Doing Digital in Bristol – 2016 and beyond

Everyone working in the public sector today knows that we can no longer continue with the way we worked in the past, how we thought of our purpose and the roles of our organisations. Local public services face this fact even more starkly than other parts of the sector, having cut huge proportions of their budgets at a time of rising demand due to the impacts of the economic crises since 2008 and demographic changes. And we are facing an even more dramatic and uncertain future over the next four years, knowing that our main sources of income will switch from central redistribution to money raised locally by 2020.

In this context, we are all aware of the importance of applying digital thinking, design and delivery methods to our organisations, and many councils have been on the journey of delivering digital services for several years. But digital isn’t only about services, it’s also about the transformation of the way we work – creating a digital workplace where data is captured at source in digital form, flows through the organisation and across boundaries to partners without becoming pieces of paper, and where people delivering services can do so in the most efficient and effective way, enabled by digital services available anywhere they need to serve citizens or businesses – this is about having the right digital technology infrastructure, networks and devices as much as about software.

In fact, digital is even bigger than that – it’s not just about transforming services and the way we work, it enables us to re-imagine the council’s business model and relationship with the city and citizens, it’s about local government as a platform, about harnessing the creativity and capacity of the city, and changing the nature of the way that councils and local partners work together with communities to address the issues for their locality.

This is where we really begin to see the potential to deal with the impacts of a new financial settlement for the public sector – in digital’s ability to support a new political settlement, a new relationship between state and citizens, between regulators and businesses, and in support of economic growth and innovation.

Nesta recently published a report on the connected councils of the future and I was pleased to see Bristol’s work on a platform approach featured in their highlights. We’ve been working on this for a couple of years, and have now taken the step of reshaping our teams into a new Digital Transformation service to lead, deliver and support all three aspects above.

And I’m really pleased to say that I’ve been appointed to the new role of Head of Digital Transformation – another way of putting that in ‘industry standard’ terms is that I’m now Bristol’s Chief Digital Officer.

I’ll be leading work across all of the elements needed for true digital transformation – Digital Business strategy, Enterprise Architecture, Technology Strategy, Service Design, Digital Services UX and content design, Software Development and the support/delivery of some of our key council-wide systems (including Salesforce CRM, Alfresco ECM, and ForgeRock IAM).

Putting all of these elements together into the new Digital Transformation Service is the next stage of evolution of the approach that my colleagues and I began to create back in 2013 with the original digital platform project, which I blogged about in December 2014.

At its core the new service builds on our award winning work on agile digital delivery for transactional services. We have evolved from one large team sourced from a supplier, to several self-organised delivery teams as I described in my second post about digital in Bristol, and these teams have successfully delivered a lot of user needs centred digital services, like Request a Residents Parking Permit, Book to Register a Birth and of course the new website. We will continue to design and deliver “digital services so good that people prefer to use them”

We’ve also started a new strand of digital transformation of city infrastructure, through the integration and digitalisation of Operational Technology like CCTV, traffic management systems and air quality sensors, with my team leading on the technical architecture and design of a converged OT/IT infrastructure for the city, using the “Bristol Network” to connect that infrastructure and the data that it generates with an intelligent city operations centre. At the same time, we are working with civic technologists, community organisers and digital innovators on the #bristolapproach to citizen sensing – beginning to explore how a platform approach would work.

This is really exciting work, and participating in one of the workshops earlier this week I sensed in a very concrete way the capacity and vibrancy of the wider network of people and communities of interest who can contribute to tackling issues in our city. Being in a room filled with people who can do more than the council’s team could, seeing that large companies, voluntary groups, SMEs and individuals want to work together, and just need the council to enable, support and provide system-wide leadership was very powerful.

All of this contributes to implementing Bristol’s strategic vision of a future city where ‘smart’ serves people and creates a sustainable liveable locality, not a techno utopia of machines, and sterile polished urban deserts. The new Digital Transformation service, working alongside Bristol Future’s City Innovation team will make this as much of a priority as it does the delivery of council digital services.

And finally, if that all wasn’t enough to be going on with, a key part of my new role is an explicit remit to connect across the local public sector and nationally with key groups like localgovdigital, the Local Digital Coalition, iStandUK and others. Ever since my first experiences of getting involved with the open source and open standards communities around OpenDocument Format I have been energised by collaborating with like minded people – and I feel strongly that we need to share openly as we learn, #workingoutloud so that the whole sector improves together.

At times, holding all of this in mind, forming a coherent view of it, and then mobilising people to deliver it, is hard – physically and mentally. It would be so much easier to turn away, back to the simpler world of buying systems from suppliers and leaving integration and innovation to them. But that wouldn’t deliver what our city needs, and that’s what motivates me. I was born in Southmead Hospital, and brought up on the edge of Bristol – it’s my home town and I’m proud to have served it for nearly 20 years. Taking on this new role, supported by an amazing team of people, and some great suppliers, gives me the opportunity to do what I can to help Bristol thrive despite the challenges of austerity.

I might be a teensy bit biased, but given all that we’ve done, are doing and plan for the future, I believe Bristol is the Digital Council of 2016. If you do too, please vote for us in the #dl100 #digileaders awards #votebristol