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

Citizen-empowering reform of personal data must be a priority – Alan Mitchell

Scotland’s First Minister and Priorities – a request

How many priorities can the new First Minister cope with? In plain English a ‘priority’ is something you attend to first because of its importance or urgency. Which means that once you have more than a few, they aren’t ‘priorities’ any more – just another item in a long list, competing for attention and resources.

Many birds, one stone

The problem with a list of priorities that grows too long is that nothing on the list retains real priority status. The risk: frantic activity but dissipated effort. In such a situation, one way forward is to identify an intervention that can help address many, or all, of the ‘priorities’ at the same time.

One such intervention is citizen-empowering reform of personal data.

“That’s odd!”, you might say. “It’s got nothing to do with anything we’ve just been talking about!”. Except that it has, because every service that deals directly with identified individuals, in the public, third and private sectors, collects and uses personal data in order to function. And every one of these services is hamstrung by outdated data architectures and infrastructure that were designed 50 or more years ago. They pile up layer upon layer of unnecessary effort and cost while acting as a straightjacket on what services can do. A productivity, innovation and growth roadblock in other words.

If this roadblock could be lifted, immense and rapid progress could be made across the board – in health, care and education, in public and third sector services, in productivity, in private sector innovation and growth, in tackling poverty and inequalities, in human rights, the wellbeing economy and even in tackling net zero. 

Here’s the thing: the First Minister has a real, immediate opportunity to lift the roadblock.

To see this opportunity we need to step back a bit. Every service today is organised around the organisation-centric database. That is, it works on the assumption that each and every organisation individually and separately collects, generates, holds and uses the data it needs for its own activities, even if a half or more of the data points it uses are exactly the same as the organisation operating next to it.

Result? Across the economy as a whole, we suffer bloated costs at a gargantuan scale (routine, multiplied duplication of effort and cost at every step of every process) plus endemic failures to integrate and join dots resulting in poor citizen experiences and outcomes at unnecessarily high costs. 

These flaws are designed into how our economy currently works. The organisation- centric database is designed to be proprietary: to hold the organisation’s data close to its chest, safe and sound, away from prying eyes. Which blocks the data sharing that’s needed for efficient, integrated, inclusive, citizen-centred, joined-up services and a wellbeing economy.

A tangible example of organisation centred data sharing impacting services negatively is when the public sector and other service providers e.g. GPs ; social workers ; Occupational Therapists ; third sector service providers each maintain a database. The citizen finds themselves excluded from this process, and so do their carers and family.  Each of the standalone databases is expensive and always out of date. 

If the citizen is the point of integration, if trust and relationships and human rights are to be designed from the start in Scotland, we can all have collaborative services that are designed truly with the citizen at the centre. The outcome then is the citizen is empowered and data can flow to each of the organisations via the citizen’s personal data store.

Multiple opportunities

There is, however, a safe, simple, practically ready-to-implement way of tackling this design flaw: the reform of personal data infrastructure and processes so that citizens are able to obtain copies of the data that organisations hold about them, to hold this data safely and securely under their own control (thereby making each citizen the point at which data about them is safely integrated), and to easily and safely share this data with other service providers as and when they need to. 

By enabling citizens to bring their own pre-verified and checked data with them to the services they deal with, and by empowering them to act as hubs for the sharing of this data, these personal data stores help eliminate the huge amounts of friction, effort, delay, error and risk that currently characterises services’ operations. It also enables efficient, citizen centred, joined up services in arenas such as health and social care, poverty initiatives and service innovation. 

By enabling citizens to choose who they share their data with, including the creation of closed circles, it also underpins community engagement. And, by digitising previously paper-based processes and reducing unnecessary duplicated effort, it supports the move to net zero. 

It can be done. Now.

This isn’t just a pipe dream. All the structural reform work and preparation needed to implement such an approach to enable the reform of personal data has already been done … by the Scottish Government! For example, Digital Identity Scotland’s current work on a Scottish Attribute Provider Service already embraces these principles and has already tested their practical operation. The Digital Health and Care Innovation Centre is leading the way across multiple projects in Scotland. Macmillan Cancer support are already piloting such an approach.

It’s an area where Scotland is leading the world.

The opportunities of citizen-centred and citizen-empowering data sharing can therefore be opened up immediately and at very low cost. What’s more, it does not involve the Government in some grand new multi-billion pound, greenfield, IT project that will inevitably overrun in terms of both time and cost while failing to deliver its promises. It is ideally suited for roll-out in an incremental test-and-learn manner, use-case by use-case, service by service, with momentum (and impacts) multiplying over time.

 If implemented first in the public sector, the costs involved in the initial pump-priming investment will be quickly outstripped by the productivity improvements and cost savings unleashed. These cost reduction and insight benefits, while starting in the public sector, can spread quickly to the private sector helping firms to reduce their cost base while driving innovation and growth, thereby growing the tax base.


The First Minister has an awful lot on his plate, as does Scotland itself. Data is a pivotal asset in the modern economy, and the new First Minister has the opportunity to unleash the power of data in a way that helps address most, if not all of the Scottish Government’s current priorities. Given the intense pressure on budgets and resources, the First Minister needs to find interventions that help tackle many different priorities all at the same time.

Citizen-empowering reform of personal data is one such intervention.

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