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CIO interview: Martyn Wallace, CDO, Scottish Local Government Digital Office

Scottish local government’s chief digital officer describes the challenges of driving digital change across the country’s councils

Martyn Wallace, chief digital officer (CDO) for the Scottish Local Government Digital Office, is working hard to create a step-change in the way technology is used to help deliver services to citizens across Scotland’s public sector. 

Wallace was appointed CDO in September 2016 and, as part of his role, helped to create the Digital Office in October 2016. He is now drawing on many years of private sector experience to help develop a change in mindset in local government organisations.

“I think the challenge we’ve had is that digital is often viewed as a dark art or an elephant in the room,” he says. “That perception needs to change because digital is business – it’s about people by default and technology by design.

“Digital transformation in the public sector must have a people focus. It’s very much people first and I think the various elements of local government need to talk with each other.”

Wallace is an experienced IT leader. He has worked for some of Europe’s largest technology suppliers, including Capita, Telefonica UK (O2) and BlackBerry, and is drawing on that knowledge as he creates a wider approach to technology-enabled change in local government via the Digital Office. 

Entering the CDO role gave him a chance to lead improvements in service performance, he says. “Digital is the last lever local government can pull to get the savings and efficiencies they need,” says Wallace. “I saw the challenge as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something – and to do it for your fellow Scots.” 

He places the requirement for change in the context of Scotland’s ageing population, and the combined concerns of falling budgets and the uncertainties surrounding Brexit. 

The pressure on citizens and public sector organisations is great, yet Wallace is convinced that technology-led change can create a positive impact – if local government employees are receptive to the idea of transformation. 

“What we face is often a political mindshift – in fact, there’s shifting sands all the time,” he says. “The digital transformation journey is critical for creating benefits for the public at a complex time.”

“I’ve banned the word ‘pilot’ in local government because there are more pilots than in British Airways in some cases”

Martyn Wallace, CDO, Scottish Local Government Digital Office

As he fulfils his aims for digital change, Wallace is working alongside a chief technology officer who manages technical architecture, and he works with some 30 councils. Operating across roles, responsibilities and organisations could be viewed as a challenge, but Wallace prefers to see it as an opportunity.

“The whole point of the office is about collaboration and digital transformation,” he says. “Many people believe councils talk to each other on a regular basis, but they tend to be very sheltered. They’ve got their own political issues, social concerns and geographical challenges. So it is crucial to open up those organisations, look for pockets of innovation and run with those ideas, because otherwise all we do is create more pilots.” 

Wallace jokes about the lengths he will go to in order to stop errant creativity, but his aims to put smart thinking into practice are serious. “I’ve banned the word ‘pilot’ in local government because there are more pilots than in British Airways in some cases,” he says.

“Innovation is powerful, but what I’ve said is that iteration and agile methods are also crucial. All our people should look to create versions one and two of a minimum viable product, so they are in the right mindset to move forwards once the business case for their project is proven.”

Overcoming legacy concerns 

Embracing agile working methods and digital transformation must, however, be placed within context. Wallace says Scottish local government organisations need to deal with a significant amount of legacy kit. But although this preponderance of older technology presents a challenge, it should not be viewed as an intractable issue. 

“Legacy doesn’t have to be a bad word,” says Wallace, suggesting that he supports analyst Gartner’s view that older kit should be embraced and used as a platform for change. “We’ve got to deal with that technology,” he says. “We must look towards the efficiency of putting things in the cloud and moving away from a reliance on legacy systems, so we can concentrate our resources on front-line services that need our support.”

Breaking the bond with established systems and processes is tough, yet Wallace says his initial forays suggest individuals across Scottish local government are up for the challenge of creating a new way of working. After 18 months as CDO, Wallace is relishing the opportunity. “I love the role,” he says. 

“Don’t get me wrong – it has its ups and downs, but the actual feeling and buzz from knowing that you’re working with councils to do something different is great. Digital is here and it’s not going away – it’s going to happen. So you must embrace change and get on with it, or you’re going to be consumed by the transformation that’s taking place.” 

