Civil service must stop ‘accepting outdated technologies’

Former HMPPS leader Jo Farrar says SCS must take on responsibility for using digital to drive outcomes
Photo: Alan Levine/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Sam Trendall

02 Jun 2023

The civil service needs to move past its tendency to “accept outdated technologies”, according to former Ministry of Justice second permanent secretary leader Jo Farrar.

During her four-year stint at the ministry – which concluded with her recent appointment as chief executive of NHS Blood and Transplant – Farrar oversaw efforts to get rid of all legacy technology in use at the Office of the Public Guardian, an executive agency which oversees the legal processes through which people can make decisions on behalf of others, such as power of attorney.

“The OPG has used technology to help reduce its backlog, [which] I think is a really good example,” Farrar said, in an interview exclusively published by CSW's sister publication PublicTechnology.

“It’s really important to the public to have a lasting power of attorney facility and making sure applications are dealt with quickly. The way that the Office of the Public Guardian has used innovative approaches to reduce its backlog is excellent and the OPG is the first department in the Ministry of Justice to get rid of all of its technical debt.”

In the interview – for which Farrar spoke to Megan Lee Devlin, chief executive of the Central Digital and Data Office – the former HM Prison and Probation Service chief said that, in the past, “civil service people do accept outdated technologies in a way that you just wouldn’t in other organisations”.

But she added that “the next generation of senior civil servants are used to using technology and will have different expectations, so I think people do need to talk about it and become more fluent”.

Farrar said that members of the senior civil service need to take responsibility for using digital to solve problems and meet their objectives in their specialist service or policy area.

“We now live in an environment where technology is more influential, able to help us. As civil servants, we need to understand that. We need to be able to use it, understand how it can help us, but also how it can hinder us,” she said.

“The chief digital officer is there to facilitate and to help us improve but they won’t always have the understanding of the services so it’s up to the SCS to think about what outcomes we’re trying to achieve and talking to our digital teams about how can we use digital and data to be able to transform our systems so that they give us the outcomes that we want. That’s what we own individually as the SCS: we own the outcomes.”

The full interview with the former MoJ second permanent secretary – including insights on the potential of AI, how tech supporting prisons’ pandemic response, and memories of her first-ever government computer – can be read here.

The article forms part of PublicTechnology’s Digital Leaders’ Download series of interviews with government’s foremost leaders, beginning with a discussion with CDDO chief Megan Lee Devlin. Keep an eye on PublicTechnology in the coming weeks and months for interviews with head of government finance function Cat Little, Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft and more

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