Leading cultural change in public sector IT
Photography: John Angerson
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Leading cultural change in public sector IT

Maxine-Laurie Marshall — November 2018

Nicola Holderness, a former CIO within UK government and an expert practitioner in change management, outlines how she approached the challenge of taking civil servants on a transformation journey.

Nicola Holderness, the former head of IT for the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), arrives for our interview with such a wave of energy it’s clear the story she has to share about public sector IT is not going to be the familiar one of underfunded civil servants struggling to match the achievements of their public sector counterparts. Rather, Holderness talks excitedly about the shared challenge that defines digital transformation success across both government and private sector: dealing with major cultural change.
New IT versus old IT

When the UK government began its digital transformation journey with the creation of the cross-department Government Digital Service (GDS) organization in 2011, “it brought with it a whole new tribe that unsettled traditional civil servants,” she explains. That disruption has shown some clear successes, resetting key practices and creating more joined-up government processes. But it caused a degree of “cultural damage that’s now in need of repair,” says Holderness. “There are people [in the GDS] that think those old IT departments have had their day, and that’s a very damaging message.”

For Holderness, a big part of her role was helping the BEIS IT organization realize its own value, breaking it away from an ‘underdog’ mentality. Her message to her teams: “I’ll champion you. I’ll help IT come out of its shell and work with the new digital professionals.”
Leading IT and the business

Her animated and lively personality makes Holderness a natural leader of cultural change. But it’s her non-technical background that makes her an atypical IT chief. “I come from a business background,” she says. “The things the technical team deliver enable a business to succeed. But as my role is about bridging the gap between the two, I can have a conversation about policy X or supply chain B with the business people and contextualize the technology; then I can speak to the tech people and get them to understand why decisions are being made.”

While the benefit of having a leader able to ‘speak both languages’ may seem clear, it is sometimes met with resistance. Holderness recounts how she recently encountered a manager who suggested the organization needed to put “someone technical in charge”, which she rejected. “For me, [my role as CIO] was about embracing the team, being visible and helping to translate the business need,” she says.
Digital strategy

Ensuring the alignment of her IT department and the wider business put Holderness in a good position to launch a three-year Digital Data and Technology Strategy (DDaT) for the Department for BEIS at the end of 2017 — a strategy underpinned by five enablers.

Topping the list is ‘people, skills and culture’ as Holderness’s desire is to create an environment where DDaT is embraced and understood by the business. Continuing the focus on culture, the second enabler is about partnership and encouraging wider conversations about the value DDaT can bring. Government as a platform is next with the aim being to design, build and deliver services in an agile way. This is followed by accessible business intelligence, which is focused on seeing improvements in how the department stores, uses and shares data. Finally, she highlights ‘continuous improvement’ with the aim of using feedback from users and data analysis to inform future developments.

The strategy was brought about to address ‘a trust and credibility gap’ that had built up between users and the IT organization. Holderness says: “I didn’t think we could credibly stand up as a department without [such a strategy]. And we needed to be innovative and practise internally what we seek to change externally. However, the challenge with that was combatting the changes happening internally [as the GDS was introduced]. I think digital became a bit of a dirty word in [some areas of] government.”

She says that at the top of government, digital priorities were aligned with Holderness and her fellow digital leaders from GDS meeting regularly. But in a bid to help that cohesion trickle down and change the perception that digital can only be understood by the new influx of professionals, Holderness ran an internal app-building workshop prior to the launch of her strategy. She gathered together 200 senior civil servants and had them build apps on iPads that were published online to demonstrate that the new digital world is both accessible and less complex than it may seem. She explains: “The technology exists; the people know that the technology exists. It’s really now about education and getting rid of the fear factor.”

Looking beyond the uncertainties of some traditionalists about digital, Holderness vehemently believes the UK Government has a broad pool of talent and is not trailing the private sector.

“The absolute beauty of our environment is we have amazing, talented people and so much diversity in what they can do. There are so many problems to solve in government in diverse areas such as nuclear power, the NHS, an aging population and the lack of care workers, and we can now trial and test things much quicker [with the help of] component-based architectures and reuse of components or sharing open source code. In that sense, the public sector is not struggling behind the private.”

She stresses that issues of funding aren’t always due to lack of available money but related to decisions about where the priority for it lies. “You will never get such variety of challenge [as in government IT],” she says, “and the intellectual capability that is focused on solving those challenges is just phenomenal. You get some of the brightest people in our departments.” And their hard work needs to be more openly recognized — and rewarded.

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