Public Services > Central Government

Jacky Wright sets out to create a cultural legacy at HMRC

David Bicknell Published 21 December 2017

Eight weeks into her CDIO role, Wright discusses delivering customs systems for Brexit, understanding the public sector, robotics, being a role model, and why she is “all about people”


It doesn’t take long in Jacky Wright’s company before it dawns on you that though much has been spoken about her recent background at Microsoft, it becomes almost a footnote when she begins speaking about her new role as Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), a position she has been in for just eight weeks.

What’s clear after an hour in her company is how she is likely to change HMRC, not just internally, even against the background of Brexit – but externally too. And the impact she is going to have on others, especially as a role model and attractor for those that might well one day come to work for HMRC.

Having discussed the conversations with HMRC’s permanent secretary Jon Thompson that convinced her to make a belated move to the public sector – as well as Microsoft, Wright has also worked for BP and General Electric (GE) - it only takes one question before Wright is avidly discussing the difference she wants to make both for HMRC’s customers and perhaps equally importantly, as a role model for those who might not necessarily previously have aspired to a career in digital or in government. The fact that Wright chose to take on the role at arguably one of the most challenging periods in HMRC’s recent history is instructive.

The considerable hurdle of delivering working customs systems to cope with a Brexit for which no-one currently knows the design could faze some who even already have a weighty digital, data and technology CV. There will be some who would relish the immediate demand of delivering the Customs Declaration Service and if needs be resurrecting a highly regarded but venerable Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system as a backstop. There would be others though who might shrink at the prospect. After all, fail to deliver and it might not look so good on your CV. In contrast, Wright appears to be up for and relishing the challenge.

The experience and the opportunity

“It’s all about the experience and the opportunity,” she says. “The experience says ‘public sector’. A great experience to not just affect what I’m doing in my immediate realm. But the impact is so profound of what I can affect. That’s a good feeling. “Oh and by the way, Jacky,” she laughs at herself, “you might be able to affect policy, if you’re lucky.”

She continues, “So what better way…to apply technology in that realm. I looked at all those things and I had a long discussion with Jon (HMRC Permanent Secretary Jon Thompson) about what he’s trying to do to transform his organisation. And about who he is as a leader, because that’s important for me too. Again, how I can affect things in a profound way that leaves a legacy?”

So when Wright first came across the HMRC opportunity, what was her thinking? Was it, “I could do that?” Or was it, “I’ve never worked in government, but…?”

“It was a bit of both actually. Digital transformation – it’s the term du jour. Everybody’s doing that. But when you think about transforming tax for the government. And doing so in a way that would transform how customers view us. It’s kind of like this today. And you want it to be, “OK, it’s something we have to do but the experience is a good experience.”

She explains, “You can ingest technology in ways that would help our customers, individuals, businesses. But also, how we work. Removing paper. There are some fundamental things and then there are some revolutionary, innovative things. So I looked at it, and Jon talked about his transformation, making it the best, world class. And (then, I think I could) look back and (say) I was part of that transformation, it was almost a no brainer. And it’s public sector.  I hadn’t worked in the public sector. So I thought, ‘OK, this is an interesting opportunity and experience for me. And the other thing is, I am British. I am a woman of colour. I take my responsibilities very seriously in terms of role modelling and the things I can affect. And so that was part of it as well.”

A different culture - and a data culture

Having worked at some of the world’s biggest private sector organisations, Wright is now having to get used to a different culture, and a public service ethos.

“If you think of all the places that I’ve been, they’ve all had their own culture. You can think about BP’s culture. And GE’s. And Microsoft’s. They’ve all been very different. And coming into this one at HMRC, the advantage for me is that Jon and the leadership team have been very welcoming and in the leadership team, there are a great many of us that are new. So we also have the ability to shape the culture, which is also an exciting opportunity. It might define who we are as HMRC and how we can be world class, and what that means. What does that look like? How do you lead by example? All of those things come into (mind) when you think about how you culturally create an environment.”

So, before joining HMRC, how had she viewed it previously? “As the tax authority, to be frank. That was it, in the beginning. And you go onto the website and you think, ‘How do I do my self-assessment?’ Those types of things. That was it. There was very little for me in terms of what HMRC was trying to do in digital and that type of stuff. But then I thought, let me look at this opportunity. Let me do a little bit of research. Mark (Dearnley, HMRC’s former CDIO) sent me a little note about ‘Here’s what I was doing,’ he said. ‘If you ever want to speak....’

“Everyone reached out to me. And then I read the papers about the ambition and what HMRC wants to do. And then I looked a bit further in terms of the types of things we’re doing. And then I thought, “This is an organisation having a data culture. The responsibilities we have as an organisation. How we interact with millions of customers and businesses - small, large, all that type of stuff. I looked at it and thought, “The culmination of all my career I could bring to bear here.”

What are the things that Wright considers to be top of a long agenda?

