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Next steps in digital leadership and city-wide collaboration in London

Theo Blackwell
Oct 12, 2017 · 8 min read

This paper outlines the role of the first Chief Digital Officer for London and work with the Mayor of London to develop city-wide digital transformation and to support London as an international centre for innovation. This piece appeared first in the new Corsham Institute Observatory for a Connected Society.


The post of Chief Digital Officer for London (‘CDO for London’) was established by the Mayor of London in September 2017. It fulfils a manifesto commitment made by Mayor, responding to calls from London’s tech sector and business community prior to the 2016 election. The recommendation from London First, Centre for London and Bloomberg Associates flowed from a report drawn up with the help of several London councils, Tech City UK and Nesta. The CDO for London’s duties closely follow their approach:

London’s Chief Digital Officer will:

Provide strategic leadership on the digital transformation agenda for London’s public services, across the GLA group and the wider public sector.

Convene on behalf of the Mayor, across London local government, to build support for and take-up of innovative, technology and data-led approaches to service delivery and public engagement.

Develop and promote partnership between the public, private and community sectors to enable and support the development of new public service oriented technology and innovation.

This new digital leadership role follows similar moves in the private sector and in city government, starting with New York in 2011 and latterly in other U.S. cities like San Francisco, and several major European cities. In the U.K., the Scottish Government appointed a Chief Digital Officer and Chief Technology Officer and Improvement Service across 28 authorities in 2016.

For London, the post starts to address the challenge set out by the CITIE analysis celebrating London’s world-class tech strengths in all areas — apart from digital governance. It also meets the needs of local politicians who back the idea of convening across devolved government and continues a conversation with Whitehall about the ‘missing chapter’ in UK digital policy about the nature of digital public service leadership and collaboration.

Below I outline three areas of work which will be important for London city government, the boroughs and the tech sector.

1. Digital leadership

The Greater London Authority is the strategic body for London and the Mayor, directly-elected by 1.5 million Londoners, sets the overall vision for our capital city. He has a statutory duty to create plans and policies for the capital covering: arts & culture; business and the economy; environment; fire; health; housing and land; planning; policing and crime; regeneration; sport; transport and young people. Other priorities for the Mayor include higher education, foreign investment and attracting events and conferences to London. The Mayor is also responsible for major delivery agencies across the GLA Group such as Transport for London (TfL), London Fire Brigade (LFEPA) and Metropolitan Police (MOPAC).

One of the first priorities is aligning approaches to digital transformation and technology, and at a strategic level, both vertically to Whitehall and horizontally across the GLA Group and in discussion with the boroughs and other public services. To achieve the Mayor’s stated ambition to make London ‘the smartest city in the world’, the post will work closely with the newly-reconstituted Mayor of London’s Smart London Board. The new Board is drawn from London business, academic and civil society and is tasked with developing a new Smart London Plan modeled on New York City’s Digital Roadmap set out by Mayor Bloomberg.

London’s new approach to digital will touch all strategies but specifically be developed alongside London’s proposed Economic Development Strategy, which will set out London’s approach to the digital economy, connectivity and infrastructure, and the future London Plan, which guides development. In practice this will involve:

alignment of outcomes and priorities;

build on the existing work of GLA, e.g. the London Datastore team on city data and work on design standards;

establishing more consistent language across the GLA (what we understand by, and how we deploy terms like ‘smart’, ‘digital’, ‘Big Data’ etc);

consideration of common approaches to better connectivity, smart utility infrastructure or cyber-security;

emphasis on digital talent, skills and inclusion, and

enhancing digital understanding in senior teams, starting with the GLA itself.

Work will also complement national institutions such as Innovate UK, Nesta, Open Data Institute and the Digital Catapult and Future Cities Catapult and as well as London’s universities and major institutions.

2. Digital foundations

In population terms London’s boroughs are cities in their own right: one of its largest, the London borough of Croydon, with a population of 380,000 is approximately the same size as New Orleans. They are complex organisations each with many hundreds of lines-of-business, supported by a vast array of technology. Many boroughs have their own track record for innovation: Camden (Data); Greenwich (Internet of Things); some are setting up shared services (e.g. One Source, Shared Digital) and others still are setting out ambitious programmes with the private sector (e.g. Tech UK and LB Harrow new vision as a demonstrator authority).

