Lessons from a digital career: John Fitzpatrick’s journey from a Manchester benefits office to leading MoD’s digital transformation

John Fitzpatrick’s civil service career has gone from a Manchester benefits office to playing a key role in the MoD’s digital transformation. He relives the journey with Richard Johnstone
John Fitzpatrick

By Richard Johnstone

26 May 2021

Digital and data is not just something with the potential to transform government services; it can also turbocharge careers.

So, at least, goes the story of John Fitzpatrick.

The Ministry of Defence’s director for digital engagement has held a number of senior digital posts in government, across departments including the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions.

But his career started, in his own words, “writing giros in a Manchester benefits centre as a college dropout”, after he saw the post advertised in a jobcentre.

“I thought, ‘This is going to get me some money for the time being while I figure out what I actually do with my life,’ aged 19,” he says. “It has been a bit of a journey, I suppose.”

Only a couple of weeks later, what Fitzpatrick calls a “far more exciting job” in fraud investigation came up, and he was soon working in the sector that became “the anchor of my career”.

“In my early 20s, I realised I needed to step up a little bit and I went to study fraud management, which I did while I was working,” he says. “That then enabled me to get some academic credentials, start to go after some promotions.”

“There’s no way that I would have imagined I would end up here when I started”

It was in this job that Fitzpatrick became interested in the impact data and technology could have on service delivery. While working in fraud investigations, he realised that “if we used data and technology differently, we could prevent a lot of fraud going through the door, rather than investigating it afterwards”. This work led to a six-month loan to the National Fraud Authority to work on a report analysing the total cost of fraud to inform action.

Fitzpatrick returned to DWP around 2010 and wrote its fraud strategy, in partnership with HM Revenue and Customs, which crystallised this use of technology. “That was really shifting things from detection into prevention,” he says. “We’d seen that the level of investment going into prevention was nowhere near comparable to that in the financial sector. We also looked at how much these investigations cost to do and the kind of outcomes that we’re getting from them. We were spending quite a lot and not getting very much back, and then started to pivot that approach.”

By this point, Fitzpatrick had begun to see the potential of digital, but it was a stint he spent as an inspector across the whole of the benefits system, reporting for both central and local government, that helped him realise that “organisations don’t always have the capability to do better”.

This led to the creation of an internal consultancy within the DWP to help provide these skills across the public sector, particularly with local authorities, around the administration of things like housing benefit. “We moved from telling poor-performing organisations that they were poor performing, to trying and help them to improve,” he says.

By this time, he was on a talent scheme within DWP, which led to a project to introduce data mining and matching across the department, then a job advising on its first strategy. The transition to a digital career was complete.

“That was a really fast appointment,” he recalls. “It got advertised and they needed somebody within days, and because I was on the scheme, it opened up that opportunity. So I took it and I started work on the strategy.”

Kevin Cunnington, who would go on to lead the Government Digital Service, then joined the department from Vodafone to lead the transformation itself.

Reflecting on his career, Fitzpatrick says he was first “gripped by digital” when writing the fraud and error strategy. Then when Cunnington (now director general of the International Government Service, promoting the work of UK government services across the world) came in and developed the digital academy to boost skills across the government, Fitzpatrick helped to run it, finding out about a whole new range of fields.

Fitzpatrick explains: “Setting up the digital academy, I was learning about new capabilities and new roles that I had never previously heard of – user-centred design, user research, product ownership, delivery management.

“They were all new to me, but when I started to meet some of the people who were stood at the front of the academy, they’ve done the ‘Blockbuster to Netflix’ conversion, and you then start to see a completely different world.”

However, around the same time, DWP was writing off around £500m in Universal Credit costs – a jarring contrast with the potential Fitzpatrick could see. “We’d had to write off quite a lot of money, because we’d not got it right first time on the technology side of UC,” he adds.

This began to fuel some of Fitzpatrick’s frustrations with government transformation, which would eventually culminate in a spell outside the public sector.

Digital in government needs to be funded in teams, he believes, not as projects “Those capabilities need to be embedded in the organisation, and matured in the same way that a policy team does,” he says.

This opinion was crystallised when he became head of digital for Civil Service Learning, which he felt was hindered by technology and funding. “We were in an old platform that wasn’t fit for purpose anymore. It needed modernising,” he explains.

“We’d set out our ambition and we needed to re-platform the service. It needed a couple of million quid spending on it at the time and we just couldn’t secure the money. I was in a situation where, like an old second-hand car, it was breaking down every day.”

He became so frustrated that, even with the support of senior leaders including then-cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and civil service chief executive John Manzoni, he was unable to get the money needed to make the digital service a reality. “In the end we had to shut down a team, because the funding wasn’t there. And that became a really painful place to be. So I decided to try and do something different for a while.”

This “something different” was setting up a consultancy on digital projects.

