THOSE DAMNED STAKEHOLDERS…BRING BACK THE DOMESDAY BOOK!

DAVID LEE

I’ve never been a fan of jargon and there is one word in particular that I have never found fit for purpose: stakeholders. It adds no traction to my narrative.

And often, it’s not just stakeholders but stakeholder engagement, stakeholder buy-in, stakeholder feedback – and various other stakeholder additionality.

In general, therefore, I am not well-disposed to those who pepper their speech and writing with such phrases – but I was prepared to make an exception for Iain McKay of the Improvement Service last week.

Iain was speaking at an event called A world-class digital land and information database for Scotland and brought a humorous slant to what might have been a dry topic. He did use the word datasets a few times, but as that is his area of expertise, I’ll not run that one up the flagpole.

The broader thrust of the conference was whether it was possible to create a system where all the information you need to buy land or property can be found easily and effectively in one place. Such a system exists in Norway – using an online portal called Infoland where all information can be accessed, most of it within a few minutes. This has speeded up land and property transactions dramatically, in some cases from a few weeks to a few hours.

Norway is fifth in the World Bank’s rankings for ease of property transactions. The UK (Scotland is not listed separately) is a lowly 68th. If it was a school report, it would certainly say “Can do better”.

Speaking at the conference, John Swinney said the current system, where information is spread across different websites and is often very difficult to find, just isn’t not good enough.  Bringing it all together could make transactions quicker, more efficient and probably cheaper, with benefits for consumers, businesses, the public sector and the wider economy. What’s not to like?

Mr Swinney announced he was setting up as task force (a word that falls just short of a loud bleep on the jargon-o-meter) headed up by Keeper of the Registers of Scotland, Sheenagh Adams.  The task force is, ahem, tasked, to report on how we can do things better – by the end of July, which is commendably soon; no kicking this issue into that long grass where fracking currently hides.

So back to Iain McKay. He was happy that Mr Swinney had highlighted the need for speed, and noted a useful historical example to make his point.

The Domesday Book, McKay informed us, had been completed in 18 months. He suggested this was an impressively swift exercise in data capture – and then came to “stakeholder buy-in”. Just as I was about to slump in my chair and sound the jargon klaxon, McKay redeemed himself.

“Stakeholder buy-in was much easier in the 11th century,” he said, “because the sanctions for not complying were land confiscation or death.” The amount of paperwork generated by the compliance and governance authorities was probably considerably less onerous back in the 1080s than it is today, he suggested. No red tape task force for The Normans.

McKay and other speakers accepted that modern-day bureaucracy and complexity created barriers to a single information service – but that the biggest barrier of all was funding, especially for local authorities.

However, a wide range of speakers exhibited a genuine commitment to work together to make this land and property information service happen. Lawyers were positive – it would be much easier to get hold of the relevant information and the system would be smoother, but they would still be required by clients to interpret that information and advise on a way forward. Surveyors were on board too, though it was pointed out that any service needed to be useful and not just foisted upon us all without any real thought as to exactly what it would do.

When a similar idea, ScotLIS (Land Information Service) was trialled around 15 years ago, it stalled largely due to the technology architecture not being fit for purpose (the IT wasn’t up to it) and a lack of political will. Fast forward and the IT systems are easily good enough and Mr Swinney is an advocate inside the Scottish Government who wants it to happen, and happen quickly.

Big but unsexy ideas like this are interesting. Often, we all wring our hands and say ‘We can do better – we must do better’ and then bemoan the “cluttered landscape” and the competing interests of those damned stakeholders when nothing much happens.

This could be different – Norway’s system is there as a great example and everyone seems to be on the bus. Instead of the ‘Can do better – must do better’, the language of last week’s conference was much more positive. Stewart Brymer, a respected lawyer and one of the main driving forces behind the project, asked “Can we do it?” and replied (in the style of Barack Obama, or Bob The Builder if you prefer) “Yes we can – and yes, we will.”

To return to where I started, I’ve never been fan of jargon. But on this occasion, I really think that stakeholder engagement has traction and that we are into win-win territory. See you later, I’m just off to pick some low-hanging fruit.

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