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DIGIT Interviews Dr Colin Birchenall, Chief Technology Officer for Scottish Local Government

Dominique Adams


Dr Colin Birchenall

Chief Technology Officer Dr Colin Birchenall speaks to DIGIT about the role that the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government is playing to support local authorities across Scotland transform the services they provide to their citizens using digital technology.

Over the past 18 months, the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government has been working with councils across Scotland to help drive digital transformation. The goal is not just to deliver a range of one-off digital technology projects, but to create a sustainable approach to using digital technology to transform local government services on an ongoing basis.

Alongside Martyn Wallace (the Digital Office’s Chief Digital Officer), Dr Colin Birchenall and the team have been creating new communities of interest in various different local government functions right across the country and are already delivering a unique local government sector-wide transformation programme. It’s creating quite a buzz.

“The opportunities for new technology, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics provide local government with a once in a generation opportunity to redesign services and deliver better outcomes for people,” he explains.

“The term ‘digital’ is often banded about like it’s a new thing but, of course, it isn’t. We’ve lived within it for half a century now. What is new is that it doesn’t just sit on a desk anymore. It’s all around us, it’s a lot smarter and it’s transforming our lives. This provides us with an opportunity to re-think how we do things. The opportunity is no longer just about using technology to optimise the processes that we use to deliver our services.

“It’s not just about saving money. It’s about completely re-imaging what we do and how we do it, redesigning our services, transforming them to be more people-centred and enabling better outcomes which in turn can help to reduce costs. This type of change is not just a matter for the IT teams. It needs to be everybody’s business.

“We work with people from across council functions, as well across councils: Chief Executives and Directors, Councillors, Human Resources, Organisation Development, change teams, customer contact, IT and front-line services. They are all involved. We want to help them all to develop their capability and capacity to drive the change.”

Currently, the Digital Office collaborates with 31 Scottish councils and has 18 different programmes, which are built on three key themes: Digital Foundations, Digital Leadership and Digital Services.

Self-Assessment and Collaboration Are Key to the Digital Journey

Birchenall explains that a key role of the Digital Office is to help councils tap into the digital talent and experience that already exists within local government, thus benefiting the whole sector. A key tool that helps them to achieve this is a Digital Maturity Model that they developed, which helps council management teams to evaluate the maturity of their own digital leadership.

This evaluation is not being used as a means for competition and comparison; each council is at its own unique stage of development and has its own strengths and weakness across different areas. The Digital Office strives to get these councils to share their strengths and expertise across the sector to empower and help other councils develop their digital maturity.

Birchenall says: “We don’t use the assessment to create a league table. We use it to engage with council management teams to help them understand where they are on their digital journey and help them understand what digital leadership means in terms of leadership style, behaviour, ways of working and skills. We’re not trying to compare councils. That would close the door for us. It’s a self-reflection and self-assessment tool.

“To date what we’ve done is undertaken the assessments ourselves. But what we’ve started to do is build a community across the sector whereby councils can call upon a digital maturity assessor from another council, so it’s a peer-to-peer type model assessment.”

Communication Key to Overcoming Barriers

Helping shift people’s cultural mindset is a key focus of the Digital Office. Its digital leadership programme is key to this change; it is helping councils to identify and develop the key skills that they will need and introduces new methodologies to drive the change. “Digital transformation isn’t just about putting in some cool technology like Amazon Alexa, it is about redesigning services, so it isn’t just about technical skills that we need, of course we will need to develop new technical skills but we need to develop new skills and methodologies such as user research, service design, agile development, and open innovation.”

Birchenall explains that staff input and commitment is crucial to the success of any programme. “The way we try to position it is to show staff that jobs aren’t going to go away, but they aren’t going to stay the same either,” he says. “They are going to change.”

He adds: “Digital transformation is an opportunity to remove the administrative burden from people’s roles, so they can focus on the more human aspect of their job. It’s why a lot of people went into local government. Not to administer a process. They joined to do good and impact society.

“I think what’s happening is that digitisation will give people more opportunity to achieve that. For instance, if you look at digital telecare you can spend less time going to people’s homes to check they are ok. With that time we get back, staff can then spend more time on those that need it. We know they’re okay, the technology says they’re okay, so we can focus on the people that need it the most.”

Digital Transformation Is an Ongoing Process

A key message that Birchenall is keen to get across is that digital transformation is not a one stop shop activity. It’s an ongoing process. There’s no point where a line can be drawn under it as technology will continue to develop apace. The Digital Office programme is deliberately designed to help councils to continuously embrace digitisation and the redesign of their services to ensure better outcomes for citizens.

“When the current programme finishes it isn’t job done,” says Birchenall. “It might in the future be called something different but digital is here to stay, and what’s more, it is accelerating at an exponential rate. It has never been as fast as it is just now, but it will never be this slow again.”

Collaboration is another central theme and has been a real success for the Digital Office. “Councils are increasingly realising that the scale and rate of change is now too large to progress on their own,” explains Birchenall. “By working together they can all better keep up with the rate of change.”

The legacy of the Digital Office is likely to be less about any specific new technology that they deliver, and much about the knowledge sharing, mutual support, a new sense of community across Scottish local government, and increased capacity for change.

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Dominique Adams

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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