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Chief Digital Officer: London needs a doer not a cheerleader

Over a year ago, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan stood at a tech-focused hustings event and pledged the appointment of a Chief Digital Officer for London. As policy announcements go, it was a crowd pleaser, as an explicit commitment to turn London from a digitally-friendly capital into a digitally-powered one.

But the year that followed the election has been far from straightforward. While Sadiq was still unpacking his boxes in City Hall, the UK voted to leave the EU. While this has rightly diverted the Mayor’s attention, the need for a CDO has intensified rather than abated. Brexit has exposed the vulnerability of London’s tech sector to international competition, as well as the sector’s dependency on EU workers. Public services are continuing to buckle under the strain of funding cuts. While technology may be no panacea, a City Hall that understands its potential will be well-placed to collaborate with the private and civic sector to develop solutions to some the capital’s most pressing challenges.

It is welcome news, then, that Sadiq has finally started recruitment for London’s first CDO. London now joins a cohort of cities with a dedicated lead for city-wide digital strategies and visions.

But London needs a doer not a digital cheerleader. Last year Centre for London and London First, working closely with Bloomberg Associates and in consultation with a range of business and policy leaders, set out what we saw as the main requirements for the role. We argued that the role should be focused on three themes: providing policy advice and digital expertise, championing a digital transformation across London government, and seeking out and sharing best practice.

There was a risk that the role could have become a muddled dumping group for all things tech-related, from broadband, to digital skills, office space and regulation. But so far, it looks like this job description is heading in right direction.                                                                         

This is not a role for the faint hearted. Championing digital in city hall – and its vast array stakeholders – will be challenging, not least in balancing the Mayor’s vision for good growth and digital inclusion alongside more technical strategies.

Demand for increased connectivity, improved information and efficient services that are open and transparent, is at an all-time high. And while the recruitment of a CDO comes at a time when the strength of London’s tech sector is once most needed, and most vulnerable, it will be though embedding digital strategies across City Hall, and capital as a whole, that the CDO can help London succeed as a fair and prosperous global city.