Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of lastminute.com) Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.


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Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


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Beyond Brexit? How to assess the UK’s future – a new resource

The EU flag, with the Brexit on it appear, in the form of a jigsaw puzzle.

By Steven McGinty

Although Brexit negotiations are officially underway, there is no clear vision of how the UK will look once it’s left the European Union.  Politicians – including those within government – appear to be divided on the issue, with Chancellor Philip Hammond’s wish for a softer Brexit seemingly at odds with Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

This uncertainty has left businesses, local authorities, and the general public struggling to plan for the future, and in search of answers to help navigate these difficult Brexit waters.

One valuable resource they may turn to is Professor Janice Morphet’s new book, Beyond Brexit? How to assess the UK’s future.

In this short guide, Professor Morphet – an expert in infrastructure, the EU and public policy – takes a long term view and attempts to understand the whole range of options that may be deployed by the UK, EU, and other international institutions.

Below we’ve outlined some of the main themes of the book.

Implications for devolved nations and territories

The impact of the EU referendum result has been strongly felt by the devolved nations and territories.

For example, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has argued that Scotland (where 62% voted to stay in the EU) should be recognised in the Brexit negotiations, and that Scotland should be allowed to come to an arrangement on continued EU membership.

Similarly, Gibraltar (where 96% voted in favour of remaining in the EU) is looking to retain access to the EU’s single market and free access across the EU border. There have also been diplomatic tensions, with the suggestion that there should be no UK/EU agreement – that includes Gibraltar – without the consent of Spain.

But beyond these specific issues, Professor Morphet raises the wider point that EU legislation is a fundamental component of specific devolved powers.

This is because much of the powers devolved to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are derived from legislation initially agreed within the EU. In Professor Morphet’s view, devolved nations will need clarification on how they’d retain decision-making powers, including whether a new set of powers would need to be introduced. One suggestion discussed is the need to create a federal constitution guaranteeing the devolution arrangements.

Benefits of the EU

During the referendum campaign there was limited discussion on the value of EU membership. Even the Remain campaign focused on the negative impact of leaving, rather than the positive impact of being a member of the EU.

Professor Morphet provides an authoritative look at some of these benefits, including the:

  • importance of being inside the world’s largest market;
  • ability to engage diplomatically as part of a global diplomatic group;
  • development of an EU-wide energy policy, ensuring energy security; and
  • commitment to achieving higher environmental stands across the EU.

Options for future UK/EU institutional relationships

Much of the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be dependent on the current Brexit negotiations. As such, it’s unclear whether the UK will achieve a bespoke arrangement with the EU, gain an agreement similar to another country (such as the Norway or the Swiss models) or if there will be any deal at all.

Professor Morphet discusses this wide variety of options, and considers some of the challenges for the UK Government – who at the moment appear undecided on how far outside the EU they would like to be.

Immediate actions that must be taken by the UK

Before the EU Referendum result many high profile individuals and institutions claimed the UK economy would collapse. This included former Chancellor George Osborne, who suggested there would need to be an emergency Brexit Budget, and the Bank of England’s governor Mark Carney, who warned that the UK risked heading into a recession.

However, even though the economic slowdown has not occurred, there have been signs that the referendum result has impacted the UK on a variety of levels. For instance, Professor Morphet highlights that there has been an effective 11-16% devaluation of the pound, and that inflation is likely to rise in 2017. For her, stabilising the economy should be the priority for the UK government, arguing that it needs to offer a clear view of Brexit to reduce the political uncertainty.

Final thoughts

Professor Morphet’s latest book is a must read for anyone with an interest in how the country will look post Brexit. By her own admittance, the book does not provide all the answers, but it does provide a framework for making sure the right questions are asked during the negotiation period and beyond.


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General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): what the public sector needs to consider

Graphic design image: three padlocks in front of a futuristic city.

By Steven McGinty

In March, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published the results of a survey into local government information governance as part of their preparations for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May 2018.