Despite being a risk, Fitzpatrick says it gave him new skills and enabled him to focus more on delivery. “I was still working around government as a contractor, rather than as a civil servant. But there was less organisational noise, which enabled me to be more creative, and to focus more on delivery. I didn’t have the same expectation or level of commitment on the organisational elements that you do as a permanent staff member.”

One such project was setting up a digital studio at the Ministry of Justice, where Fitzpatrick said he had “an absolute blast”.

“I was a fire starter – setting things up and getting them going,” he says. “I like to get in at the start of things and shape them when they’re complex and thorny, and a lot of stuff needs to be figured out.”

Among the projects he worked on was a scheme to move prison records, previously stored in a data centre, into the cloud, which both improved the data and reduced costs by more than 95%.

Another service digitised payments made to help some vulnerable friends and relatives visit prisoners, which had previously been paid using giros – an echo to Fitzpatrick’s earlier career but which were now being phased out of the banking system.

Another project focused on improving digital services for probation services.

“With my colleagues in Sheffield in MoJ, it felt like I’d really found my mojo there, it was almost like a start-up mentality,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “We’re delivering at a ridiculous pace, and the ingredients for success were empowerment, freedoms and flexibilities to be able to figure things out, and then focus the technology on business priorities.”

Setting up his own business matured him. “I’d been literally a career civil servant, so I’d got to the point where I thought a bit of time out would probably do me good. But I definitely didn’t think I was never going to come back or anything like that,” Fitzpatrick says.

“I was not frustrated to the point where I thought this is a bad place to work or anything – I’m always appreciative of the development and opportunities the civil service has provided to me. I’m nothing but grateful for the opportunities it’s given me throughout my career, and the basis from which it enabled me to leave and succeed outside of it.”

Fitzpatrick admits that he wanted to stay at the MoJ longer than he did, but such is the life of a contractor. “By definition, it’s a short term position”, he says. But he learned from his MoJ experience what he wanted in his next move.

“When you start to do your own due diligence for your next move, you’re looking at: where’s the ministerial commitment? Where’s the sustainable funding? Where’s the political priority that is going to back this and deliver in this climate, and where’s the board and the senior leadership team in terms of enabling it to happen?”

Fitzpatrick took on his digital engagement director role as part of the Defence Digital transformation scheme, where he has been “energised and driven by a great mission” – to improve services for those in the military. Those range from the technology needed for military missions to checking payslips and booking annual leave.

“The wonderful people who dedicate their lives to the military absolutely deserve the best services,” he says. “You add all of the ingredients and it emotionally connects for me, in the same way that the justice system did, albeit is a different context altogether.”

He says MoD chief information officer Charlie Forte has made big strides in getting the department’s senior officials and politicians engaged in a plan to revamp the department’s digital capability. The departmental board hears from tech people every month to ensure they have “greater awareness and understanding and access to a different world really”, he notes.

They are not the only ones in a different world. The coronavirus pandemic has also thrust us, however unwillingly, into a situation unimaginable only months ago.

Fitzpatrick started his MoD role as the UK entered its first lockdown, in March 2020, and says the way the government has responded to the pandemic shows how much progress has been made in digital government.

“Look at where we were in 2014 with Universal Credit, for example,” he says. “That was being reported as a failed IT programme, but look at what DWP has just achieved in response to Covid – being able to absorb millions of extra claims, and a frictionless digital journey to get access to that benefit. And the same with HMRC and the furlough scheme.

“They’ve delivered internal capability to respond to a crisis, and deliver services to users in a way that they just couldn’t have done five years ago. There’s a level of maturity and the ability to pivot and deliver things that couldn’t have been thought of. And there’s so many other things – like doctor’s appointments taking place over the internet – that have been transformed and the civil service and the public sector has been able to respond to brilliantly.”

He is confident that this progress will not be lost once we get to what we would previously have called normal.

“I think the environment is different in government [now],” he says, highlighting a number of appointments in senior roles, including Joanna Davinson as executive director at the Central Digital and Data Office in the Cabinet Office, and Tom Read as chief executive of the Government Digital Service. “They’re fully aware of the need to fund teams and the legacy issues and all the things that have raised their priorities for government to solve,” he says. “And they’re being led by some of the best people. I think the digital, data and technology profession is maturing now.

Defence, he acknowledges, “is less mature in digital delivery” than some other Whitehall departments, but Fitzpatrick is confident that with investment and commitment, “you’ll see rapid acceleration”.

And after a career that has been taken over by digital government, what advice would he give to someone entering DWP as he did as a school leaver?

“I’d say be curious. You’ve heard the story; there’s no way that I would have imagined I would end up here when I started, but the civil service is a place that is absolutely full of opportunity.

“Grasping those opportunities, looking sideways at things that are interesting, and experimenting – on digital and your own personal development – are key. I think there’s always things that we can each learn.”

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