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Automation and the CIO: ‘There are no shortcuts or easy answers’

Creating digital change with advanced technology and third parties can be challenging—but when success starts, the business will want even more

by Gary Flood

At the recent CIOFEST CIO conference Martin Bellamy, one of the UK’s most experienced public sector IT leaders, shared some top tips for lasting project achievement.

Whether it involves ambitious use of advanced technologies or not, if you’re serious about a program of digital transformation you need to focus on not data or systems, but about helping the business work in a better way.

And that’s advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about: Martin Bellamy, an extremely senior UK IT civil servant who led a huge program of change at the nation’s Pension Service in 2003 to 2008, and who has also been a CIO at the UK’s financial regulator, the FCA, and even Cambridge University.

“There are no shortcuts or easy answers,” Bellamy told fellow CIOs at the British ‘stage’ of March 15th’s Data Economy-focused ‘CIOFEST’, the 2022 global user conference of CIO membership organization CIONET.

Bellamy shared several best practice tips in the session on everything from that Pension Service project, which reduced the time needed to grant the £80bn worth of UK state pensions awarded annually from six weeks to 20 minutes, to affecting positive cultural change in an organization.

These tips are also, we have no doubt, being used in his new challenge—leading the IT part of what could be a multi-billion pound ‘Restoration & Renewal’ project at the Houses of Parliament (the full bill won’t be known until plans are finalized next year).

Successful deployment of technology to achieve success

“Starting with the areas we want to drive improvement and working back is always a good approach,” he said.

“Culture does come up a lot, but in my experience, you change the culture by finding examples of success that other people then want to come along and be part of.”

Successful deployment of technology to achieve that success is also, of course, what being a CIO must be about. Bellamy’s main job at The Pension Service was to transform a heavily bureaucratic environment addicted to paper, hours-long phone calls with applicants, and 100 different job roles into something a modern economy would recognize.

That involved turning the whole process into one based on data, he said. “Handling the pension claim instead became about having all the information relevant to that pensioner in one place and at the point of them calling, so that jobs ceased to be about understanding the technical complexities of the benefits system and became focused on delivering customer service,” he said. That also involved sn emphasis on reaching out to the poorest pensioners and helping ensure they got their full entitlements to means-tested top-ups—work, he said, that required all the basis to be “completely automated” and all workflows based around one identified, an applicant’s unique National Insurance number.

Other steps Bellamy introduced were predictive tools to try and accurately predict (and resource for) the volumes of people retiring in each week. The result is a new three-layer, five information flow-based system delivered by a complex partnership between his team and BT, EDS (now HP) and Accenture. Bellamy also had some advice on how CIOs should look to manage such external contractor relationships for maximum return:

“I remember a conversation with one of the UK heads of one of our suppliers who was clearly unhappy at the extent to which we were taking a hands-on approach,” he recalled.

“They said, ‘Look, you’ve paid us to deliver technology at a fixed price and so you need to back off, let us do our bit, and we will tell you when it’s ready.’

“That quickly became a very robust conversation, because it was 100% clear to me as CIO of that organization that my accountability was to the board–and beyond the board to the pensioners of the country to make sure their pensions would be paid. So just because we’ve incentivized delivery performance through paying for outputs does not mean for a moment, we’ve outsourced our accountability for the outcomes. We still have that accountability, and we can never outsource that, so I’m going to get as close to it as I need to give myself the assurance that the supply ecosystem is going to allow us to achieve those outcomes.”

Keeping faith in positive outcomes

The good news was that through that process, a mutual understanding was built up between all parties that the transformation was a shared endeavor that had to be based on shared success.

In terms of overall design of digital transformation projects, Bellamy believes that any substantial data program may benefit from a ‘hub ans spoke’ model. What that looks like in practice, he went on, is building a central team of those creating the new analytic enablers reporting to the CIO. “In this model, the hub can give you the tooling and the expertise, but in terms of getting the real high value insights and making them work, that must be the CIO engaging the practitioners doing the jobs that really matter to the organization. They understand how the business is done–generally better than the CIO team will–but they don’t often have the expertise in data analytics. So, look to end up with a model where data science teams are working in the business with the full support of everybody and access to data and tooling that the center can bring, but driving from within the business. And be prepared to experiment!”

Patience is also going to help, he added—pointing out at both his Cambridge and FCA projects, it took more than a year before the first successes came in. But, he added, when the successes came in at both of those organizations, “They were truly magical moments, where the team realized the discoveries, they’d made in terms of how-to driving value from data wasn’t about kind of making things just 20 or 30 or 50% better, valuable though that level of improvement would have been–it was more like two orders of magnitude improvements in what could be done.”

Even better, he promised, once you find those successes, enthusiasm becomes infectious. “It can feel like you’re pushing a very large boulder up a very steep hill, and if you if you relax for a moment, it will roll down and crush you, and you’ll be accused of wasting an enormous amount of money and achieving nothing. So, you’ve got to keep pushing, and sooner it gets over the top–and then the feedback across the business suddenly becomes, ‘Why can’t you go faster?’”

See also

Global demand for data scientists means big salaries for talented young people, but headaches for CIOs

Photo: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Read more on government and automation in the CIONET-report The Automation Governance Playbook: Practical Advice for Managing Your Automation Roadmap


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