Government Digital Service Podcast

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #7 - How has digital changed public-sector organisations?

March 28, 2019

In the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast, we speak to people from across the public sector about how digital has affected their lives, their careers and the organisations they work for.

Those who contributed to this episode are:

  • Kevin Cunnington, Director General of the Government Digital Service
  • Sally Meecham, Head of Digital Data and Transformation for UK Research and Innovation
  • Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance
  • Matthew Cain, Head of Digital and Data from the London Borough of Hackney
  • Caren Fullerton, Chief Digital Officer for the Welsh Government

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:

Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery, and I’m a senior writer at GDS.

We’re recording this podcast in March 2019, and a few days ago, on the 12th March, it was the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for linking information across different computers , which was the proposal that he wrote that would eventually become the thing that we now know as the World Wide Web.

And this anniversary got us thinking, like lots of other people I suspect, about how much the World Wide Web has changed the way that we do things, the way that we work, and our lives. And in particular for those of us working in the public sector, how much it has changed public services and the way that governments and other public sector organisations, can deliver services and can improve the lives of the people using those services.

So for this episode what we wanted to do was, we wanted to hear the views of people across public sector digital roles, not just in central government but in local authorities, in devolved administrations. And we wanted to hear from them about how digital has changed the way that they work and what it means for them, and the advantages and the changes that it’s brought to their roles.

So we put out a call for contributions from people in senior digital roles and lots of people were kind enough to respond and what we did was, we emailed a bunch of questions out and people responded by sending audio clips of their thoughts. So we’ve got a whole load of audio clips, a load of great answers and we’re now going to use those audio clips to create this episode of the GDS podcast, so rather than hearing from just one person, you’re going to hear from lots and lots of different people and lots of different viewpoints.

So first of all, thank you very much to all of those people who contributed to this episode. In this episode, you’re going to hear from Kevin Cunnington, who is the Director General of the Government Digital Service. You’re going to hear from Sally Meecham, who is Head of Digital, Data and Transformation for UK Research and Innovation. You’re going to hear from Matthew Cain, who is Head of Digital and Data for London Borough of Hackney.

And you’re also going to hear from two people working at devolved administrations, and you’re going to hear a lot more from them in the future, because we’re working with...GDS is working with devolved administrations to run a series of Sprint events this year. So we’re going to be talking about those in the episode as well, so we’re running Sprint events all across the UK in partnership with the Scottish government, the Welsh government, the government of Northern Ireland and Leeds city council. And in this episode, you’re going to hear from two of our partners, who are working on those Sprint events. You’re going to hear from Caron Alexander, who is Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance, and you’re going to hear from Caren Fullerton, who is Chief Digital Officer for the Welsh Government .

So that’s my very long intro over. The TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version of that is, you’re going to hear from lots of different people, lots of different sound clips, and it’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to work seamlessly, I hope.

So let’s get down to it. So the first question that we wanted to find out was, why people wanted to work in digital, what excited them about it and what it’s meant for their careers. For lots of people, digital has always been a part of their working lives, so this was the case for Kevin Cunnington and this is what he said to us.

[Audio starts]

‘My bachelors degree is Computer Science, my masters degree, as people know, is in A.I. In 1992, this is a trip down memory lane, I wrote PWC’s global methodology of how to develop A.I systems using Agile. So I’ve always been a digital person. I spent most of my life in blue chip corporates really, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), Goldman Sachs, Vodafone, but I had a spell in the middle as an entrepreneur with mixed success if I’m honest. We built one company and sold it for lots of millions of pounds, and then I build another one which failed to make any money on them, and lost rather a lot of money. And I do say this to people, if you ever get to meet my wife, please don’t mention it, because she has forgiven me now but she wasn’t very happy about it at the time’.

Angus Montgomery:

And for some people, digital represented a new opportunity in their careers, it represented an opportunity to do something that they might not have imagined they were going to end up doing. This is Sally Meecham who’s got a really interesting story about how she ended up in a digital world.

[Audio starts]

‘I was a set designer, and I attended an internet conference about twenty years ago. And was just immediately enthralled and excited by the opportunities, the reach, the ability to connect, to have your own voice, be who you want to be with digital. That day I had an idea for a website, and I hadn’t really been using the internet hardly at all, so was quite surprised when this idea popped into my head for a peer-to-peer travel review website. And literally within the next few days, I’d given up my job, I met some people to set up a business and we set up a website. And within four months, I was an internet guru, which is obviously silly, but there weren’t that many people doing it at the time, so I’ll take that. And I still love digital, I think it’s phenomenal and we just need to keep working to make sure that it is fair’.

