By Suzannah Brecknell

13 Jul 2023

The next phases of government’s data revolution have the potential to truly transform the way the civil service operates, but business cases are not enough to deliver results. Suzannah Brecknell talks to Mark Thompson, director of data, platforms and interoperability in the Cabinet Office’s Government People Group

When a conversation includes the phrases “integration hub” and “probabilistic spatial distribution” you don’t also expect it to touch on some of the fundamental challenges facing government as it adapts to an increasingly complex and unpredictable world. 

Mark Thompson leads a team which uses, as he puts it, “nerdy bits of tech” to help different parts of government to work together better. The aim is to make life easier for civil servants, and help make government more adaptable and able to tackle cross-cutting policy or operational challenges. 

Thompson is director of data, platforms and interoperability in the Government People Group, a new unit created following the merger of Civil Service HR and Government Business Services. This group sits within the Cabinet Office – for which Thompson is also the sustainability champion. “I wear multiple hats,” he tells CSW, “but let’s say for simplicity my role is technology.”   

He is responsible for managing the data and platforms behind several cross-civil service systems, such as the Fast Stream recruitment and payroll platforms, the Civil Service Learning system and the Government Recruitment Service. 

“Wherever there’s been an initiative to consolidate platforms across the civil service, I have to operate those,” he explains. In broad terms he describes his job as helping to “make the civil service more effective” by removing blockers that “prevent people getting on with the job”.  

This includes things like making it quicker to recruit people by using digital rather than paper-based identity checks, similar to those used for issuing passports and driving licences. Or enabling officials to work more easily across different buildings by supporting the rollout of GovPass – a scheme which will allow officials to access multiple buildings without needing seperate passes and now covers 30 locations and over 50,000 civil servants. His team is also making it easier for people to move between jobs across the civil service by automating the transfer of pension information and identity verification to new employers.  

Thompson’s team estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 people move around the civil service each year. These transfers currently require a spreadsheet to be sent between different organisations, and some 7% end up with a payroll error if those spreadsheets aren’t properly or promptly completed. 
Thompson reckons the process takes up 420,000 civil-service work days a year, so GPG has created a digital system – called Digital Staff Transfers – to handle the process. It will be piloted at the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July and should be rolled out to other departments later in the year.  

The projects fall under four different workstreams that make up GPG’s interoperability strategy: One HR; One IT; One Data; and One Estate. In computer and software terms, interoperable systems can work together by exchanging and using information. 

The overall goal of this work is to remove barriers that stop civil servants getting on with their jobs and make it possible for them to collaborate and work across vertical departmental systems, which – while important for constitutional and accountability reasons – can make government less efficient and collaborative. 

“You should be able to take any group of people from anywhere [in the civil service], any employer, and bring them together to solve a problem for government,” Thompson explains.

He adds that this should be possible at speed, without the need to stand up resourcing hubs making daily calls to match supply and demand across the system.

“I could see how tedious that was [during Covid or Brexit],” Thompson says. “What we’re ultimately trying to do is to make that process more effective. Then, when the next thing comes along, and they suddenly need every project manager in government, we’ll know where they are, we’ll be able to communicate with them, and they’ll be able to move around because they can work in any government building. They’ll be able to communicate better, because a DWP laptop and an HMRC laptop will use interoperable technology.” 

Thompson describes the work he has been doing on GovPass (led by the Government Property Agency) and Digital Staff Transfers as the “groundwork” for this vision, and his team is now working on a crucial part which will help to bring it closer to reality. If government wants to share and use civil servants’ skills across its departmental system, then it first needs to understand what skills civil servants currently have, where they are, how they might need to develop, and how to easily contact people with particular skills when they need them. 

A key part of Thompson’s interoperability work is to do just this, and in the process help leaders think strategically about how to build capability across government. GPG has begun to map skills across the civil service by analysing hundreds of thousands of job adverts (see box). It is also working on building a much more detailed picture through the common training and development provided by the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit. 

GPG is developing what Thompson describes as a “user experience layer” on top of that campus, and a skills database which will sit beneath it, which will “allow you as an individual, not only to access training, but to start to capture a richer skills picture of who you are”. 

Thompson explains: “You’ll say – ‘I’m a project manager at this grade, what’s my future path for upskilling?’ And it will be able to suggest learning that will be in the platform. Most importantly, it will give the civil service a view for the first time of its skills makeup.” 

Thompson on... Skills data
In 2021, an Institute for Government report concluded that the civil service had poor data on specialist skills and didn’t know enough about its workforce or how to deploy it. 
Thompson cites this report as a crucial motivator for his team’s work on a skills profile which will allow them to capture data on what skills people have right across the civil service. Work is still in progress, but as a first step his analysis and insights team worked with No.10’s data science team to look at the skills information which could be mined from civil service job adverts. 
The team analysed 206,000 job adverts published by 179 civil service organisations using Google’s open source AI and Natural Language Programming capabilities. The result, shown below, is a “probabilistic spatial distribution of skills across the whole civil service”. Or, in laymans terms, a map in which each dot represents a skill present in the civil service. Skills associated with each other, such as data analysis and visualisation, are closer together, so that the centre contains a cluster of dots representing common skills such as time management, while more specialist skills such as trade management are at the edges. 
The work behind this map will help to power the skills campus which Thompson’s team is building as well as the skills profile which will eventually help to develop a more strategic approach to workforce planning across government.

This isn’t just about addressing crises like Covid. Creating a better picture of the government’s workforce and making it easier for people to work together across organisational boundaries should also make it easier to adjust the civil service to whatever priorities and operating structures ministers decide on in the future. 

