By Phil Swan, Director of Digital, Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Over the last 20 months we have seen a well evidenced acceleration towards the UK becoming a ‘digital first’ society – as any number of statistics can demonstrate. We’ve living this at Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Between January and March 2021 alone we hosted 24,000 attendees in online meetings from around the world, with over 4million minutes of collective audio time. And with people working from home, when we take the 400 non-Fire & Rescue Service colleagues at the combined authority, we’ve avoided travelling over half a million miles to and from work, since April 2020. That’s the equivalent distance to the Moon and back. 

Overseas travel now feels as if it requires a degree in digital literacy - and even getting onto the NHS app can be challenging. I was helping my father with it recently but because he lives somewhere without a mobile signal he couldn't receive a verification code to authenticate. We ended up driving to the top of a nearby hill to make it work.

Whilst the direction of travel is clear, the journey, for many, is not smooth or comfortable. Trust is a major factor. A US senate subcommittee has been hearing a Facebook insider’s testimony this week, however 60 million more people still signed up for a Facebook account in the last Quarter of 2021.

The digital shift is being reflected in our economy and jobs. In early 2020, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport analysis revealed that the UK digital economy was growing six times faster than the mainstream economy. Our most recent analysis of job adverts in Greater Manchester indicates that roles in the digital sector are outstripping any other sector.

Indeed our city region has the fastest growing digital economy in Europe – Manchester based "The Hut Group" recently had the largest UK float since the Royal Mail in 2013. Matillion, an AI company based in Trafford, has recently raised $150MN from Japan based Softbank, valuing it at about $1.5BN and becoming one the UK’s newest “unicorn” businesses, and we have an incredible range of growing small and medium size businesses across a range of sectors – creative media, cyber, healthcare, eCommerce, gaming. 

Undoubtedly this creates new opportunities for the residents of Greater Manchester, we need to make sure that people from across the whole city region can see and feel that digital potential for themselves, their communities and their families. 

But whilst the past 20 months has reshaped the way we work and live not everyone is comfortable with it. What should the public sector’s response to this be?

It is a balancing act that takes into account a long list of factors that includes increased demand for digitisation; fundamental changes to services; resident and business expectations; the lead time on investment; new technologies; funding in a tight fiscal climate; partnership working; not leaving people behind; ethics; and the opportunity to shape places - local economies and communities.

The Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint - which we published in 2020 following extensive stakeholder input – remains our roadmap through this and are focus is on the 5 priorities and two cross cutting enablers within it. The themes in it resonate more strongly than ever, however the pandemic and our experience through it has shifted the emphasis - more towards empowering people, inclusive growth, environmental improvement through the optimisation of data and technology.  

Image of Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint launch event

Image: Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint launch event, February 2020

Importantly our Blueprint was always about people. It was never a technology document and is why the targets focus on areas like growth, inclusion, essential digital skills, school readiness and reducing homelessness.

The digital landscape is changing perhaps faster than many people appreciate. Digital has come out of the data centre and is now strategically vital consideration. At a city region level, this means re-thinking how we work together across the public sector, with communities, and with industry and academia.

This is complex and challenging. As a member of our digital strategic advisory group once stated “you can’t control an ecosystem, but you can direct and energise it”. My small team’s role is to enable that – to provide supporting frameworks and governance that bring together all the parts of our systems and act as a force multiplier for the region so that we can go further, faster.

But where we are grounded together is that relentless focus on "making a difference" for the people and communities of Greater Manchester. It's an incredibly exciting time.


Article Published: 07/10/2021 09:26 AM