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Local Government: Shotguns, Preconceptions and Digital Leadership

Pete Swift


digital office

Pete Swift interviews Martyn Wallace, Chief Digital Officer, Scottish Local Government Digital Office.

I have watched Martyn Wallace present countless times, but this time was a little different – because just for a second I saw the polished public persona give way to a very telling revelation.

“It’s safe to say that before I took the Chief Digital Officer role I had a very different view of local government. After years in the private sector, I wanted to walk into the public sector and take a shotgun to pointless processes. I wanted to get in there and rip out the layers of inefficiency that were stifling progress. But then you get onto the other side and see the sheer breadth of the task, the sheer complexity of the challenge, and you appreciate the difficulties that the Council’s face when they are balancing pothole repairs with keeping people alive.” 

The presentation had focussed around digital transformation in the public sector, a difficult topic by anyone’s reckoning and an area which is frequently subject to scrutiny in the media. Whether it’s the IT infrastructure projects which over-run and under deliver, the connectivity failings in rural areas, or the slow adoption of new technology. There seems to be a recurring theme that the public sector has a legacy of failure when it comes to digital.

Certainly, there never seems to be a shortage of people queuing up to stick the boot into the public sector’s digital record. But it is very seldom that you hear someone from within the camp pushing back, let alone someone who confesses to have previously held the same preconceptions he now detests. That was why I was so keen to pick up with Martyn Wallace and discuss exactly what it was that made him change his mind.

I kick off by asking about the comments he made. He laughs, and tells me that he took himself by surprise:

It was actually a bit of an awakening, I must have been aware of it at some level, but it was only while I was standing there on stage saying it that I realised how my view had fundamentally changed.

Keen to explore this shift, I ask about his perception of the public sector before moving into his new role with the Local Government Digital Office.

“Professionally, I had seen the public sector from the view point of selling into it, where it’s very much frameworks and frustrating procurement processes. You tend to make presumptions from that perspective, you think it’s always about price and you don’t really appreciate what’s going on behind the scenes. 

“And then at a personal level, I think my views were probably reflective of what most people think. You see them as archaic and old fashioned, getting together for committee after committee. The council are just there, you can rely on them to pick up the bins and cut the grass, or you can whinge about the potholes and the traffic flow, but the majority of us do not really use services beyond that.”

I ask how his view of the councils have changed since seeing it from the inside.

Massively” he says: “You think you know local government and you make a hell of a lot of assumptions, but the reality is eye-opening, often eye-watering.

There was a show a few years ago set in the Raploch that gave a few people a jolt. You saw the council houses, depravity, lack of attainment, smoking, drugs, alcohol problems etcetera. And if you actually look at the fabric of society, there is an entire underbelly that needs to be supported by the council.

I did the Social Bite CEO sleep out at Christmas, and I know that one night does not do any justice to experiencing actual homelessness, but it does make you pause and think about the toils that some people go through day in day out. And for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community, the council are their lifeline. The councils are keeping these people alive. Their most vital role is supporting those most at need.  

But for most of us we don’t really take stock of that, we just want to decry the state of the roads, or complain about bin collections and closures to local services. People complain about the closures of services they don’t even use. But the councils don’t have any money, the axe has to fall somewhere and you’ve got to prioritise the people that need it the most.

It is this lack of understanding that really angers me sometimes, it honestly pains me. If you stood in the shoes of a social worker and see what they see day after day your mind would change about the council and you would rapidly come to realise the difficult choices they face.

Wallace thinks that fundamentally it’s a perception problem stemming from the fact that most people have such limited interaction with the council. He makes the case that if the majority of the community do not require the emergency support being provided, then it’s easy to forget that these services exist at all, let alone vie for budgetary priority.

Picking up on these budgetary choices and his original comments regarding public sector inefficiency, I probe whether there are improvements to be made, whether there are layers of bureaucratic process than can be stripped out to save money.

If we look at the public purse just now we have a 2-3 % reduction in budgets for a few years, left from the cost-cutting exercises after the economic crisis of 2007. We have to do more with less, that’s the reality and that’s been the mantra for many years.

But there are a number of barriers and challenges to surmount. We have ageing infrastructure and IT legacy systems, and ageing processes in terms of procurement etcetera. We also have a very risk averse culture – which is perfectly understandable when you have audit committees and public scrutiny – but I think that it is something we need to work to improve.

There is also room for improvement in collaboration. There are some great examples of best practice out there – great ideas, great initiatives – but we’re doing it in silos. We need to see something done right, tweak it – but only if it’s absolutely necessary – and replicate it 32 times. We need to take best of breed, the gold standard and apply them across the board.

As an example of the disparity, we have a couple of councils that have deployed Office 365 as a digital transformation platform, which is fantastic. They’ve interpreted PSN compliance in one certain way and mitigated the risks and got it signed off as secure. But then we have other Councils that are completely against that because they believe it is not secure. So why can some Councils deem it to be ok when others rule it out?

