‘Zeroing in on the art of the possible’: inside the government’s innovation engine

A Home Office unit focused on innovative ways to solve problems is attracting a lot of attention across government. Richard Johnstone took a look inside the Accelerated Capability Environment to find out more
Photo: ACE

By Richard Johnstone

23 Feb 2021

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a challenge. The Department for Transport agency collects a lot of data from its bases and aircraft, but as the information has proliferated, it has struggled to make use of all its intelligence.

In the face of such a quandary, the MCA did what increasing numbers of government departments and agencies are doing and turned to the Accelerated Capability Environment. ACE, based in the Home Office, is rethinking how government tackles big challenges, and could change the future of the civil service itself.

ACE was established in April 2017 as part of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, and initially focused on problems where criminal justice and policing came up against technology barriers. It was established to quicken delivery by focusing on what its head, Toby Jones, says is “removing ambiguity and uncertainty about the art of the possible for a particular problem and bringing it to life very rapidly”.

“That zeroing in makes sure everyone knows what they’re doing today and tomorrow, and what the next steps are to get ideas through to impact.”

Its success to date is such that the way it works is being considered as part of the government’s civil service reform agenda, as ministers seek to spread its mix of innovation, collaboration, engagement and pace outward.

ACE has thrown its doors open (virtually) to CSW to provide an insight on how it is quickening innovation across a host of sectors, and how it might point the way to a more innovative government.

ACE tackles the challenges that data and digital technology present to public safety and security like a start-up, Jones says. After a series of successes in areas including cybercrime and verification of children online, the group’s work broadened into other policy areas.

This included its work with the MCA, which initially engaged ACE to better analyse its incident data, so it could better deploy its ships and other assets. Then, once the MCA started using two fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, it wanted a better way to bring together all the data it gathered via radar, ship detection, infrared video, and mobile signal and wifi sensors.

It is addressing, campaign architect Paul McCarthy says, a “swivel chair problem, where coastguards are looking around multiple displays to try and understand what the picture is”.

“What they need is a platform where they can exploit that information and make it more beneficial to their rescues, but also in other things they do, including action on pollution in the maritime environment,” he says.

“They’re looking for a complete view of everything they know in order to gain a better understanding of that data, and make it better for sharing with other government departments.”

“When certain names and numbers come up on your phone, you know this must be important”

We will return to how ACE helped solve the MCA’s swivel-chair problem, but just as Toby Jones is explaining how this is a classic ACE problem, his phone rings. And this is not just any call – his “batphone” ringing indicates something major. This time, ACE is being called in to help deploy the coronavirus vaccine.

“We’ve just been called to see if we can help with vaccine rollout that was confirmed following the approval of the vaccine in the UK in the last 24 hours,” he says in a conversation on 2 December.

Jones is limited in what he can say about ACE’s work in the vaccine rollout – “it’s to do with data but I don’t think that’s going to help very much, everything is to do with data,” he says – but it builds upon work it did helping to stand up the government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre in June.

“That’s an example of the sort of things that can happen,” Jones says. Some of ACE’s work is planned, “and some of it is about phone calls that come out of the blue. When certain names and numbers come up on your phone, you know this must be important.”

The fact that ACE’s work ranges from ships to shots demonstrates how in-demand it is as government tackles policy problems that arise from digital and data.

ACE aims to zero in on policy solutions though a 10 step process, driven by a team of 40 specialists in areas including data science and engineering, behavioural psychology, policy and law, delivery, intellectual property and technology. It also draws on a community of private and third-sector organisations to help with each commission. Known as Vivace, this group of more than 200 companies is hosted by defence giant QinetiQ and provides cutting-edge industrial expertise for each project.

Commissions generally only take around 12 weeks. A project lifecycle provides what Jones calls a “handrail” to guide projects at pace while maintaining governance and oversight for public money. The 10 steps are split into three stages: assess, assign, deliver. There are review points between each: one to determine if ACE should take on the work, and another to review possible approaches after initial work by staffers and the research community.

“We bring the customer on the journey with us,” says Alun Jones, who heads up ACE’s delivery function. “During that process, we are breaking delivery down into a series of time-boxed sprints, and that gives the team an opportunity to pause, reflect, confirm whether this is still the right way to do things or whether we need to tweak some things.”

Although the approach is different from conventional civil service policymaking, it was conceived, says Toby Jones, “in the face of a number of classic problems in public sector delivery”.

Katie Gardiner, ACE’s senior responsible owner in the Home Office, agrees. “It is very much an emphasis on a new way of responding to emerging and complex threats in a changing environment, particularly in the digital world, where we see rapid change,” she says.

The intention was to create a space where the public and private sector could collaborate on particularly challenging questions, she says. “The culture is all about providing the opportunity for a safe space to try out new ideas and to work at pace, in a way that really drives innovation.”

