A conversation piece last week was me on a cinema screen stage which was quite good fun, and the other presenters were amazing and the whole context of the evening seemed to hang together exceptionally well.

For once I had actually written the speech in full beforehand as I was keen to try to get the messages across and didn’t want to forget anything. I thought it could work well on here to get any feedback or additional thoughts people may have on some of the things we are trying to do and indeed the way I am trying to lead the team.

Who am I and what is DWP.

So, I hate the intro bit, I started doing tech in June 1996 almost the same time that David Beckham ran out on a Wimbledon pitch in sunny London and scored ‘that’ goal! Anyone remember (or watch the new documentary) that the first attempt failed the second attempt (at 21) is one the greatest goals of modern football. He did it because he thought, why not, I think I can. That’s how I got into tech, why not I think I can.

I’ve jumped up and grabbed the latest problem off a printer of problems, I have carried a pager that went off too often, I’ve tried hard to make national decisions based on mostly local knowledge, I had a go at learning Irish and trying not to be the bloke from the UK in a fancy suit and I’ve worked on the transformation of a 170 year plus old retail business as a modern .com thing.

And now I love what I do…

Why do I love my job? I’ve worked in some amazing teams at some amazing places with some admirable goals but I now work somewhere that at its purist level is about four things:

  • Maximizing employment, reducing economic inactivity, and supporting the progression of those in work.
  • Enabling disabled people and people with health conditions to start, stay, and succeed in work, and get financial support where they need it.
  • Delivering financial support to people who are entitled to it.
  • Supporting financial resilience in later life.

Now I worry that I sound like a politician, and in the words of Bono on that famous bit of Rattle and Hum, where he introduces the Edge to play the blues, ‘I don’t mean to bug ya’. But these things matter to me.

But, we spend £1bn every few days doing these four things, it has been said that the payment systems I have within my estate have more money in them than some countries. That is some responsibility and some impact we can make, every day.

I believe my role now is delivering a different point to ever before. We are there to create the convergence of systems so that the customer journey joins up. And the word customer in what we do is a word hotly debated, people who come to DWP do not have a choice they come to us because they need us so some people want to be clear that we simply use the word citizen, some want us to call them service users (which I hate) and others want to call them claimants which is even worse, so I am on a mission, to put the customer centricity into what we do.

For a tax paid for system though we know tension between – Customer, Cost and Outcomes SHOULD be there always. I have had a mission for a long time to remove friction from systems, but at DWP that is quite a difficult mission to ‘square’, our journeys have to be easy to traverse whilst at the same time challenging enough to look after the ‘right’ people in the right way.

Art of the possible for big government departments

Transformation is a matter of pragmatism, instead of idealism big government departments are no different to big organisations in their needs and the problems they have when it comes to making big changes that stick.

I am often surprised at how some organisations take a page from an old playbook and expect it to just work as they or we try to adapt to a new foundational sand! Organisaitons are trying to forge a new path with an old map, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Instead of using old methods as a way to keep pace with change, we all need to take a leader mentality and imagine the art of the possible.

We should ask ourselves: What can we do now that we couldn’t do before, thanks to changes in technology and people behaviour? That’s how great organizations have driven toward transformative leadership in a time of significant disruption.

The question has changed for public sector, it used to be can we afford to make the change, in 2023 it is now we must afford to make the change.

Last year, the government launched Transforming for a Digital Future, the 2022 to 2025 Roadmap for Digital and Data, with an ambition to transform public services, deliver world-class technology and attract and retain the best digital talent. No mean feat then.

The need to refresh this already after one year feels like a real sign-post of change; many departments and citizens now using ‘GOV.UK for log in, frameworks for the adoption of AI and a set of principles that drive design and create interest in being part of transformation are now in place and for once the speed of change is not compared to a super tanker on the ocean wave, more like a ferry on the Irish sea!

So the ten trends for the year ahead that I think will land are:

1 – Cabinet office Digital and Data team and Government Digital Services driving cross Government adoption of principles and standards as one.

2 – Local government adopting the same standards wherever they can.

3 – Data recognized as a key economic driver for continued recovery and growth.

4 – UK SSO will be not just resolved but will be implemented everywhere.

5 – ML starts to really deliver on the hype.

6 – GIS comes back into the fore as shaping how we manage ‘places’ using technology and data.

7 – IoT data interoperability leaps to the forefront and offers us answers to difficult questions.

8 – NHS leads the change in unlocking analytics and the acceptance of this by citizens.

9 – Most recent census results start to really drive service design and planning for the next census facilitates even more digital conversations.

10 – Commerce leads the way in GDPR transformation and government will be able to access these rewards.

