Public Sector Focus

22.12.16

Human by default

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 17

It’s time councils leave uncertainty behind and take the plunge into full-scale digitisation, argues Martyn Wallace, the chief digital officer of the new Scottish Local Government Digital Office. Luana Salles reports.

Martyn Wallace concluded his interview with PSE with a thought perhaps more fitting at the very start of any conversation about digitisation: “There’s obviously fear, uncertainty and doubt, but we should just embrace it – because at the end of the day, digital is not a ‘thing’; it’s just a normal way of life and how we interact these days.” 

Wallace was speaking in his capacity as the chief digital officer at the brand-new Scottish Local Government Digital Office, established in early October after receiving the go-ahead from Solace and the Local Government Digital Transformation Board. Along with chief technology officer Colin Birchenall, he will be responsible for captaining a major push towards ‘digital by default’ across the country’s 32 unitary local authorities.

Or, as Wallace noted, perhaps a better term would be ‘human by default’. “By 2020, I want every council in Scotland to be a digital business. We apply a ‘digital first’ principal in terms of service, but it’s human by default,” he explained. 

“What I mean by that is that we co-design it with the citizen to get the best outcome. We look at the outcomes that we need to get and what we need to do in terms of service changes and how we support people, and then the technology supports that. A good example would be things like health and social care, which have merged together across Scotland – how can we make use of things like Internet of Things, big data in a secure method, and artificial intelligence?” 

Outcomes first 

The distinction between looking at outcomes and identifying the right technology to deliver them – rather than looking to technology as a way to fix a problem – is an important one. “With digital, a lot of people go the wrong way round; it has to be outcomes first,” said Wallace. “What do you want to achieve, and how does technology support that? If we’re clear on that, that’s ideal.” 

Despite his background in both the public sector and in private giants like Capita and Telefonica, he takes most of his inspiration and drive from his own family. His parents have always struggled with a handful of health issues and frequently make use of digital tech, such as wi-fi kettles, smart lighting and Fitbits, to better navigate their day-to-day lives. 

As well as being motivated to streamline even more ideas like these, Wallace wants to look at early pockets of innovation that can be adopted now to ensure individuals can benefit from more effective local government services going forward. 

Finding the common interest 

While it’s still early days, almost all councils have already signed up to the challenge both in spirit and in cash, with the remaining five authorities expected to join the team by the end of the year. Potential projects will comprise both national programmes of interest – such as accelerating mobile flexible working, cloud benefits realisation and navigating data protection – and regionally-specific endeavours, such as collaborations between councils with similar needs. 

“It’s just trying to find that common interest so we can actually do it once and then roll it out 32 times, rather than the existing model, where we do it 32 times and roll it out once,” he argued. “And I think in terms of mindset, it has to be bi-modal – so we look at mode 1 of ‘how do we keep the lights on, how do we work with what we’ve got’, and then we’ll do that change to get to mode 2, which is basically our forward-thinking innovation piece. 

“We have large-scale archaic systems that we have always used for many years, so how do we take them and web-enable them – get APIs, create data stores, and get the nuggets of information we really need to do digital transformation?” 

Appetite for change 

While Wallace maintained that councils already have in-house skills to drive this digital revolution themselves – with “pockets of excellence” already there – he outlined a few of the existing obstacles that prevent them from ultimately taking the plunge. As well as geographical challenges, Scottish councils that are passionate about innovation have often been held back because “they haven’t had the money or the help of accelerating it, to do something differently”. 

But he guaranteed the appetite for change is already there: “We have to do something differently. Budgets are dwindling across all councils and we have an increasingly ageing population, so digital is the last lever we can pull to deliver better outcomes whilst saving money. 

“I’ve received invites from every single council to go and see them. There is an appetite – but I think essentially there is also an actual need behind it. So how do we then work together as one team? It doesn’t matter if you’re Shetland, Glasgow, Edinburgh, the Borders; we may have different accents, but at the end of the day, we’re a public service, so we can’t be doing 32 things completely and utterly differently 32 times.” 

Collaboration is also expected to extend to the private sector, Wallace noted, arguing that there is already “cross-pollination” between the public and private spheres. “The question I have posed to some councils is: what would Google do if they were a council? How would Uber approach the service? 

“There has to be cohesion in terms of ideas, cohesion of working together, because if we don’t work together then somebody else will come and do it to us. It’s about working in conjunction in a proper partnership model, in an agile method standard.” 

Digital disrupts everything 

Asked about which parts of local government would be affected, he clarified that digital is not just a channel shift. Instead, it “disrupts everything, every single sector”. 

“It’s not only going to disrupt local government – it’s going to disrupt policing, health, fire services, central government,” said Wallace. “So how do we create equal systems, between us, that can conjoin and help flow data? How do we create an ecosystem across all the public sector that can be in the benefit of the citizen? Cloud is the engine and data is the fuel.” 

While this kind of widespread digital disruption often raises questions around inclusivity, with elderly people often shut off from new technology, Wallace argued that this landscape is changing. “We decry the ageing population as not being ‘digitally savvy’, but there are a lot more people in the older generation using iPads, Skype, Kindles and various other things,” he added. “And a statistic for you: 87% of Scots are online, according to the Scottish Charity and Voluntary Organisation.” 

But what about the leftover 13%? “Let’s look at the 87% of people who are online, get as much services online and digital as possible, so we can then reapportion our budget back to that 13% who might need that service the most,” Wallace argued. 

“And it’s not just about websites: it’s about having a digital ecosystem so frontline staff have the information, tools and data to make informed choices in their field, but at the same time the data is spread into the back office, so managers, clinicians and social workers can make informed choices based on what they’re actually capturing out in the field.”

W: www.lgictstrategy.org.uk

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