“We have to think of our customers being every citizen in New Zealand. They expect government to be gaining the same insights from data they can gain themselves and use them to improve their lot.”
For Chris Buxton, chief digital officer at Statistics New Zealand, this perspective has impacted the way he and his team have been working with the rest of the senior management to deliver on the agency’s goal of “unleashing the power of data to change lives”.
There is a growing recognition that data can be used to change lives, he says, and that by analysing social indicators, “we can target government activities to solve many of the underlying social challenges we face.”
As he explains, the traditional model at the central government agency is to produce a small number of highly accurate statistics that support the country. These include major indicators such as the national balance of payments, the consumer price index and other social indicators.
“There is a growing tension in this world as the use of data is expanding, to become a core capability of every business. This is disrupting our operating model,” explains Buxton, who stepped up to his current role after being chief technology officer for three years at Statistics.
Before that, he was the CIO at the Government Communications Security Bureau, New Zealand’s foreign intelligence agency.
Working with the rest of the senior management at Statistics, Buxton became involved in the next steps and what are the capabilities and services they can provide to change lives.
He says he and his team took a step back and identified the activities where ICT had a major contribution to make. They held a series of workshops to look at what ICT had to do to enable key change initiatives identified by the agency. The exercise led them to create a new vision statement for ICT: “Partnering to deliver customer value through innovation.”
They identified and implemented a series of design principles including open shared data, lean enterprise and the digital workspace. They then implemented a new operating model, establishing a DevOps operating environment and enabling co-located multidisciplinary teams. “This has grown a far more customer focused culture that is delivering key benefits.”
The organisational structure was previously built along traditional technology silos that was restricting agility and limiting collaboration, he says. The restructure established co-located multi disciplinary teams, established around Digital services. To emphasis the change. the group was renamed and rebranded from “IT Solutions” to a new group “Digital Business Services”.
“We saw immediate operational benefits as teams took ownership of key services, making operation delivery far simpler with straightforward accountabilities.”
Building a template for shared services
Statistics is leading the delivery of a new shared government building being constructed in the revitalised Christchurch central business district – The Christchurch Integrated Government Accommodation (CIGA) Programme. This is part of the rebuild of the Christchurch central business district following the 2011 earthquake. In that role we are supporting nine agencies in a single shared building. “We were being asked to deliver a forward thinking solution that enabled all agencies while minimising costs,” says Buxton.
Buxton had done a similar build in Pipitea House for the NZ Intelligence Community when he was CIO of GCSB. “I knew what was required to deliver a shared building in a secure way. The model though was different to current practices so needed to be sold.
The usual government share model is a co-tenancy model with each tenant having their own segregated areas and supporting ICT. This usually increase costs as each agency has their own cabling solutions, printing and meeting room allocations.
In this building though we wanted to sell the government vision of shared accommodation with integrated services, says Buxton. To achieve that though each agency had to let go of some of their capability. They had to support the fully shared model.
The innovative model required the implementation of Telecommunication as a Service (TaaS) and a common shared network, with wireless as the primary medium, again something that had never been done across government.
TaaS was a twinkle in the Government CIO’s eye at the time, so we had to get all agencies over the line to commit to the adoption of a network solution they knew nothing about, and wouldn’t until just a few weeks of moving in, due to the contract timelines established by GCIO.
The building system went live in February 2016, with eight agencies moving within two weeks. “All were operational within hours of moving in.”
“We have continued to influence the environment to sell the model and ideas,” says Buxton. He says the model has also been implemented in their Wellington office, supporting the co-location with the Ministry of Transport. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, leading the next CIGA building to go live with the Department of Conservation, has recently been integrated. the Christchurch Justice precinct and the Auckland Policy office are also currently planning adoption of the solution, he says.
This architecture has enabled Statistics New Zealand to be fully operational in its new premises following the November 2016 earthquakes.
One floor of the building had collapsed, but they were able to resume operations in their new premises very quickly by using this model.
Each office location took roughly two days to be set up and connected to the shared services, compared to several weeks under the old model. “This means we can support more staff at lower cost, taking less resources that can then be redirected to innovation,” he states.
He says the agency has created an innovation website where they share some of their latest projects, services and research. The public is encouraged to provide feedback “so we can learn what worked and what didn’t and make changes accordingly”.
Balancing BAU with innovation
Buxton says the team has implemented a series of activities that take staff away from BAU activities to concentrate on innovation. These range from five day focus activities to “12 week accelerators”.
A recent focus group tackled ways to improve the safety of field staff. This was a multidisciplinary team composed of IT and business personnel to explore the safety of their staff who collect data on the field.
We also have innovation days where different teams are asked to solve customer problems, he says. These have resulted in solutions that have delivered improved services including the ability for users to self-manage email groups and data access.
We also hold customer focus days concentrating the entire IT group on resolving customer calls. These tended to be the lower priority items that never bubble to the top and so tend never to be resolved. A recent event succeeded in resolving 297 requests and created an improved energy across IT, says Buxton.
Buxton meets every week with his peers at Statistics and government agencies, regularly with the executive leadership team and has regular discussions with the chief executive.
“By principle, I try to avoid having a separate technical discussion,” he states. “The focus always comes back to the business outcome and the digital aspects of that as an integral component rather than a separate topic.”