That’s where we have to bust some myths. We have to make sure we are secure yes, but we have to digitally transform as well. We have to interpret the rules once and then take the right course of action across the board.

The need to transform public services in line with technological opportunity is obvious, but driving real substantial change in any large, traditional organisation is difficult. And the public sector is faced with additional challenges on top, which exacerbate the problem. In a business environment, commercial forces and competition effectively kill-off organisations which fail to evolve. This is recognised to be one of the central strengths of capitalism, as the system is predicated on the survival of the fittest. But the public sector is largely insulated from this competitive element, whilst subject to the same end-user expectations and technological disruption.

I ask Wallace whether this lack of commercial pressure makes it more difficult for public sector organisations to transform in line with social and technological evolution.

If we look at the digital revolution and we look at the rise of Amazon and Google and the subsequent demise of Blockbuster and Woolworths, you see the failure of traditional, safe businesses to compete with new market entrants. 

If we take the local councils, we’re safe, we’re traditional, but we have to move with the times. The private sector have competitiveness and that is definitely a catalyst for moving fast and implementing change because they’ve got to compete. But we’ve got to change as well, the public are demanding more and we’ve got to keep up with the times.

So to address the specifics of transforming public services and moving with the times, what more needs to be done?

It’s all about the service delivery and personal interaction for me. And that’s where I want to help use digital to change and improve the end-user experience.

We need to learn more from the best examples that are out there. We need to take the best app and look at it to define what makes it great. Is it the interface or the user experience, what does it mean to you? We need to take that understanding and apply it to public sector services.

Roadside collection should be as easy as hailing an UBER. Booking a room in a community centre should be as easy as booking a room through AirBnB. That’s the experience we should be aiming for at Local Government.

I ask how the current structures, systems and processes can produce these outcomes in practice, what needs to change?

I think it starts with procurement, it’s always going to be about value and cost but that needs to be best value in the digital age. I think changing the methodology in procurement is a good way of doing that.

We rely too much on a waterfall approach to procurement. It goes to the market with one big functional spec, and typically goes to one of the big systems integrator (SI) providers. Then it’ll take a year or two to implement and by the time it’s implemented the policy has shifted or the business process has changed.

So we’ve got to have a more agile, outcome focussed approach – not a pre-designed functional spec. We have to go out and see the citizen and co-design solutions around their direct needs. We need to do the same with staff, we need to ask them what tools they need to help them do their job and work backwards in making that a reality. The key to this is asking better questions to get better answers and outcomes.

Once we have this grounding, we can have an open day where we present the outcomes to suppliers and find whoever is best placed to work with us. Then we can start applying this straight away to practical projects, not pilots – we need to sack anybody who mentions pilots. We need to apply this to an area of value from the off and think of this as version 1.0. And then we should keep iterating and keep improving going forward.

There also has to be more focus on interoperability and openness in the ecosystem as well. It has to be based on open API’s – we cannot use bespoke solutions any longer. It has to be plug in, plug out solutions, every piece in the jigsaw needs to be interchangeable and able to talk to each other.

I question whether there is the right leadership in place to deliver the outcomes and end-user experiences Wallace desires. Given that Digital leadership so often appears to be an area of contention, I ask whether he thinks there is a fundamental problem in this area.

The chief executives have a big job on their hands, with reduced budgets, high expectations from citizens, and huge continuous output requirements. But if you look at the boards, if you look at the top team in SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers), they get it, they know what needs to be done.

And there is movement, there are new appointments such as my own; we are recruiting, bringing in new people and building the team to deliver. We have also established 18 new programmes which are very ambitious and focus around making tangible improvement in targeted areas.

If the fundamental digital leadership is there, I ask why he thinks there is such frequent criticism in this area.

I think it’s the speed of execution. I think that is the challenge because we do have these constraints like legal and policy. And I think the pace of change makes the public sector more exposed to criticism around leadership, because there is the perception that we are not keeping pace with the world around us.

But I honestly think the changes are coming: there is that desire to make it happen and we’ve put things in place to achieve the ambitions. The Scottish Government digital agenda was recently updated and a big part of that is joining up the ecosystems. There is a move towards a common architecture, a shared approach and greater collaboration. And all of these things combined should help drive progress and move this forward. We’ve now just got to step up and make it a reality.

But it is not an easy path and it’s not a quick fix, and I do think that we could do with a bit more understanding. I think we could achieve so much more if we were given a bit of slack. It’s easy to throw stones at the council, let’s face it we are an easy target. But I assure you that when you see the full picture of what these organisations are dealing with, the weight of the priorities they are balancing, you would realise the scale of the task. Then, like I did, you would drop your preconceptions and see the reality of what the Council really does.

Pete Swift

DIGIT Managing Editor and Head of Research

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