Although the ICO notes that many local authorities have good data protection policies, there are still councils where work needs to be done. The survey findings include:

  • A third of councils do not undertake Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs)
  • 26% of councils do not have a data protection officer
  • 50% do not require data protection training before accessing systems

Under the new GDPR the above findings could constitute a breach, and result in the ICO taking action against the offending council. Recently, the ICO fined Norfolk County Council £60,000 (under the Data Protection Act) for failing to dispose of social work case files appropriately.

What impact will Brexit have on the GDPR?

The UK Government has finally triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the process for leaving the European Union (EU). However, this does not mean that the UK will escape the European Commission’s GDPR. Digital minister, Matt Hancock, has confirmed that it is in the UK’s best interests to ensure the ‘uninterrupted and unhindered flow of data’, stating that the GDPR would be fully implemented into UK law, even after we leave the EU.

Is the public sector exempt from the GDPR?

There have been reports that some public sector bodies believe that they are exempt from the GDPR. This assumption is based on the regulation’s special conditions and derogations, which allow member states to restrict the GDPR’s scope to safeguard the public interest (some countries, such as Denmark, already have exemptions for public sector bodies). Additionally, fining a public sector body has also been viewed as making little sense – taking from one public sector budget and placing it in another.

However, both of these assumptions are flawed. As the GDPR has been designed to enhance the rights of EU citizens, it would be against the spirit of the regulation to introduce blanket exemptions for the public sector. And it is certainly not unheard of for regulators to fine public bodies, such as the recent Norfolk County Council case, or the Hampshire County Council case in August 2016, where the council was fined £100,000 by the ICO for leaving social care case files in a disused building.

How does the GDPR differ from the Data Protection Act?

The GDPR has been described ‘as the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years’, providing greater rights to citizens and harmonising data privacy laws across Europe. However, to achieve this, new requirements have been placed on organisations. These include:

  • Personal dataArticle 4(1) of the GDPR includes a broader definition of ‘personal data’ than previous legislation. It states that any information relating to an individual which can be directly or indirectly used to identify them is personal data. Specifically, it refers to ‘online identifiers’, which suggests that IP addresses and cookies may be considered personal data if they can be easily linked back to the person.
  • Privacy by designThe concept of ‘privacy by design’ is not new, but Article 23 of the GDPR makes this a legal requirement. In essence, it means that public sector bodies will have to consider data protection at the initial design stage of product development. This could involve adopting technical measures such as pseudonymisation – the technique of processing personal data in such a way that it can no longer identify a particular person.
  • Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) – As the ICO’s research highlights, a third of councils do not undertake any form of privacy impact assessment. From May 2018, public sector organisations will have to carry out DPIA’s for certain activities such as introducing new technologies and when processing presents a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals. In the latter case, organisations will need to consult the ICO to confirm they comply with the GDPR.
  • Appointment of a Data Protection Officer (DPO)Article 35 of the GDPR states that public bodies must have a designated Data Protection Officer. This can be an existing employee, as long as there is no conflict of interest, or a single DPO can represent a group of public sector bodies. As the ICO research suggests (26% of councils do not have a DPO), this is one of the main areas where councils need to improve.
  • Data portability– Public sector organisations must ensure that personal data is stored in a ‘structured, commonly used and machine readable form’, so that individuals can transfer data easily to other organisations. For instance, suitable formats would include CSV files.
  • Strengthening subject access rights– Individuals can now request access to their data for no cost and must be responded to within 30 days (this is a change from the Data Protection Act which requires a £10 fee and there is 40 days to respond). For complex cases, this can be extended by two months. However, individuals must be notified within one month and be provided with an explanation. These requests could prove time consuming and costly for public sector bodies, and as such, supports the case for introducing digital services that allow individuals access to their data.
  • Right to be forgotten – The right to erasure (its official name) allows individuals to ask an organisation to delete all the information held on them – although this would not apply if there was a valid reason to hold that data. This principle was established in the high profile case involving technology giant Google.
  • Failing to comply and breaching the GDPR – When there is a breach, public sector bodies will have an obligation to inform their national regulator (the ICO in England) “without undue delay and, where feasible, not later than 72 hours after having become aware of it.” These requirements could present challenges for public sector bodies, who are often engaged in providing vital public services with limited resources. However, policies will have to be introduced to ensure breaches can be reported promptly, particularly as the new penalties for data breaches are significant, with public sector bodies liable for fines of up to €10,000,000. In addition, individuals also have the right of redress and may seek compensation if they feel their rights have been breached.

