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The DirectScot experiment: Inside Scotland's new public services hub

Sade Laja Published 08 February 2012

The DirectScot experiment: Inside Scotland's new public services hub

The Scottish government's director of digital explains why distance and cost have inspired the project to develop a single site for all services, writes Sade Laja

Given the remoteness of large parts of Scotland, the country is a prime candidate for channel shift - moving government services to being primarily delivered online.

DirectScot is the recently launched "experimental prototype" portal that aims to bring the country's government services, information and apps together on a single online hub.

Along with the potential for cost-savings that channel shift can bring, DirectScot has grown out of the need to respond to the geographical challenges to service delivery. People who may have previously had to travel for hours to access a service face-to-face will find being able to an online alternative on DirectScot "more attractive" and "much more effective", according to Mike Neilson, the Scottish government's director of digital.

It's also important for people in Scotland, wherever they are, to be able to rely on the government-related information they are searching for on the internet, says Neilson - which is where DirectScot comes in.

"When we look at accessibility, there can sometimes be an issue if you do a Google search as to whether the information you're getting about a particular service is necessarily accurate to where you're living," he says.

Scotland has talked to the UK government about its plans for a single platform for its services, particularly as the UK has its own experience through Directgov and its work in progress . It's also looked "with interest" at similar projects that have been carried out in the US to get some inspiration, according to Neilson.

DirectScot has been created for what Neilson describes as "pretty modest cost" of £100,000 and is based on three elements: a publishing platform that uses Microsoft Sharepoint, a search engine that uses open source software such as Lucene and Solr, and a custom built front-facing website developed by Scottish digital agency Storm ID. In an attempt to keep things to as tight a budget as possible during the early stages, only three people work part-time on the site.

DirectScot currently in a consultation period and its future direction is likely to be determined when the Scottish government publishes its digital public services strategy around March or April.

"Realistically, the next stage is the one where, depending on the outcome of the consultation and the feedback we're getting, we'll certainly be taking it forwards. But the exact shape of it will evolve from the feedback we're getting, the discussions we're having with local government and others and public service providers up here," says Neilson.

The government has asked four of Scotland's 32 local authorities to proof the concept, which will be expanded to all of the country's councils when the full version of DirectScot goes live.

Neilson sees DirectScot as an opportunity for both local and central government to work together closely. "Looking not just at DirectScot, but at the overall strategy for digital public services, I think there is a real opportunity at Scottish level to work together to address the challenges and to exploit the opportunities," he says.

This clear link-up between local and central is something that the UK government may find more difficult when delivering its own similar project, as there are 375 councils in England and Wales. The project is very much seen as a central government initiative, something Scotland seems keen to avoid. The geographical make-up of Scotland means that there is also a bigger incentive for Scottish local authorities to get involved.

"Digital connectivity is one of the top two or three issues that comes up as a concern. The local authorities are very conscious that there are real opportunities here to provide a more effective service and to save substantial amounts of money, which is obviously very important in the current climate," says Neilson.

The site is a small, but important part of an overall government strategy to push its public services to participate more fully in the growing digital economy, according to Neilson.

"I think that DirectScot is a part of the way we're trying to develop digital public services in Scotland and I would see that DirectScot will be contributing to the offer of transactional services across Scotland," he says.

"That is an area where there is clearly a relationship between DirectScot as the place where it appears on the net, and all of the thinking about how do you redesign public services in a way that works for the user, is convenient for the user, and is also cost effective."

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