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CIO podcast: A new Stance on the role of technology

Picture by Matt Gore/iconphotomedia

Written by Mark Chillingworth

Andy Beale, James Duncan, James Findlay and Jerry Fishenden believe as a society we need a more informed debate on the impact technology will have on British society. The four former CIOs believe that debate means also addressing the way organisations operate because it is the new operating models that are changing society.

Together the quartet have formed Stance Global and the name of their organisation hints at their aim, to bring technology, society and impacts together. Andy Beale was with the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service from November 2012 to February 2016 having led technology at the Guardian News and Media. James Duncan has held senior technology roles at the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice between 2013 and 2017, Jerry Fishenden has been advising government departments since leaving full time CIO roles and was recently working with the Home Office and James Findlay was CIO with HS2 the organisation aiming to build a TGV style rail line from London to Manchester as well as CIO at the Department for Transport.

“We felt the impact we would have would be greater on the outside than inside the central government and together we have a collective wealth of knowledge that we can apply to some of the more challenging areas of technology and public policy,” Duncan tells the Horizon CIO podcast of their decision to leave Whitehall.  

“Coming out and looking at this holistically was important for us,” Beale says. “Because the computerisation of the existing way of doing government is not the way we should be thinking of it in 2017.” He added they had all broken down silos in their business technology leadership careers, but new silos will appear.

Duncan last role was with the public service network (PSN): “that was eye opening not just the nature of PSN, but it really does run the length and breadth of the country and it touches all levels of government and public services and it compelled me to take a look at public sector as a whole”

“If you go back to Beveridge and look at the review of social welfare and what a mess it was and he came up with proposals for the welfare state, he did not say how do we bodge the current system, he looked at why do we have so many pockets of duplication and why are we not more efficient and why are we not designing new ways of doing this,” Fishenden says of the inspiration for Stance and the famous Sir William Beveridge report of 1942.  “Part of our mindset is: if you were designing government and public services now, you certainly wouldn’t design them the way they are currently designed; so how can we transition to a digitally enabled and governed state and carry everyone with you,” Fishenden says.

“And as we know from the formation of the welfare state, patterns of disruption have forms of resistance, most doctors resisted the formation of the NHS, so there are patterns you can learn from and it is about how you learn from those.

Tackling the big issues

“It is about understanding the impact in socioeconomic terms,” says James Findlay of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robots. Along with self-driving cars these technologies are hogging the headlines for the impact they’ll have on society. There are acres of words on what they will do to the commercial sector, Stance aims to help organisations think of how to adopt these technologies, but also to consider the impact on society. After all retail organisations can adopt these technologies and drastically reduce their staff headcount, but rising unemployment will not increase sales. Self-driving cars will increase road safety tenfold, but society is already struggling with an aging population. All of these developments are reshaping society and Stance Global wants to help organisations ask and tackle the big issues of our time.

Picture Matt Gore/iconphotomedia

“In government you have 30,000 call takers and as that technology advances the questions we have to ask ourselves is do we make those people redundant and replace them with automation?” Findlay says. “And if we do, what is the impact on the communities?  A lot of the call centres in government are in Swansea, Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester and they are challenged economic areas. So one of the focuses is not that you shouldn’t make those tough decisions, but you must understand the impact of them and then think about are there other things that the people could be employed in and should they be retrained. Make the decision having thought of the impact and make sure that the government makes those decisions with the full facts.”

“Government still needs to focus on its purpose such as social good, educational and regulatory purposes, where it is struggling is not the purpose, but in lagging behind a lot of the complex changes that are happening with technology as it is ubiquitous, but largely misunderstood,” says Jerry Fishenden. “With Uber, what is the role of government in terms of regulation? The government is still there to regulate, what it hasn’t got to grips with is where is that line when software is embedded in everything around us and what is the framework approach so that we have trust in software. There are more important areas of trust than taxis, when you look at medical device and a lot of the so called AI devices and the question arises how does government get on top of its role?”

Just as in last week’s Horizon CIO podcast fellow former CIO Richard Sykes analysed the business themes of the 1700s and 1800s against today’s cloud technology, James Findlay believes there are lessons from the past: “If you go back to early Victorian era and the luddites smashing up the machines, that wasn’t people railing against the machines, it was there was nothing to replace the jobs.”

New operations

“What we are about at Stance is to try to navigate some of the opportunities that go beyond the mere reorganisation, just as Blockbuster should have said we are not about delivering videos to stores and optimising the checkout, but instead about a movie experience. The state needs to do the same thing, instead of thinking we are about passports or train tickets and the economy, that the state has an influence over and producing the best outcomes,”

CIOs are well versed in how Amazon has refocused retail and technology business models and there is no doubt that consumer behaviour is changing and as a result organisations have to adapt.  Organisations that do not change their operating model will find it increasingly hard to trade and again CIOs know the classic case studies.

