‘Councils have to change’: Scottish local government CDO Martyn Wallace has big plans for his new role

Just a month into his new job as chief digital officer for the 28 Scottish councils that have pooled their digital resources, Martyn Wallace already has big plans for his team.

Martyn Wallace has big plans for the Scottish local government office – Photo credit: Martyn Wallace

Martyn Wallace is entering his fourth week in a job created to drive the digital agenda across 28 of Scotland’s councils. But his first major task is more of a physical one.

“The immediate target is to get round every Scottish council,” says the chief digital officer for the newly created Scottish local government digital office. “I am doing the Scottish tour – like Billy Connolly but I’m less funny.”

Off the back of a digital transformation strategy approved by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Scottish Local Government Digital Transformation Board earlier this year, the new office has been funded for a minimum of three years.

Wallace was one of two appointments made last month to spearhead the project. “We will basically help [the councils] get their own transformation going, accelerated or finished, and ensure they’re creating top-class digital services for the citizen,” he says.

“There has been a lot of digital activity in Scottish local government, which has perhaps been done in isolation in small pockets here and there. My team and I will be looking for the best in these, which we can lift and shift, accelerate and roll out nationally rather than just in small areas. It means that all councils can benefit from it.”

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A self-proclaimed digital evangelist whose experience has largely been in IT and telecommunications, he admits his first week in post was spent realising “how naïve I’ve been on the outside looking in” when it comes to complexities the public sector faces. “I could be classed as a kind of poacher turned gamekeeper,” he quips, having moved from selling into the public sector to being part of it.

As well as the 28 councils that have signed up, the rest are in talks about joining the network. Although a model is still to be consulted on, the current thinking is that a mix of national digital programmes could be combined with five hubs spread across the country.

“There is an appetite [among councils] for change,” says Wallace. “They have to [change], they absolutely have to, because budgets are getting smaller.

“Whether there are bigger opportunities in some councils, possibly – but I think there is an opportunity in every council, whether you are Angus, whether you are Shetland, or whether you are in the central belt, and the Glasgow and Edinburgh metropolises.

“There is a fundamental change in terms of service design. We have to think about it not with the, ‘This is the user, this is the service, that’s it’. It’s understanding what the need really is and then understanding how their needs will impact on to other service areas and working back from there. Start with the end in mind.”

‘Low-hanging fruit’

Health and social care integration – a reform project that has dominated the policy landscape of late – is “low-hanging fruit” as far as Wallace is concerned. It’s a judgment that has been borne out by his personal life as well as his professional one, after his father had a stroke earlier this year.

Up to a dozen forms – “much of which was the same information time and time again” – had to be filled in to access support and have the family home converted for his father and mother, who has MS, diabetes and epilepsy.

“The ideal solution in this sort of scenario would have been some sort of form you fill in once online or on a tablet in hospital, which would have said, ‘People who have this condition or filled in this form have also looked at filling in additional information for X’, which would have saved time, increased quality of data and ensured they and family were getting the right services quickly.”

This is quite a literal interpretation of digital disruption, although it’s somewhat emblematic of his stated ambition to use technology for a purpose more than anything else.

“From personal experience, but also just looking wider, we’ve seen digital disruptions in many markets,” he says. “We’ve seen Amazon dominate the retail market, we’ve seen Uber with the taxi market, we’ve seen Airbnb with hotels, and we’ve seen the likes of Netflix take out Blockbuster.

“Those principles of disruptive services could be brought into local authorities. We either disrupt ourselves or someone else will do it to us.”

Ordering a special collection for environment services, for example, could involve clicking a button on an app equivalent to booking a taxi on Uber, he suggests. Likewise, booking a space within a council’s physical estate “should be as easy as booking a hotel room in Airbnb”.

Wallace says that a lot of the talk about e-government for 20 years has been “about getting services online” – but his view is that digital is about more than that.

“It is about putting digital solutions all the way through the business,” he says. This means frontline staff having the right tools, equipment and data to help them make better decisions in the field, as well as collecting that data to help senior managers make improvements elsewhere.

Social care information, for instance, could be linked up to health, police and fire datasets to identify whether the same vulnerable adults are interacting with different agencies.

“The issue is, I don’t think at the moment those datasets talk to each other, so there will be people who are falling through the cracks of the system…who could get earlier intervention, which then prevents them from needing longer term, more expensive solutions later on,” says Wallace.

Changing mindsets

Of course, where data is involved, security concerns are never far behind. In June 2015, more than 13,000 email addresses were stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database following a breach. And earlier this year it emerged four Scottish councils were subject to ransomware attacks, where data is encrypted and the attacker demands a ransom to release it.

“I totally understand the security concerns in the public sector,” says Wallace. “Nobody wants to see their council in the paper for having a data breach.”

But, he says, councils must also look at all the elements of a digital solution, “wrap it in security” and test it. “We also need to make sure we stick to the facts rather than get bogged down with myths.”

It is clear Wallace wants to shift the thinking around security in local government. For instance, he says, he often sits in presentations and hears ideas that would really work, but then discussion moves to high-profile data breaches, hacks or attacks.

“You get 20 minutes hearing the good stuff and then 40 minutes of all the reasons why we shouldn’t because this one time someone got hacked and security was bad,” he says.

“We have to get away from that mentality. It’s about sticking to the facts and taking calculated risks,” Wallace says. “As long as you take an appropriate view, an appropriate risk log, and you believe you have covered the risk and have appropriate ways and means of wrapping security around it, it shouldn’t prohibit progress in the digital world.”

Making lives easier

After just four weeks, it remains to be seen how much progress the new office will make. Wallace does, however, know the distance he wants to see covered by the time three years are up.

“I would like to see some true transformation from the councils,” he says. This ranges from more adoption of the cloud and a good mobile platform for interacting with citizens to scalable Internet of Things solutions.

He also wants to see “secure digital places”, which would be digital hubs of excellence where all elements of the council and their partners can interact and share information. Citizens would also be able to use an authentication layer with an account or Verify to allow them to retain control of their data.

But, despite his long wish-list, Wallace has one overarching aim for this time in the job. “Fundamentally, at the end of the three years I would love to see that my team and I, in conjunction with our councils, are making people’s lives easier in Scotland in some way, shape or form through digital methods.”


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