KPMG’s Head of Government and Infrastructure Kru Desai sits down with Civil Service World to discuss a career in public sector transformation and why she’s looking forward to leading a challenge to ‘Reimagine’ public services

When did you first become interested in government and public sector transformation?

Well, I can still claim to be one of the few people I know in my peer group whose degree has relevance to my job. Actually, the reason I did a degree in Public Administration at Leicester Poly is because it was the only course that I could get onto with my very poor A Levels! So I would definitely admit to being a late developer academically. But once I was there, I was bitten by the bug. It was an exciting time in politics: the miners’ strike was happening; you had high profile local politics going on at Liverpool, Lambeth and the GLC; and contestability and competition for public service provision was the subject of many debates. So much was happening in that mid ‘80s, early ’90s period, so it was a great subject to study. And I’ve never looked back. 

What are some of the most interesting public sector projects that you’ve worked on?

There was one report I did, nearly 20 years ago when I was a junior consultant at KPMG, which was really tough. We were commissioned by the then-Department of National Heritage to produce a review of the impact of the internet on libraries. It was really odd trying to explain this thing called “the internet”. We were trying to demonstrate to civil servants and other interested parties that the world of the library was going to change. We were explaining that libraries could have a different purpose. Yes, they were the heart of the community, but there was a new technology which was now going to make their role different. We absolutely predicted the role of coffee shops as community hubs and one-stop-shops – all that sort of stuff. But it was a really tough job, because it was telling people about the future and nobody really believed you.

That, to me, also underpins a lot of the stuff we do around transformation and technology: unless people can experience it themselves or see the use of it in their day to day life, they find it very difficult to imagine something that’s not quite tangible. 

Reimagine welfare
Reimagine feeding families

I was also involved in what was then, in about 2002, the largest civilian change programme in Europe: otherwise known as the National Programme for IT for the NHS. I was the deployment director for CSC, who were one of the suppliers. They did the first “go-lives” for the programme. That was quite exciting. I specifically recall the first time we connected to the “spine” and the reaction of the head of informatics at a local hospital logging on and saying, “I can see a patient record”, and that was the first time the whole system had connected up.

Some of the best projects I’ve been involved with are the ones where you plant ideas and you help people work it out. The launch of the new website and initial learning offer for CSL is such an example. To stand up a completely new service with the latest technology in 40 days, you have to say to yourself: “Of course we can do these things. Of course we can make transformation happen if we’re committed and work collaboratively with a shared common purpose.” Great credit goes to our colleagues in the civil service and KPMG – it’s a source of immense pride.

What are the biggest challenges that the government will face in delivering on its priorities for the remainder of the parliament?

One of the challenges has got to be about getting priorities agreed and delivered. It’s very clear from departments’ plans what they have to achieve, but what I think people are lacking is a boldness to just get on and make things happen. When you look at the external environment, whether it’s the referendum, or the general economic outlook, these are all distractions from the biggest challenge facing public servants, which is that there is no new money – so how can you invest in public services? You have to create a different way of funding services, and find a different way of delivering services. Traditional ways of approaching that kind of problem won’t work going forward: you genuinely have to reimagine a different future, including the role of the public sector, the role of the citizen, the role of the providers and any other intermediaries. I think that’s exciting, but the challenge is whether the real commitment and boldness is there, and whether colleagues in the civil service are given the support to try different things and try to get new services out to user groups quickly, to show there’s a new way of working.

KPMG’s Reimagine Programme is a series of thought experiments in which KPMG staff imagine new ways for government to achieve public policy objectives. Can you say more about what you are setting out to achieve?

First and foremost we are trying to make this a development opportunity for our staff. The majority of my colleagues in the government and infrastructure part of our business have been with the firm for less than five years. So it’s a young group; the average age is late 20s. So the exciting thing for me here is letting all that expertise, skill and talent free to think about what our clients in the broader public sector need.

It’s a way of introducing boldness and innovation in our thinking, but also getting practical with some of our ideas – we’re not aiming for the unachievable. It genuinely is a way to help our clients think about things without being constrained by the way they worked previously. I’m not suggesting that our thought experiments will deliver the next Uber for government, but if they could solve big problems, complex problems and utilise existing technologies or investments, or find a way for the public sector to collaborate and be effective in that collaboration, I think it would be better for our government clients. So it’s about both us and our clients being allowed to think differently.

How does this scheme align with the Reimagine Challenge programme that you’re developing alongside the Cabinet Office?

I think it aligns really well, not least because for some of the people who we’re going to offer as mentors and sponsors, it’s the ability to step into a leadership role. More generally, when you work in a multi-disciplinary service industry like ours, you can be an expert in some areas but you will not know everything. We certainly don’t know some of the things our clients know. So it’s a way to work collectively with our clients, and for both sides to learn skills. And I think that’s always a positive experience. The most important thing, I think, is that we will learn that collaboration is the way forward. It’s not a command and control situation: it’s helping our government clients collaborate to try and tackle complex problems, but it’s helping us understand how to collaborate with our clients as well.

What kinds of ideas are you hoping to see come out of the Reimagine Challenge? 

In many ways, I’m looking for something that is obvious and simple, because those ideas are often the most creative and innovative. But I’m also looking for things which really do solve the complexity of some of the public policy challenges we have, because it’s when you take it outside of a normal departmental setting that you see things that you don’t normally see. So some of the more complex issues around funding, demographics, and the deployment of technology. To increase productivity, for example, or to shift the burden of service provision to make it much more of a service fulfilment experience; for the public sector to be seen as being as good as the private sector or the consumer sector. I’m looking for that kind of jump in the experience citizens will have as a result of some of these projects. That’s ultimately why we we’re doing it.

When you get time, how do you unwind outside the office?

I do try and find one day a week to just switch off and not think about work. I know sometimes you can’t avoid it, but you have to have some self-discipline. I’m also very fond of golf – I try to play every week – and I organise, for my golf club, a couple of holidays to go and play golf at the beginning of the season. Four hours on the golf course, not thinking about anything, is the kind of switch-off time you need, I think.

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