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We have entered a third era of digitisation in local government. Fact. Its impact will be greater than anything we have ever experienced in our careers and (at the risk of sounding over-dramatic) in the history of local government.


Autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, virtual and augmented reality, big data, artificial intelligence, smart cities applications, 5G, and even distributed ledger technology.


They all have something in common.


They move the focus of digital technology away from the office and from the desk environment to the built environment. Whereas our digital and physical world were previously very separate, they are now becoming increasingly integrated. For any organisation this a significant shift. For local government, it’s seismic. For us, the built environment means the towns, cities, villages, and rural areas that we provide services to.


Amazon Go

To provide an illustration of this phenomena, having disrupted the retail sector on a global scale, and turning the retail sector on its head by transforming the online shopping experience, even Amazon are now beginning to bring cyber space into the built environment (the high street in their case). Their new Amazon Go stores allow shoppers to wonder in, pick products up from shelves and walk out of the store without checking out. As they leave the products that they have on their position are automatically billed to the shopper’s Amazon Prime account.


This is a very different application of digital technology than we are used to and the rate of change we are experiencing has never been so fast. Trust me. It will never be this slow again. This is the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution[1]; a revolution that will make the previous three (the industrial revolution, the electrical revolution, and the computer revolution) feel like a blip.


Those of you working within local government IT (and those who have heard me speak) will no doubt be aware of Moore’s Law. For those of you who aren’t, an IBM engineer by the name of Henry Moore observed in the sixties that the processing power silicon doubled every eighteen months. The rate of change in the processing power of silicon was (and still is) therefore accelerating at an exponential rate. Over several decades this simply resulted in smaller-faster computers. However, over the last couple of decades, it has resulted in the dawn and rapid proliferation of (first) tablets and then smartphones (phones that are more powerful than the computers that sent a man to the moon).


Our world feels like it is evolving very quickly doesn’t it?


It is!


The innovation we experience in our lives (and which fuels our economy) is intrinsically linked to the exponential growth in the exponential rate of change of the speed and size of computer processing observed by Henry Moore. What’s more, with over a half a decade of living with this acceleration, the rate of change is now so fast that concepts that were unimaginable even a few years ago (science fiction even) such as driverless cars, artificial intelligence, and robotics, are now not only achievable, but are being commoditised at a breath-taking pace that is becoming difficult for society to keep up with.


Before I elaborate on why I am boldly (perhaps foolhardily) making such profound statements about local government, let me first reflect on the last fifty/sixty years.


The First Digital Era of Local Government

During those early days of computers through to now, our initial application of digital technology has focused on helping our staff to undertake their duties and follow processes by helping them to manage information better using IT systems and enterprise software. I call this the first era of digitisation in local government, and it still represents the lion share of our investment; and the job is far from complete, as it isn’t in any sector.


The Second Digital Era of Local Government

In the nineties of course, Tim Bernes-Lee’s invention of the world-wide web acted as a catalyst for a new application of digital technology and wave of innovation: The online service. It allowed us to shift our focus for how we used digital technology away from our internal process, to how we transact with our users. I call this the second era, and we are still building our online services and, frankly, we are still coming to terms with what this means to be truly customer-centric.


The Third Digital Era of Local Government

Fuelled by the technology I referred to at the beginning of this post, the third digital era of local government moves the focus away from process and transactions and puts it firmly onto the role that technology can play to deliver better outcomes. The technologies are not just buzzwords they are a profound evolution of technology that (by enabling us to make better use data) enable us to provide better outcomes, to improve how we work with partners, enable services to become more proactive and preventative, allow us to re-imagine and redesign how we deliver services, and to facilitate community empowerment. Put simply, it can enable us to deliver the principles of the Christie Commission like nothing else can.


A couple of examples to hopefully bring this to life;


Example 1 – Digital Health and Care

The Scottish Government Digital Health and Care Strategy recognises the role that the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play in transforming health and care, for example helping people to live independently through self-management of conditions and remote support through smartphone applications, wearable technology and digital telecare/telehealth applications, etc. It’s a recognition that digital technology can be used, not just to improve our processes, not just to change how we transact, but (fundamentally) to improve the quality of life for people living in Scotland.


Example 2 – Smart Cities

My own experience of Glasgow’s Future Cities Demonstrator back in 2013-2014 is what really opened my eyes to this new era of digital. One of the best examples of this was our deployment of intelligent street lighting. We digitised street lights! They use sensors to adapt to the lighting based upon what’s happening in their environment, the lighting can be controlled remotely (for example, allowing the Council to increase the intensity of street lighting to support emergency services if required), and (because they are connected) they can provide telemetry on how they are performing. These “digital” street lights have reduced energy bills, improved safety in the city, and because they can tell us that they are going to break before they do, they can allow us to adopt a more proactive maintenance approach, and provides the potential to remove vast sways of contact from the public associated with reporting broken street lights. That brings a whole new meaning to channel shift. We’re not using digital technology to move transactions online, we’re using it to get rid of the unnecessary transaction completely. We deployed 500 initially, we now have plans to digitise our whole street lighting network.


I’m clearly grossly oversimplifying things to make a point, but I’m hoping that this prompts some thoughts, perhaps even discussion. So to start to close my first (possibly overdue, but by no means last) blog for the Digital Office, if you work in Scottish Local Government I’d like to pose the following questions;



1.       Where is your current focus for digital technology?

 a.       The First Digital Era, focused on processes: your internal IT systems and helping your staff to better follow business processes, perhaps optimising those processes (for example using mobile working)?


 b.       The Second Digital Era, focused on transactions: helping you to transform how you interact with citizens, improving customer experience and reducing your cost of transaction?


 c.       The Third Digital Era, focused on outcomes: allowing you to completely reimagine and redesign how you deliver services, and enabling you to reduce costs, and deliver better outcomes?


There is no wrong answer. I’m not trying to catch anybody out. They are all valid applications of technology, but my follow-up questions are:


2.       How can we deliver the transformation that the third digital era of local government provides to redesign our services and deliver better outcomes when so much of our investment is still focused in the first and second eras, largely because there is still more work to be done in streamlining processes and making services available online?


3.       How can we keep up with an exponential rate of technological change when clearly our budgets do not (and cannot) grow exponentially, and when investment in technology and ICT teams has flat-lined, and in some cases is being reduced?


These are difficult questions to answer I know. I’m not asking them to be confrontational and controversial, anybody who knows me knows that that’s not my style. I’m asking them because they are questions we all need to be asking ourselves.


The programme that the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government is delivering in collaboration with councils across Scotland doesn’t necessarily answer these questions but it has been specifically designed to start to build the capacity to enable this by exploring what it means for our underlying technology platforms, helping us to understand where we are on our journey, and what leadership, skills and methodologies we need to drive the change, and by exploring specific examples such as Digital Health and Care, Digital Learning and Teaching and Smart Assets.


I’ll explore this in more detail in future posts.


On a final closing note, it’s worth noting that the heart rate sensor of the latest Apple Watch 4 is so accurate that it can detect Atrial Fibrillation. In clinical trials, it actually achieved a 98% success rate. It can now be argued that a commodity smartwatch from a global household brand can diagnose a serious heart problem faster and better than a GP can. The public sector is not immune to the type of “digital disruption” that we can observe in the retail, media, tourism, and transport sectors. If we in local government don’t disrupt ourselves. Somebody else (An Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, or a company that doesn’t even exist yet) will.