What should public sector bodies be focusing on?

Although May 2018 may seem a long time away, the ICO research suggests some local councils (and the wider public sector) need to make several changes to ensure compliance with the GDPR.

Most importantly, organisations need to start reviewing the new regulation and considering how it applies to them. Evidence of a clear strategy – including the appointment of a Data Protection Officer, the use of privacy impact assessments, and staff training – will go a long way towards demonstrating an organisation’s intent to comply with the GDPR.


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The economic impact of international students in the UK

by Stacey Dingwall

A key concern following Brexit has been the status of international students (and academics) in the UK. Going into the general election, Theresa May has declined calls from universities – and some of her most senior colleagues – to remove students from her government’s target to cut migration by “tens of thousands”.

International students in the UK

In 2014-15, 437,000 students came from overseas to study in the UK, making up 19% of all UK university registrations that year. In February, the Office for National Statistics released net migration statistics which showed that long-term immigration to the UK fell by a “statistically significant” 23% to 134,000 in the year ending September 2016 – the lowest estimate recorded in almost 15 years. The number of international students coming to study in the UK accounted for much of this decrease, at 41,000. The majority of this figure was made up by students from non-EU countries (31,000).

In January, HESA released figures on students enrolled in higher education in 2015-16 which indicated that the number of students coming to the UK from EU member states had increased by 2%. These figures were collected before Brexit, however, so it will be next year’s edition before any impact, if at all, can be identified. Figures from UCAS published at the end of March, however, indicate a 6% decrease in the number of university applications from EU students on the previous year.

The ONS migration figures also showed that students from Asian countries made up 68% of the estimated 87,000 non-EU citizens who came to study in the UK during that year. While the UK remains the second most popular destination for international students in the world, after the USA, this is a fall of 23,000 on the previous year.

An economic impact worth billions

So why are some of Mrs May’s most senior colleagues rebelling against her decision to maintain international students within her migration reduction quota? One major reason is clearly the economic benefits generated for the country by the students. In March this year, research conducted by Oxford Economics for Universities UK suggested that in 2014-15, on- and off-campus spending by international students, and their visitors, generated a knock-on impact worth £25.8 billion in gross output to the UK economy. The 2014-15 international student cohort accounted for £10.8 billion of UK export earnings that year.

Tuition fees account for £4.8 billion of the total figure. The research also found that spending by international students supported over 200,000 jobs in UK university towns and cities and that the economic activity and employment sustained by international students’ off campus spending generated £1 billion in tax revenues.

Conservative rebellion and public opinion

Conservative MP Anna Soubry has pointed out that the economic contribution of international students continues even after they have completed their studies, in the form of “goodwill towards our country”, which “ often results in business deals as well as improved international relations and understanding”. It would appear that the public shares her sentiments: a poll conducted by Comres following the publication of Universities UK’s research found that 74% of those asked would like to see the number of international students in the UK either maintained or increased, after being told of the economic benefits they generate.

Despite this, the Prime Minister’s only concession so far has been to allow the newly created Office for Students to publish separate figures on overseas students, although they will still be recorded as part of the overall migration figures.  It has been suggested that a potential Conservative backbench rebellion over the government’s decision to remove the House of Lords’ amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill on the issue was only defused by the decision to call a snap election – although MPs from both the Conservative and opposition parties have vowed to continue to fight the government’s stance. The Independent has launched a campaign – Drop the Target – supported by Soubry, which is demanding answers from the government on why they are continuing with the policy, which they argue is economically and socially damaging to the country.


