Public Services > Central Government

Trenholm calls on digital leaders to 'deliver'

Charlotte Jee Published 22 January 2013

Defra's digital leader calls on colleagues to improve digital understanding and be prepared to put the end user at the heart of decisions


Ian Trenholm has called on fellow departmental digital leaders to understand how digital works and be prepared to challenge their colleagues to think "not 'how do I make this easier to administer', but 'how do I make it easier for the citizen'?"

Addressing delegates at Sprint13, a conference aimed at showcasing the best of digital from across government, Trenholm, who is chief operating officer and digital leader at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said that digital leaders need to put the end user- and indeed taxpayer- at the heart of all their decisions.

His advice to digital leaders was to try new things, be unafraid of failure, and aim to achieve digital literacy and an understanding of key aspects such as cloud, social media and open standards. He called for digital leaders to avoid putting a "veneer on broken systems" and start again from scratch if necessary.

Trenholm concluded, "What we need to do now is go on and deliver."

Speaking to Government Computing, Trenholm said, "the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) [the delivery programme for which was announced this week] is the biggest thing we deal with at Defra, accounting for £2bn of our spend every year. It makes or breaks the rural economy to be honest.

According to Trenholm, key lesson from setting up the new IT system, which is one of the first programmes within the government's new digital strategy, is "We need to deliver in small steps. Big delivery often doesn't work."

However, he added, "Digital goes beyond transactions. It touches everything the government does".

Trenholm continued, "For example, if you consider transparency and open data, for me that is like taking the business of your department, putting it on a trestle table outside and running it from there. Digital innovation allows you to do that in a sensible and practical way.

"Transactions can be a way into the conversation about digital, but it's about genuinely transforming the way we think about government, and allowing people to interact with it in a new way. A lot of our policies at Defra are nerdy and complex, but there are plenty of people are interested in our data, for example, even on how many blackbirds there are in the UK. It's about how we cost effectively corral all that information to produce a policy that really works."

Trenholm said that although the Government Digital Service (GDS) is one of Defra's trusted suppliers, the department needs to build up its own digital capability. He said, "We have a question to answer over we get all our digital stuff from them [GDS) or build our own."

According to Trenholm, more broadly this is a "Pan-government conversation. We're used to having 17 departments with 17 platforms, 17 e-mail systems, 17 variants of madness. That's changing and GDS is a very useful rallying point. GOV.UK has proven the point that the government can operate under a single domain. At the beginning of last year, no one would have believed that possible."

UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox agreed, saying, "Not nearly enough services are digital by default. It's a way of operating that GDS can help with, but departments are responsible for the delivery."

Lane Fox pointed to the broader potential of the UK digital economy, saying, "There's a number of exciting things going on...loads of start ups, and this brings potential for huge growth. The government can intervene even just slightly and make a huge difference. Growth will definitely come from this area to a degree.

"Data has the potential to fuel goodness knows what- small companies can take data and use it to create applications and so on, and big data schemes are being used by large corporate to reinvent something they do. Some government data has been opened up really quickly, we're now moving onto the tricky bits that need to be unpicked and are more challenging. But there has been a relentless focus on this by this government."

Lane Fox, who has the opportunity to observe the everyday machinations of government from her seat on the Cabinet Office's Efficiency, Reform and Growth (ERG) board, praised the broader changes enacted by the government in the realm of IT.

"The scale of this stuff is too important- and it's shocking that we in the UK still spend more on IT than any other government in the world."

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