“One thing I realised and learnt is that the public sector is doing as much change as the private sector,” CIO Adrian Tucker says of his recent career leading technology at the Department for Education. Tucker and I have just left an eye opening and at times challenging meeting with CIO peers from the transport and travel sector as well as school heads, recruitment service providers and HR Directors and Kate Temple-Brown who recently described the opportunities of the government’s Apprentice Levy.
Tucker is completing the final submissions of his term at the Department for Education (DFE) which has seen the CIO lead a major transformation of, arguably the most important government department. This transformation is notable for its lack of noise. Whitehall and public sector technology projects have been dogged with a poor reputation for high costs, project over run and in some cases major failure.
“The Department for Education transformation was very big in terms of scale,” Tucker says of what was his most significant public sector transformation. “I was perfectly happy there,” he says of the retail sector, where he has spent the bulk of his career, but the size and challenges of the transformation at the DFE convinced him to head into civil service.
Tucker and his team changed the entire “technology stack” within DFE deciding a major change was required rather than a piecemeal approach to elements such as data centre modernisation. But to carry out such a major transformation the DFE had to radically change the way it delivered IT projects and it meant a significant increase in pace.
“In the retail environment it is pre-conceived that a project will be done quickly and that there will be constant change,” he says. With continued austerity government departments are now in the same state of constant change as the retailers. Despite the levels of change increasing, Tucker stresses that: “you have to have a stability mode afterwards”.
“The irony of doing a transformation of this scale is that it is only the start, once done the organisation has to start thinking about the way it operates,” he says. The speed and scale was achieved, Tucker says, in part because of the support for transformation from the senior leadership within the DFE.
DFE has adopted what it describes as a flexible IT, with large scale adoption of the cloud, software-as-a-service and on the hardware front the Microsoft Surface device. The whole stack is from the Redmond firm with Office 365 and Azure underpinning the transformation. “We took them as a team to Microsoft,” Tucker says of how he ensured the senior leadership of DFE understood and embraced the technology stack he and Microsoft were planning on implementing. “That led to the launch of the most aggressive transformation I have done and it was very ambitious,” he says of the two year time frame.
Another key element of the success and pace was not only the department’s leadership team, but also the relationship with the suppliers.
“It was a genuine partnership with our suppliers and that was a critical success factor,” Tucker says. “We recognised that we had strong internal people, but not the skills for the transformation. So we said ‘you can’t be a supplier, you must be a partner and leave some legacy’,” he says of how collaborative environment was created. Tucker says this meant that the suppliers “had some ownership” of the project.
“There were a lot of tired and proud people at the end of the programme,” he says of both the internal DFE staff and the partners. A key partner was Microsoft who worked directly on the implementation, not through one of their gold partners.
“There were 20 of their people helping us deliver and it was the first time that they had worked that way.
“We had to share the issues and the first six months of that relationship was a big change for my team and for them. It was breaking through traditional ways of what a contract relationship is.” Tucker says he knew it was working when teams made up of both DFE and Microsoft staff were addressing problems with the opening statement of: “What are we going to do about it?” All too often in organisations a blame culture between the customer and the supplier can exist.
“A number of them made the point that they had to change their processes to work like that,” he adds.
To change the way the DFE worked, introduce a new technology stack to enable and do so in a short period of time can challenge the temper of staff members. Tucker is one of a growing number of CIOs that actively engage in communicating about the change.
“We did brand awareness around the programme so that it became a kite mark for the programme and for my team it became a club to belong to. So we invested in the business engagement to discuss the change that the organisation would get,” he says, adding that a great deal of communication was done around the selection of hardware.
“It was important that people understood why we were doing the transformation. We had to tell the story that different devices did not mean we were creating a two speed DFE.
“Communications is partly the way I operate, to create an identity for the team and it was 25% of the total time of the change programme,” Tucker first began to use the methods in his retail career.
“Decommissioning was important as we had to move out of the physical data centre and we set a clear role of the cloud migration to turn off the physical data centre. The thin client estate was the largest part of the decommissioning and we couldn’t do that unless everyone was off the old estate,” he says of the change in technology stack.
“Decommissioning is the hardest piece of a technology change and it is often underestimated,” he says.
Tucker joined DFE in August 2014 from sibling organisation the Education Funding Agency where he’d spent a year. During Tucker’s fixed term tenure at the DFE the Education Funding Agency merged with the Skills Funding Agency and in March of 2017 became a single funding agency within the Department for Education. Tucker joined the civil service in May 2013 from Vodafone, in the autumn of 2013 HMRC would also pick a Vodafone CIO to lead its business technology as Mark Dearnely took over from Phil Pavitt. The bulk of Tucker’s career has been in the retail technology arm of major household brands such as Alliance Boots the pharmaceutical leader, T-Mobile and Arcadia the fashion stores group. Perhaps fittingly, Tucker enjoys the journey of travel and the controlled aggression of rugby away from the CIO role.