Social Security Scotland delivers ambitious tech program in just 22 months

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth January 5, 2023
Launching a new public sector body and its technology services in under two years is possible; just ask Social Security Scotland.

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(Image by jorono from Pixabay )

Social Security Scotland is responsible for 12 different benefits, 7 of which are completely new and not available anywhere else in the UK. Taking on the delivery and management of 12 benefits within 22 months is a story of public sector technology adaptability and rapid decision-making. 

Andy McClintock, Chief Digital Information Officer of Social Security Scotland, took time at the NextStep Live event to describe the mountain his team has climbed, the technologies used and how a social security service is working to stem the skills shortage, both for its own needs, but also Scotland’s.  

The plans to design and build a brand-new social security system to deliver devolved benefits in Scotland began in the wake of the 2016 Scotland Act, which set out the intention to transfer benefits to a new Scottish service following the Scottish referendum of 2014. In 2018, the Scottish Parliament gave consent for a new Executive Agency – Social Security Scotland – to deliver devolved benefits in Scotland.  

Prior to 2018, the majority of social security provision in Scotland was managed by the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In September 2018, Social Security Scotland became operational. A new Executive Agency offered the opportunity of using a new technology-oriented approach to delivering front-line public services, but that comes with its own challenges. 

Today, the department is responsible for more than £3.5 billion a year in benefits paid out to people across Scotland. The design and build of a brand new major public service for Scotland to deliver something as complex as social security was quite a challenge in a tight turnaround time, as McClintock explains: 

I took up my post in February 2017; it was just myself and a desk in a building in Glasgow. We had to build the capability, platforms, infrastructure, and architecture and deploy everything by December 2018, when we paid our first benefit.

On our first meeting, I mistakenly suggested to McClintock he faced a rare opportunity to build a digital public sector service from a greenfield; it was anything other, he says: 

We had to uncouple systems from the DWP, and some of these are decades old and remain on mainframe technologies. It was not a case of building a platform, taking the data and doing our own thing because as long as there are two organizations delivering benefits in Scotland, there will be an integration and exchange of information. 

This is to make sure that the people of Scotland get the benefits administered not only by the Scottish government but also the UK government.

Building for longevity and speed

McClintock describes the 22-month deadline and build programme as a challenge. He says:

It has been a challenge from the outset. On that journey, we have stumbled a few times and made some mistakes, which we quickly learned from. There was no luxury of having a decade to build a platform or asking people if they had done it before because the only reference point was DWP, who have evolved as a department over five decades. 

In addition, we had a robust set of ministerial objectives to deliver. The public sees a swan gliding across the lake, but the team is paddling like anything below.

Given the scale of the task, Social Security Scotland’s Chief Digital Office has delivered on its remit. As a result, the Agency is seen in public sector circles as an example of what can be achieved through digitization; McClintock says: 

Most people view the government and public sector as being slow and monolithic. So finding tools that accelerated our delivery and that we could get to grips with quickly was key.

McClintock says Social Security Scotland has some large case management tools that underpin the department, as you would expect, but it was the adoption of a Low Code application development platform from OutSystems that provided the pace of delivery to the organization. 

From the outset, Social Security Scotland would have a high degree of technology re-use and a buy before build policy technology strategy. He says: 

We chose Low Code to get our applications delivered quickly and have deployed six applications across a range of client-facing needs and internal business processes.

Social Security Scotland chose to partner with OutSystems following a reference from the Crown Prosecution Service. Two factors made a case for Low Code; firstly, the ability to integrate with legacy technologies in other government departments. Secondly, the flexibility of the platform, which McClintock says is vital if government departments are to respond to changes in policy with the speed that citizens expect. He says: 

Policy has to continually change, so tools like this enable us to adapt to those changes. In addition, the fiscal landscape is going to be very different going forward.

With Social Security Scotland staff working across the country, which is one of the most rural in the UK and Northern Europe, it was essential that McClintock’s team could develop applications that worked as well in an offline scenario as when they have good network access. He says: 

In parts of Scotland, there are challenges with connectivity. But applications that work offline means our advisors can go out to speak to our clients in the most remote communities, and they can still capture information.

This also meant that Social Security Scotland needed applications with good cybersecurity, he says: 

We cannot afford to dabble with products with low cyber maturity when we are handling highly sensitive data. Our technology team did its due diligence and were satisfied. There are two things that keep me awake at night, the threat of being cyber compromised and the other is that people get paid.

Social Security Scotland has shared the pattern and code from their work and investment on Outsystems with the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, which demonstrates the credibility achieved by Scotland’s largest public sector organization. 

Skills benefit

Building a new government department and its technology core during a skills shortage added to the challenge. The Chief Digital Office has been working with local universities and CodeClan, a digital Bootcamp provider that operates in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Alongside the recruitment drive, Social Security Scotland is ensuring it has everything in place to retain technology talent for as long as possible, he says: 

When you get good people, you have to retain them, not just through pay, but also the tools that they will work with.

He adds that it has been important to tell the story of what Social Security Scotland is doing for Scotland and the opportunity; he says: 

People are attracted to us as they see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a major public service. One that is the most public-facing organisation that devolution has delivered.

My take

Governments announce policies, and then it can often feel like an age before that policy sees the light of day. Sometimes, for a good reason, there is a benefit in a long lead time from policy announcement to action, and rush jobs can and do cause major damage. 

However, the pace of the world is increasing, and citizens will, perhaps rightly, expect to see policy delivered more promptly. Social Security Scotland has demonstrated that this can be achieved - and still able to work with legacy technologies and with the systems and processes of other countries. In doing so, Social Security Scotland is also prepared and able to change tack should a policy decision require refinement or significant change.  

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