This week, we spoke to one of the members of this year’s judging panel, Alison McKenzie-Folan – who has played a crucial part in Wigan Council’s digital transformation as deputy chief executive and director of customer transformation. Under Alison’s leadership, last year the council won ‘Digital Council of the Year’ in the Local Government Chronicle Awards and the same accolade in the 2016 Digital Leaders 100 Awards. Alison is also Deputy Digital Spokesperson for SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives).

Alison, what made you want to get involved on the Big Chips judging panel this year?

I’m extremely excited to have been asked to sit on the judging panel – it’s a great opportunity to recognise all the fantastic work that is going on in the digital tech sector across the North. I’m honoured to be involved in an initiative which celebrates and recognises those playing a part in pushing the industry forward.

What do you think is so great about the North’s flourishing digital tech sector?

The relocation of the BBC from London to Salford a few years ago was one of the early indicators that the North West was becoming a serious contender for the home of digital - I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the North is now competing on a global stage, digitally. Digital tech is one of the North’s top five key sector strengths, so it’s great that both the private sector and Government is now recognising that we’ve got this growing expertise. All of the regions across the North possess this strength and it’s fantastic to start seeing recognition of the work that’s actually been going on here for years.

The willingness of the regions to come together through networking events, meetups - all of the things that go on outside of normal working hours - and the time and energy being put into these is really exciting to see. This cross collaboration in the North is great, and is what we need to see more of. We have some very creative, talented and innovative people in our region but we need to ensure those skills and talent continue to come through the pipeline to encourage other organisations to follow suit.

How do you think the sector has evolved over the past few years and what challenges do you now think it faces?

The sector has evolved significantly and is thriving, but is not without its challenges – many of which are around skills and the talent pipeline. There is a disconnect between education and industry which isn’t good– both parties must work in a more collaborative way to make the growth of the industry sustainable.

I also believe the careers service needs fixing. My personal experiences of mentoring young people are that many lack knowledge around the career opportunities in the sector. There are many roles that require skills like problem solving and innovation but many careers are sold in a less attractive language – meaning kids can be put off. As digital roles tend to command higher salaries, it is good for social mobility, so it’s vital that young people understand the opportunities a digital career can afford them.  So, I think it’s crucial that over the next couple of years, the industry prioritises careers services, mentoring and skills.

You’ve led Wigan Council through a digital transformation – why do you think it’s so important for organisations (particularly in the public sector) to embrace digital?

Technology has the ability to change so many peoples’ lives, and in ways we might not even know yet! It can help with social isolation, health issues, mental wellbeing – the list goes on. Local government is all about people, it’s how tech can help those people that is really exciting.

For us, it can be used for early intervention, and prevention too. Tech can help those in supported living live independently and also gives family members the peace of mind that their loved ones are okay. For us, it’s now about figuring out how we can best use the masses of data that technology has helped us generate as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Before you leave us, tell us what are the key things you’re looking for in this year’s Big Chip entries…

I’ll be judging the public sector, tech for good, transformation and leadership categories this year – a nice mix of new and old! In terms of what I’m looking for, first and foremost it will be ones that meet the strict judging criteria – something Big Chips prides itself upon. I’d also like to see entries that not only tick all the boxes, but also go that little bit further. I’m really pleased to be involved with the awards and can’t wait for judging day now!