by Mark Chillingworth

Home Office CTO Sarah Wilkinson interview – New home front

Sep 28, 2015
GovernmentIT Strategy

“There are projects that are too much a continuation of service, rather than new ways of working,” explains Sarah Wilkinson at her Whitehall office. I met the Home Office CTO five months into her new post. She is one of a growing number of business technology leaders to join the civil service from a major role in finance, but unlike many of her public sector peers, Wilkinson deals directly with journalists and feels no need to be surrounded by high-paid PR handlers.

Entering a political hot potato like the Home Office in an election year is probably not the sort of advice a leading CIO search firm would offer.

“The appeal really was that we are creating a technology department where, in a sense, there was not one before,” Wilkinson enthuses. “There’s a huge amount of things that really made that compelling.” The Home Office is a sprawling beast, with 20 functions under its remit, including the Independent Police Complaints Commission, migration and spy committees, all of which require a level of independence.

“The police is understandable to the common man, but I love the breadth and the number of subjects that you can cover. With a lot of the functions, we want to pull them together, as a lot of the time it’s the same data that we are all trying to get to,” the CTO says of the information challenge at the Home Office. “It’s a mountain of opportunity, there are so many things that we can do.”

Wilkinson is responsible for all technology in the Home Office and has direct reports covering technology for immigration, policy, security and counter-terrorism reporting to her. The CTO says a great deal was done in government IT in the previous parliament, led by the coalition government, but adds that the new slight-majority Conservative government has “a massive energy” and it “has gone up a gear”.

“I really like the people and the mission,” she says of her new home.

Home front

Wilkinson adds she is “creating a new technology department”, by which she is not saying our national borders, policing and security services have not had IT. It is the focus and therefore type of IT department that the CTO is developing.

The Home Office ranks alongside HMRC, DWP and others for its fair share of major IT failures and business operational problems. For Wilkinson, the focus is creating a culture of innovation and strong management that will be able to work with suppliers to deliver outcomes and services.

“We will own our design. The design capability means we must have really good business architecture capabilities. So I am trying to make sure I’ve got the right structure here at headquarters,” she says. Wilkinson is direct and honest about the culture of conservatism that has dogged the public sector, and the impact that can have on technology and the adoption of new ways of operating.

“There is a desire to be considered and cautious, which creates the risk-adverse culture and a slowness. We have to find ways of trying out new options and to be braver about how we attack the technology options,” the CTO says.

As part of that culture change, Wilkinson has been pulling in leading CIOs to help. Richard Thwaite, also a veteran of the banking world, but more recently CIO with the Metropolitan Police, is working on the policing technology strategy, while CIO UK’s own Jerry Fishenden, who was instrumental in the Public Administration Committee (PAC) report Government and IT – “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”: Time For A New Approach, which was commissioned by the coalition and some say influenced a lot of the strategy of the Government Digital Service is working part-time with Wilkinson.

“We need core platforms in place, so we are thinking out data centres, hosting, security, middleware and databases,” she says of the foundations. “The capability is in bringing these in and how we integrate them,” the CTO reveals of the way her department’s role is about joining up the Home Office, and using technology to improve the way it operates as unit of government. Wilkinson goes on to explain how the direct reports for immigration, policy and security are tasked with expanding the cross-use of technology, information and services in the classic ‘build once, use many’ system.

“You are far more successful if you take a good platform and leverage it widely. And in this, data standards will be critical,” Wilkinson says.

Home truth

Wilkinson’s ambition to ensure the Home Office is skilled and owns its destiny is an honest appraisal of the situation the PAC Government and IT inquest uncovered – a public sector that had outsourced its problems and didn’t understand how technology could remodel the public sector for the modern lives of those who pay for and use it. The Home Office had gone out to vendors for skills and capabilities, but that leads to a slow pace of change if needs alter and a new model doesn’t suit the vendor’s revenue plans.

“The incentive structure we have had with the large suppliers means innovation is low and there is high risk aversion, so they [the vendors] are safe and stable, but there are huge missed opportunities. Because there is a constant need to adapt, we have to work that much more effectively,” she reveals. The CTO says the replacement of the Airwave emergency services communications network with a commercial network offering is a radical example of the changes taking place.

Wilkinson has a keen eye for how vendor management must be managed as the department moves forward. “I want to be more specific. We must be really clear with what we want, because there is a constant need to adapt, so we need to use that to work more effectively. In the past, we haven’t given our vendors a clear specification of our needs, so they have taken that into their own hands and some have been better than others.

“When I have talked to some of them about getting off our old legacy systems some of them are relieved. Others are not particularly keen on a new CTO landing and busting their party. But the natural process of ‘can we dodge this’ will subside and people will become more open and collaborative,” Wilkinson says of engaging with suppliers. “If you are a vendor that has had a good load of business and then you are thrown into a new environment, some of them will not like it. Some of the vendors are taking ridiculous margins. Some of the big vendors want to work differently and that is valuable. As a CTO, I want extensive flexibility as I know it’s possible and that I can switch tomorrow,” the CTO argues.

“But you can only make good on that when a contract expires. Only in the last year or so have we had that opportunity. There are a few contracts that expire this year and in 2016 and 2017. The incentive structure we have had with the big suppliers meant innovation was low. Now we have to work out where we have good relationships with the big vendors, so it’s pained at the moment,” Wilkinson says.

No government IT discussion can pass without debating the Government Digital Service (GDS), led, until recently, by Mike Bracken. “GDS has smashed ideologies and they have made it possible to rethink government by saying it’s about the relationship with the citizen, which has so many implications and ramifications,” she explains.

SME vendors are important to the GDS vision, especially government CTO Liam Maxwell. Wilkinson agrees: “SMEs are enormously valuable and the big old software houses are good for skills. Government pay means we will be reliant on outsource providers, so we need to get these relations back on to a good track,” she says of how managing the providers from the standpoint of understanding your citizens’ needs and the destiny of the organisation combine with vendor contracts.

Wilkinson is hoping that post-election GDS will play a key role in defining and directing data standards in government.

Banking on success

Wilkinson joined the Home Office from Credit Suisse, where she was Head of Corporate Systems Technology. “There are lots of things that are very different. The relationship with the client, for example – the clients are very clear and demanding about what they want from an outcome. Clients can be masters of their own destiny. My sense here is that there are a lot of other masters,” she says of the different cultures.

“Most of my career has been in investment banking, that is not a cautious world. Investment banking is incredible as a CIO as it’s so diverse and the budgets and staff available. So the excitement is that you can deliver phenomenal technology very fast. But I like the fact that this environment is very different as it challenges you,” Wilkinson says. It is clear from our discussion though the speed, clarity and adaptability experiences of investment banking will be coming to this corner of Whitehall.

“The core capability of understanding the customer will become second nature in IT, I hope,” she says of the changing nature of business technology leadership.

“The segregation of technology and digital is not helpful. There needs to be a single agenda and they need to be tightly integrated. The CDO concept, in my view, was a necessary transition state. There are a lot of new digital capabilities being brought in, mapping, customer journeys, UX and interfaces,” she says.

As Wilkinson strengthens the leadership team and skills of the Home Office, the pressures on the department mount as terrorism arrests reach record highs, the nation and in particular the Prime Minister struggle with the enormity of the refugee crisis, and our borders remain porous from an excessive number of agencies policing them.