Angus Montgomery:

Sally Meecham there, from set designer to internet guru in just four months. So a common thread that came through in a lot of responses, and something we’ve obviously explored lots in this podcast previously, is the opportunity that digital provides to improve public services, and to improve the way that government and other organisations can serve people. So here’s Matthew Cain on that theme.

[audio starts]

‘In Hackney council, digital has changed our expectations of what we can do with technology and data to meet residents’ raised expectations. We’re using user centered design Agile approaches in order to redesign services so good that people prefer to use them.’

Angus Montgomery:

Shout out for GDS there as well which is great to hear. Caron Alexander had a similar, or a response on a similar theme, and also talks about the opportunity for digital to impact the way that government and [other local] other public sector organisations can deliver front line services to people. Here’s what she had to say.

[audio starts]

‘Working in digital transformation provides great opportunities to work closely with service owners and users, and really understand the needs. It’s very rewarding to work collaboratively, designing services that are easy to use, services that are accessible when and where you want to use them, and using a device of your choice.’

Angus Montgomery:

And Caren Fullerton explains how digital has changed her career as a civil servant and how that’s developed over the time she’s worked in the Welsh government and the Civil Service.

[audio starts]
‘Working in a digital role gives me a really great opportunity to focus on something which I’ve always really enjoyed in my career in the Civil Service, which is to look in a fresh, or even a critical way sometimes, at the way in which we work. My first job in the Civil Service was as an analyst, and every year we used to look at our data collection exercise, look at how we could redo the form, improve our IT system, change the way we presented the results. And so a focus very much on learning and continuing to improve and, for me, the opportunities offered by my current role are to look at everything we do, whether it’s a corporate system or whether it’s a system that provides a service to the population, look at it in a way that means we never have to stand still, and we’re always looking for ways to change and improve’,

Angus Montgomery:

So it’s great obviously, to hear very personal responses about how digital has affected people’s working lives, and what it’s meant for them on a personal level [0.08.00].
As I mentioned at the start of the podcast, all the people that we spoke to, have very senior digital roles in public sector organisations. So we wanted to kind of go beyond the personal viewpoints, and find out also how, what digital has meant, not just for these people but for the organisations that they work for and lead, and what it’s helped those organisations do.

And here’s Matthew Cain again. He’s talking about how digital really helps Hackney council meet the needs of its users, of the people who live in the borough of Hackney.

[audio starts]

‘I wanted to work in digital because I was always passionate about public services and about good public policy. But I always wanted to be able to see how that happened on the ground. So the opportunity to come in and work for the public sector gave me a chance to harness the inspirational qualities that Francis Maude (former Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General) and Mike Bracken (co-founder of GDS), and Tom Loosemore (co-founder of GDS) had led in the Government Digital Service, and give me an amazing opportunity to put that into practice myself.’

Angus Montgomery:

And Caren Fullerton sort of continues on that theme and talks specifically, not just about services but how digital can change the way that public sector organisations can deliver the policy that drives those services as well. Here’s Caren.

[audio starts]
‘I think the biggest change for us in terms of impact of digital on the way we work, has been to transform the way in which we develop and deliver policy. So through the whole policy cycle, whether it’s the discovery phase, looking at how the world looks at how we engage with our stakeholders to look at what the case for change is, all the way through to actually delivering the policy out there in Wales. Digital tools, digital thinking, user centered thinking has actually offered a whole new way of working, which people, who work in the Welsh government, are really enthusiastic to embrace’.

Angus Montgomery:

And Kevin Cunnington who as well as being Director General of GDS, has worked in senior digital roles at the Department for Work and Pensions has, you know, quite an interesting sort of oversight of how digital has developed in central government.

He talks about how, over recent years the environment has really changed in government and the public sector, now digital ways of working and responding to user needs are business as usual in many organisations.

[audio starts]

‘When I started in DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) in 2013, there were no other digital people apart from me. There was no profession for people like me in the Civil Service. There was no academies, there was no training. When we first set up the first academies and trained people in digital, I then went back into the existing DWP workplaces, and people used to say to me, genuinely said, ‘we don’t do it like that round here thanks’. So in the end, I ended up setting up an academy in a building in Leeds, and taking over the whole building. So we used to train people on the ground floor, and then allow them to work in an Agile way on the first and second floors, because the native environment in DWP was just so alien for them, they had to be sequestered, or quarantined, in this single building in Leeds. So I say the biggest changes, when you look back, nobody ever debates now whether we should do things digitally. Digital is business as usual.’

