Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The Scottish Government 2022 Resource Spending Review: Yes. But How? – Alan Mitchell

The Scottish Government’s latest resource spending review Investing in Scotland’s Future is admirable in many ways. But it is also worrying.

Ministers clearly have their hearts in the right place. They clearly want Scotland and its citizens to thrive. They also understand all too well that they are stuck between a very hard rock (of intensifying demands on many fronts such as the cost of living, shocking levels of poverty and climate change) and the very hard place of reduced resources to tackle these problems.

Clearly they need to prioritise, and Ministers’ chosen priorities – addressing the cost of living crisis, tackling child poverty, addressing the climate and nature crises, building a stronger, fairer, greener economy, and developing effective public services – seem as good as any.

But what’s missing is any real sense as to exactly how, given shrinking financial resources, these still-hugely ambitious goals are to be achieved. Magic wands aside, exactly how much Ministers will be able to deliver will depend on one thing: how efficiently they can use what resources they’ve got. So it’s no surprise that the Spending Review paper mentions the word ‘efficiency’ over 30 times.

Unfortunately, the Review has very little to say on how these much-needed efficiencies will be achieved. It talks vaguely about “the reform and redesign of services” but says nothing of what these reforms may look like. The dedicated section ‘Levers to Drive Greater Efficiency’ largely skirts the issue. Three of the four ‘new approaches’ – improving procurement processes, better management of grants and better Scotland’s public sector estate (such as increased co-location of services) – can only have a marginal impact on overall efficiencies at best.

The fourth, Shared Services – “ a more collaborative approach to service delivery … work[ing] across boundaries and find[ing] connections across organisations” – is vague to say the least (even if it is a good idea). None of them get to the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter

So what is the heart of the matter? Over 60% of all Scotland’s public spending is accounted for by five core buckets of social protection, health, education, housing and community amenities, and transport. If real efficiencies of say, 5 or 10%, can be found in these areas the impact would be transformational.

What is bizarre about this Spending Review is that the Scottish Government has a way of achieving such efficiencies (real, genuine efficiencies that eliminate waste and actually deliver better outcomes). Indeed, it has already committed to doing what it takes to deliver these efficiencies … and is now apparently ignoring and neglecting the opportunity.

The initiative in question is the Scottish Attribute Provider Service (SAPS). In a nutshell, SAPS opens the door to far-reaching efficiencies in the delivery of public services by enabling one service to safely, easily and reliably re-use data about citizens that has already been collected, generated, checked and used by other public services.

Data about citizens is needed for every step of every element of every citizen-facing public service. It’s needed to identify who they are, to assess whether they are eligible for particular services, to triage and configure different peoples’ particular service requirements, to plan and organise service delivery, to actually deliver the services in question, and to undertake all associated record-keeping, administration and customer service. These processes apply to every citizen in the country, across dozens – hundreds – of different services.

Yet the way citizen data is currently collected and used means that every department, agency and service is forced to reinvent the data processing wheel every day, for service, endlessly duplicating data collection and checking that some other part of the public sector and Scottish Government has already done. It is a system built around large-scale and unnecessary waste – creating friction, effort, risk and cost for both services and citizens.

SAPS eliminates this duplication by enabling pre-checked citizen data (‘verified attributes’) to be shared between public services as and when needed.  It is an example of a ‘shared service’ that the Review identifies as key to improved efficiencies.

It does so in a way that operationalises and implements Christie Commission principles. It empowers individuals and communities because the data is deposited in citizens’ personal data (or attribute) stores where data sharing is under the citizen’s direct control. It integrates service provision because the same citizen-centred data sharing enables the integration and ‘joining up’ of different services. It prevents negative outcomes from arising by building privacy protection into how it operates. And it delivers order-of-magnitude efficiency improvements by reducing duplication and enabling the sharing of services.

It also, by the way, greatly improves citizens’ experience of using public services. That’s because with SAPS, these services are providing citizens with the information they need when applying for and using other services they are entitled to access. It helps eliminate form filling, for a start. It thus fits perfectly the Spending Review’s decision to focus on

achieving genuinely person-centred services, so people can more easily access the support they need, reducing and removing unnecessary barriers and reducing inequalities of outcome … [helping to] … address two key issues facing government, delivering the kind of transformation our communities and services need to be fit for the future, whilst ensuring public services are sustainable.”

It also fits the Government’s Covid Recovery Strategy, which lays the groundwork for inclusive person centred services, promoting wellbeing and tackling inequalities.

Yet, even though the Government committed to developing SAPS two years ago, from all appearances the project now seems to be languishing.

The Scottish Government already has a way to deliver far-reaching efficiencies across most of the biggest spending areas of public services. But if the Spending Review is to be taken at face value, Ministers seem apparently unaware of the opportunity. Or, for some obscure and unfathomable reason they have decided to neglect it.

Why is this? This is a question that now needs answering. Because an accelerated implementation of SAPS would go a long way to achieving the public sector efficiencies, “reforming “the way we experience public services”, promoting the “structural change and collaboration”, and the improved outcomes Government Ministers are looking for.

Alan Mitchell is Chairman of Mydex CIC, which advised the Scottish Government on the vision and operation of the Scottish Attribute Provider strategy.