ACE’s success has gained it a nomination in the Civil Service Awards, in the innovation category. Gardiner says that “there wasn’t really any existing means that we could use that would enable us to work in the way that ACE does with industry on specific problems”. The Home Office first explored possible best practice around how a function would operate, before concluding that the ACE model represented the best way forward.

“We knew that conventional ways of working on digital and data challenges in the public sector were not as effective as they might be at dealing with the pace of change in hugely uncertain times,” Toby Jones adds. “Problems emerge really quickly out of your field of vision, and they demand a rapid response. We knew that we needed something different – a unified problem-solving approach across the public sector, private sector, academic and non-profit sector.”

“We’re realising the benefit of creating an environment that allows behaviours we see in the civil service – but struggle to harness and amplify – to become possible”

To return to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency swivel-chair problem, CSW joins a project gate meeting between the “assess” and “assign” stages of the project. At this meeting, the team considers if it is right for ACE to take on, and decides to progress it from the assess to the assign stage. A second major meeting between stages five and six determines the outline of the pitch to customers.

“Some customers will come to us with problem statements that either aren’t really well understood, and we want to work with them to understand what the problem looks like, or they might actually be wanting to ‘solutioneer’ and say ‘we want to buy a certain widget’, and that’s not appropriate for ACE,” says Simon Christoforato, chief executive of Vivace. “So this two-to-three [stage] is really to say, is this the right thing for us to be doing? And let’s have a collective review of the best approach, which will then lead us to success in the five-six gate review. That is the formal bid back to the customer to ensure we understand the scope, and we’re defining the cost and the time boundaries of the work.”

Progress though the two-three gate and the problem is thrown open to the Vivace community, which accesses the data in its own development environment, called “PodDev”. It uses that data to assess possible solutions, which are then fed back to the customer at the five-six stage, after which solutions are “made real” for clients to use.

Carl Roberts, who leads the meeting, produces the problem statement, as well as considering the legal and security issues ACE might need to consider if it takes on the commission.

The MCA’s problem, he says, is that “they’re not really able to use their data at the moment”. He explains: “They are looking at getting that information downloaded in more real time, and what they need is a platform where they can exploit that information and make it more beneficial to their missions – both in supporting rescues, but also in tackling pollution and other activities in the maritime environment.”

ACE’s aim was therefore to get to a proof of concept for the MCA about how this data could be better used, a project Roberts calls “pretty typical”.

“That’s also where ACE can add most value,” he says. “They’ve come with a problem – and an opportunity – but at this stage, we didn’t really talk about any solution. We want to understand the problem.”

“This is a good example of one that fits squarely into what we do,” adds Debs Kearse, ACE’s chief technology officer. “It’s a data problem, it’s an integration problem, and it’s something that we can help them solve.”

Kearse goes first in the question session, which is attended by seven of ACE’s staffers and which CSW sits in on.

She says having heard the problem, the team has a couple of routes to choose from. “That can influence what exactly that we’re going to do next, and that’s the headline thing I’m thinking about.”

Commercial lead Ryland Wilson builds on what the output will be. “Our approach will probably be a proof of concept to the customer. I’m thinking: what will we give them at the end of it? It could be a short-term licence, for example, that we hand over to the customer, for them to use the capability that we’ve demonstrated for a short time period. They’re thoughts and considerations for the team to take away and explore before this comes back for five to six [gate].”

Iain Wallace, who represents the Vivace community in this session, then gets to be, in his words, “the annoying disrupter” at the meeting, “and point out sort of opportunities to do things a little bit differently”.

He explains: “One hat I’m wearing is what approach can we take that’s going to give us a different set of options? How do we open up as wide as possible to make sure we’ve got a broad range of companies coming forward to present opportunities and capabilities?”

After this meeting, the next move was to hold a call with 50 companies setting out the MCA’s requirements.

As this project progressed, the companies were given access to the MCA’s data through ACE’s development environment, and, after a four-week development period, 13 pitches were put to the MCA. Five were then developed into proof of concept tools for the agency – all within ACE’s 12-week project timeframe.

“It can require some adjustment. There’s a certain amount of education that’s required about how things are going to work”

So what does ACE have that government needs? ACE’s model has been praised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which said its co-creation model should be replicated across the UK government; Toby Jones says that officials in the Cabinet Office have discussed how best to learn from it in wider civil service reform efforts.

While he defines the values driving ACE as key civil service ones – impact, value, integrity, fair and open competition, opportunity, diversity – he also says that “inquisitiveness, collaboration and flexibility are additional qualities”.

“What we’re realising is the benefit of creating an environment that really allows those behaviours that we do see in the civil service – but at times struggle to harness and amplify – to become possible.”

Gardiner agrees that “there’s an opportunity for the civil service to really draw on those attributes and amplify them”.