“There are things around the strategic things we need to do: Brexit. There are things that we need to do to make tax digital. All of the things as far as our transformation. So there are these big strategic buckets. Whether they are strategic or whether they were thrust upon us…..but these are the things that I have to do. Then there is coming out of the Aspire contract –we came from a culture and a time where we had large suppliers managing our estate, managing what we do, delivering for us. And now we own it. We have to operate it. So having to make sure that operating model is a model that’s fit for purpose, both for today and for the future, is kind of the next big bucket.  

“The third relates to the capabilities and skills.  Do we have the right capabilities? Are we building a pipeline for the future? Do we have a career model, a development career path around that? So that we can build the right model, have the right people in place. And then how do I infuse innovation into what we do? How does it become a natural part of what we do? Those are the kind of the big areas. The operating model is a big piece. We need to make sure it’s fit for purpose.

“And there is the pipeline. STEM, skills is a big challenge for everyone. And I’d like to think that coming out of this is that I make HMRC attractive as a place that people want to come to because we innovate. We offer ideation.  And, oh, just think of the opportunities. And you can have a career path. And we are doing things that would attract. And by the way, let’s not forget diversity. Can we create a pipeline that has diversity that mirrors who we are as a country? So all of those things, those are kind of the big things for me.”

The flexibility to deliver on CDS

Within the demands of having to cope with Brexit, arguably Wright’s biggest challenge is delivering the Customs Declarations Service successor to CHIEF. So what gives her the confidence that she can deliver it?

“So there are a couple of things. I’ve been doing my rounds to make sure I’m getting my deep-dives and getting my ‘hazing activity’ in terms of understanding what we’re doing. It’s quite clear that we were on the CDS agenda before Brexit. And so when you think about that, there’s an element of ‘OK. So we’re already doing this.’

“Look at CHIEF. It is old! I sat there and asked, ‘What sort of database do you have?” and they said, ‘IDMS’, and I almost fell out of my chair. It is old. And so we recognise that. So we were already on the path to deliver on that.  The question is more, ‘Does Brexit change anything? What does it accelerate? What’s the difference?’ And from my perspective, based on what I’ve seen, I don’t see anything that is inhibiting us from delivering on our agenda. I really don’t. The plan is in place. The milestones that we’re delivering to date are on track. Of course, you have to do performance testing to make sure it can handle that. But as far as I’m concerned, right now, I don’t see anything that would (stop us delivering).”

Wright recognises, however, that as the negotiations are still at an early stage, HRMC will need plenty of flexibility in terms of the policies that it is implementing.

“Absolutely. And if you think about technology and the modularisation of what you have, and APIs and things like that. Your ability to build, ‘What if?’ scenarios makes that more flexible. And so that’s the way it works.

“How does that change some of the interfaces? Does it change the modular things, because those things will be in effect ‘microservices’ that are built within your estate? It’s then a matter of OK, how far do you go this way or that way? Oh, and do you have a contingency plan in place if something doesn’t work? I’ve been working on many large scale projects, and so, I do feel I have the right team in place. I feel that we’re thinking through. We have all the considerations and the key is to make sure that you plan for and you have the necessary contingencies. Again, I talk about the modularisation to be able to do all the ‘What ifs?’ and understand their impact and build that into your plan. Then I feel comfortable.”

Wright has seen these challenges before.

“At GE there was scale. A lot of scale in terms of manufacturing, and in large scale environments. There were acquisitions and asset dispositions at scale.  There was scaling up for the purposes of bringing on a large scale system across GE. I’ve been in high transaction, high volume financial services type scenarios which are the epitome of handling large scale transactions.

“So to answer your question, you always have projects that have failed, and most of us have had a series of experiences both good and bad to be able to use that as input. Don’t use it as your only data point, but use it as input to help the team think through the considerations. So I would hope that I bring something to the table. And if I don’t, then making sure we have the right people at the table that answer the questions. I think we’re doing well, collaborating as a team. We have the right suppliers that we need. The business has engaged in the right way. And we also bring some element of innovation in terms of how we want to do this.”

Looking specifically at CHIEF, Wright suggests that with any old system, there is an element of life support and then there’s an element of ‘what do we need to do for the future?’

“And when you think about what you need to do for the future, it’s very hard to transform a 25 year old system. Very hard, especially when 25 years ago, we were talking about relational in a different way than we are today. So you have to think about that. And the challenge would be, “I want to be quick and innovative as it relates to the customs stuff. How do I do that and interact it with the legacy system?’ That would be the bigger challenge, right? You don’t want an old way of working at the front end. You want a new way of working. So can that new way of working interact very quickly to a legacy, kind of putting lipstick on a pig? The question would be, can you do that? I would say that would be the bigger challenge. If you were trying to put new ways of working, new technologies to be able to interact with the old, that would be a bigger challenge than anything else. That’s because you’re not going to re-architect. You don’t have time to re-architect.

“Lots of companies look at their old environment and try to build Band-Aids on it and thereby inhibit themselves to be agile and fast, when they could very easily have gone into a new environment and stood it up very quickly and created something different,” says Wright.