Defining digital transformation

Wallace spent the first three months in his CDO role talking to councils across Scotland about their challenges and priorities. Getting the various organisations and employees to understand the terminology of digital transformation represented a crucial first piece of work, he says.

“We asked them what digital meant to them,” says Wallace. “One council came back and said they were prepared for change because they already had a website.  I had to explain that digital transformation involves something much more complicated than that.” 

By Christmas last year, Wallace had created 50 potential line items for digital transformation. His team benchmarked these projects in terms of priorities and went back to the business board. Wallace and his executive peers recognised they were unable to work on all projects simultaneously, so the selection strategy involved several stages. 

“First, foundation – what do we have to do to enable the technology platform that supports change?” he says. “Second, leadership – the skills, the innovation and the culture that are required to get transformational change. And finally, digital services – that’s service redesign and it’s about fundamentally shifting our core design principles, so we focus on user experience.”

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Wallace ran a workshop in January 2017 that focused on 18 key programmes. His team created business cases and project briefs, and then worked with councils to establish which projects should be targeted first. The top priority was mobile flexible working, and the closely related concern of cyber defence also rated highly, he says. 

“The things that fundamentally come out time and time again are data protection and security,” says Wallace. “Councils interpret security in many ways. So, we’ve worked with the Scottish Local Authority Information Security Group to help appoint a chief information security officer [CISO].”

Other priorities for Scottish local government organisations include human resources, finance and payroll, and the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), says Wallace. “What we want to do is get to a position where we’re interpreting the rules once and replicating it across all councils,” he adds. 

“The appointment of a CISO can help bust some myths. When it comes to GDPR, let’s make sure we interpret those rules once, replicate it across all the councils in Scotland and use the regulation as an enabler, rather than a disabler.” 

Best practice guidance

Wallace says his original 18 transformation programmes are now in flight, and are at various stages of fulfilment. “We’ve got things in alpha, we’ve got things in discovery and we’ve got some stuff in pre-discovery – and that’s how we’ve pulled it together,” he says.  

“It’s a collaboration and it’s about creating an effective partnership. Our work is all about doing something successfully once and replicating those processes across other councils many times. We are putting the tracks down to get to a destination – and the destination is digital transformation.” 

Wallace says Scotland’s councils are effectively “trains on the network”. As he and his colleagues lay the tracks, these organisations are all moving at different times to get to their destination using agile sprints. Best practice exemplars are crucial to sponsoring successful implementation, he says. 

“We tend to use a leading council that acts as a high-speed train in front, and then the other councils are carriages running behind. The councils decide between themselves which organisation is the leader in terms of a gold standard,” he says. 

“This leader provides best practice advice and the councils that are following help to develop the business case. The remaining councils are critical associates who check the output as we move along.” 

Meeting long-term aims

So progress is being made. While digital transformation represents a significant shift for many local government organisations, Wallace says his proudest achievement so far is being able to get authorities across Scotland to move in the same direction and begin to think in a digital-first manner.

He recognises that other potential barriers lie ahead. The desire to move from legacy to modern, on-demand platforms, for example, can be hampered by user concerns.

Training is key, says Wallace. His organisation has carried out digital maturity exercises to understand cross-council capability.

Wallace calls on government CIOs to give staff the opportunity to up-skill. “And when you’re searching for talent, you must stress that your organisation has great corporate responsibility,” he says. “We don’t really understand what skills are going to be needed in the future. 

While digital transformation is a continual work in progress, a notable cultural shift has taken place already, says Wallace. He expects the next 12 to 24 months to be dominated by more “myth busting”, as he and his colleagues in the Digital Office strive to create services that are focused on the needs of the Scottish people.

“Ideally, we’ll have a 2020 vision statement in terms of better outcomes for the citizen,” he says. “Technology is likely, in a way, to be superfluous to a lot of that work. Everything we do in terms of our vision must be based on outcomes.”

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