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Metro mayors – what is their worth?

market_townBy Heather Cameron

As voters went to the polls once again on 4th May for the local elections, six combined authorities in England saw directly-elected metro mayors chosen for the first time, as part of the government’s devolution agenda.

The six areas – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands – account for almost 20% of the population of England. This means a third of the English population, including London, now have a directly-elected metro mayor.

Advocates of the role believe metro mayors have the potential to transform both local democracy and local economies. However, not everyone is as supportive.

What are directly-elected metro mayors and what are their responsibilities?

Directly-elected metro mayors are chairs of their area’s combined authority, elected by the local population. Their role involves working in partnership with the combined authority to exercise the powers and functions devolved by central government, set out in the local area’s devolution deal. In contrast to existing city mayors, who are also directly elected, or local council leaders who make decisions for, and on behalf of, their local authorities, metro mayors have the power to make decisions for whole city regions.

The devolved powers predominantly focus on strategic matters, including housing and planning, skills, transport and economic development, with the exception of Greater Manchester, which also has powers and funding related to criminal justice and health and social care. Each devolution deal is very much tailored to the local area however, so the combined authorities will have varying powers and budgets.

The aim of metro mayors is to support local economic growth, while providing greater democratic accountability.

Concerns

While the government believes the role ensures clear accountability over devolved powers and funding, concerns have been voiced within local government itself about the accountability, effectiveness and necessity of the incoming combined authority mayors. And democratic support for the role has always been weak.

In terms of accountability, metro mayors will not be accountable to an elected assembly, as in London, but only to their cabinet made up of other council leaders. This, and their potentially wide-ranging powers have been highlighted as a concern in terms of back-room stich-up deals being created between mayors and individual authorities“.

Their introduction has also been described as “potentially worrying” as the local people were never given the opportunity to have a say on the new roles and that, instead, they are products of ‘deals done behind closed doors between councillors and representatives of central government.’

It appears rather ironic that this proposal of greater devolution may actually reflect an imposition from central government of its own policies and desires on local government.

Nevertheless, the new metro mayors do enable greater local control over local matters and have been argued to represent the best chance yet of ensuring devolution is sustainable over time. It is also likely they will get increasing powers over time, as in London.

But the question remains whether they will facilitate local economic growth and help to re-balance the English economy.

Final thoughts

Whether the new metro mayors will succeed in this aim or not, only time will tell. There has been little evidence of improved performance under elected mayors in England so far, although it has been suggested there is some evidence that their introduction has resulted in quicker and more transparent decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that the council was better at dealing with complex issues, and that there was improved relationships between partners.

Some of the successes of the London mayor have also been suggested to be an indication of the potential impact of the directly-elected mayor role.

As has recently been argued, their success, or otherwise, “should be judged on whether they improve prospects for the people who live in their city regions, stimulating growth and getting local public services working better”.


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Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


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Famous last words? Is this the beginning of the end for city slogans?

How do you sum up a city in a slogan? The simple answer is that you can’t. But that hasn’t stopped towns and cities around the world trying to encapsulate their essence in a few well-chosen (or sometimes ill-chosen) words.

For some, a slogan is a fun way to show that a town or city is a great place to live, work and visit. American municipalities that proclaim themselves to be “The Best Town on Earth” (Madisonville, Kentucky), or “The Toothpick Capital of the World (Strong, Maine) are doing so with their civic tongues firmly in cheek.

But for many towns and cities, slogan making is a serious business that requires considerable amounts of time, money and brainpower to come up with something that highlights communities as worth visiting and investing in.

And for some cities, a slogan can mean the difference between success and failure.

