Public Services > Central Government

Transforming Cabinet Office technology

Charlotte Jee Published 09 January 2014

An interview with Andy Beale, common technology services lead at GDS, on how a project to replace the Cabinet Office's IT estate might form a blueprint for the future of civil service IT

 

The Cabinet Office traditionally acts as the centre of government. In recent years it has focused on trying to coordinate and set standards across government by helping, nudging and cajoling departments into following a common agenda.

Recently, however, its attention has turned to itself and in particular the IT used by its civil servants.

Like most Whitehall departments, the Cabinet Office's main IT contract (the 'Flex' agreement signed with Fujitsu in 2007) is due to expire soon, in January 2015 to be precise.

However, far from replacing the contract like for like, the Cabinet Office has asked GDS to run a pilot project to start paving the way for a rather different sort of IT estate.

Andy Beale, who works as common technology services lead in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at the Government Digital Service (GDS), explains that the project is a standalone project within the Cabinet Office that has been running since October.

He says that they are "very conscious that Flex, which we're replacing, was envisaged as a cross-government desktop solution and hasn't been able to meet all of the needs and change with the times."

Early lessons

The replacement project, which is being run according to Agile principles, has just reached the 'alpha' phase. Beale says, "We've given about 50 users a mixture of devices and software tools to continue the process of understanding their needs. So it's leading on from the discovery work we did around what people do all day, how they do it and how the IT helps or hinders them."

Beale says that the Cabinet Office permanent secretary Richard Heaton is "a great champion for how IT can enable the business", adding, "he wants to push the boundaries of what's possible and that is what you really need, that executive sponsorship."

The work is going well so far, with positive feedback and lessons learnt around what does and does not work, he says.

Regarding the devices and tools being used, Beale says it is "a mixture of things. There are some Windows devices, there are some Mac devices, there are some Android devices. We're also creating an exemplar of the new platform guidance that CESG released with us earlier in the year and one of the things that we very much want to demonstrate is that the guidance will work in a business context.

"The guidance has opened out the number of platforms we can use to something like 12. There are generally only two platforms in government and so that's really important. One of the principles of the project is that if you're committed to meeting user needs then users are different and they will have different choices and preferences and being able to support that is important."

Beale adds that they have also found tablets really useful for note taking in meetings, and they aim to achieve "proper, integrated mobility so people can write things on one device and find it on another."

Removing the shackles

Beale says that the project and others like it will demonstrate how to implement the new CTO strategy and guidance around IT to departments, by taking 'some of the pain around procurement and security'.

He says, "We want to remove some of the shackles and constraints to allow technology leaders to deliver IT in the way that they'd want to- by going early, pioneering some of the approaches and demonstrating what is possible.

"Because it's not through lack of intent or desire to make these things better. It genuinely is quite difficult. The relationship with the security people and procurement people is really important so we're working very closely with them to support what we're doing. We want to move towards transparent guidance so people can make informed business decisions around this because it needs to be done locally and accountability and responsibility need to be local."

Regarding factors like security and procurement, Beale says, "None of them were a blocker. They'd become blockers in people's mind and they became excuses to not do things. We are shining a light on some of these things and helping to enable people to implement their original intention. Because it gets lost.

"Our aim is to make stuff more secure. Through transparency of how we're doing it and better, more informed users, more responsible users who understand the threats and the vulnerabilities. Whilst we're also saying we want to make it [security] invisible so people can get on with their work, we also don't want to take it away completely. I think that's what has happened generally previously - too much has been done on behalf of people."

Common needs

Beale also hopes that the project will shed light on common needs. However, he adds, "we'll probably be looking to do those things that are common deeper down the IT stack, away from users, to avoid becoming what sounds like a great idea- 'well, everyone needs a computer, let's give everyone the same computer'- but that then becomes nothing to anyone rather than all things to all people."

Beale says that where applicable, the team will use common services like Crown Hosting Services (which are currently under development) and they hope to use G-Cloud 'a lot'. He says, "We may use the Digital Services Framework where that's appropriate as well. It will be a disaggregated collection of suppliers and some internal resources as well. We're not shying away from that.

"Again, that's been a trend that we've been trying to reverse- to say actually, you need to hire some sensible IT managers and that will pay dividends massively in the long-term. So that picture will be much more mixed than previously. We are moving away from the single outsource model."

He explains, "It's kind of reversing the amount of work. More comes up front because you're spending more time thinking about design and how you're going to put these things together. But it should get easier. The old way was to do a lot of work on contracts and then give them to someone else to do all the work. We're kind of reversing that."

Applying agile to an IT service

Beale says that project director Tom Read, who is leading on the Cabinet Office pilot, has identified a number of core elements to the project, including flexibility around device, mobility and flexible working, which is 'baked into the philosophy of the project', and creating an IT service that reflects today's users and their relationship with technology.

And, he says, "this is the thing that's really exciting: the team are applying the approach of agile- discovery, user needs- to the idea of an IT service, and that includes the help desk function.

"I think if we get those things right, it very much supports the Civil Service Reform Plan around modern workplaces and that's something we're conscious of too. We will get a much more successful, productive organisation."

For the project to work, Beale says, "As with any business change, it's about keeping an open mind and being prepared to try different approaches. I think being open minded and open about your needs and how they work is key. We've seen really good engagement so far, because people these days are much more engaged with technology they use. Not everyone...but there's a lot more people in the middle now who do care a bit more."

Collaboration

Beale admits that government has tended to view technology as 'an inconvenience, a cost and a risk to manage'. He says, "I think that's understandable in some cases if you look back over the history of it.

"But clearly, over the last five years, things have changed. Technology is so much more pervasive, and it's so much more accepted that these are enabling things that need to be embraced and that are an inherent part of running a business."

The team has been consulting with the Technology Leaders Network, a group set up to provide leadership on technology across government, Beale explains.

He says, "We have talked to them about the general concepts and they're incredibly positive. We're having conversations with other departments - departments that have got similar types of contracts coming to an end over the next two to three, four years. We're having conversations about what's going on and we're just being transparent about what's happening, to allow them to plan.

"And as I say, where we've uncovered things that make sense to do once and share, either we will do those things, or we will work with departments to collaborate on having other departments do them as well. So this is very much being done with good engagement and support from the community."

Technology supporting digital

There is a lot of discussion around 'digital' in government, but it seems recently that senior figures have felt emboldened to say that technology should support digital interactions, rather than digital being a 'veneer' on top of the IT estate.

Beale agrees with this perspective. He says, "I've been here about a year, almost exactly a year ago the then IT reform team, now the Office of the CTO, moved into GDS and that was a very explicit thing. We [Liam Maxwell and I] are very sure that is exactly the right place to be, that technology enables the business and the fact that the business of government is becoming digital. These things feel to me in complete harmony.

"I believe that as we go on, the digital versus IT thing will simply start to go away as we work from both ends. You've got the transformation team working from the front in terms of citizen-facing services, moving through that whole workflow of the department for that service, and we're coming from the other end saying we're modernising the IT at the back. And we very much meet in the middle. Whether you are a civil servant or a citizen, the ultimate aim is that there will just simply be excellent services supported by excellent technology."

 

Related articles:

Cabinet Office starts technology transformation project

Whitehall to beef up CTO Liam Maxwell's reach

Treasury starts search for future ICT services







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