Transforming public sector services with digital innovation
Sarah Wilkinson, former CIO at the Home Office and now CEO of NHS Digital, reveals how UK government departments are boldly embracing digitalization.
The delivery of public sector services is often plagued by a combination of vast complexity, scale and highly constrained budgets. However, Sarah Wilkinson, the former head of the UK’s Home Office — the government department behind police, immigration, fire and counter-terrorism services — sees a bright future for government services transformed by digital innovation.
Preparing for that future has meant taking some bold steps. On joining the Home Office as CIO in 2015 Wilkinson was faced with an IT group — and budget of £744 million ($970m) — in need of reshaping. After decades of large-scale outsourcing, it had limited in-house expertise and was suffering from a lack of trust among its business users. Now as she moves on to become CEO of NHS Digital, the UK health service’s IT arm, Wilkinson leaves behind a very different technology organization.
Above all, the driving force behind her innovation agenda was the drafting in — and reskilling of — “the right people,” she says. “The biggest-ticket item to transformation is bringing in really great talent. Getting them has enabled us to totally transform core functions across the department.” It also helped the existing team to embrace a new mind-set that was distinctly digital and customer-centric, she says.
“It is now unthinkable for us to begin a project without first thinking through the customer’s digital experience, their digital needs. That’s completely part of our DNA,” says Wilkinson, whose IT leadership prowess was built in financial services at Credit Suisse, UBS, Deutsche Bank and Lehman Brothers.
At the Home Office, her aim was to ensure that the IT change she introduced was genuinely transformational and not simply an exercise in making old approaches more efficient or cheaper — and that meant encouraging an appetite for risk-taking, she says. “When you’re looking at an agenda of ‘better, not just cheaper,’ you have to be motivated by experimentation. It requires a completely different mind-set and comes with a different set of processes.”
Those processes still draw on vendor partnerships, but not the kind associated with the mega-deal outsourcing that proved costly and burdensome for government IT in the past. The way the Home Office uses suppliers is now much smarter, she says: “We need to be more thoughtful and ambitious in the way we leverage the external marketplace.”
She predicts the Home Office will be unpicking its involvement in large legacy contracts for several more years but notes the positive changes seen already. “We now engage with a much larger number of suppliers. If you look today at the outsourcing arrangements versus what was in place, there has been a radical change. It’s much more sophisticated and robust. You might expect some of our existing suppliers to resist those changes, and some of them have. But I’ve been particularly impressed with how companies such as Fujitsu have addressed that challenge. They have focused constantly with us on what we needed. And it’s been really encouraging to go through that with them.”
“To maximize the quality of public services, public sector technology functions today must leverage and interact with the fast-moving external technology landscape so that we inform it, sponsor it, capture its value and bring it in,” she says — from AI and IoT to wearables and big data analytics. “We should be encouraging the market to undertake exploratory projects and find ways we can work with them so that we can give those innovative products and services a life.”
Her view on vendor partnerships is that they should be close, dynamic and challenging partnerships. “It’s about using the external market — not being fearful of it — in a way that doesn’t end up in a lack of control. But that’s not always easy to achieve.”
That means integrating systems and building joint teams that work together on a day-to-day basis. She talks about partners opening up their development environments so her organization and users can see how applications are evolving on a daily basis. “That creates a sense of dual responsibility,” she says.
It also builds user confidence and engagement with the outcome. A key process in any digital transformation project, Wilkinson believes, is exposing internal business to work-in-progress. “As people see a hypothetical system come to life you move into a different chapter with them and they begin to see other possibilities,” she says.
To this point, many such applications have involved grafting digital front-ends onto legacy back-end systems — but, while this improvement is often appreciated by end users, it often creates less efficient and more complex services.
“In recent years the UK government has been very good at delivering digital interfaces to citizens. We’re still in the relatively early days of leveraging modern digital platforms and infrastructure but the balance of front-end digitalization to back-end digitalization is now shifting.”
Government organizations need partners who have experience of how digital can completely transform a service front-to-back, Wilkinson says. “We have to create that virtuous circle in the same way we did around digital interface design.”
Ambition in analytics
Another part of the Home Office digital transformation journey is making more active and imaginative use of the vast amounts of data it gathers during its day-to-day operations. That has the potential to completely transform many core processes, says Wilkinson.
“Drawing out patterns in data should allow us to do things much faster and in a much more intelligent way. It will focus the attention of the staff in big operational and policy areas on the things that matter by eliminating much of the data ‘noise.’ For example, by drawing on large data sources it is possible to profile criminals based on what you know about their behaviour.”
She continues: “We need an environment where policymakers have enough faith in what the technology is capable of generating, achieved through provision of sophisticated safeguards and quality management of the analytical models and the data stores, so that they are willing to redesign policy based on the insights generated through analytics. I think we need to be as ambitious as possible, otherwise we’re going to miss the full opportunity for these new big data analytic capabilities.”
As that suggests, Wilkinson wants to dispel the myth that the public sector is constrained by an inability to keep up with the pace of technological innovation. By working hand in hand with the external marketplace, government bodies can access the latest innovations without needing to build experimental environments in-house. And Wilkinson believes major change could actually inspire innovation thinking among her peers: “I think some of the big pressures at the moment in UK government, such as Brexit, will be helpful because when people are under intense pressure they start to consider risks that they wouldn’t usually. So I think there’ll be a greater willingness to explore technological opportunities.”