How a slogan saved a city

New York City today is a lively, attractive place that’s proud to trumpet its cultural, architectural, retail and culinary attractions to residents and tourists alike. Things were very different in the 1970s. Years of financial mismanagement and neglect had given New York a reputation for grime, crime, drugs and disrepair. By the mid-70s, the city’s image was in tatters.

The turning point came with a campaign promoting one of New York’s enduring strong points – its theatre district. A television advert featuring Broadway stars launched the campaign on Valentine’s Day 1978. Its message was short and sweet: I ❤ NY.

As Newsweek reported, the campaign was an overnight success:

“There were some 93,800 requests for the tourism brochure after the commercials aired. Hotel occupancy in New York City hit 90%, year-on-year earnings from travel activity shot up nearly 20 percent.”

Forty years later, I ❤ NY still has pulling power:

Walk around Manhattan today and you’ll find pretty much every store that caters to tourists is packed with T-shirts, mugs, keychains and more, all emblazoned with the iconic slogan. A 2011 report said the city still earns some $30 million a year through licensing the logo.”

Glasgow’s Miles Better

The New York campaign had a profound influence on another city whose image required a makeover. In 1984, Glasgow was making efforts to recover from industrial decline, and to regenerate its city centre as a retail and cultural hub. The city’s Lord Provost, Michael Kelly, wanted to promote Glasgow’s progress, and to show that the city was miles better than it used to be.

The Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign was one of the first of its kind in the UK, and – like its New York inspiration – the brand had important after-effects. The message was carried across the UK, appeared on London buses and was used to promote the city internationally. Arguably, the campaign boosted Glasgow’s success in becoming European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.  Michael Kelly later summed up the impact of the campaign:

“The legacy was a permanent change in attitude towards Glasgow, exposing the reality rather than the rather distorted image people had outside. People began to look at it in a proper light and were able to make economic decisions based on that, so we got investment, we got employment. We turned the economy round, and that legacy is still being felt today.”

The slogan was finally dropped in 1997, but subsequent campaigns – Glasgow’s Alive, Glasgow: Scotland with Style – never enjoyed the commercial success of the Miles Better brand, nor did they win the hearts of the people.  Today, the city has another slogan – People Make Glasgow – which puts Glaswegians firmly at the heart of the city’s identity. The change recognised that in a city which still has significant social, health and housing problems, a slogan focusing on the strengths of its citizens is more likely to have credibility.

Slogan-free cities

But while numerous towns and cities around the world have embraced the power of a slogan, there are signs that city slogans may be reaching the end of the road.

In 2015, the city council of Edmonton, capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, voted to drop the “City of Champions” slogan. The Mayor of Edmonton contended that a city’s brand can never be expressed in a meaningful way by a single tagline. Other North American cities, including Moncton in New Brunswick, Mississauga in Ontario, and Cleveland, Ohio, have also been phasing out their city slogans.

Slogans with a smile

“The challenge of finding a slogan is handling the plurality of images and identities that the residents possess. The multiple and distinct identities supported by populations within a city should be included and coincide within the urban brand as much as possible in order to accommodate the resi­dents’ diversity.”
Championing the City

Faced with such a daunting challenge, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some cities and towns have given up on the idea of a civic slogan. But most are sticking with the concept, and some are hoping that even if they don’t greatly raise the profile of their municipality, they might at least raise a smile:

  • The Odds Are With You (Peculiar, Missouri)
  • It’s All Right Here (Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • It’s a Location, Not a Vocation (Hooker, Oklahoma)
  • Aha! (Suncheon, South Korea)
  • It’s Not Our Fault (San Andreas, California)

Denmark’s digital ambassador: should the UK be following suit?

 

By Steven McGinty

On 26 January, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they would be appointing the world’s first ‘digital ambassador’ to act as the nation’s representative to major technology companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

At a conference on the future of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, explained that:

Denmark must be at the forefront of technological development. Technological advances are making such a great impact on our society that it has become a matter of foreign policy. I have therefore decided to announce the appointment of a digitisation ambassador.

