By Suzannah Brecknell

06 Jun 2023

The ex-government tech maven sits down to discuss digital reform, transparency and what makes a good minister

Who? Until November last year, Paul Maltby was chief digital officer at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities where he focused on improving digital services, working with local government to develop digital capacity, and driving digital and data reform to the planning system and housing sector. Prior to that, he was director of data at the Government Digital Service with responsibility for open data, data science in government, data infrastructure and data legislation. Maltby has a background in public service reform in government with stints in Leicestershire County Council, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. He has now joined British tech firm Faculty AI as director of AI transformation in government.

Where? The Civil Service Club is in Great Scotland Yard, between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue. It provides a restaurant for members and their guests in comfortable, friendly surroundings.

We discussed

Why he left the civil service. I’d been in it a lot longer than planned. Originally, I’d asked for a contract that was only two years – but they kept giving me interesting stuff to do!

I built the digital team in DLUHC from scratch, but I’d reached the point of thinking, “It’s good; we’re seen as ‘normal’ now in the department. They’re recruiting great people and they don’t need me in the same way as when we started.” I wanted to leave while it was going well.

Also, I’m a civil service reformer and I needed to recharge my reforming batteries. I had to decide if I was better doing that from inside or outside government. The field is changing; the next generation of digital and data change is out there, and I want to be part of it. Where’s the best place to do that? Probably outside – at least for now.

The future of digital change, and whether senior civil servants grasp the importance of data. They have grasped it in parts, but nowhere close to the potential I’d envisioned 10 years ago. Back then, looking around government, there were very few senior folks with any real knowledge of how the internet worked, never mind building digital services. You could see this change in the wider economy – industries being utterly disrupted, undergoing profound transformations because of the business models of the internet age. I thought, surely there will be a deep shift in how we do government over the next 10 years?

A decade on, we have nailed straightforward transactional services. Government knows how to design them well, build them to meet user needs, on sensible technology, make the data available in the right way, at the right time. Even in extreme circumstances, like the Homes for Ukraine scheme, if you ask: “Can you build a service within three days?” The answer is: “Yeah, we’ve got this.” There’s real pride in having been involved with that change.

But what I tried to do in DLUHC – on things like planning reform – is to bring an understanding of internet-age business models into the policy work. So, it wouldn’t just be the policy community thinking with ministers and then throwing it over the fence to digital. That journey of change is nowhere close to what I would have expected at this point in time.

His work to support digital reform in local government. When I moved to DLUHC, there was a sense the pace of change we were seeing in central government wasn’t being replicated in and around local government – as indeed it wasn’t in many other spheres of government at that time.

The question was: how can we harness that latent possibility within the sector? How do we track the people making those changes, putting their heads above the parapet and doing things differently, and bring more attention to that? And how do we reduce the burden on each council for making that change?

We were working with GDS and trying a few things out when we had the reshuffle that brought Rishi Sunak in as local government minister. His background meant he was both curious and knowledgeable about these issues. So when I went to see him and talk him through some of this, he asked what could be done and we went from there to develop the Local Digital Declaration and Local Digital Fund.

As well as the opportunity to improve the basic efficiency of services in local government, one of the most exciting things about that work was the sense we were changing the traditional way of doing things. We weren’t making local government a delivery agency of central government. This was designed to shift the generation of capability and try to get the practice by default in a different space.

How the Local Digital Fund evolved. I’ll never forget my years in local government – mostly for the things we did, but also for how weird central government looks when you sit in local government. It also taught me that every time we have a process in which you ask people to bid for money you need to think carefully about the cost that imposes on people.

Over time it was clear that the pace of agile software development sometimes would move faster than our funding round, which made it hard for projects to keep moving. So the combination of that speed and being conscious of the burdens that you’re placing on people meant we moved to a more flexible model, and with good results.

Years when lots of people moved from central digital to local government. Organisations ebb and flow. GDS had its tough years when the leadership team changed and people were looking for different ways to do things. But you could look back on that as being quite a useful moment because it spread a capability that was probably too big and too centralised. I was able to set up the team in DLUHC and grow that capability in a way I might not have otherwise been able to.

Central government needs to understand that innovation is always there, reformers are always among us – half the job is finding them, and then taking action which makes it easier for them,  not accidentally making it harder.

His proudest moment. There are a few that stand out. In my old open data job in the Cabinet Office, it was things like the G8 Open Data Charter, and setting up Policy Lab and seeing it replicated around the world.

In DLUHC, it was things like the Homes for Ukraine service and Covid shielding work – hard work, born of adversity, but something that really made a difference.

However, the bigger achievement was showing there’s more to digital than just fixing the printers and making the wifi work. We showed what could be done with design skills, with digital and data skills. And we were able to shape things like the planning reform agenda at a policy level.

