Reform Scotland

Distributed data infrastructure & decentralised service provision – Alan Mitchell

Lord McConnell asks some interesting and important questions in his May 2023 article on decentralisation and devolution. We take a slightly different view. 

Too often in debates like these we get hamstrung by words which can create false dichotomies. Is centralisation ‘bad’ by definition, and decentralisation and devolution ‘good’? It depends, of course, on what we are trying to achieve: structure needs to enable function.

Take the human body. The heart is a centralised, single-point-of-failure system. Does that make it ‘bad’? What it does, however, is pump oxygen to every tiniest part of the body and in doing so it actually enables decentralisation in a highly structured, specific way – e.g. the capillaries. 

The immune system on the other hand isn’t even ‘decentralised’ (which implies some counterpoint of centralisation). The only way it can fulfill its function is by being distributed and unspecific – ready to take on any invader no matter what shape or form they may take.

The human body is also a ‘nested hierarchy’. Each organ and system – such as the liver, heart or brain – concentrates almost entirely on doing its own thing (in a way that enables other parts to do their own thing). But together, they make up a whole with some decisions completely ‘centralised’, such as the decision to risk your life jumping into a river to save a drowning child.

Two key questions arise from this. First, what is it that we are actually trying to achieve? Simply put, in our view, the goal is to create a fair, efficient system. Fairness depends on effective voice: people having a say via fair processes that enable them to influence the decisions that affect them. But fairness needs to operate efficiently. The processes of effective voice themselves will not be fit for purpose if they are overly burdensome and complex, and they need to contribute to the efficient workings of the whole.

To achieve this we need to accept there may be different horses for different courses, as with the human body.

The second question is, is this system fit for purpose in current circumstances? Twenty years ago, the nature of fossil fuel-based energy production created a need for centralised energy generating plants that fed a national electricity distribution grid (rather like the heart and the capillaries). Today, the rise of renewable energy sources such as solar (and, to a lesser extent, wind) point to increased decentralisation. System structures need to change with the times.

One big, increasing transformational change relates to data, especially personal data which lies at the heart of every service dealing with every named individual across central and local government, health and care services, financial services, education training and employment, personal mobility, retail, leisure and so on. 

Historically, this data has been collected in a highly centralised but siloed way, with each organisation collecting and generating its own data for its own purposes and keeping this data held, close to its chest, in its own proprietary databases. Over the years, this system has become both unfair and extremely inefficient. 

For reasons explained here the best way to achieve both fairness and efficiency is to create a new distributed data system whereby each individual is able to collect and store their own data, including copies of data held about them by organisations, independently of these organisations in their own personal database (or store), in a way that makes them hubs for the sharing of their own data under their control.

This distributed data infrastructure creates countless opportunities for new and improved forms of decentralised service provision. 

Take local ‘clusters’: where many different organisations each need to contribute their specialist bit to addressing an individual’s overall service need and where the individual needs to share specific bits of data with these organisations to create a seamless, joined up outcome at the lowest possible cost.

Clusters are everywhere: for example when dealing with cancer, moving home, tackling poverty, or discharging from hospital. They create a need for cooperation, coordination and integration at levels that don’t fit either the categories of ‘central’ or ‘local’ government, and which routinely cut across these categories. 

Scotland’s particular attempt to decentralise Government started 30 years ago and no doubt, many of the issues raised then remain today. But in the intervening period, digital and data have moved to the fore and completely new distributed personal data store infrastructure has been built (by Mydex Community Interest Company over the last 16 years). This includes the Inclued platform which enables the data sharing needed for community engagement and activities, and for the fair efficient operation of clusters. By using infrastructure that places individuals in control of their data, Include builds fairness via voice into how day-to-day processes work. 

Such common data infrastructure is not the whole solution, but it is becoming an important part of the solution for devolving power across Scotland in fit for purpose ways across multiple, diverse sets of circumstances, and for empowering communities and individuals below local authority level. Such new, distributed, person centred enabling infrastructure can cast new light on age-old issues relating to political structure and governance.

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

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