Departments ‘get nowhere’ without in-house capability, says digital chief

Departments will “get absolutely nowhere” on reforming their services if they don’t have their own in-house digital capability, Paul Shetler, chief digital officer at the Ministry of Justice (furthest right), has warned.

Civil Service

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

07 Oct 2014

Speaking about his team’s efforts to make MoJ services more customer-centric and advance the government’s digital-by-default agenda, Shetler (pictured) said that the ministry “would not have been able to deliver” if it hadn’t been for its own digital team, which has been “absolutely essential” to its service transformation and digital agenda.

Giving a presentation at the Central Government Business and Technology Conference on 25 September, Shetler said that “you get absolutely nowhere if you don’t have your own in-house capability. You have to have the ability to deliver, you have to have your own development team, your own designers, your own researchers and product managers. You absolutely must.”

Now, he said, his team — which has grown from 75 to 135 people over the nine months he’s been at the MoJ — is looking into “helping other departments build their own delivery capabilities”.

Shetler added: “Some departments have suffered because they haven’t had the ability and the capability in-house.

“Some of my colleagues in other departments have had to rely on others to do the heavy lifting. So they end up having to go to a vendor.”

Darren Scates, chief information officer at the Department for Communities and Local Government, also spoke at the conference. Scates, who’s worked in central government since the 1990s, said: “I've been in government IT long enough to remember the last lot of outsourcing that went on and I think most people agree we went far too far and gave away an awful lot of our in-house capability and got to a point of being almost wholly reliant on a few large providers.”

Liam Maxwell, the government’s chief technology officer, who also took to the stage at the conference, said that government has “an ongoing issue with trying to generate more capability within [it] and that’s one of our key focuses at the moment.”

The main skills gaps, he said, are in service management, data scientists and “the ability to work within small ad-hoc teams”.

He added: “Our policy on talent is rent, buy or grow with an emphasis on grow. That’s why we now have the digital and technology fast stream - a new fast stream function.”

Shetler, who was among 100 senior digital leaders brought into government from the private sector over the past year, noted that while this is the “best job [he’s] ever done”, he' faced some challenges adapting to working in government.

He described civil service time lines as “glacial”, adding that “you have to plough through that”, and explained that he’s found it difficult to convince his own digital team to make small changes to digital services and then “iterate”, instead of undertaking “total service transformations” which can take years.

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