A hundred days in, are the new metro mayors keeping their digital promises?

Georgina Maratheftis of techUK urges the new city-region chiefs not to neglect digital devolution

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram were two of six metro mayors elected in May, with the Sheffield city region going to the polls next year to elect a new leader  Credit: PA

A hundred days in, it is still far too early to say if the devolved city regions have become truly digital. 

However, as a sound starting point, we are seeing vision and ambition clearly articulated by many of the new mayors. Just last month, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (pictured above, on the right, with Liverpool City mayor Steve Rotheram) built on his manifesto promise and, at the first ever Greater Manchester Digital and Tech Summit, made loud and clear his plans to harness the power of tech to spark a new digital revolution. While others such as Andy Street, West Midlands mayor, had an additional manifesto dedicated to digital plans for the city region. 

Across the winning candidates’ manifestos were commitments to putting in place digital infrastructure for the future. But how do we now accelerate this?

The first step is the vision. Taking this forward and implementing it requires high-level buy-in. 

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A new mayor can be at the forefront of this by putting in place the right digital leadership. Mayors should look to appoint a chief digital and innovation champion (CDIC), who will play a unique and supportive role to help leaders, relevant council leads, and heads of services understand how digital can be embedded in processes to deliver improved social outcomes. 

The CDIC, supported by a dedicated innovation unit, will work across the city region to foster new partnerships and offer practical support to test new ideas in developing a smart city. With devolution bringing a more place-based approach, partnership-building is crucial in sharing knowledge and avoiding any unnecessary duplication. Budgets should also reflect the opportunity in devolution providing meaningful consolidation of statutory services. To maximise opportunities and savings, the mayor should look to combine purchasing powers, delivering more efficient integrated services across the city region. 

Powering a city region on data, with a clear commitment from the mayor to open up data and make decisions based on citywide data, is key to enabling resources to be targeted more effectively. This will help to reduce costs, as well as designing more predictive services that lead to better outcomes. 

Opening up data also affords local businesses and start-ups the opportunity to interpret the problem and become suppliers of innovative local solutions. It is also a great way to add value to the city region, connecting the community and allowing citizens to use data to crowdsource and solve their own issues. The London Datastore and Data Mill North are fantastic examples of platforms that are using data to generate innovation in their region.

The next four years represent a crucial juncture in a city region’s digital development. Each city region has the potential to lead the next wave of transformation and be a hub for new jobs and investment. A digital skills task force of local partners should convene as a priority to agree on a skills-development pipeline. A complete digital ecosystem will address the skills challenge from school to adult life with the right provisions, education, and training in place. 

While the mayors are still at the beginning of their journey, they must not forget the opportunities digital devolution could bring to the city region. Digital devolution presents one of the biggest opportunities to do things differently, break down the traditional barriers to service delivery, and drive improved outcomes for all.  


Sam Trendall

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