By Colin Marrs

10 Jan 2017

Government must do more than just adapt to current processes if it is to make the most of the digital revolution. Colin Marrs reports on a round table, hosted by CSW and Cognizant, where officials discussed the importance of transformation in a fast-changing world

In 1976, the year Bill Gates registered the Microsoft trademark, Kodak accounted for 90% of the camera film sales in the USA. In 2012, it filed for bankruptcy. The sorry tale is the archetype of an analogue business failing to transform its business processes in response to the digital age. Kodak’s decline has served as a health warning to other companies to keep up with radically changing customer demands. But what relevance does it have to central government?

The UK government has received international plaudits for its recent digital successes, and made savings of £4bn between 2012 and 2015. The progress so far has been dominated by a focus on front-end projects to improve the customer experience. Recently, Civil Service World and global digital transformation specialist Cognizant brought together senior civil servants to discuss how departments should tackle more ambitious, fully transformational changes to their business processes.

Citing another firm which foundered after failing to meet the digital challenge, Betsy Bassis, chief operating officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “There is this imperative, when you’re working in a competitive environment, that you must transform, or you could be the next Blockbuster. And, I think that’s something that doesn’t exist in government: you don’t have that [pressure to] transform or die – you’re not going to go extinct.”

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Whitehall faces a different kind of pressure: shrinking service budgets. “With austerity, knowing that our budgets are shrinking by 30% or more, depending which department you are, even our political masters have to look at that bottom line,”  said Michael Horner, assistant director, operations, at the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology. “It is about: ‘How are we going to exist, or deliver a service, with much less?’”

Despite the different drivers, there is much the civil service can learn from the private sector in tackling transformation, according to John Fraser, head of technology, financial services, Cognizant UK&I. Successful organisations are building small teams that bring together technology and business staff to deliver solutions for specific functions and tasks. “Think product, feature, and capability – and not IT,” Fraser said.

“I think you’ll see the culture is changing as new generations come in. For them, a digital approach for everything is just natural” – Rob Eason, FCO Services

As approaches mature, organisations are finding ways to retain the experience built up on each product feature project, he added. “Instead of putting a team together, and then once the project has finished, throwing it away, they’re keeping the team together. So the product team stays together to deliver change consistently, all the time.”

Rob Eason, managing director of global digital technology at FCO Services, said his experience working with defence contractors has taught him the importance of delivery teams identifying user needs at an early stage. 

“Unless you connect with them, what you deliver doesn’t work,” he said. “It is the same with digital. If you don’t connect with the end user, and work out what their customer experience is, the whole thing ends up not being what you expect, or what anybody anticipates.”  

This approach can also help to identify and minimise risk, Eason added. “There are some effective project and programme management delivery tricks that work across the private and public sector. Trying to understand what outcome you want to achieve is often where the whole thing is going wrong. We set off down a path and the objective is opaque and obtuse, and we don’t hit it because we’re not really sure what we’re trying to do.”

Projects can also still fall over due to a culture of fear within government surrounding data sharing, according to a number of those gathered around the table. “We have all been taught that we are personally liable under the Freedom of Information Act if we use a person’s information in way that we haven’t informed them about when we collected it,” said Theresa Chambers, head of decision support for operations and head of profession for operational research at the Home Office. “So there is a nervousness, which is almost ingrained.”

The fragmented nature of the departmental system can also cause blockages. “Departments are almost corporations in themselves,” said Michael Stokes, secretariat and delivery support in the Transformation Peer Group at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. “Often corporations don’t share information with their rivals, and sometimes departments can see each other as rivals.”

Bad communication between departments can lead to some unfortunate situations. One official gave the example of an agency which saw management of its casework moved online. However another large department the agency dealt with still compiled its related work on paper, and had 300 people doing that. Because the two organisations didn’t talk to each other, “you had 300 people printing out folders in the department, and then 300 people scanning them back in at the other end.”

“We can’t have this continuing [pay] disparity between folk that are joining, and folk that have dedicated years of their lives to the service" – Betsy Bassis, chief operating officer, DEFRA

Participants also discussed the importance of communication to delivering successful projects. Starting with the customer was key, according to Cognizant’s Fraser. “In the private sector, where they are finding that adoption is a struggle, they need to look at how they communicate and educate, and probably advertise the new way of engaging.” 

Public sector leaders also need to engage and enthuse their own staff – including employees who might harbour fears about the impact of new technology on their job security, according to Mark Gray, director of digital transformation at the Crown Prosecution Service. “[We need] to get people on a journey where they’re not going to be given a finished, perfect solution, but are told, actually, there’s going to be a series of incremental steps, and you the user are part of the development cycle: that’s a big thing for the way that people think,” he said.

Harnessing the talents of staff can have other business benefits, said Abhijit Deb, head of banking and financial services at Cognizant UK. He cited the case of a retailer client launching a new online platform in time for Christmas. “It looked like it was impossible to meet the deadline. But we adopted a crowd-testing approach, wherein it wasn’t just the team working for that client on that project but anyone in our teams who had spare capacity chipped in. And the project went through on time.”

Fresh faces and specialist expertise can make a huge difference to the outcome of projects, according to Steve Dann, director of criminal and financial investigations within immigration enforcement at the Home Office. “We’ve had a bit of a revamp in the transformation programme, and brought some really good people in. In the last two months, the progress has turned completely, and there’s a real drive and energy. I can see progress being made, whereas we were sort of drifting before.”

However, attracting new staff remains a challenge, even where pay flexibility is granted to bring experienced staff into Whitehall from the private sector. And Bassis noted that as inflation rises in the coming years, resentment towards external recruitment is likely to get sharper. “We can’t have this continuing [pay] disparity between folk that are joining, and folk that have dedicated years of their lives to the service,” she said. 

Supporting existing staff to progress into more senior roles is an attractive option, but is not without its own challenges, according to Dann: “As soon as you’ve trained them, they’ve gone.” 

As central government begins to get to grips with the challenges involved in end-to-end digital transformation, participants remained optimistic about the future. “I think you’ll see the culture is changing, as new generations come in,” Eason said. “They are much more in a space where a digital economy, a digital approach for everything is just natural. And, as you see that washing to the bottom of an organisation, the whole culture starts to change.” 

Roundtable participants (pictured above, from left to right)

  • Betsy Bassis, chief operating officer, DEFRA
  • John Fraser, head of technology, financial services, Cognizant UK&I
  • Rob Eason, director, Global Digital Technology Group, FCO Services
  • Mark Gray, director of digital transformation, Crown Prosecution Service
  • Abhijit Deb, head of BFS, Cognizant UK&I
  • Steve Dann, director of criminal & financial investigations, immigration enforcement, Home Office
  • Michael Horner, assistant director, Operations, Centre for Applied Science and Technology, Home Office
  • Michael Stokes, secretariat and delivery support, Transformation Peer Group, Infrastructure and Projects Authority
  • Theresa Chambers, head of DSO and head of profession for Operational Research, Home Office Science

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