Angus Montgomery:

‘Nobody ever debates now that we do things digitally’, which is a great point and a great position for us to be in. And Caron Alexander sort of echoes this point about how digital can change organisational culture.

[audio starts]

‘Digital transformation has really started to change the culture within the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Now we’re designing our citizen facing services around people, the people that use those services and the uptake of our online digital service has exceeded all of our expectations’.

Angus Montgomery:

And as I mentioned at the top of the podcast, this change in culture and the whole idea of how digital can drive transformation, collaboration and innovation is something we, as GDS, are going to be exploring more in the Sprint series of events that we’re going to be running this year.

And we’re running these in collaboration with devolved administrations, including Northern Ireland and Wales. And so we wanted to hear from Caron Alexander, what she’s looking forward to in Sprint Belfast, which is the event that we will be doing there shortly. And here’s what she had to say.

[audio starts]

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting new people, and hearing about digital developments across UK government. It will be great to showcase some of our local digital transformation successes, to share experiences and to discuss lessons learnt with colleagues from across the public sector.’

Angus Montgomery:

And as well as doing a Sprint in Belfast, we’re also doing a Sprint in Cardiff in collaboration with the Welsh government. And so we wanted to hear from Caren Fullerton, what she’s planning and what she’s looking forward to from this sprint event.

[audio starts]
‘What I’m most looking forward to in Sprint Cardiff is actually meeting up with people who work in the same kind of role as me elsewhere in the Civil Service, find out about what they’re doing and learn about their experiences, good and bad, and hopefully taking some of that learning and applying it to the things that we’re doing here. There’s also a great opportunity to tell people about the things that we’re doing within Welsh government, and to sing some of our own praises for once’.

Angus Montgomery:

So lots to look forward to at these Sprint events, and if you want to find out more about them, then keep your eyes peeled on the GDS blogs because we’ll be talking a lot more about them in the coming weeks.

So finally, we’ve heard a lot about kind of how digital helps organisations deliver things better and how digital can change organisational culture, and Sally Meecham sort of closes off this section by pointing out that while obviously, digital has brought huge benefits and it is becoming business as usual, or has become business as usual for large public sector organisations, we do need to be careful not to sit on our laurels, and we need to make sure that we are continuing to drive forward and talk about, and showcase the great things that digital can bring. Here’s Sally.

[audio starts]
‘For me, it’s more consistency, design standards, spend control, empowerment and transparency. We’ve only really just begun this journey, it’s a few years old, and not everyone has adopted it. But it’s critical we stay on this path, it’s critical we still have standards and openness in government’,

Angus Montgomery:

So for our final sort of subject that we wanted to hear from people about. We heard about changes that digital can bring on a personal level and changes that digital can bring to organisations, and we wanted really to drill down into the specifics, to hear, not just about kind of, you know, cultural change or transformation of services, but what are the specific things that digital and digital government, and digital public services allow people to do that they couldn’t have done before. So Sally Meecham has an example that will be familiar to lots of people I think, about how digital has changed an aspect of her life and probably changed the same aspect of lots of listeners’ lives as well.

[audio starts]

‘I’m going to start with banking, which used to be for me, a really horrible experience. We needed to make that we were there for their opening times, and that we were lucky if we got somebody who was helpful and the queuing, just the whole thing about it, I used to really detest. And I do my banking, my personal banking and my business banking, when I want it, on what device I want to do it on. And I think that the advancements and changes of online banking are just getting better and I just think you know, it might sound a bit boring but it really does free up time to do things a little less boring instead’.

Angus Montgomery:

So I think the banking example is a really useful and interesting one for those of us working in the digital public sector because it’s the same thing for delivering government services. So what digital is allowing people to do as Sally has said, is do things in their own, on their own devices and freeing up people’s time. So rather than you know, government and other public sector organisations absorbing people’s time through difficult services, we’re making these things easy to do so people can spend the rest of their time doing the things that they actually want to do. So I think that’s a really valuable example. Matthew Cain focuses specifically on how digital has helped him and his colleagues working lives. And again, lots of this will feel familiar to those of you who work in digital public sector organisations.

[audio starts]

‘The work we’ve done in Hackney together has included some of my absolute career highlights, whether that’s the improvement to the Hackney work service, which means that more than 40 people now have a job that they didn’t have this time last year. Our work in fostering to improve the experience of applying to be a foster carer, or our work in the housing services. Personally though, the way we use Google Drive has changed the way I collaborate with teams, with people across the organisation and outside the council. Twitter has enabled us to develop much broader networks across the sector so that we can tap into the expertise in central government and local digital agencies. And Todoist is a brilliant tool for making sure that I can communicate and work well with my own teams’.

