Successful digital transformation in the public sector requires a significant shift in mind set from all employees to generate the best possible return for citizens. Councils also need to work together to generate ideas and platforms, which can then be shared across local government.
That is the view of Martyn Wallace, chief digital officer for the Scottish Local Government Digital Office, who is aiming to deliver innovative digital solutions to intractable frontline challenges. Wallace has been in his role eighteen months and has used his time in charge to help local government organisations across Scotland identify a series of priority projects – from mobile working to information security – that will create a platform for the service improvements that citizens demand.
Before helping to create the Digital Office, Wallace worked for some of Europe’s largest technology suppliers, including Capita, Telefonica O2UK and BlackBerry. He is using his knowledge to help inform the wider approach to technology-enabled change in local government:
In many ways, I'm almost like the poacher turned gamekeeper. I want to use my experience to create a fresh, agile way of operating. My main lesson so far for other public sector CIOs looking to push IT-enabled change is ‘don't give up’. Digital transformation is a massive, massive shift for most local government organisations. It requires a huge change in mind set.
Wallace and his colleagues in the Digital Office and working in partnership with Scotland’s local authorities to help push digital transformation programmes across the country. The digital-first approach aims to provide councils with a technology platform from which to deliver better services to their citizens in the future:
We have a small internal team and we collaborate with individuals in the councils across Scotland. At the end of the day, we can’t do everything for them. We can facilitate and help them navigate the challenges they need to overcome to go through transformation. But it's up to them to do the work. And that has its challenges, because some councils thought our role was to take them on digital transformation on their behalf.
We’ve had to tell them this is their journey and we're here to help them with the challenges they encounter. But we can't take responsibility for their concerns ourselves, because we've already got 58 programmes to manage.
Building strong relationships with public bodies
Wallace recognises his organisation is pursuing a novel approach to the challenges local government bodies face in terms of digital transformation, yet he also understands his Digital Office cannot work in isolation. Wallace says external relationships are crucial to success, pointing to close ties with public bodies across the UK and Westminster:
I guess what we’re all trying to develop is a kind of partnership where we learn from each other. What we’re saying is we don’t have to work in silos, with a traditional and staid way of working. It’s crucial to remember that councils across the UK, not just in Scotland, run the same services. The difference between councils in different places is the socio-economic conditions within which they operate, the connectivity and the geography.
But picking up a bin of waste in a location at the top end of Scotland should be the same as collecting rubbish from a borough in London. What we need to do is work together to create platforms to make those processes better, to open innovation and to then share the lessons learned. Because, at the end of the day, we're all in it together.
Wallace recognises the idea of generating – and then giving ideas – to other public bodies does not rest easily with some workers. Yet he says it is crucial to remember that Scottish organisations and authorities across the UK work together all the time, and it’s crucial that work continues:
There is – for want of a better term – an Uberisation occurring, where new apps and markets are being created all the time. I ask people in the councils about the apps they use in their personal lives and I ask why they like the software. Those reasons are often related to ease of use, user experience and the fluidity of the tool.
Then I ask the same people how those benefits could be brought to bear on council services. How could we, for example, make arranging a kerbside collection as easy as booking an Uber? How could we make booking a community hall like arranging an Airbnb? And when you use those examples, a lightbulb goes on. That’s where we want to get to because the modern citizen demands more from their councils.
Developing future-proof services
Wallace says change continues at pace. He refers to recommendations from the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, which was chaired by Campbell Christie in 2010 and which operated independently of government. The Commission pointed to the importance of building digital public services around the needs of the individual. However, Wallace says much has changed in the past decade:
From a service design perspective, we must think about the demands of those citizens and how we supply them. We must think of the touch points that bring citizens into contact with local government employees. People don’t really contact the council unless something has gone wrong.
They might have a problem with parking, potholes or lights, or they might have just been made redundant and want to contact the public sector about what to do next. So, we must think about how we get our services aligned back to the individual – and meeting that demand is about creating a shift in culture amongst people who work in local government.
Wallace says managing this transition is a significant challenge for all digital leaders in the public sector. However, he says his leadership peers in all organisations must help their public-facing colleagues recognise the benefits of IT-led change, even when it appears the technology could have negative consequences for the workers involved at the front end of digital transformation:
We need to think how staff can make the most of advances in technology. Yes, AI will lead to displacement of jobs – that’s a given. So, we must think about we reskill workers. We can use technology to ensure council workers help improve the lives of people, rather than spending time shuffling spreadsheets. The business cases are out there – we just need to concentrate on how we accelerate those developments in partnerships, so rather than working in silos, we work together.