by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: CIO Martin Britton reveals his vision for the future at Natural Resources Wales

Jun 30, 201410 mins
Energy IndustryGovernmentIT Leadership

From my childhood, Wales has always drawn me to its mountainous heart, lush forests and rugged coastline; and I’m not alone. The Welsh environment is estimated to be worth £8.8 billion a year by the new organisation tasked with protecting, managing and deriving more revenue from those woods, peaks, fields and beaches. Natural Resources Wales, or in the native tongue Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru is a Welsh government sponsored agency. Formed in April 2013, it’s a single organisation that has subsumed the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales. Over the next 10 years, operating as a single body, it’s expected to save the Welsh public sector £158 million.

Managing a diverse and, without doubt, challenging natural environment means Natural Resources Wales straddles 40-odd regulatory responsibilities, including managing sites of special scientific interest, nuclear compliance, marine licensing, water discharge, rights of way and waste – to name a few. The organisation is also tasked with increasing the revenue Wales derives from its forests, tourism, agriculture and natural resources.

To cover such a rich environment required an IT strategy that would grow quickly, yet be as simple and sustainable as a mountain brook. Martin Britton is the CIO of Natural Resources Wales and met CIO UK at, suitably, Cwmcarn Forest in south Wales. It’s a prime example of the recent past and future opportunities for Wales and Britton’s employers.

Business opportunity

Cwmcarn Forest Drive features a mountain lodge-style café and visitor centre, masses of car parking and gym-style changing areas, all of which are there for the acres of forest and mountainside that’s used for commercial forestry, as well as mountain biking and walking. Purpose-built sustainable mountain bike trails ensure the centre is busy all year round. Having been there in all weathers and seasons, I’ve never failed to see large groups of outdoor addicts riding, walking and spending.

“We have an economic responsibility to drive economic growth,” CIO Britton explains as he and I sit in the bustling café and enjoy a brew.

“We take an ecosystem approach that we’re part of the food, water and air that everyone requires, including the economy, and enjoys. We’re the only body in the world where these are all combined.”

On the bright sunny day we met, the harsh floods of the winter of 2014 are a distant memory, but Wales, like so many parts of the country, suffered – and Britton says it was the first real test of the department and it performed well.

“The team we have responded well, and it’s a strong and spirited body,” he says, explaining how important this is due to the diversity of roles the organisation performs.

“We use outcomes and are very target driven, and there’s a vision of what we want Wales to look like,” he explains. “We’ve done the same in IT and we have a five year road map, but it lives and breathes, so it can change as the technology does, which means the plan must. IT is the beating heart of the organisation, we can’t plant a tree without the use of IT.”

To merge a set of agencies and standardise their IT into a single, cost-effective estate in a year was a mountain to climb. “A lot of the systems were old and had to be paired back. Key to the change has been to take our people along for the journey and get them involved in designing the new systems,” he reveals. This also enabled Britton to avoid using a large systems integrator, something he was keen to do.

“We use agile methods and we make sure the business is well represented in decisions. Sometimes they need help to interpret what they want, so we work up prototypes and that really works well for the organisation.

“We also do a lot of communications so people can travel along the change curve more easily. The help desk has been kept in-house and that’s been a rewarding experience as they’re colleagues and care about the organisation – and we’ve been told how much it’s valued.

Cloud computing

“We are analysing our applications to see how many we need and in what format. If we can, we port them on to the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. When the organisation formed, it had 1,000 applications and we found we didn’t need 300 of them and we’re still going through the list,” Britton explains.

Currently, Britton has an IT budget of £22m, with an OPEX of £5m, but the £22m includes the cost of transition to a single organisation and the young CIO says the £5m OPEX is “a substantial saving”.

“We are fortunate that the CEO Dr Emyr Roberts sees the value of IT,” Britton says of the boss he followed over from the Department of Education. “We are a model and Welsh Qualifications is looking at our IT model. When we set up IT, the plan was do things a bit differently. We are the first public sector body entirely on Microsoft Office 365, and I want us to be totally cloud based with a minimal data centre footprint.

“We are equipping the staff with rugged tablets using Vodafone and EE wireless networks, some of our vehicles have antenna to send and receive data in dead spots. It’s a challenging and rugged environment in Wales,” Britton admits, adding that with partners, the organisation has worked on solutions that accept and use latency.

“Our Outlook only operates when there is a connection. Office 365 works for us in a number of ways, in the office everyone is comfortable with it, but also through the G-cloud we get a competitive pricing model. You can integrate Office 365 with Office 2007 and that makes some of the business change issues invisible.”

