-network. Despite strong arguments made about the cost savings of introducing the PSN, the arguments seem to be internally inconsistent: http://stuartroebuck.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/what-is-public-sector-network-psn-cloud.html.

[^g-cloud]: The G-Cloud Programme: http://gcloud.civilservice.gov.uk/.

[^ictstrategy]: The ICT Strategy was originally due to be delivered in Spring 2012 but is now due for release in September 2012 after a public draft is released for informal comment.

[^swan]: The Scottish Government announced SWAN (Scottish Wide Area Network) in June 2012. A nod to this is given here to fit in with policy commitments.

[^benchmarking-issues]: Figures obtained from the "Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies" would either suggest huge waste in expenditure on ICT provisions or a failure to standardise the benchmarking process around useful and comparable measures: http://stuartroebuck.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/ict-costs-in-scottish-public-bodies.html.

[^open-source]: A fuller background discussion and FAQ on using Open Source in the public sector in Scotland can be found here: http://stuartroebuck.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/open-sourcing-public-sector-in-scotland.html.

[^directscot]: The current prototype DirectScot website can be found here: http://www.directscot.org/.

[^glow-announcement]: The full text of and further discussion of the Glow announcement of 8 June 2012 can be found here: http://stuartroebuck.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/glows-next-phasea-response.html. A more recent news update was also published on 23 June here: https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/glowblogs/NPF/2012/06/23/end-of-term-news-from-glow-continuing-to-light-up-learning/.

[^glew]: Glew is beta software of a single sign-on framework which can be used to integrate Google Apps for Education and other services such as Wordpress Blogs, Media Wiki, Moodle and many more: https://www.glew.org.uk/.

[#SG-Benchmarking-2012-06]: "Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies’ Corporate Services 2010/11", Scottish Government, 14 June 2012. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2012/06/1600.

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