Failing to deliver an excellent customer experience will leave enterprises and organisations needing to justify their approach. We caught up with Chief Digital and Information Officer for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Tom Read, who discusses the end-user experience and how the CIO plays a vital role.
The Ministry of Justice, a ministerial department of the British Government headed by the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, specialises in criminal justice, civil justice, family justice, courts, tribunals, prisons, probation, democracy, and constitution.
Chief Digital and Information Officer for the Ministry of Justice, Tom Read, covers the importance of versatility in his role, as well as utilising technology to enhance the customer experience, among other points of discussion.
An overview of Tom Read’s role within the organisation
The Ministry of Justice is one of the largest employers in the UK, with more than 70,000 people in 900 buildings. We operate 500 courts and tribunals, and look after around 83,000 offenders in 121 prisons in England and Wales. Our mission is an unusual one as people usually come to use our services when something has gone very wrong in their lives: they might be a victim of crime and are seeking justice; or perhaps they are getting a divorce and need the courts to decide who has custody of the children.
My team runs the core IT services across the department, making sure users from front-line Prison Officers to court clerks and case workers all have modern, reliable and flexible technology. We also ensure our more than 700 complex systems are securely hosted, patched and well maintained.
I also lead on the digital strategy for the department. For many organisations, this would mean channel shift for competitive advantage, but we are very much a monopoly service: people don’t have a choice about whether to use our services. Our mission is to relentlessly focus on the experience of the end-user and make it as easy as possible for them to get what they need from the justice department.
The importance of versatility as a CIO
Versatility is vital. The days of looking after big contracts and data centres are thankfully disappearing. Instead, a progressive CIO should be expert in emerging technology, cybersecurity, data protection, user experience, as well as the more traditional spheres of customer service and supplier management. These are very different disciplines and require a versatile set of skills and approaches.
Equally important is being able to recognise when times are moving on and to drop some long-held assumptions. Earlier in my career I focused on rigour in planning and delivery: establishing a plan and sticking to it. In the past five years, my approach has almost entirely shifted to running long-lived multidisciplinary agile teams and favouring an iterative delivery approach. Similarly, good data analytics was once large relational databases with data analysis tools layered on top; now the MoJ has data scientists who are R developers and experts in AWS.
My biggest challenge is prioritisation and more specifically, how we balance investment in digital-driven business transformation against getting the basics right. We suffered a major IT outage in January this year and this has sharpened our focus on ensuring our basic systems and services are resilient and recoverable. Like many organisations, we have built up a tremendous amount of technical debt in our legacy systems and we need to start paying this down.
Attracting and retaining talent is another major challenge as we can’t always pay top market rates in government. We make up for this by making sure that we offer flexible working for our people and foster a positive and inclusive environment. Through this, we are finding that people will miss out on a small salary uplift as their quality of life is so much better. It also means we are attracting a much more diverse workforce which is making the services we build much more effective.
The biggest IT achievements for the organisation over the past year
In the last 12 months we have transferred 38,000 staff onto modern Windows 10 and O365. This is huge progress not only because it’s faster and simpler to use, but because people are now able to work more flexibly in terms of location. That is so important for people’s work-life balance and allows staff with families to balance pressures.
We have also made good progress in our mission to move all of our systems to the public cloud. We have now moved many services to AWS and Azure, which saves money from the public purse, as well as massively improving deployment times for our developers.
On the software development side, we have been adopting the ‘strangler pattern’ to replace some of our biggest monolithic applications. Instead of trying to replace them in one go, we are building small microservices connected via APIs and delivering value to the users iteratively. This approach is working well as it demonstrates progress to the business and allows them to prioritise services of the highest value. In the prison space, this has real-life impact on safety and security.
Utilising technology to enhance the customer experience
Technology is rarely, if ever, the sole answer to better customer experience. Layering technology platforms over broken processes just leads to users frustrated by a digital process rather than a paper one. Instead, we focus on designing whole services based on the needs of end-users. Frequently this will include digital or technology solutions. Central to this approach is early and constant user testing. We have a strong and growing user research profession in MoJ: specialists who combine quantative and ethonographic approaches to understanding what users really need, rather than what they want.
Current IT challenges throughout Europe
Neatly side-stepping the challenge of Brexit, most European CIOs I speak to share similar challenges. Data architecture is one: we have so much valuable data locked up in monolothic systems that are expensive and difficult to change. This is compounded by a second challenge of compliance with GDPR, again requiring changes to legacy systems.
Cybersecurity is a constant threat, especially in government. We have had to adapt quickly to develop a new security team to address this threat, moving away from the old assurance model to a much more technical and proactive one. We now recruit ethical hackers into our ‘red team’ to go out and find our vulnerabilities before anyone else does.
On the plus-side, things that were hard 10 years ago are so much easier now. We don’t need to worry about servers, storage and capacity management. SaaS software like Google Apps and Microsoft 365 updates itself in the background without us having to give it too much thought.
An important career lesson
The late Steve Jobs famously said: ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do’. Learning how to put aside control and learn to act as a servant-leader is the most important lesson I’ve learned. If you hire brilliant and diverse teams and give them a clear mission, you will deliver amazing results. I am endlessly awed by the brilliance of our people in MoJ Digital and Technology.
Advice for aspiring CIOs
Start with user needs before even thinking about solutions. Organisations waste enormous amounts of money building systems and features no one asked for, or that solve the wrong problem. Speak to users, deliver services iteratively and test constantly.