“Whether government decides we have 100 buildings or no buildings, all-virtual or all in offices: this is the supporting infrastructure to make that more effective,” Thompson says. “The idea is that the whole workforce becomes more seamless.  

“If you get that right, then you don’t need so many contractors, potentially,” he adds. By removing some of the frustrations about working in the civil service, such as long recruitment times, you can encourage retention and make staff more effective. 

So how to achieve this? Here, as Jennifer Aniston might say, comes the technology bit. First up are those data integration hubs, which Thompson describes not just as “nerdy bits of tech” but as a “messenger which takes the message [data] from one system and passes it into another”.    

These hubs allow for better sharing of information across the ecosystem of government. Thompson points out that there is already a “huge amount of interchange” between departments, cross-cutting functions and shared service providers who deliver mostly HR and finance systems for many parts of government. But at the moment, much of that interchange is relatively manual. “The idea of the integration hub layer is it will allow a mechanism to automate those [exchanges] of data,” Thompson says.

Exchanging data is only part of the story, though – interoperable systems can also use each others’ information. Thompson’s team has been building a variety of components that allow for this. He describes these components as “something that allows us to have a front end; something that allows us to manage workflow; something that allows us to manage the data and move it around”.

Put together, this might look like a work process that lets one team check and use the identity verification work done by another team, or a dashboard that lets civil service leaders understand their workforce better.  

The latter is built on the Government Resources and Information Database, known as GRID. This began as a way to make use of information gathered through recruitment processes. “People want to know what’s going on with their recruitments,” says Thompson. “How am I doing on diversity? Have I lost people in the process because I’m taking too long? How am I hiring against the Places for Growth agenda? Well, we’ve got the data. So how do you make that available?” 

GRID has expanded to include other streams of information apart from just recruitment. “There are a lot of attributes that you want to capture around people and performance, such as how we’re doing on shared services or return to office,” says Thompson. 

All of this data can be explored through a frontend created using data visualisation software Tableau. Thompson’s team are also able to provide research and analysis support for questions which aren’t answered in the top level data. 

One such question is how to improve socio-economic diversity among civil service job applicants. GRID can tell you about the current diversity levels among applicants, but the GPG team supplemented this with real-time user research among applicants. They discovered that switching questions around in the application process encouraged people from different backgrounds to stay in the process longer. Thompson says the data insight is being used in a “really powerful” way.

“The system will burn you out. It’s big, there’s a lot going on. For Dr Who fans I liken it to looking into the Tardis time vortex”

The next challenge, says Thompson is “meeting expectations” when the capacity in his team doesn’t yet match the demand for similar analysis and research work. “The business case is there: everyone can see the benefit from it. It’s just how we then turn demand into operational capacity in an environment where you’re living with long term constraints about shared headcount,” he notes. 
Thompson is a realist. He’s been working in this field for around 20 years and in the Cabinet Office for 10, so he’s familiar with the quirks of government. But he’s also hopeful, having seen hard work come to fruition despite those quirks. 

“I’ve seen this picture evolve quite a lot,” he says. “Government has become more capable at technology: it doesn’t rely purely on external contracts. I’ve never seen such great understanding, capability, and coordination and ability [in government] to make this happen.” 

The challenge, he says, is to sustain that work in the context where there is always pressure on budgets and hundreds of good ideas that need funding. This is particularly true for work on shared projects at the centre of government. There is some Cabinet Office funding behind his team, of course, but he must also secure and maintain agreement – and funding commitment – from partners in departments and functions.  

Collaborative working is vital. GovPass, for example required close working between GPG and the GPA. What are his reflections on the best way to build those partnerships? 
Thompson says that investing time and recognising that the right people at the right level need to be inspired are critical. “There’s a gradism thing in the civil service,” he says, “So it’s making sure the right leaders are engaged – and then you follow through with building the relationship around the concept.” 

The interoperability work benefitted from strong leadership from Stephen Boyd, chief executive of the GPA, other functions, and Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm, Thompson says. Plus “a lot of hard work” shaping how to support those leaders and build parallel conversations with ministers.

“We presented a vision to government’s operations boards, got some sponsoring chief operating officers that really were very keen on it, [and] created an oversight group led by them,” he says. “Once you’ve created the governance around [a project] you’ve got to feed it correctly. You’ve got to give it that right mix of clarity, strategic vision and of course they want stuff to happen. So you’ve got to have the ability to follow through and make stuff actually happen.”  

Thompson and his team have shown this ability, and have much more they want to do, such as speeding up recruitment further by automating the issuing of building passes and even helping to cut down timescales for security and vetting checks. Data being pulled together in GRID could one day reduce or remove Cabinet Office commissions for information that fly across government regularly through a system Thompson dubs GovReturns.    

Before any of these new ideas come to fruition, Thompson will need to develop and sustain the business case around them, not to mention maintaining those all important relationships and governance arrangements. Government is not an easy place to make stuff happen. 

“To survive in this environment,” Thompson says, “you need certain skills. Tenacity, I suppose; the ability to see the big picture and be resilient.” Yet many people will “get to the point where they’ve reached the end of their tether and they leave the government screaming. It just drives you mad”. 

“The advice I give when I hire new directors is the system will burn you out. It’s big, there’s a lot going on. For Dr Who fans I liken it to looking into the Tardis time vortex: it will take as much as you can give, so you’ve got to find your right way to be resilient. If you can get that, if you’ve got those personality traits, and you’ve got some deep skills, then you will get stuff done. And you will make a difference.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Suzannah Brecknell - Brighter together: What to expect at Civil Service Live 2022

Share this page