BT's Julie Tankard on smarter working, transformation and supporting the frontline

As CSW launches its new Transformation hub, BT’s vice president for central government Julie Tankard shares her perspectives on achieving long-lasting change, building services around the citizen, and the importance of listening to and supporting your frontline staff

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By Civil Service World

31 Mar 2015

The big challenge facing the public sector for the foreseeable future is protecting and even improving services at a time when governments of all stripes have said there’s going to be continuing fiscal restraint. What would your advice be to public sector leaders grappling with that dilemma?

I think what we’ve seen over the past couple of years, with significant year-on-year budget cuts, is that departments and agencies now need to look fundamentally at how they work – at all levels. The cost savings that can be made in existing ways of working have now been achieved; to enable further efficiencies people have to look at working in fundamentally different ways. 

Many public sector leaders are recognising this. The Cabinet Office-led TW3 programme is already changing how people work and is on track to make considerable savings on physical estate by offering people a new way of working. In addition, many departments and agencies are looking closely at how the citizens they serve want to interact with them. For many people, channels that are cheaper are actually favoured more. Many may want to interact on the phone or online, and not face-to-face, which of course is by far the most expensive channel.

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But I think from my own experience having been involved in change programmes I think that it is critical to do 3 things. You should understand and listen to what your frontline staff tell you as they are the ones with the experience. You need to understand what the customers – or in this case the citizens – want and expect, and what they can do without. And finally, when making changes, do it openly and transparently – and have a senior-level champion. 

You’ve mentioned the impact technology is having on citizens’ expectations of their public services. Do you think that presents a big challenge to the way government works? And how can an organisation grasp the opportunities of new technology and not just throw it in as an add-on?

Technology is there to enable something to be done better. So I don’t think you should just use technology for the sake of using technology. Ask what it is you’re trying to achieve and how can it be done in a more efficient and more user-friendly way.

Internet banking is a great example. Years ago everybody had to go into a bank in order to do any sort of complex transaction, moving money from one account to another. Now, not only can you do it online but you can have an app on your phone. 

I think over the next few years we’re going to see a proliferation of apps that do a lot of things for us, and more and more of these small companies are emerging who are developing some really innovative apps. That’s something we’ve definitely seen in our recent BT Infinity Lab Awards 2015, supported by the Cabinet Office and TechHub one of Europe’s largest tech start-up communities.  It’s a competition that culminated in a three month search to find small companies that will make a big difference to public services and change lives, through imaginative digital products and services.  Now in its fifth year, we received a record number of entries from across the UK with some really innovative apps that could significantly change lives, the winners babylon have developed an integrated mobile healthcare service. Their app provides an end-to-end service, from helping people to diagnose a health condition to virtual consultations with top doctors, appointment booking and prescription delivery supported by secure access to clinical records. 

How do you rate the government’s digital transformation efforts so far?

I think Gov.UK is a massive step forward. I still think that it probably could be simplified more. And I think other things like self assessment online that HMRC have brought out is fantastic for anybody who’s used to doing tax returns! 

So I think, actually, governments have embraced a lot of technology that’s out there, but there's still a lot more to do. There's still a lot of operating within a silo and not sharing information across boundaries, which I think would be more better for the user.

It’s a frequent problem in large organisations, and indeed in government; teams and departments can get set in their own ways of working and lose sight of the bigger picture. How can you as a leader try and break down those barriers? 

I think it requires a culture shift. I think a lot of transformational change is generally about a shift in the culture of an organisation. You’ve got to have a shared agenda and that’s got to be prioritised over local or department agencies.

So in the past, individual agencies have evolved because there was no easy way to work together. But that's changing, and now people can actually share data and information through common standards.

But, ultimately, I think you’ve always got to keep bringing it back to the citizen. And if you understand all the touch points that the citizen would have across government departments, you can soon see the duplication that there is in the system and how the use of sharing of information could actually reduce a lot of that duplication. 

Can you point to any examples from your own work at BT where you’ve made big changes while bringing the frontline along with you?

At BT we’ve made many changes that have really impacted people on the frontline. If you think about our Openreach engineers, for example, they used to come into an office in the morning and get given a worksheet before going out to visit customers and doing the work that was needed. Now, they don’t even come into an office. So overnight they get sent electronically their list of who they’re visiting in the day and what needs to be done, and now it can be done in a much more efficient manner. 

It obviously saves money for us, gives our engineers a greater work life balance because they are not travelling unnecessarily but also it delivers a better service to the customer because they’re able to do more visits in a day. And I think a big part of it is that you’ve got to listen to the people on the frontline in terms of what they’re experience is. What are the things that they think are causing the issues? 

Often when you bring in firms of consultants the first thing they do is talk to the people, and they’re really just relaying back to you all of the good ideas that a lot of those people on the ground. And I think that we all miss a trick by not listening to the people on the ground.

What's the best way to support staff in that transformation process and ensuring you're working towards a shared aim?

Training is something that gets left out when you do transformation projects. It’s often about tacking on training at the end. But actually it’s the training element that makes people feel comfortable and reduces the resistance to change. 

I think if you’re someone who has  been in a job for ten years and you’ve been using the same system day-in, day-out and all of a sudden you get presented with a completely new systems to use, you need support as you go through that change. Most people come to work to do a good job and they just need to be supported along with training and understanding what it is they want to do and how they move forward.

If you look at those commercial organisations like BT, customers are absolutely at the heart of everything we do. And government needs to be exactly the same way. So the citizen needs to be at the heart of everything that government does in terms of how they interact with those citizens. And I think the only way you get all the departments working together across a shared agenda is to try and articulate that end state of what that vision would look like, and people will then buy in to that. It is a vision, it’s a long-term thing. It’s not going to happen overnight.


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