Mass Personalisation and to Hyper Local offerings

The joining up of digital islands to create data flows that enable customers to come to our (your) organisaiton and be part of solutions that know them as much as they want to be known, that facilitate any organization to offer simple solutions that colleagues can use easily and a customer can see a way through the system, that’s kind of what all of these 10 trends lead us to.

Retailers have been creating Mass Personalisaiton for customers for more than 20 years, the Advantage Card at Boots is one of the most formative examples of that. What we now need to do is create the same across government services, not a loyalty card I hasten to add but a way that the personalized data about a citizen can traverse systems (with them in control) as a solution to removing things that are just in the way.

At Boots we had a mantra for new services; ‘

‘Easy for colleagues, delightful for customers, simple to use, obvious in its intent, putting a smile on the face of anyone who needs it.’

Can I go after that as a mission for my new services at DWP too.

Where do we get the talent to do this

This is as hard now as its ever been and maybe particularly so in the public sector. We are in a Talent Crunch, but how do we look harder to look deeper, differently with a mind to remove barriers. Do we have a talent gap or actually an EXPERINCE gap…

Moe Sbihi– Team GB rower and flag bearer for GB in Tokyo was chatting on a stage last week and said,

‘Winning gold is a resilience trip not a race, recruiting people into a boat to row together is hard, you start by making it clear how good the team is and how the team will win together. As an athlete though you always ask, what can I do better and hide away the success until you are happy to celebrate as a team and are clear it will only have a positive impact on the success of the next team.’

I thought this was awesome as a way think about recruiting the team.

We need change makers, we need collaborative sense makers, do we still need ‘actual’ experts anymore? Can we grow the digital skills if we are open to be more creative.

Agility, versatility, resilience, diversity of thought – are these the skills on the job description rather than competency based interviews and applications that are now needed to create a talent pipeline?

Digital as a Career – Not Tech as a Job.

The profesionalisaiton of technology roles reminds me very much of the Trinity Centre that this presentation was from. The 21st of March 2013 suddenly the developers façade came down and all that noise, the banging, the roads that led to nowhere for a few years were revealed with a giant wire horse and a beautiful Apple shop inside!

A bit like our roles as digital leaders, for years we were in the basement with the records management team, then we were the IT Squad all ‘supposed’ to be geeks and a bit odd, then we were learning from Tom Cruise and about to deploy the Minority Report interfaces, for those in Leeds we were then spending £12bn and allegedly not getting enough for the money and now the ever increasing size of the first and ninth letter of the alphabet march towards us.

BUT at last we see that organisations of all sizes and ‘creeds’ are now accepting that digital and transformation is a career, it’s a profession that is to be recognized. Its also a role that now needs to be accepted as a leadership role. Not the folks that do the three Ps at the board; PowerPoint, Projector and Power… Digital transformation is more than crawling under the desk to plug in the CEOs lap-top. In the same vein though PICNIC still does exist when you are in a leadership role; Problem In Chair Not In Computer!

I want to create a sense of belonging by being a digital professional. What happens when you don’t have that sense if you don’t belong there then its always your job to persuade, to cajole to nag, basically a digital leader without a professional sense of belonging is a 12 year old asking to go to Disney Land.

Why do we have so many definitions of what we do? Because so much of what we do is based on the environment we are in and not the job description we were recruited into. As I embark on the civil service period of my career, a bit like the Jurassic period that sounds, I am trying to ensure that every day I offer myself an opportunity to be a quiet leader that can watch and see better than ever before and I want to be relentlessly curious about not just my responsibilities but about the difference our business can and must make.

I was chatting to someone who had been around IBM during the Lou Gerstner period and was there when the phrase, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dancewas coined. Something that was said springs to mind more and more for me now, where were you and why did you not raise your voice. I think this is a big part of our role in 2023, we need to raise our voice in a calm considered and thoughtful way so that a business, your business, gets what transformation means to everything that is going to be done.

… and how do we offer the platform to let others raise their voice too, as leaders that is on us too.

I want to finish with two quotes, one that gets thrown around a lot but is becoming a headstone for public sector changemakers I think and it is a Richard Feynman quote,

‘I would rather have questions that can not be answered than answers that can not be questioned….’

Plain old transformation of government services needs this at its core.

And finally I was lucky enough to spend some time with Abi Tierneya Director General at the Home Office and soon to be CEO of Welsh Rugby, she was talking about her career the ups and downs and was asked to give a single piece of advice and she finished with something like this,

‘Love what you do and what you do becomes easy…’

I am trying hard every day now to apply that, Digital With Purpose will see us be able to love what we do and make a difference and be able to do that every single day.

With thanks to everyone at WRK Digital – Make WRK Great for putting on the amazing event and to my co-presenters Rashik Parmar & Zandra Moorefor just being brilliant and oddly seamless in how we interacted for our audience.