Angus Montgomery:

So lots of good examples there about how digital has helped Matthew’s day to day life, and helped him and his team deliver those great services. And when we asked Caren Fullerton this question, she had a really interesting and quite specific example about how digital can improve service delivery for a very particular group of users. The user group is those people who use assistive technology, so things like screen readers. And here’s Caren talking about how digital has helped to deliver services for that user group.

[audio starts]

‘So we’ve always given high priority to serving their needs well. Being as flexible as possible in making a range of tools available to users of assistive technology. But the way in which we’ve integrated the service to them with our basic service provision, has not worked particularly well. So typically we would roll out some new software or new hardware, and come to the needs of that group of users, the assistive technology users, right at the end of the project when it became a problem to solve, sometimes very difficult problems, so in some cases, software that had been rolled out to 95% of the organisation couldn’t be rolled out to the final 5%. This wasn’t satisfactory, and meant we were spending an awful lot of resources on actually providing support to those users. So by transforming the way we thought about that service, we were able to reduce support resources and to actually improve service and most importantly, enable those staff to be much more productive and the simple way of doing this was to start any new project with the roll out to that particular group of users, so from about 3 years ago, we have started to do that. So new phone systems, new hardware which we’ve recently rolled out in the last year or so, moves to Windows 10, upgrades to software, we have taken the needs of assistive tech users to be the ones that we need to sort out right at the start of the project and that has meant that, the needs of our, the majority of our users are relatively straightforward to deal with in the second and third stages of the project. So what it’s given us is a slightly longer start to some of our projects because we have to deal with some of the more challenging integration issues right at the beginning, but a much softer landing towards the end of a rollout, much better service for our assistive technology users enabling them to be productive, and to receive the same service as everybody else, and has required lower levels of support from our software teams as the services have gone into regular business as usual service delivery’.

Angus Montgomery:

So Caren Fullerton there with quite a specific example of digital improving something. Caron Alexander focuses on, in her response, on the broader benefits that digital tools that can bring, that is if you build these digital tools using the right approach and embed them across organisations.

[audio starts]

‘In driving forward the Northern Ireland digital transformation programme, we used a principle of re-use when developing new digital services. This has resulted in a growing number of reusable technical components which are now in our digital toolkit. And these components are available at little or no cost for subsequent projects and also, this can substantially increase the pace of delivery.

Angus Montgomery:

And Kevin Cunnington also focuses on tools and platforms, and one platform in particular, GOV.UK Verify, which is government’s identity assurance platform. And he has an anecdote from his family, and how GOV.UK Verify has helped them.

[audio starts]

‘A good example happened recently with my wife, where my wife’s been a long time user of the Verify system, she used it to check her state pension. The other part of her pension is with the NHS, because she was an NHS worker. And that’s always been problematic because historically, it’s one of these systems that’s got a you know, a cryptic username and an even more cryptic password methodology, so she’d never remember it. And everytime she goes to check it, she has to ring them up and get them to tell her da da da. But good news. The NHS pension scheme has adopted Verify. So she texted me at work, saying ‘this is brilliant, I’ve just used Verify to check my state pension and I’ve just used Verify to check my health service pension’. She said, ‘I love your Verify’, she said, the highest compliment in my line of work you ever get.

Angus Montgomery:

So there you go. We’ve heard from a range of people, kind of at a range of different levels about what digital has brought to them from the personal, to the professional, to the way that their organisations are structured, to the culture, to the way that they deliver services.

So I wanted to give a big thanks again to everyone who contributed their answers to this, and gave us some really really great responses. And I hoped that you enjoyed this episode and I hope that you found those responses interesting and valuable as we did.

And if you would like to contribute your own thoughts about how digital has changed the way that you work, and what excites you most about working in digital public services, we’d love to hear them so please do share on social media. You can use the hashtag #GDSpodcasts, all one word. And also if you could tag us at @GDSTeam in your comment, that would be brilliant. And then we can sort of see what you’re saying and share them more widely and it would just be lovely to hear kind of, more widely from people about what they think about this.

So that brings us to the end of this episode of the GDS podcast, so thank you very much for tuning in and listening. If you’d like to catch up with any of our previous episodes, or if you’d like to subscribe to future episodes, then please head to wherever it is that you download your podcasts from, we’re on all the major platforms, Spotify, Apple Music, Pocket Casts, everything like that. Find the GDS podcast and hit subscribe, and we hope you enjoyed this episode, and we hope that you will tune in again in the future. Thank you very much and goodbye.