by Charlie Feld

How the United Kingdom Delivers Customer-Centric Government Services

Jun 01, 20095 mins

A modern network and integrated databases make it easier for citizens in the United Kingdom to get social services. Our columnist, Charlie Feld, talks to U.K. Department for Work and Pensions IT Director General and CIO Joe Harley.

Charlie Feld: Your department is bringing a 21st century, customer-focused model to serve the citizens. What was the impetus for this change?

Joe Harley: We tend to deal with some of the less fortunate in society, people that have lost their jobs and are looking for work, disabled people who need support, older people and children. These customers deserve good government service. Sir Leigh Lewis, who heads the DWP, and his executive team wanted to put the citizen at the heart of how we deliver services. The concept was to break down the walls between the departments and provide outstanding, responsive service. We adopted a position that there is no “wrong door” for the citizen. They won’t be told, ‘That’s not our department’s business, go somewhere else.’

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It is a big challenge to do that because we have to have a single view of the customer’s information, regardless of the channel in which the customer interacts with us. It could be an online channel, a telephone call, it could be face-to-face at one of our offices.

Charlie Feld: That seems like common sense but extremely difficult to justify and execute. How have you approached the business case?

Joe Harley: We had to streamline the organization and take out real costs. That is still a work in progress. Over the last three years, we have taken 30,000 jobs out of the system and saved £1 billion—including a 30 percent cost reduction from IT.

On the IT side, there was an infrastructure that was facing obsolescence. So in terms of the modernization agenda and the drive toward efficiency and innovation, we really needed to renew our entire infrastructure, including all telecommunications, to position us for the modern era. In addition, it was crucial that we engaged our key suppliers, mainly EDS and British Telecom. They have helped us reduce our data centers from seven to two, including our award winning Green Data Center.

We have a converged Internet protocol network that is engineered for the security and privacy demands of our sensitive information. We had to have a new network so that we could “consolidate” our contact centers into a virtual one and route calls all around the country, depending on the skills of the agent, the location and the demand in each of the areas.

Much of our cost reduction is driven by our citizens’ desire to use the Web for more and more self-service. We are leaning on the key business processes of the department to realize substantial savings and improved customer service.

Charlie Feld: What have the changes meant so far to U.K. citizens?

Joe Harley: Before our modernization, if someone wanted to apply for a state pension, they would need to fill in a 20 to 30 page form and it would take 60 days to process. With the online systems we have, we can do a pension claim in 20 minutes. A pensioner can call our contact center, speak to one of our agents trained in the pension reform and get it done.

We now exploit information already held in other databases and have redesigned our CRM systems for our agents and customers. Another example is a national service for people who are looking for work. As part of our Jobcentre Plus offering, employers let us know about job vacancies so that we can put them into our massive database. These jobs are uploaded to the Internet. The citizen can access all those vacancies and how to apply for them.

Recently, we took Mark Hurd, the chief executive of HP (which bought EDS in 2008) to one of our job centers. Mark started playing with our touch-screen system. He said he wanted to be a waiter/bar tender and he wanted to do it in London. Instantaneously, up came a job at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in central London.

Charlie Feld: How is the DWP responding to the economic downturn?

Joe Harley: The daily pressures on the department are quite intense these days. Had we not invested in all of these systems, we would have found it very difficult to deal with the recession in the way that we are doing at the moment.

Charlie Feld: Now that you have built the base infrastructure and began to get the data organized, where do you go next?

Joe Harley: My aspiration is to deliver new products, new applications, new systems in months rather than years. That is the big challenge here, to respond to our government’s needs. We have a pilot program running right now called “Tell Us Once.” For example, if somebody dies in your family, you have to contact the government. The number of contacts that could involve you is up to 40—and practically the same data. We want to turn that around so we will handle the complexities of government for our customers. We are trying to simplify things not just for DWP but across the entire United Kingdom.

A member of the CIO Hall of Fame, Charlie Feld retired from EDS in 2008.