She says that “core civil service values are incredibly important in all of the work that we do”. While working at pace “is certainly not unknown to the civil service”, ACE’s approach can be a real enabler.

Toby Jones adds: “I think that’s one of the exciting things about ACE: what can we do to learn from the cultural aspects so that this becomes a more systemic and endemic way of working across the public sector with the private sector. ACE is learning by doing, which actually is a pretty good mechanism to speed things up.”

So how could government departments learn from how ACE does things? “I think there is a lot of best practice here, which actually really helped to inform and drive that agenda as much where we are thinking about collaboration within the public sector,” Gardiner says.

“I think about this a lot,” Jones (left) agrees. “The demand for this way of working is growing very quickly, as people learn from each other about what’s been achieved through using this model.”

But it is spreading the mindset, rather than turning ACE into a central function, that he says is the way forward. “Do I think there’s a future where this ACE becomes some uber-organisation? I don’t think that’s necessarily the right strategy,” Jones says. “What I think is really interesting is the learnings about our ways of working and our culture.”

Jones says one way to absorb the lessons of ACE is to focus on its watchwords: innovation (translating ideas to impact), collaboration (bringing people and organisations together around the problem), engagement (trusted relationships created to share the burden of problem solving), and pace (if there is something that needs to be done, get on with it).”

Jones acknowledges that some of these are long-standing public sector priorities, but are not always achieved. “We’re not always excellent at collaboration, either in the private sector or public sector alone. The public sector recognises the need for collaboration, but driving it from a leadership point of view means driving by example, and behaviours,” he says.

So how can this be done in other parts of government that do not have the space that ACE has? He says the key thing is to create the space for people to think and work at pace.

“I wouldn’t take the ACE model, but what I’d do is I’d form a blended team from across a government department: right from the most accountable senior officials through to those who are just joining and learning the ropes, and I’d bring experience from across sectors to some active problem solving that they need to address in their department,” he says. “And I’d coach them to work and behave in the way that we have, to show that it releases more value more quickly.

“From that, they will develop models that work for them… I would say that’s the way to scale this: to take those core behaviours and scale them and respect things like unified participation from different sectors. That’s where the magic lies.”

Jones, whose career has encompassed the public sector, an established multi-national and a start-up, knows this is possible because it was how he learned the approach, although he acknowledges that it does include some “pain of working with the machinery that we find ourselves dealing with”.

Gardiner says civil servants who work on projects with ACE report finding it “refreshing” to have the space to work differently. “I think it is something that can require some adjustment. There’s a certain amount of education – for want of a better word – that’s required about how things are going to work, how they’re going to feel, what’s required of the team that’s engaging ACE, and how they can make the most of that experience.

“It is different to how things often work in other situations, so there can be a bit of a learning curve there.”

All this sounds like manna for Dominic Cummings’s erstwhile efforts to bring in greater external expertise into the civil service, from weirdos and misfits among others. Jones says he understands the ACE model was flagged to the prime minister’s former top adviser as an example of what is possible within government, but ACE itself didn’t speak to the Brexit svengali before his pre-Christmas departure from No.10. But, Jones says, ACE “drew yet more energy from the demand for ‘do different’.”

It is still to be seen how the wider civil service reform plans being developed by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and permanent secretary Alex Chisholm formalise these lessons, but there is a clear willingness to look at how to change.

“We’re finding ACE is actually bringing to life those values and this way of working for many,” Jones says. “It’s uncomfortable, but very, very productive.”

ACE projects

Better investigations through data

ACE has developed the data investigation and collaboration environment to enhance knowledge sharing across the security sector.

According to ACE’s annual report, it “created an innovation environment for the law enforcement community that can be used to explore future opportunities in multi-source data exploitation, as well as non-technical aspects such as personal compliance monitoring”.

Verification of Children Online

ACE was commissioned by GCHQ, and supported by the Department for Digital, Culture,  Media and Sport and the Home Office, to run a cross-sector research project to provide insights to government on how children could be kept safer online. It brought together experts to stimulate innovation and collaboration, with a cross-sector task force considering the hypothesis: “If platforms could verify which of their users were children, then as a society we would be better empowered to protect children from harm as they grow up online”. The project had two phases. For phase one, the task force met fortnightly for 10 weeks to explore the issue.

A range of promising solutions were identified for further exploration and trialling, alongside a scoring system for proposals. The task force delivered a phase-one report with 10 recommendations to help find a workable, practical solution focused on preserving privacy that would make a real difference to how platforms recognise their child users. In the second phase, the task force considered the theoretical and practical aspects of age assurance by providing valuable research and proof of concepts to inform wider government initiatives. This work is now helping to inform policy decision makers considering how to tackle online harms.

ACE will be taking part in the Home Office’s Security and Policing event from 9-11 March. For details and to register to attend please visit: www.securityandpolicing.co.uk

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