Megan Lee Devlin (left and Jo Farrar Credit: CDDO Image below:Crown Copyright/Open Government License v3.0
You could say that Jo Farrar and digital go way back.
So much so that early in her public service career she was there when "the first office computer came - and it had to be shared by 20 people".
After four years in the Ministry of Justice – most recently as second permanent secretary, a role he for a time combined with that of executive director of Her Majesty's Correctional Services – Farrar can look back and assess profound changes. then in the government's use of technology. As well as some areas where progress may have been slower.
The Central Digital and Data Office – which grew out of sister agency Government Digital Service in 2021 – was created to help deliver this momentum by leading the transformation across departments. This includes leading the government's digital, data and technology profession and overseeing the creation and implementation of Transforming for a Digital Future, the government's three-year digital strategy published a year ago.
ODownload the digital leadersis a series of interviews brought to you by CDDO andPublic technology, where the government unit's chief executive, Megan Lee Devlin, will speak to a wide range of senior public service leaders.
After presenting the series last week withand medical interview Lee Devlin– discussing CDDO's work to measure and deliver great service and help eliminate legacy IT risks – Jo Farrar reunites with Lee Devlin for the first download of Digital Leaders.
The former head of the Ministry of Justice, who has recently moved into a new role as chief executive of NHS Blood and Transplant, discusses the transformative impact of technology on prisons, how digital is helping to eliminate case backlogs and why "innovation is not always about creating new things".
Megan Lee Devlin:What does it mean to you to be a 'digital leader'?
Jo Farrar:This means being a role model, making sure to encourage people to innovate, using digital to think differently about how they design their services – especially operational services – to make the most of the technology we have now, and just encourage that enthusiasm.
MLD:What excites you most about the role digital and data are playing in transforming government?
JF:Through Covid I ran the Correctional Service and the new digital technology was one of the things that really helped us get through Covid and save lives. We were able to do things differently in a completely constrained environment. Just seeing the role digital would play – and new technology could play – was transformative. When it comes to data, it was just important to understand what was happening, what we could do and what would make a difference. There are exciting opportunities as we advance our technologies and the way we collect and use data. We can do much more than before.
MLD:I've heard you talk before about how you use technology in prisons, about connecting inmates with their families, that side of relationship and connection. Is this the biggest benefit you've seen during the pandemic?
JF:There were many advantages. A particularly significant example comes to mind that has to do with visiting prisoners. During the pandemic, we could not allow visitors. Prisoners can be worried when they cannot see the people who are important to them, so we have introduced digital visits. We actually kept it running. So people whose families can't visit can still connect. We also started digital video hearings for the courts. Not having to escort someone to court for preliminary hearings when you might just go and provide basic information saves time and money. This avoids stress for everyone involved, including the prisoner. You'll probably ask me this later – what's my favorite technology? – the introduction of technology in prison cells has just been a game changer as it allows prisoners to take responsibility for some of their own problems, freeing up staff time to deal with the things that are really important. This has been transformative.
MLD:I imagine you've seen that, not just improved efficiency and the day-to-day operational work, but improved results if you help people through in-cell technology to train.
JF:We are developing the technology to include education, so it can be an extension of workshops or more formal education in prisons. But the prisoners can also order things they need and can make appointments. All things they would have to wait to see a member of staff for. So when they need to talk to a prison officer, it can be to talk about the things that are really important.
MLD:It's such a powerful example, in-cell technology. What is your favorite new technology that could powerfully transform the way we as a government do business?
JF:In-cell technology has great potential, but we've also experimented with things like virtual reality for training to give people the experience of being in prison or working elsewhere. I think there is some potential here. We haven't introduced that yet, but it's something we're thinking about.
MLD:Is it training MoJ colleagues in empathy and understanding of what the prison experience is like?
JF:We could use that for that. We are primarily considering using it for new recruits. Before you are recruited, you can understand what the working environment is like, what prisons are like. It's a different environment for people, so giving people an immersive experience can be really helpful. Like I said, we're not there yet, but I think this could be something for the future, helping people with their training and development.