In a follow up interview with Danish newspaper Politken, Mr Samuelsen expressed his belief that multinational technology giants “affect Denmark just as much as entire countries”. He highlighted the examples of Apple and Google whose market values are so large that if they were countries they would only narrowly miss out from inclusion in the G20 – the global forum for cooperation between the world’s 20 major economies.

As a result of this economic strength, together with tech firms’ impact on the everyday lives of citizens, Mr Samuelsen argues that the technology sector should be treated as a form of ‘new nation’, which Denmark must develop closer relationships with.

Cooperation between nation states and the technology sector

Technology companies are becoming involved in activities that were once reserved for nation states. For example, Mr Samuelsen’s Liberal party accepts donations in Bitcoin – an online currency which challenges the state’s role as the only issuer of legal tender. And Microsoft have signed a partnership agreement with the French Ministry of Education to provide teacher training, in order to prepare teachers for running special coding classes.

The technology industry argues that it is better placed than national governments to provide effective digital services, at cheaper prices. In terms of national security, computer engineering expert and academic, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, argues that this is probably the case. Mr Ganascia highlights that Google and Facebook have vast image databases that enable them to use facial recognition software far better than any national security service. Therefore, countries have started working with technology companies on a variety of crime and public safety issues.

Citizens are also spending greater amounts of time on social media platforms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Samuelsen stated that more than half of the world’s data has been created in the past two years (much of this from major platforms such as Facebook). This trend has implications for the privacy of citizens and the spreading of false information, a phenomena that has been labelled ‘fake news’. These issues are fundamentally important for citizens and nation states, and are likely to increase cooperation between countries and the technology sector.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Although Denmark will be the first country to introduce a digital ambassador, another government has made a similar appointment. In January, Dr Tobias Feakin was appointment as Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. His role focuses on cyber-security, but also includes issues such as censorship and promoting internet access. At this stage, it’s unclear whether Dr Feakin will have direct contact with technology companies and whether this relationship will involve discussions over economic issues such as taxation.

Is a digital ambassador necessary?

Not everyone, however, is buying into the appointment of a government representative focused solely on digital issues. Technology journalist, Emma Woollacott, believes that it’s a ‘terrible idea’.

According to Ms Woollacott, Denmark already has a good relationship with technology companies, highlighting that Facebook has recently announced plans to build a new data centre in Odense, creating 150 new permanent jobs. These views may have some merit, as Mr Samuelsen has confirmed that the deal between the Foreign Ministry and Facebook was the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work.

Ms Woollacott also argues that Denmark is setting a worrying precedent by equating a private company to a nation state.  In her view, the importance of the technology sector could have been acknowledged through hiring knowledge staff, rather than granting it a ‘unique political status’.

However, Professor Jan Stentoft, who researches the insourcing of technological production to Denmark, believes creating the ambassadorial post is a good idea. He explains:

We have much to offer these companies, but Denmark is a small country, and we obviously need to make ourselves noticed if we are to attract them to the country.

Marianne Dahl Steensen, CEO of Microsoft Denmark, also welcomed the creation of a digital ambassador position, but did acknowledge that the company ‘can hardly be equated with a nation’.

Should the UK introduce a digital ambassador?

By introducing a digital ambassador, Mr Samuelsen is taking a pragmatic approach to ensure Denmark is a key player in the international digital economy, as well as attempting to manage the impacts of an increasingly digital society.

Although appointing an ambassador for the technology sector poses philosophical and ethical questions, the UK should closely monitor how this new role develops and the potential benefits (and challenges) it brings for Denmark. In particular, if the new role is able to improve dialogue between technology companies and the security services on matters such as privacy, or help address the sector’s need for digitally skilled workers, then maybe introducing a digital ambassador is something worth exploring.


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