Using robotics

For that reason, she adds, HMRC’s strategy going forward is likely to take advantage of robotics.

“Robotics is a good strategy for anyone, and for HMRC in particular. Robotics is that stop-gap, that build-that-bridge to be able to handle (things) while you’re going to ‘new’, wherever it is you’re going. And I think that strategy alone has helped us bridge a lot of the old systems to some of the new digital things that we want to do. For the new, you want to be able to do a lot more machine learning, cognitive stuff, because of the nature of the business that we’re in. It’s all about customers. How do you build that intelligence, the artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) that you want? That’s where we want to focus. So yes, the stop-gap has been on the robotics side.”

And Wright accepts that that use of AI and machine learning is likely to grow for all parts of HMRC’s business.

“Yes, it’s going to be growing for all parts. And I use customer service as the tell-tale. You want to build intelligence in there so that you as an individual coming in, we know who you are, we know what you last did, what the outcome was, and we can anticipate what your question is going to be. You don’t need to speak to us because we’ve answered it. Here’s your answer. Only by exception do you want to speak to an individual. And that should be the philosophy for how we interact with our customers. So the AI/ML piece is core - you know, bot frameworks - into what we do. It’s key. It has to be.”

For much of the last year, there has been plenty of discussion about identity assurance in HMRC, highlighting the role of the Government Gateway in HMRC and Government Digital Service (GDS) support for GOV.UK Verify.  It is still early days for Wright to have spent much time discussing identity assurance. But at this stage, how does she see the identity assurance debate developing?

“We did have a discussion. I was in one of the discussions where we talked about Verify and the Gateway, and clearly, Verify is designed for individuals whereas the Gateway is for businesses. So the question is, are we complementing and supporting in a way that we’re going to have both? And the answer is ‘Yes.’ We are expanding, we’re building on the Gateway so that we can meet the needs of not just us, and Verify is, should be and needs to be on track to be able to deliver for the individuals across government.” However, Wright admitted that so far, she has so far only had one meeting with her team and GDS director general Kevin Cunnington on identity assurance.

Appreciating leadership

If it is still early days as far as Wright’s views on the subject of identity assurance in Whitehall is concerned, it hasn’t taken her long at all to come to terms with the culture of the Civil Service.

“I’ve learned that the people are committed, empathetic, and they want to do the right thing. They are clearly energised by our bold ambition. And for me that’s rewarding. I go around and everyone wants to tell me about what they’re doing and their pride in what they deliver speaks to (the calibre) of the individuals in the organisation.”

Wright admits, however, there are still areas she needs to understand.

“The ministerial stuff. For me, I need to get my head around that. That’s new for me. Policies, the papers that come in, the requests that come in, people wanting answers that may or may not have relevance based on someone wanting to know something. That, for me, is really, really new.  The Public Accounts Committee, and Jon sitting there talking. All of those things, I’m going to have to prepare myself for that too. Those things are very new for me. And helping the organisation understand, when I talk about who we are and when I talk about data culture, what are the things we need to consider, I think that is something I can bring to the table.

“The culture? I think that’s for us to create. I think Jon is doing a really great job. He is the authentic leader that is required, that empathy that people will follow, with a pulse on what is going on not just within your organisation but what is going on outside. For me, when you go and work for someone, who you work for is as important as what you’re going to do. So, for me, Jon was also an attractor, because of his leadership. Those are all the right things from my perspective. So how I can be a part of that? I’m looking forward to it.”

All about people

Wright’s appreciation of leadership is interesting, because when she worked at GE, had she ever met Jack Welch, the company’s legendary chief executive, who led the organisation for twenty years, and who has argued that leaders typically have five basic traits

“My first meeting with Jack, was when he meets the ‘young folk’ to speak with them, and then, later, we went to a conference a year later where he spoke. And he remembered my name. I was like, wow, he remembers who I am! And that was really important for me. And I took that – and I still take it with me. Never underestimate the power of who you are and the impact you can have on an individual. And that, for me, was far more important than the Jack that everybody talks about: the edict, the cost control, that kind of stuff. But that for me characterised what was important about a leader.”  

Welch once said, “If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings, you almost don’t have to manage them.”

It’s a philosophy Wright also seems to subscribe to. In an age of transformation and digital, she suggests, management and leadership capability is at the core of creating the culture and transforming.

“For me, I’m all about people. At the end of the day, people are your greatest asset. You can have all the things in the world, but if you don’t have people who want to follow, who want to do, and they feel good about their experience in doing and achieving, then you don’t have anything.

“So in this new age of digital, which everyone’s talking about, it’s more about the transformation and how do you change? How do you change behaviour? How do you change your outcomes? How do you anticipate your customers’ needs? And that’s all about people! People have to do that. You can have AI and ML all you want. But the people element of it is an important part.”

Wright’s two year tenure at HMRC will undoubtedly be high energy, very focused, and, viewed externally and I suspect internally too, a compelling story.


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