How to make an experimental approach to government work. There’s more that goes on than people commonly understand. Take the work on AI. Some bits of government are more naturally attuned to that – defence, national security, and the more secret bits of the world are quite used to having to engage with, understand, experiment with, and then adopt at scale the useful parts of new technologies, whatever they may be.

“I’ve seen flashes in the pan come and go, but I do think some of the large language models are going to profoundly affect many of our jobs”

The same is true with machine learning in a way that perhaps, if you’re in a more domestic department, there is not quite the same embedded culture around it. Nonetheless, government departments will need to get their heads around large language models. I’m long enough in the tooth to have seen flashes in the pan come and go, but some of the large language models are going to profoundly affect many of our jobs, and many of the routine ways in which we do our business.

How he feels looking at the transparency agenda, comparing aims in 2012 to reality now. The small-picture answer is that policy should develop and change, and political priorities are obviously a minister’s business so you would expect that to evolve.

On the transparency side, [former Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude used to say that transparency is easier to do when you first come into government but gets progressively harder as you go through government.

On the commercial level, understanding what contracts have been won by whom and at what level, the discipline and accountability we now expect to see wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

And on the bigger picture, when I first worked in government someone said to me: “The thing about reforming government is, sometimes you are handed a candle and it’s your job to not let that tiny flame go out. You can feed it up, but make sure you hold on to it because the oxygen comes into the room and people will say: ‘We need some light, where can we go?’ And then it’s time.” A lot of reform work in and around government is understanding when it’s time – the moment that sufficient bits of the system are aligned so we can make progress.

Government is the only place you can move at such pace and scale, with such impact on people’s lives. Sometimes it moves relatively slowly but, when it wants to, it can move with incredible poise and innovation. There are plenty of those moments – Homes for Ukraine, the stuff that many of us did around Covid – I just wish we could have a little bit more of them without necessarily the crises that go alongside them.

How to keep those flames alive. We obviously have to operate within the space set by the prime minister and the organisations we work for, but there’s a degree of personal responsibility and accountability that goes right through the system. What interventions can we make that will keep the flame from dying? We have to use our judgement about how and whether to get involved, and where we can use our personal capital.

What makes a good minister. Clarity, so you can represent them in a meeting on an issue you’ve never heard them tackle, but you can be pretty sure what their view would be. A clarity and consistency of view that is explained to civil servants is the most powerful thing.

What makes a good perm sec. Understanding so many different worlds, like the political world, the comms world, the organisational delivery world, the policy world, and digital, data and technology – and combining them with a drive to making the organisation work. It’s easier said than done.

“Digital breaks down the barriers between a policy world and a delivery world”

His Yes, Minister moments. We’d hired some civil servants and needed to provide them with laptops. Slightly weirdly, this meant completing a business case, which took forever and eventually came back with a comment: “The counterfactuals aren’t sufficiently worked through.” I thought: “Really? Can we just buy some laptops?”

This speaks more deeply about what’s incentivising the system. This was about probably quite junior officials, who are bright, being incentivised to say something clever about reworking the counterfactuals on that business case. So we loop through the whole process again, and this happens again and again in our system. I find it deeply frustrating and unnecessary.

Sometimes, the priority to action, particularly in policy departments, feels quite a long way off. And that understanding of how real things actually happen can easily get lost when other incentives are in the way. I wish I wish we could magic that one away.

His reflections on working in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit from 2003-08. It was an exhilarating experience and personally quite profound. It was a great place to be. It had its flaws, and some of those were really considerable, but I appreciated being able to interact with the cabinet secretary, the prime minister, senior officials and just have the time, almost the grace, to ask: “Where are we? What are we trying to do? How are we trying to do it?”

However, some of the things I worked on – like police reform – felt quite frustrating at the time. Because although many fabulous slide packs were written, the practical question of who was doing what was asked less often.

But if you look at how policing has moved in the last 20 years, it’s immeasurable. The progress that’s been made on even quite routine things like the allocation of response vehicles to crimes, the allocation of resources to different types of harms. It prompts a degree of hope about longer-term reform even though, at the time, it’s hard to see the change you make.

What he would have done differently in PMSU. It’s exactly that propensity to action. One of the things I think the digital world is giving governments is disruption of this idea that there’s a separation between the policy world and the operational delivery world – which has long been the point of conflict and frustration in the system, commented on in civil service reform papers going back decades. With digital, as soon as you form a multidisciplinary team, the journey from concept to delivery is as short a period of time as you can possibly get. It breaks down the barriers between a policy world and a delivery world.

PMSU, for me, was a moment of clarity that you can have a prime minister powerfully recommending a thing, but the gap between that thing a) being right and b) being worked up on the ground, took many years and many processes.

It felt like an impossibly long chain from the prime minister’s thought to the person on the frontline carrying it out – and digital shrank that. That’s its power. It was one of those moments of big insight, and I would encourage everyone to try to find that same spirit. I think government will be better as a result.

This article first appeared in the spring edition of CSW's quarterly magazine.

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