Like Barry Smith at architecture leaders Foster and Partners, Britton has found that when organisations need to undergo major change, you need a technology change that is, as he says, invisible and Office 365 fits this bill.

“That was key for us as we were already carrying out a massive amount of change, so we needed to minimise the impact on the user. Half of the organisation is desk based and having consistency was critical. It also provided the connectivity on day one via the cloud for all the organisations joining up,” he explains.

Britton has also taken the Agresso HR and Finance platforms from the G-cloud and is a pioneer in the use of the ESRI geographical information systems (GIS) platform over the cloud.

“For GIS we have shifted all the computing power to the cloud, which means you can use GIS on a tablet device,” he says of the normally power intensive graphical system. “We don’t need big powerful PCs.”

Completing the roll out of the latest technology tools for the organisation, Britton and his team adopted Yammer, the enterprise social media channel. “We rolled Yammer out by stealth by giving it to a few people and then got them to invite their colleagues to use it. Now there is so much knowledge sharing, as it has spread across the organisation. There is an IT support and hydrology communities on it.

“Yammer also gives me a way to get messages out there. It has been one of the key tools for the integration of the organisation as it reflects our ICT ethos of being self-service. 20 years ago people needed a lot of hand holding now we have neighbourhood experts, people who are passionate about something. Which in turn takes the pressure off the help desk and the experts tend not to be in IT.

“The CEO is on Yammer and Twitter. You have to trust your user base to do the right thing,” Britton says of how social tools benefit all levels of the organisation if they are not used as a one way broadcasting channel.

Apprentice scheme

The relationship between Natural Resources Wales and Microsoft goes deeper than just as a significant user of Office 365, the organisation has a Microsoft funded apprenticeship scheme.

“We have nine apprentices on board and we are launching this apprenticeship scheme across the entire public sector in Wales so that there can be an exchange scheme across departments.”

Britton only joined the workforce in 1995, but in 20 years he says he now struggles to see what the opportunities are for the next generation unless CIOs like him create the openings. A poignant issue in Wales which has suffered high levels of unemployment since the demise of heavy industries like mining and steel manufacturing.

“We will build the skills here in the public sector and then companies will come to Wales,” he says. Early in Britton’s career he worked for Israeli insurance software firm FIS, which relocated to Wales from Reading due to a wealth of skills available at that time.

“We are trying to do our bit. The key thing with the apprenticeships is that the government must embrace vendor qualifications. We accept that the apprentices will leave and that is great as it means there are more skilled people in Wales. We have already found keen youngsters, especially in North Wales where there were limited opportunities. We did not look at base skills, but instead looked for optimism and an attitude that was keen,” he says.

Britton reports to the chief executive of Natural Resources Wales and he’s been in the public sector since August 2007 when he joined the Welsh Assembly working on solution design, before moving to the Department for Education and Skills as an Enterprise Architect and joined Natural Resources Wales in December 2012. Prior to joining the public sector Britton had a financial services technology providers angle to his career with stints at FIS, National Australia Group and CMS Info Systems.

“What you learn from the private sector is pace and you are always chasing value for money. You use that pace, so that the organisation can develop.

“At the Department for Education and Skills I felt fortunate, and I’d never felt that before as I had never had that feeling of sense of achievement that what we are doing is worthwhile and I do think education is worthwhile,” he says of how he has become attached to the public sector. It is clear throughout the interview though that the need to have ‘pace’ has never left Britton and he enthuses about achievements of his team.

Chasing value for money has been a public sector mantra and need since the world economy ground to a halt in 2008 as a result of the credit crisis. With only limited sectors and communities showing a slight ease in economic conditions the need for public sector CIOs to create pace from little resource remains. Britton is fortunate to be working in the Welsh public sector, which clearly sees the need to revise the way the public sector operates. The Welsh Assembly should be saluted for merging its various environmental and resources departments into a single body. Across England, local authorities and other government bodies continue to operate the same structures as they have done for 30 to 40 years, while central government shows no appetite or spine for tackling this and reimagining how the public sector operates. Instead, it inflicts budget cuts without a vision for how the UK can modernise and deliver great quality services to the public that pay for them.

As a former member of mountain rescue, Natural Resources Wales is a good fit for CIO Britton. Today, he still enjoys walking the mountains of his homeland, but a young family keeps him closer to home where he can indulge his other passion, classic Japanese cars.