‘The main challenge is how we get London to collaborate better’ – city’s first CDO Blackwell unveils top priorities

Written by Sam Trendall on 23 October 2017 in News
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Five weeks after taking on role as capital’s first-ever chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell unveils his three top priorities

Five weeks into his role as London’s first chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell has claimed the capital’s digital and data strategy will not be handed down from City Hall, but rather will be developed by identifying the needs of individual boroughs and providers of public services.

Former Camden councillor Blackwell was appointed in August by London mayor Sadiq Khan. After a little over a month in post, he has identified three key priorities. 

The first is to make sure the digital strategy is well aligned with the strategic objectives of the Greater London Authority and the councils of the city’s 32 boroughs. The second is identifying the “authorities that want to work and go to that next level… [and] find a coalition of the willing in London”, he said. The third priority is to try and align with the city’s other “major institutions”, in education and the arts.

A key part of delivering on the mayor’s ambition for the city to become a technology world leader will be fostering more collaboration both within and without London, according to Blackwell.

“London’s challenge is one of scale. If we look at Croydon or Barnet, they are the same size as New Orleans. Each borough has their own culture,” he said. “The challenge has been set for me to make London the smartest city in the world. The main challenge we have is how do we get London to collaborate better. London is a real leader in some ways, but the governance piece still needs to be done. We can also work with a coalition of the willing outside of London.” 


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The best way to encourage collaboration is by establishing the needs of individual authorities or other public-service bodies, rather than trying to disseminate a centrally devised strategy, Blackwell said.

“I think rather than saying ‘here is some IT back office why don’t all 32 of you work together’, that has changed to it starting where the need is,” he added. “If you start from a position of saying ‘here are all sorts of digital culture programmes [you can use]’, it is a position of critique, rather than collaboration. We will start with four or five use cases and take it from there.”

The London CDO said that public sector digital transformation has, in many cases, already picked off the low-hanging fruit of simple transactional services. Its challenge now is to ensure digital platforms and ways of working are of benefit in areas where their application is less obvious, Blackwell said.

“Some areas of digital transformation have been quite easy. In terms of customer services, we have rolled out all sorts of things that have improved the lives of citizens and given better value for money – it is easier to pay your rent and council tax [for example],” he said. 

Blackwell added: “If you get towards the more complex areas, we come to the extra challenge of how these [digital transformation] programmes explain what they do. Part of digital leadership is getting involved in more people-based services like social care and children’s services, and trying to [impart] the language and the digital way of thinking.”

Blackwell was speaking at the UK Smart Cities Index 2017 event held in London by Huawei and Navigant Consulting.

 

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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