MLD:With virtual reality the possibilities are huge and the technology is there and it's really just a matter of making the most of it. We could use it on a large scale in the DfE around the way we embed training into our core education systems. Great opportunity there.
JF:Last week we worked with colleagues in India on judicial reform. We could see how they introduced AI to predict and use data in a different way. We have much to learn from others.
MLD:Absolutely, also on the political side; we just went this morning and talked about ChatGPT with colleagues: what is our guidance on using this in government? When you think about it, it's the most amazing research tool for people at their fingertips, and you can ask them to create your code that you can copy, paste and run, with this huge amount of tools at your fingertips.
JF:Without having to sift through thousands and thousands of documents, you can find all the cases that may be relevant to the decision you are making. Just another example of something that could be quite exciting.
MLD:What has your department achieved through data and digital data over the past 6-12 months that you are particularly proud of and how has it had a positive impact on the public?
JF:The Office of Public Guardian (OPG) used technology to help reduce their backlog, I think that's a good example. It is very important for the public to have a continuous proxy resource and ensure that requests are handled quickly. The way the Office of the Public Guardian has used innovative approaches to reduce its backlog is outstanding, and OPG is the first Department of Justice to remediate all of its technical debt.
The introduction of technology in prison cells has just changed the game as it allows prisoners to take responsibility for some of their own problems, freeing up staff time to deal with the things that are really important. This has been transformative.
MLD:And they did that by turning to more modern technologies…
JF:And redesigning their processes as well, not just putting technology in the way they've always done things, but redesigning processes and moving from more outdated systems to a fit-for-purpose system. I think it was brilliant.
MLD:This is a huge achievement and one that we should share more widely in our DData community because not many organizations have achieved this.
JF:It is one of the few that has and has done well. And it's an important service to the public, so you can see the difference it makes. It is as simple as using high-tech scanners to automate processes, just having a modern system is already very positive.
MLD:Fantastic! I spoke with Doug Gurr yesterday who is now at the Natural History Museum. It was previously on Amazon. He joins our Digital and Data Council. I asked him how they use technology at the museum and one of the interesting things was a scanning technology that catalogs their 80 million artifacts, gets dimensions, reads the handwriting of Victorian collectors, even the most basic technology still has huge files. .
JF:We must remember that innovation is not always about creating new things, it is about thinking about what we have and how we can use it to solve an existing problem and improve it so that it works well.
MLD:Something I feel quite passionate about, this is just a side note, but just to check if this resonates, in government we are very good at doing new things digitally and well, but actually we very rarely achieve some of these big transformations to our existing things, which is really difficult because you have to prioritize, streamline processes, do these big, complex change programs to really see them, and it takes three, four, five years. I guess that's it, I hope this senior public service engagement also helps them understand that digital isn't just for the new stuff, but there are ways you can do what you're already doing better , faster and more efficiently. OPG is amazing - really impressive. But what is the lesson you learned when things may not have gone so well?
JF:I think we struggle with some of our systems because they are so old. If you take the Legal Aid Agency for example, we have 86 different legal aid systems, and every time there is a change, we have to manually add data to all these systems. For me, having outdated systems and not being able to redesign processes makes it very complex. One of the lessons I've learned is that we need to keep updating the technology and make sure we don't do something once and think it's done. We should think about smaller investments to make sure we keep things up to date and don't end up with a big legacy problem.
MLD:Do you think it's a problem for SCS – for all SCS – to be on top of their legacy, which is technical debt? I had a couple of conversations with SCS and they said to me, 'I can meet my CDO [chief digital officer] to talk about this,' when they actually own the systems, it's part of their ecosystem on their team. So I ask myself, how can we be sure that we reinforce that message; a core competency of being a modern civil servant is understanding what legacy debt is, what technology debt is.
JF:Now we live in an environment where technology is more influential, able to help us. As public servants, we must understand this. We need to know how to use it, understand how it can help us, but also how it can hinder us. The digital director is there to facilitate us and help us improve, but they won't always have the understanding of the services, so it's up to SCS to think about what outcomes we're trying to achieve and talk to our digital teams on how we can use digital and data to be able to transform our systems so that they give us the results we want. That is what we individually own as SCS: we own the results.