Although councils face similar challenges, their approach to change, the adaptability of their technology estate and the way they treat and use data — the fuel for innovation — not only differs, but in many cases actually remains undiscovered. We need more understanding about on digital maturity, including who is doing what; what works effectively; how it is led, and how innovation is scaled.

Transformation will only progress in earnest if senior leadership across London can confidently establish its digital foundations, by posing questions like:

Technology estate — How many lines-of-business do we operate and what IT is supporting them and how?

Data — How does the organisation hold data from these lines-of-business and other sources corporately and to what extent is it computable and shareable?

Security — What are the vulnerabilities of our technology and systems and what is our approach to cyber security?

Procurement — How does the organisation buy technology, how open to smaller tech firms is the council and what is the typical sales cycle for tech providers?

In one form or another already seen progress in this direction through the creation borough digital strategies or new regional collective vehicles for buying and scaling ‘bleeding edge’ solutions from the tech sector: London Ventures, i-Stand/i-Network Manchester, Bristol’s ‘Programmable City’, CivTech Scotland, are all existing initiatives to make it easier for the tech sector to solve citizen- and public service- needs.

We aim to go a step further building collaboration across London’s public services, as announced by the Mayor at London Tech Week. The GLA’s Natalie Taylor has already been a driving force behind the creation and adoption of the Local Government Digital Service Standard to bring user-experience into the heart of new service design in local government. In late 2016, London Councils and the Mayor of London agreed to co-fund a study to explore how: to improve the ways new digital and data-driven services are shared and scaled; to collaborate on new innovation challenges; and finally address common or London-wide policy challenges through digital technology. A consortium of FutureGov, Arup and Stance to run a scoping study for a London Office of Technology and Innovation (‘LOTI’) function. By the end of 2017 we will design a potential work programme and operating model for those boroughs wishing to develop this idea.

3. Digital ambassador

The third stand of the CDO for London’s work will be to support London as a world centre of innovation. The London context is one of growth in population and jobs for the next foreseeable future, so the CDO for London needs to be relentlessly future-focused. The number of devices and things requiring digital connectivity, whether in the home, the street or the workplace is already growing at a huge rate. How can data and digital help provide the necessary infrastructure and quality of life? How can we make sure Londoners are inspired with the right skills to benefit from the data-driven economy and how can we make sure these sectors have the full range of talent at their disposal: home-grown, European and local? If we are to spur growth and public benefit from data, what do new rules regarding data, security and privacy involve?

We will ensure that ‘London is Open’ during the Brexit negotiations and that it retains and enhances its status by working with Tech City, London & Partners and Tech London Advocates. London innovation is driven over 40 hi-tech and science clusters. London already has more than 47,000 digital technology companies, employing approximately 240,000 people. It is forecast that the number of tech companies will increase by a third and a further 44,500 jobs will have been created by 2026.

The London Datastore is an open resource with vast amounts of data about all areas of the city, to support growth. In addition to smart ticketing TfL’s data is used by a community of over 12,000 developers and has been used to create over 600 apps. We believe that city data generated within Old Oak and Park Royal development project is a huge opportunity to showcase London’s city data market as the most advanced in the world. The new Smart London Board will not just hold City Hall’s feet to the fire on this agenda, but help horizon-scan for future innovation opportunities and needs.

The Mayor of London wants growth to be ‘good growth’, inclusive of London’s diversity. City services will need to refresh our approach to digital inclusion as services become more smartphone-friendly but those who remain excluded need face-to-face assistance through a digitally-enabled workforce.

The Mayor’s Digital Talent Programme is investing £7 million to help young people get the right skills to fill digital, creative and technology occupations needed by every sector of London’s economy. The aim is to benefit 1,500 young people with industry-designed training, and is aimed at women and Londoners from black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds. Finally, we will work to promote 50/50 gender balanced panels at conferences and events to address this particular challenge in the tech sector.


Questions about how we get public services to work together — better and more secure data sharing, adoption of common standards, scaling innovation and smart city technology — are more critical than ever for city administration. This applies not just for London, but nationally. Outside of London new Metro-Mayors and devolved government are also starting to consider how to align broader digital public service transformation, smart city and digital economy needs.

These three strands of work will start to develop a new approach, through digital leadership and city collaboration, always for the benefit of citizens we serve.

Theo Blackwell is the new Chief Digital Officer for London

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