One year on, have the metro mayors delivered digital devolution?

Written by Georgina Maratheftis on 5 May 2018 in Opinion

After 12 months in the job, the digital performance of the heads of the six city regions is assessed by Georgina Maratheftis of techUK

It’s now been a year since six new metro mayors were elected and we are making steady progress towards digital devolution, but we are not quite there yet. 

A truly digital city region will be more connected and integrated, with citizens, communities, and businesses reaping the benefits. Digital devolution presents one of the biggest opportunities to do things differently, and break down the traditional barriers to service delivery to drive improved outcomes for all. To coincide with the mayoral elections, techUK produced Digital Devolution: A Guide for Mayors, which set out a series of questions for the new mayors to ask their teams, to help them engender change and build capacity across the ecosystem of the place.

The mayors, with their direct and convening powers, can accelerate the pace of transformation, working closely with public sector, the community and industry to deliver better outcomes for all citizens by creating truly joined-up services and places where citizens want to live and thrive.

Articulating the digital vision of the city region is a good starting point, but a key component in creating the environment to enable successful transformation is leadership and culture. That is why we called for mayors to appoint a chief digital officer

The good news is that nearly all the metro mayors in some form have articulated a digital ambition, some going further than others to see the potential of digital not just for growing inward investment, but transforming industries and spearheading the transformation of local public services – solving challenges and, ultimately, redefining what a 21st-century city region can be.

Early on in their tenure, the mayors of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester launched their digital strategies with the aim to be the best and smartest digital city-region in the UK and world. 

Andy Burnham has held two tech summits to articulate his vision, while also engaging the wider community in the development of the digital strategy. Last autumn, Andy Street hosted the Urban Challenge for technology start-ups to develop new ideas to make the West Midlands a better place to live and work by helping to solve key local public service challenges.

Meanwhile, Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor James Palmer, Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, and West of England mayor Tim Bowles have put a greater emphasis on digital connectivity. Earlier this year Steve Rotheram announced the appointment of a specialist consortium to deliver an action plan to make the city region the most digitally connected in the UK, and Tim Bowles launched a digital study looking into this, as well as the digital skills gap.

Chief digital officers
Articulating the digital vision of the city region is a good starting point, but a key component in creating the environment to enable successful transformation is leadership and culture. That is why we called for mayors to appoint a chief digital officer (CDO). 

Andy Street is the first of the mayors to seek to do so, while Greater Manchester has a chief information officer in place. Though not a straightforward role, the CDO can play a unique role to help leaders and heads of services understand how digital can reshape services and become embedded in processes to deliver improved social outcomes. techUK urges the mayors of the city regions to take note of what is happening in West Midlands and London, where there is a CDO in place or to be appointed. 

Done right, and backed with proper resource and power to act on recommendations, this appointment can help break down barriers to deliver better outcomes.

The role and influence of the new metro mayors cannot be overestimated. 

Take the Budget 2017: the metro mayors were the clear winners when you see where the investment – particularly for the new Transforming Cities Fund – has been allocated. 

The success of the second West Midlands devolution deal illustrated the potential and influence a new metro mayor can leverage. The West Midlands devolution deal also paves the way for future deals to commit digital capability at the heart. 

The mayors, with their direct and convening powers, can accelerate the pace of transformation

This is a significant step, as the devolution agreement commits Government and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to a number of steps which support the delivery of a local industrial strategy and investment in key growth sectors, such as advanced manufacturing, digital, and new technologies. It also recognises the potential of data to improve public-service delivery using data and analytics securely and effectively for integrated local decision-making, planning, and delivery.

While we have seen positive signs towards digital devolution, some mayors have prioritised and embedded digital at the heart of their administration more than others. This seems to suggest there’s an argument for central government to embed digital more evenly into devolution deals, and provide greater leadership on what good looks like. 

Digital is more than just technology. 

It is about the collaborative and user-centric approach digital allows, and the opportunity it brings to do things both smarter and differently, from solving problems to achieving efficiencies. techUK urges the mayors to adopt a digital-first mindset, putting in place the leadership needed to help create the environment that enables improved collaboration collaboration across services and the place.  

About the author

Georgina Maratheftis (pictured above) is local government programme manager at techuk.  Look out on PublicTechnology next month for another article providing insight from techUK's team of industry experts.


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