Meet the new Chief Digital Officer for Scotland’s local councils

“Digital transformation, government, I’ll do it, I’ll sort it out – it’s dead easy,” jokes Martyn Wallace, the man who has just been appointed to arguably one of the most challenging public sector jobs in Scotland. Although Wallace is laughing, I detect a bit of gallows humour in his voice. He knows this gig is not going to be easy.

Wallace’s official job title is Chief Digital Officer at the newly-created Scottish Local Government Digital Office. He works in an office at the ‘Improvement Service’ in Livingston. It all sounds a bit Orwell. It’s not meant to. There is an awful lot of stock being put behind getting public services in Scotland fit for their own ‘digital transformation’.

As Wallace sees it, though, the journey towards technology-driven public services is less about the word ‘digital’ and more about ‘transformation’, or change.

“I’m sick of the word digital,” he says. “It’s actually just normal day-to-day stuff. It’s about business and changing the way you do things. And that is pretty fundamental.”

Wallace is simply echoing the zeitgeist; at the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos this year, the top-level discussion focused around exactly that – leveraging the power of technology to institute a far higher level of organisational change. The CEOs of the world’s biggest companies all appear to be on board, as no one wants their markets swallowed up by the likes of Uber.

“Most of the real transformation comes in reinventing your business processes, your strategy, the way you organise your company,” Erik Brynjolfsson, Director, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, MIT Sloan School of Management, told the conference in Switzerland.

Wallace is totally on board. His job, though, is to change the way local councils operate in Scotland, using technology to make services more accessible and easier to use.

He is currently working with 28 of them, and hopes to have visited half by Christmas on a tour of the country. But visiting change upon organisations that employ more than 200,000 people is not going to be easy.

“We’ve got a strategy: digital leadership is about the hearts and minds, the HR that’s required,” adds Wallace, whose previous roles include working for Capita and Telefonica O2.

He adds: “There will be disruption. I can’t help it but there will be potential job losses and job realignment to different services – because digital will take over people’s jobs as we become leaner and more engaged. We need to understand the fundamental problems in each service and ask, ‘What’s the art of the possible? What would Google do in this scenario’?”

His approach will be to embed a different kind of thinking within council departments, encouraging them to get together with end users to ‘co-design’ services from the outset. He is encouraged by the recent Scottish Government-led CivTech project, which put a call out to entrepreneurs and technologists to come up with innovative tech-based platforms to solve six public sector problems.

ONE OF THOSE was to harness technology to create a flood risk mapping service for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA); another came from National Services Scotland (NSS), whose Information Services Division (ISD) was seeking to improve the way it delivers health and social care data and analysis to healthcare professionals.

“I fully support and back CivTech,” Wallace adds. “I’ve got a brief that’s being written up that’s going out to chief execs. We’re going out for the call to action for CivTech 2. When I accepted the post I was given nine issues to look at. I’ve discussed those with the councils I’ve seen so far. But within those nine issues there are more issues, so I’m now looking at a list of around 40 ideas. I’m saying to people, ‘What are the big questions you want answered’? Give them to me and CivTech and we’ll look at them.”

Wallace’s view is that rather than create services for local authorities multiple times, it’s far better and easier to focus on creating one and rolling it out to all councils, be it for assisted living, health, education or even volunteer-based community services.

“It’s my view – and I’ve been very open about this – that councils have got no money, we’ve got an aging population, and they all essentially do the same stuff,” he says. “But what we shouldn’t be doing is building something 32 times and rolling it out once. We should be doing it once and rolling it out 32 times, so whether that’s a national programme, or best practice, or software.”

It is an ambitious goal, and Wallace – along with his Chief Technology Officer colleague, Dr Colin Birchenall – are part of a digital office that will be funded for the next three years; they will be expected to turn their digital transformation strategy into a set of actions that will set the ‘long-term digital direction for local government in Scotland’.

But does he think he has the right profile for a job that will undoubtedly require not just technical management, but the softer skills of working with people from a different background to his own?

“My background is different and I think that’s one of the main reasons I was picked for this role,” he says. “I am a bit destructive, a bit outspoken. I’m a little bit crazy. I’m a bit eccentric. I am a geek.

“But I fundamentally helped shift O2 customers to the digital portfolio and digital way of thinking. So why can’t we have that ecosystem where we all come together. Because, at the end of the day, the staff in local government are citizens, private sector staff are citizens. We are all citizens.”