MoJ trying to ‘break down the cultural boundaries’ between digital and technology teams
The department’s chief digital and information officer Tom Read sees addressing a historic ‘lack of trust’ between the two disciplines as a key part of his role
The digital and IT leader of the Ministry of Justice wants to “break down the boundaries between the two cultures” that may have traditionally driven a wedge between them.
The MoJ created the post of chief digital and information officer in 2015. Tom Read took on the role the following year when he joined the department from the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, where he served as chief technology officer.
On his second day in post, Read’s role “changed quite dramatically”, he told CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, when the MoJ announced it would be uniting much of its digital and IT operations in one centralised function, which now houses close to 1,000 people. This involved bringing together formerly discrete digital and technology infrastructure teams at entities including HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), the Office of the Public Guardian, and the Legal Aid Agency.
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HM Courts and Tribunals Service maintains its own “separate digital teams doing core reform and common platforms”, but the central function led by Read is responsible for the organisation’s tech infrastructure.
In a role that covers both digital developers and IT infrastructure specialists, Read said he wants to “break down the boundaries between the two cultures”. His motto – which is adapted from a mantra frequently espoused by Netflix – is that the two disciplines should be “closely aligned, and loosely coupled”.
“What that means is that we try to be really closely aligned across the different agencies and teams on things like technical architectural standards, our values and behaviours, our overall portfolio, and our budgets,” he said. “But we try to be loosely coupled, because trying to make someone feel like they’re part of a 1,000-person organisation is really hard. People still feel part of their local team, so our Sheffield team has this great culture that they have built up. They know they are part of MoJ Digital – but they are also HMPPS Digital. And they are also Government Digital – so it’s like layers of the onion.”
IT professionals, meanwhile, have perhaps not always received the recognition they deserve.
“Not just in MoJ, but in lots of places, there is a lack of trust in the two types of teams,” Read said. “Digital teams tend to get most of the attention, because they are building iteratively, they are releasing regularly, and everyone loves digital services. And it’s much easier for ministers and senior officials to understand – because it is explicitly [about] the relationship between government and citizens. So, I think sometimes the technology… people feel a bit left out. Because… they are our right to do anything. If we can’t deliver network services to courts, or if we can’t keep the prison system running – we have no right to do anything else. And I think they go a little bit uncelebrated sometimes.”
The two functions often come with differing working practices and cultures – but each has an important role to play, according to the CDIO.
“I don’t think one size fits all – I don’t think that every project should be agile, or that every project should be waterfall. I think different types of challenge suit different methodologies,” he said. “[For example], we are deploying telephones into tens of thousands of prison cells. We currently have them rolled out to 20 prisons, and we will do another 20 in the next year. To get structured cabling into a prison cell, you need a lot of planning. You have to sometimes empty whole wings, remove the prisoners, do the cabling, make sure people have the right clearance – that needs military precision. And you can’t do that in an iterative way – there is no minimum viable product there; either is a phone that works and is secure, or it isn’t.”
Read’s ultimate goal is to create “one holistic function” that provides a unity of purpose for both IT and digital professionals.
Look out on PublicTechnology in the coming days for a full write-up of our discussion with the MoJ digital and IT leader, including lots of detail on the department’s ambitious plans for future transformation, a recent major computing refresh, and how its digital tools could be scaled across government.
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