“Too many organisations define themselves by the way they currently operate and I think that was the problem with Kodak, thinking of itself as a film company rather than thinking of itself as a photography company,” Jerry Fishenden says of one of the posterboy stories of digital disruption.

“We are in world where we worship disruption,” Duncan says. “So how do you deal with a world where these disruptive forces are not being imposed on a generational basis but on an annual basis and make it possible for society to deal with that in an acceptable way by rethinking some of the processes and rethinking the relationship between the government and the citizen.”  

“In my time in government I met unbelievably passionate people,” James Findlay says. “Whilst there is some change in the delivery of government services that needs to happen, on a structural point of view, it is important not to lose that passion, understanding the impact that some big decisions can have on communities, environment and taxpayers and you have to work with compassion.”

“Polishing the current way of doing things doesn’t change the way government operates and if you were designing it now how would you design it,” Fishenden says. “People have been using technology to automate and optimise the way of doing what they have always done rather than thinking of a better way of achieving the outcomes they want to achieve.”

“The delivery of purpose is different, the digital work has been focused on government as a service provider, yet it is not a service provider it has ended up doing that through forms, licences and permissions,” Andy Beale says. The former GDS CTO believes just as business have had to rethink their models, so too will the public sector.

“We are moving to a world where software is everything and is malleable and where data and facts are very very cheap that is a fundamentally different,” Duncan says.  “I don’t want to book a doctor’s appointment online, I want the doctor to recognise that I need a doctor’s appointment and book an appointment with me and that is the change we need to discuss, that software is changing.”

Fishenden adds that the business world knows all too well the outcome of a failure to recognise a change in consumer behaviour, Blockbuster and Kodak being clear examples and in the week that this podcast was broadcast Monarch Airlines in the UK collapsed. But the public sector doesn’t face the same plight.

“Government has to trigger its own transformation or reformation, and there is a frustration that a lot of the digital stuff has not triggered the rethink that is happening in the better parts of the private sector,” Fishenden says.  

“What we are about at Stance is to try to navigate some of the opportunities that go beyond the mere reorganisation, just as Blockbuster should have said we are not about delivering videos to stores and optimising the checkout, but instead about a movie experience. The state needs to do the same thing, instead of thinking we are about passports or train tickets and the economy, that the state has an influence over and producing the best outcomes,” Fishenden adds.  

“The idea of the transformation is quite dangerous, you haven’t the time to transform these things that have been the same for hundreds of years, the tough bit is getting the organisation to think about people, so there is going to have to be some new models and new ways of doing things created and that is quite difficult given the funding and all the constraints that exist,” Beale says. “

“We can talk about technology all we like, but fundamentally it is about people and what they are trying to deliver or what they are consuming, whether a private or public,” James Findlay says. Before joining HS2 in 2012 Findlay was Director of the Future Coastguard Programme at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and responsible for one of the largest transformations the agency has undergone and Findlay explains the lessons he took from his time and hopes to pass on: “You are trying to make major changes to the way you operate, but the safety of people is at the forefront of everyone’s thinking. It was the one unifying force, that unity kept everyone very focused and the  same falls true when you look at the NHS or education. You have to keep that unity of purpose around that service when drawing up these changes.”

Duncan is inspired by new models being used in New Zealand where “you have entitlements rather than benefits” and often pre-empts the needs of citizens rather than awaiting a request for help.

“Some of the more devolved structures are allowing people to have that more involved thinking, but it is hugely constrained by the institutions and the vested interests of peoples jobs,” Beale says of the vote for mayors in cities such as the midlands and Manchester earlier in 2017.

CIO’s position

As former CIOs and CTOs all four know the challenge the CIO faces in organisations, some of which are self inflicted.

“Corporate IT has been built around the idea that technology is rare and difficult to use and the simple truth is that it is not anymore, but the delivery models remain in that way of thinking,” Duncan challenges. “The best thing technology departments can do is just get out of the way.” Fishenden agrees, telling the podcast of examples of CIOs not being seen by permanent secretaries and CEOs as “an integral way of changing the organisation”.

With data becoming key to delivering new digital operating models, the Stance group of CIOs believe a debate and role for the CIO in ensuring citizens and consumers have trust in an organisation and its behaviour with data is going to be critical. That trust will be developed not only with good compliant technology, but also transparency.  Findlay, when at HS2, talked of the proposed rail line with a clarity rarely heard from politicians and Findlay believes in a post-referendum UK that may be outside of the EU will require increased transparency.

“We have to have these debates about the economy and about public services and how we will provide for people in the future,” he says.

Beale, whose career includes business technology leadership in the media admits the polarised nature of the major media companies in the UK doesn’t help raise the calibre of debate. “The communications are very tabloid and announcement based policy that is all sound bites,” he says, but Beale believes CIOs and their departments need to bet involved in the debate: “In IT departments there is a huge amount of  knowledge and in those teams there is knowledge about why these things are the way they are now.”

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