Tech 100: 'There is an appetite among councils to change - they have to change'

Written by Staff Reporter on 25 October 2016 in Feature

New chief digital officer for local government, Martyn Wallace, kicks off our Tech 100 in his first interview since being appointed

Martyn Wallace is entering his fourth week in a job specifically created to drive the digital agenda throughout Scotland’s councils. His first major task is a more physical one, though.

“The immediate target is to get round every Scottish council,” says the chief digital officer for the newly created 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 Local Government Digital Transformation Board earlier this year, the new office has been funded by a consortium of Scottish councils for a minimum of three years to turn it into a reality.


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Wallace was one of two appointments made last month to spearhead it. “We will basically help them (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 basically lift and shift, accelerate and roll out nationally rather than just in small areas. It means that all councils can benefit from it."

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.

Twenty-eight councils have signed up with the rest in talks about joining them. 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 there [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 understand how their needs will impact on to other service areas and working back from there. Start with the end in mind.”

Health and social care integration, for instance – 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 professional one after his father suffered 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 both his father as well as his 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 potentially 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.”

As well as a wet room and ramp to help both his parents, the house has since been fitted with the likes of wi-fi lights. “My dad then regretted it because my mum now uses it to attract his attention because of selective hearing he has developed over 45 years of marriage,” says Wallace.

This may be a more 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, we’ve seen the likes of Netflix take out Blockbuster.

"Those principles in terms 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, should 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 adds.

“There has been a lot of talk about e-government for 20 years. But that has been more about getting services online whereas my view on digital is it’s not just online services.

“It is about putting digital solutions all the way through the business, from the frontline with members of staff having the right tools, equipment and data at the touch of their fingerprints so they can then make an informed decision on better outcomes for the citizen, and also with that dataset they are collecting in the field, it can go back into the local authority to help senior managers make more informed decisions or [there’s] the capability of sharing it in a digital ecosystem within the council or with partners in a place we call digital places.”

Social care, for instance, could be linked into health, police and fire by marrying up different 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, for want of a better expression, who could get earlier intervention, which then prevents them from longer term, more expensive solutions later on,” says Wallace.

“It is just [about] trying to get those datasets to talk to each other with the right intelligence, with the right questions, with the right business intelligence to then pull out and extrapolate who needs the services most in terms of earlier intervention and trying also to deal with long-term conditions. That is where the digital place model comes in where you can share that data.”

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. Earlier this year it emerged four Scottish councils were subject to ‘ransomware’ attacks, which involve data being encrypted and only released once payment of a ransom has been made.

“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, I completely and utterly understand that.

"I just think we have to look at all the elements of the outcome, all the elements of the service and all the elements that have to make up 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 a change in mindset he is clearly keen to encourage in his new post. “I sit in presentations all the time and you hear, ‘This would be really good, we could do X, Y and Z’. And then the big, bad man comes and does denial of service attacks, Anonymous hacked Sony or this company were hacked, or people left unencrypted USB sticks in a taxi once, so you get 20 minutes hearing the good stuff and then 40 minutes of all the reasons why we shouldn’t as this one time someone got hacked and security was bad.

“We have to get away from that mentality. It’s about sticking to the facts and taking calculated risks. As long as you take an appropriate view, an appropriate risk log, 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.”

Just four weeks in, how much progress the new office stands to make remains to be seen. 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, I’d like to see cloud being used, I’d like to see a good mobile platform for doing business with the citizen, I would like to see some scalable Internet of Things solutions out there helping reduce cost whilst simplifying processes.

“I would like to see secure digital places where we have got digital hubs of excellence where all elements of the council and their partners can interact and share what they need to share. Citizens can come through some sort of authentication layer with a myaccount or verify into the digital place and have control of their data and who they share it with.

“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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