HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer Jacky Wright is on a mission to help the behemoth of government move at the pace of the digital era, and understand the role it plays in a society driven by new technologies.
The former CIO at BP and General Electric, Wright made the move to Whitehall in October 2017 on a secondment from her role as a corporate vice president at Microsoft, taking over from interim Mike Potter who took up a new post as the Director for Future Borders.
HMRC completed the insourcing of the organisation’s IT away from the lengthy, £10 billion Aspire contract in July 2017, coming full circle from what she described as “an almost wholly outsourced IT organisation”.
“It’s a lot of work to insource a large, multi-year, multi-million pound contract and organisation,” she said. “To insource that, to be able to now effectively run your organisation, you own it, and you run it – you determine what gets done in a way that you didn’t before.
“It takes a different capability, a different focus, a different organisational structure, a different interaction with our suppliers and partners. Frankly, just a different mindset. We’ve been on this journey.
“This transformation journey is about how do you enable an organisation to quickly get command of its remit, put operating mechanisms in place that enable you to own and operate, and then make sure you engender an organisation and a culture that you want for the future.”
Overseeing a team of around 4,000 and a technology budget of closer to £1bn than it is half a billion in a 65,000-strong department, Wright outlined HMRC’s transformation journey and the mission to make it a world-class organisation – much of it driven by developing a new internal capability and operating model in the post-Aspire landscape.
Speaking to CIO UK in Whitehall, Wright said that while most of the IT companies involved in the outsourcing contract still were involved with HMRC, a new tone was being set based on partnership and collaboration rather than a transactional relationship based on delivering to a contract.
“It’s completely broken up,” Wright said. “However, the majority of the suppliers who provided the service are still in play. They do still provide a great deal of our services that they did before.
“But before they owned it and ran it for us, and today we’re looking at something different; we’re looking for them to really partner with us and help us understand what we need to do to reduce our operating cost, to become more agile.
“It’s becoming a true partnership, versus an order-taking relationship, which I think has been historically, for the most part, the way our partners have worked with us.”
Creating “an ecosystem where there are more players” was also cited as part of the equation, with Wright adding that as a public organisation HMRC had a responsibility to work with SMEs and startups.
“I think it’s critical for us to make sure that our SMEs are part of the ecosystem, in a more profound way,” she said.
New operating model
As well as changing the way HMRC works with its technology partners, Wright said that a new operating model and culture would have to support those changes to facilitate an important part of the transformation of the organisation.
Focusing on outcomes and citizen needs rather than delivering IT projects was becoming the new normal.
“We were somewhat project-centric in our design of our organisation,” she said of HMRC’s recent history, rather than its recent CIOs who unpicked the Aspire deal. “We need to be more customer-centric, outcome-based, business outcome-based, focused on really understanding and building depth and capability in what we do, to deliver a public service for the country.”
A Londoner but having spent a significant period of her career in the US, Wright’s assessment of the machinations of government was that a strong project management capability had dominated because of the requirement to run large scale projects.
While that was fit for purpose in the old world, the desire now was to build deep core capabilities in areas around tax collection, with business acumen and the technology nous to deliver better services to UK taxpayers.
Changing the culture of the organisation was something that was taking place gradually, with communication at the heart of embedding the new ethos.
“I think it’s maturing; it can’t happen overnight,” Wright said. “You have to employ all means to be able to communicate, to engender a culture, and to help people see the art of what’s possible, and what should ‘good’ look like.
“You have to figure out how to communicate. You have to figure out how to create pockets of communities that can be self-directed to create that environment, and then you have to just show and tell – these are the things that we’re doing.”
Facilitating an inclusive, innovative environment is a core tenet of what Wright and HMRC are trying to achieve. Chief Digital and Information Officer Wright is HMRC’s Disability Champion and she sits on the Civil Service Diverse Leadership Task Force.
She said: “As Disability Champion for HMRC, it is really important to me that technology be a vehicle for inclusion, so that no-one is left behind, and we consider everyone in how we provide a service. This is why we are engaging with users and suppliers to find ways to improve our systems and processes so they are truly accessible.”
Innovation from below
By making sure everyone in the organisation can have their voice heard, and that they are able to experiment and fail as long as they don’t bring the department to its knees, Wright and the HMRC leadership know they have the greatest chance of success in solving the organisation’s most complex challenges. As a body funded by the taxpayer, it also has an obligation to be a leader in reflecting the public it serves.
