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How Registers of Scotland modernised the world’s oldest land register

Powered by AWS, the Scottish government body is on an evolving digital journey.

How do you go about modernising and digitally transforming an organisation that holds over 21 public registers, containing nationally critical information that dates back over 400 years?

That is the challenge Registers of Scotland (RoS) has contended with over the past decade. The Scottish governmental body is responsible for keeping public registers of land, property and other important legal documents. RoS’s most notable registers, the Land Register of Scotland and the General Register of Sasines – the oldest national public land register in the world – are particularly critical, underpinning Scotland’s land and property market.

The challenge of digitally transforming RoS accelerated during the pandemic. Like many other organisations, RoS closed its office and post rooms. Paper-based land and property transactions (including the buying and selling of houses) could no longer be submitted physically. Following rapid legislative change, in a matter of weeks RoS built and launched its award-winning digital submissions service, enabling solicitors to submit land and property transactions online. This played a key role in the property market recovery of this period.

Today RoS is far along the road of its digital journey. To advance, it has had to change from using restrictive technologies, legacy systems and outdated ways of working. The RoS vision is to become a “digital registration business, trusted for its integrity”, and to realise this vision for its customers (land and property professionals and the citizens of Scotland), who are at the heart of everything it does. How has RoS managed to tackle the problem of outdated technology?

“The biggest problem with legacy systems is that they limit an organisation’s ability to innovate at speed,” says Paul Christie, the head of IT enablement at RoS. “It means from a [company’s] overhead perspective that you’re investing in maintaining and sustaining the status quo, rather than looking to the future and driving innovation.”

In 2019, before the Covid outbreak, RoS launched a series of strategies to create resilient, flexible and sustainable digital foundations. The aim was to enable the development of direct, value-add services for customers. “Our product sustainability strategy was the foundational element of this work,” says Christie. RoS would rethink the legacy elements of its digital estate, driving down risk, improving customer experience, and creating a technology ecosystem that could keep pace with the organisation’s ambitious appetite for innovation.

To implement these strategies, RoS made good use of cloud technology, alongside agile delivery. “We created a culture where, through product centricity, enduring ownership of our digital products became part of business operations,” says Christie. “This ensured a well-informed trade-off system, which constantly considered customer value-add for the future, alongside the essential life-cycle support of our digital systems, sustaining the equilibrium of delivery and ability to deliver.”

A big driver in facilitating these changes was the cloud. The cloud strategy had four principles. The first, Christie explains, was to drive organisational and customer value through RoS being agile and innovative. “What that really looks like in practise,” he says, “it’s all about empowering our software engineering capabilities, giving our developers the mastery and autonomy to do their best job – which is to build great tools and services for our colleagues and customers.”

The second, Christie continues, is how to apply the first principle “in a way that only increases our resilience and our security posture”. Third, Christie adds, is to “reduce the heterogeneity of our digital estate. To ensure that our rebuilding truly decommissions the full stack of on-premises legacy, and that the new services are deployed using reusable, common patterns and code constructs.” The fourth principle, a longer-term one, is “to drive greater cost efficiency in the lifetime cost of ownership of digital products”.

It has been a big undertaking for RoS’s workforce to learn and adapt to these new digitised ways of working. Systems and learning mechanisms needed to be put in place to help ensure staff felt supported and were up to speed.

“Tech is just one piece of the puzzle,” says Christie. “We worked very hard with colleagues across the organisation to maximise the potential that technology has to offer, by harmonising our maturity steps with the other core pillars of skills, structure, and culture.”

Breaking out of the siloed “IT as cost-centre” approach and blurring the lines between digital and business operations was a huge part of changing the way RoS operates. “It was and still is a great journey to be on,” Christie says, “because you can [progressively] see the [workforce’s] potential being unlocked, picking up pace as we mature.”

Those support mechanisms led to increased productivity, and bred a “culture of innovation and empowerment”, says Christie. People “could tangibly feel the difference that they’re making to the organisation, to the customer”.

Partnering RoS in its digital transformation is AWS Professional Services. RoS used AWS Professional Services as complementary guiding consultants, as subject matter expert advisers to their existing, very capable workforce. “[Using AWS services], our time to deliver and develop new registers has reduced by approximately 50 per cent,” says Christie. “All of this ultimately means that the end user, the Scottish public, is benefiting. We can be more agile – which means that we can react to their demands much quicker.”

AWS Professional Services engaged in a way that felt like a “true partnership”, according Christie. “By using native AWS services… we have unlocked innovative tools which would have been impossible to replicate in the days of on-premises hosting.”

Christie continues: “It’s been an enabler for our [product] developer colleagues to do their best work, and that allows us to better serve our business, and our customers.” 

Registers of Scotland – case study | AWS content hub | Register for AWS legacy modernisation week [On Demand] | AWS Professional Services

[See also: Does Labour have a future in Scotland?]

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