Changing the conversation: An interview with Microsoft's Toni Townes-Whitley

Written by Civil Service World on 10 January 2017 in Interview

CSW caught up with Microsoft's Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Public Sector to discuss transformation in times of austerity, the key to successful major projects and tackling the lack of diversity among digital leaders

How can digital government transform lives around the world, and what are some of your favourite examples?

I guess it starts with the definition of digital government and their own transformation journeys. How do you change the way government engages with citizens directly? How do you increase the productivity of government workers? How do you change the government employee’s experience with faster, more productive, more efficient digital capability? Then we say: how do you really change the provision of service – how do you start to fundamentally re-think the role of government?

There are great examples around the world of what that transformation looks like. One of the best I can think of is in India, where the postmistress is trying to take 40% of the population living in rural areas who have no other interaction but for a post office, and to use the post office as the agent of change. So it’s not just postal services, it’s banking, it’s health services, it’s digital literacy. All of a sudden the post office becomes this transformative element because it is the point of intersection for many of these communities. And how do you do that with an antiquated postal system that was put in place just to serve mail? Now you’re going to do banking – what are the security components? You’re going to do health testing – what do you do about personal data privacy? What do you need for education and customised learning? All of a sudden the technology beneath that platform has to change radically. While there are major policy and societal actions that still need to occur, the opportunities are here today.

In recent Microsoft research, UK public sector officials cited budget constraints as the largest potential barrier to digital transformation. But it’s also true that austerity can create a burning platform for innovation. Can budget cuts be both a barrier and an enabler? 

I think if all we’re going to do is maintain legacy systems and automate previous government functions, without looking fundamentally at transformation, budget can be a challenge. But in my experience, some of the greatest transformation has come as a result of budgets being constrained and people having to look at new operating models – whether they be shared services, public cloud – and at different ways to really bring down the costs of their infrastructure.  

It comes down to the question: what constitutes digital transformation? We had a question in our survey and people responded. And it does indicate that many may believe digital transformation is an additive cost. But we would be looking to suggest that there are many models that would represent how cost savings occur through digital transformation, and that it could actually be the bridge to an austerity programme. 

Your research also found that only 35% of senior and middle managers in the public sector say their organisation has a clear digital transformation strategy. Do we need a formal strategy – or should we be letting things evolve according to user need and tech developments? 

In the short term, you can step into the digital world many ways and I wouldn’t be overly handcuffed to a strategy to stop the movement into the digital economy. But for the mid and long term, it’s incredibly important to have a road map, because, again, if we’re just automating processes you might find yourself digital, but still not adding value. Just being digital in itself is not the end; it’s a means to an end. It’s a means to better provision, lower cost, better security and a change in how you deliver services and create products for your customers and your citizens. 

So having a strategy that connects your digital experience with all other aspects of your operation, including the political and regulatory environment that you’re in, is important.

“Being digital in itself is not the end; it’s a means to an end. It’s a means to lower cost, and a change in how you deliver services”

CSW often explores why major projects fail. From the supplier perspective, what are the key factors that can influence whether a project fails or succeeds?

Some factors are timeless, independent of government, country or project. Clarity of requirements – being very clear about the shared vision – is huge for us. Sometimes there is a disconnect between what we hear, what we require, what we codify, what we build to and then what’s expected at the end. It’s called scope creep: new requirements are brought in; there’s not a formal process for curating all the different stakeholders and so politically we’ve got to bring in new requirements because new people show up and the project starts to spin. And so the shared vision being codified and governed throughout is core.  

Then there’s executive sponsorship. In a political environment sponsors change. You get projects where you had one executive who had built their whole career around the project, and they’re gone. Then we find ourselves with a new person who says, ‘Not invented here, not so interested in this one.’ Maybe there’s even a political reason to shoot at it, and all of a sudden you see a project tank that was actually on a good path. So executive sponsorship is really important. 

The third factor is around the barriers towards co-designing projects. And it’s exacerbated by a procurement process that often doesn’t let private sector and government come together in the conceptual phase, because of concerns – for the right reasons – about equal access and favouritism. But in effect it shuts down these conceptual meetings that would drive a different outcome. So how do we open up the procurement process in ways that still put the controls in, so there’s not a monopolistic or inappropriate relationship, but how do you talk about a project earlier on? If the only time you can do that is in a sort of procurement proposal and response phase, and you can only talk in very structured ways, you have projects that could have been much better designed had they had some private sector best practice at the front end. 

Central government in the UK still has a big diversity problem among its most senior positions, not least in IT roles. What needs to be done?  

There are issues across the lifecycle. And that’s the same for the private sector. When I was president of Women In Technology, the branding that I gave it then was ‘Classroom to Boardroom’. We needed that end-to-end view. 

What we know is that there are ‘off-ramps’ for girls and women, where they get out of STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] – whether that’s ‘I don’t feel comfortable’, or goes as far as feeling a bit harassed in that space, or that they just vote themselves off the island.  

We know with computer science degrees the numbers have been going down year on year. So more girls in university, fewer studying computer science. Why is that? Often in the first two years of those courses there is a lot of very deep theoretical coding capability, and all of the applied work is usually in the last two years. And women tend to do better in the applied science, so they tend to depart after the first two years. So we’ve got to go to the off-ramps and start to mitigate them. 

Once women are in [tech careers], we know that there are a couple of things that we can do around the career path. That includes things like assignments review, which is about making sure that diverse candidates are set up for the most career-moving assignments within an organisation. Not every role in government moves your career, so it’s not just how many people you have in the funnel, it’s where they’re placed in the funnel. 

The research also indicates that women are more often promoted on fully proven skills, while male candidates are often promoted on potential. So if a man finds two attributes out of 10 [in a job ad] to be consistent with his experience, he will go for the job. A woman will wait for eight attributes before she will go for the job. That’s what keeps a gap. So it’s thinking about this kind of thing when understanding how to move people. 

We still see an earning gap of roughly 20% for the same skill sets. I have a no tolerance rule on that. That should just be legislated out immediately.

Finally, I think government already has a challenge with the shortage of people who want to work for it. And with women in particular, government has to figure out what value proposition it can bring. And then: how do we make sure that there’s no bias in the promotion, how do we make sure the plum assignments are diverse, and how do we make sure that throughout the season we push the support that women need? It’s still a challenge – even in government, it’s still a challenge.

To find out more about how the Public Sector can transform, download Microsoft’s Digital Transformation Report
For a roadmap to a trusted, responsible, and inclusive cloud, click here​. 

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