“I characterise government as a large behemoth organisation that needs to move at pace, but also has to understand the role it plays in society,” Wright said. “It has to set the tone, has to set standards because of the nature of the business world. At the same time, we have to be agile. We have to be forward-thinking, proactive.
“We have to be able to experiment. We have to be able to make sure everyone can be part of this organisation, no matter who you are, your experiences, what you bring to the table, your walks of life, orientation, all of those things – and then you have to harness all of that. You have to make sure that everybody can participate and be the best and authentic that they can be.
“You have to create a culture that removes the barriers associated with that. You have to create a culture where people feel free that they’re able to bring their best self to work, which means that we have to be inclusive in how we operate. We have people who have been here four months, and we have people who have been here 40 years. How do you bring those people together to harness the best and make sure that the experiences everybody brings are appreciated and part of the playing field?
“You also have to make sure that people feel comfortable failing, and they can recover. They learn, and they can recover from that. We’re a risk-averse organisation, and rightly so. There’s healthy tension, and there’s a balance between taking a risk where you’re not going to bring down an organisation, but taking a risk to learn and improve on that for the purposes for delivering something in an agile way.
“I look at our executive committee and my CEO, and we are a very diverse top table. That sets the tone. It creates an environment for an inclusive culture. I think it changes the dynamics of who we are as an organisation. My expectation is that everybody walks the talk, and everybody leads by example.”
Former Chief Digital and Information Officer Mark Dearnley told CIO UK in 2015 how decades-old legacy systems were still bringing in hundreds of billions of pounds to the UK Treasury, as desirable as it might have been to move away from such old technologies. Wright said that “performing while you transform” was her priority, with a shift towards cloud services taking place, and one that could always be accelerated.
“Legacy systems need as much routine care as an ageing human being,” she said. “The challenge is how do you move at pace to get rid of it? Because the job they may be doing is great, but as things change, policy changes – and we want to be more agile.
“The people who used to be able to code in COBOL are now retired on a beach somewhere. The challenge for us is, how do you transform at pace, but at the same time, make sure that you’re keeping these things running? For us, that is a quagmire that’s probably bigger than a lot of other organisations, because of the nature of how old some of our systems are.”
Wright said that the department was procuring software and infrastructure as part of her cloud strategy, and that communication was an important aspect of helping HMRC catch up with some other organisations.
“The challenge there is making sure that you can bring people along, to help people understand what this cloud means,” she said. “It is no longer a new, innovative thing. It is now mature, for all intents and purposes. Lots of people are migrating.
“We’re a little bit behind the curve,” Wright added, explaining that it was her desire to move at pace in the cloud migration.
HMRC is pursuing a cloud-agnostic approach, with Wright explaining that cloud interoperability was becoming a requirement to work with the organisation.
“That has to be the nature of what we do. We have a full suite of cloud providers, and that is the strategy. It has to be an ecosystem, not any one supplier, but a series of suppliers. The ability for interoperability for the full stack is the new way of working.
“What you will also see is that our supply ecosystem, they are becoming more interoperable. They do understand that the ability to sell to HMRC requires you to be able to plug and play. We want the ability to plug and play, to include, and make sure that we have a real ecosystem that is fruitful.”
On a secondment from Microsoft, Wright reiterated that she recused herself from any decisions, cloud and otherwise, involving her previous employer.
“When it comes to commercials around any Microsoft, I’m not engaged,” she said. “The process by which we do this is the same process that we use for everybody else. The difference is, I’m not engaged.”
Indeed, Wright responded to the 2018 CIO 100 that moving the organisation’s tax platform to AWS and utilising its two UK availability zones, having previously been running on two smaller cloud providers, was one of the significant IT projects HMRC had undertaken.
Emerging technology and data science
A member of the 2018 CIO 100, Wright cited artificial intelligence and machine learning as two of the emerging technologies she believed could fundamentally change the way governments administer the tax system.
Wright revisited this concept speaking to CIO UK, saying that as a data-rich organisation AI could have an impact on how HMRC operates and represented a significant opportunity in collecting more revenue and understanding the demographics of society.
“As an organisation we probably have more data than pretty much any other government department,” she said. “I believe that AI and machine learning is probably by far the biggest opportunity for us, in terms of our ability to make data become critical information for us to do a better job of what we do today.”