MLD:I recently attended a retailer roundtable of CEOs and there were all the big tech companies: Google, Microsoft, Amazon, but lots of EYs and so on. Alex Chisholm [permanent cabinet secretary] was chairman and he asked, 'What's the difference between how you work with government and how you work with the private sector?' And almost unanimously, they said that the private sector always pushes us much more on digital, while we are not fluent when talking to government colleagues. They don't pressure us. We can take our legacy technology off the shelf and they'll still be happy. There is the piece of smart customer service that has been missing. I wonder how we understand this. Is there a bit of concern that 'I'm not fluent in this subject so I don't want to talk about it'?
JF:In the public service, people accept outdated technology in a way that you simply wouldn't in other organizations. To be honest, the next generation of senior officials is used to using technology and will have different expectations, so I think people need to talk about it and become more fluid.
MLD:You don't need to know how generative AI works, but what you do need to know is to ask good questions: What new technologies are you thinking of to transform this service? Do we use agile working methods? Really just simple questions that help teams understand. I actually have to make this innovative and the expectation is there.
JF:Exactly. Or just presents a problem. Having a number of people, including people who really understand digital, asking: how do we solve this problem? How can digital really help us with that? Something that seems prohibitive, but where there might be a digital solution that none of us have thought of. I think we used that kind of thinking during Covid and we need to make sure we still do.
MLD:What do you hope the government has achieved by 2025?
JF:2025 is not far away. As you said, it takes a few years to really transform, but I think if we can get enthusiasm and curiosity and see the early benefits and benefits of the things we are doing now and have examples to show where a lot we've transformed through digital, I think I'd be very happy about that.
MLD:Absolutely, and some shining examples of how to do things right. You might be interested to know that we do our top 75 transformation work. It shows that about 15% of our services are great, but what we've done is support us and support some of the services where they've said, 'We just need a little help, can you come and work together with us?' They are really open to what was great to see. We work with the adoption service as part of the top 75 transformations and what we found is that local adoption is obviously the approach used in the UK, but we've brought it down to a regional level. We can save £600m, which is an incredible amount of money, by equalizing supply and demand across regional areas. And it's just following the existing strategy that's in place, but with a thin digital layer that connects local authorities, encourages them to share data and get children out of the care system and into foster care. The results are simply extraordinary. These are the kind of use cases where we can show how powerful it is and what effect it can have.
Finally a more personal question, can you tell us a bit about your career so far to become a digital leader and what advice would you give to other women considering a career in DDaT?
JF:I started in civil service and public service at a time when digital was not a factor. Everything was on paper. We had our first computer in the office and it was transported and we had to share it with 20 people. Then I saw the massive transformation and it really excites me.
MLD:What did it do?
JF:The first computer? Not a lot! We put a lot of data into it and probably store it somewhere. But it didn't really give me anything back. We've moved from mass processing paper files to where we are now where we can actually do things that are truly transformative. You talked about welcoming innovations, so I became a digital leader to make a difference for people. I have seen how things were before and how they could be and I see that there is so much more potential to embrace. That's what excites me, and that's why I think it's important. Therefore, all SCS must be enthusiastic, involved and curious. If I can do it, as someone who didn't grow up with technology, then there's no excuse for anyone else, right?! All careers should be open to all. This is an exciting area to get involved in.
PublicTechnology will be publishing much more in our downloadable digital executive interview series in the coming weeks and months, with exclusive conversations between Megan Lee Devlin and senior leaders including HMRC Chief Executive Jim Harra, Permanent Secretary for the Home Office, Matthew Rycroft and Cat Lidt of HM Treasury, head of the government's finance function.
That nowher i vores interview med Lee Devlin– including information on how to eliminate departments' biggest legacy risks, unlocking £8bn of technology investment and the launch so far of the government's three-year digital strategy.