Greater Manchester – creating a world leading digital city region

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In June 2021, I was announced as new GMCA Lead for Digital, Work and Skills, with this announcement coming at a time, whereas a region we are attempting to build and develop a digital city-region in a post pandemic society, impacting a society with tight finances, a weary economy and uncertain employment, teamed with a frustrated population and stressed public sector systems.

Doing Digital Differently

The Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint was launched in February 2020 and puts residents at the heart of what we do. Our people are our biggest asset, and this inclusive approach builds on that fact, as we work towards our ambition to be recognised as a world leading digital city-region.

Our Digital Blueprint is a people strategy, viewed through a digital lens. Our collective priority remains our people.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, we have worked hard to adapt and diversify and reflecting on the five priorities and two enablers in the blueprint it’s clear the focus on innovation and pace has increased. Digital transformation has accelerated at a pace never seen before.

The Early Years App is one example of that diversification – a new, first of its kind application, truly transforming the way health and education information is delivered and shared in Greater Manchester, it digitises the paper-based assessments used to review a child’s development up to the age of 2.5 years, allowing parents and carers to efficiently complete assessments online and access their records. The app is helping to join-up our public services and is providing parents and carers with the support they need quickly and efficiently. We know some residents experience challenges accessing services across local authority areas – the app is one way we’re addressing this, with data readily available across boroughs.

It is also freeing up valuable clinical time for health visiting teams and demonstrates just one of the ways we’re ensuring that everyone in Greater Manchester, whatever their age, location, or situation, can benefit from the opportunities that digital brings and supports regional ambitions around school readiness, ensuring our young people have the best start in life.

You could argue that the digitisation of paper-based services is an obvious example but our ‘people at the heart of what we do’ approach is also applied to the less “obvious” examples too, such as in our ambitions for world class digital infrastructure, we’re keeping a significant focus on the benefit to our people too.

Work on the regions Local Full Fibre Network Programme was due to start just as the UK’s first national lockdown was announced and so I was encouraged to read a recent report showing significant local economic benefit to date, with £11.8m of overall local economic value in the first year of delivery. The programme has also exceeded local employment targets, with 75% of the workforce behind delivery being based in Greater Manchester.

Our partner, Virgin Media Business made several bold social value investments as part of their contract to deliver full fibre to over 1500 public sector sites across the region. Social value activity has included supporting the Greater Manchester Technology Fund, with a significant financial donation. To date, the fund has helped over 3,527 digitally excluded young people with the technology and connectivity needed to continue their learning at home while schools and colleges closed. Staff at Virgin Media Business have also been using volunteer days to support people across Greater Manchester.

Our approach to digital inclusion is another a great example. Recent figures from ONS show that 176,000 Greater Manchester residents have not accessed the internet between March – May 2021. Ofcom figures suggest as many as 1.2m Greater Manchester residents might be digitally excluded in some way.

So, in May 2021 Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham announced ambitions for Greater Manchester to become one of the first city-regions in the world to equip all under-25s, over-75s and disabled people with the skills, connectivity, and technology to get online.

Ensuring residents can get online, access public services and develop their digital skills will undoubtedly drive positive social and economic change for both residents and businesses and the action network will lead focused action to combat digital exclusion within targeted groups. The action network must be led by people with lived experience within these target groups and it’ll also work closely with the existing Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion Taskforce.

There’s no “one size fits all” approach but in Greater Manchester we’re taking a bottom-up, collective approach, working to identify and pull the levers that have impact, then finding ways to make them scale. Levers that include procurement, our relationships with stakeholders that have strong social conscience and having a recognised voice with central government. You can find out more on Greater Manchester’s Digital Blueprint here https://www.greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk/what-we-do/digital/

Andrew Western is the Greater Manchester Portfolio lead for Digital, Work and Skills and Clean Air at GMCA, and the Leader of Trafford Council 

Feature Image Source: https://pixabay.com/users/andrewjacobslnd-373990/

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