Segueing to data science, Wright said that she believes in the need for democratising analytics capabilities with tools to empower an entire organisation, as well as espousing benefits that deep experts in the field can provide.
A CIO since the turn of the Millennium, Wright has seen how much the responsibilities and skills portfolio of the Chief Information Officer or equivalent has shifted in the last two decades.
“The CIO role most definitely has changed,” she said. “The fact that every company has become a digital company means that the nature of the discussions at the top table changes as well.
“The nature of the CIO is business-led, technology-informed – whereas before it was technology-led, business-informed. That has been an emerging theme over the past 10 years.
“Who am I, and who do we need to be as a CIO leader? We need to be a business-led leader. A leader who is focused on the business outcomes, understanding the impact of technology to achieve the outcomes, the risks associated with the outcomes, and how you mitigate those risks.
“That, fundamentally, is who we are.”
Beyond technology leadership and becoming business leaders is just the start, Wright said, with CIOs also selling a vision, espousing the art of the possible, and taking their organisations on a journey – often as physical as it is transformational and metaphorical.
“Now, we also have to be able to create the art of what’s possible with technology,” she said.
“I spend a lot of time with my leadership team. We go on road trips to private organisations – the goal is to help open the minds around how other people are doing things.
“We have the same issues and challenges as the private sector. How can we learn more? That is also part of my role: helping bring the organisation along.”
One constant in Wright’s technology leadership tenure is the area of security.
“Security never goes away,” Wright said. “Frankly speaking, security is at the forefront of our agenda and always has to be, because of the nature of who we are. That is also horizontal.
There’s this key focus on not just what we do within HMRC, but across government. I think, in terms of collaborating across government, it’s a key area focus for all of us.”
Like other CIOs who have spoken to CIO UK, Wright does not see information or cyber security as a technical challenge but an education, training and cultural issue.
“But it is also all about a mindset. I’ve communicated this across the organisation, both from a business perspective and an IT perspective, that security is everyone’s business,” Wright said.
As Chief Digital and Information Officer, Wright is also the Senior Information Risk Owner, which covers all aspects of protective, physical, personnel and information security, and said that discussions with the board and executive committee about the subject were “at the forefront of everything”.
“Education is an ongoing process, from the board up, all the way down to the rest of the organisation. This is everyone’s business, but the accountability rests with the leaders of the organisation,” she said.
When Wright sat down with CIO UK she had just recently had a meeting to launch a cross-government CIO group set up to investigate how to exploit new technologies and share best practice. Others involved were GDS leader Kevin Cunnington and the Government’s Chief People Officer, Rupert McNeil, she said, as well as DWP, DCMS and DEFRA, to make sure departments weren’t operating in silos and looking at things like how AI and machine learning will impact on the civil service workforce and the nature of work.
Indeed, asked about the Workplace of the Future to tie in with CIO UK and Computerworld UK‘s research released in September 2018, as well as mentioning the incoming wave of digital technologies which will define the future workplace, Wright discussed values and how it will be imperative to attract and retain staff with meaningful work in an inclusive environment.
“We need to do a better job of telling our story on the purpose, because it’s not just about collecting taxes. It’s about serving our citizens and providing public service. Those things are really important to millennials,” Wright said.
“The ability to affect change and create policy that is conducive to things such as sustainability is really part and parcel of the role of government and taxes, as well.”
At HMRC that involves a new process of performance management in the way it develops Millennials, Wright said.
Diversity and apprenticeships
Wright was particularly looking to HMRC’s apprentices and focusing on developing the diversity of the department to realise the strategy of improving the institution’s capabilities in becoming a world-class organisation. There are more than 1,800 apprentices across HMRC with around 150 of those in digital, and Wright said that her team and the government wanted to be a leader in “making sure that we have effective processes for attracting and hiring talent from all walks of life”.
“We’re really focused on diversity and making sure that we are truly representative. We’re doing a lot to focus on our apprenticeships and our far stream processes,” Wright said.
Wright described Civil Services roles as having the ability to have a real impact on the UK to effect change in a profound way, and having made a conscious switch from the private to the public sector encouraged others not to be put off doing the same.
“Government, in general, is a great place to work. The experience you get, the flexibility you get – these are things that we don’t talk about, and we probably should do a better job of discussing why come to government, and why come to HMRC,” she said.
“If you want an interesting experience in how you affect change in the world, and the things that government does to do that, people should come try it out.”