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Podcast: Developing a digital strategy

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We’re excited to launch the brand new DWP Digital podcast, sharing more about how we’re using innovation and technology to improve government services.Infographic with headphone and noise waves. It also says: Episode 1, developing a digital strategy. Join Simon McKinnon, our Chief Digital Information Officer and Helen Roberts, Digital Delivery Director, to learn about the steps involved and the importance of putting your users a the heart of your services.


In our first episode we speak to Simon McKinnon, Chief Digital and Information Officer and Helen Roberts, Digital Delivery Director about the steps involved with developing a digital strategy for the UK’s biggest government department.

We also quiz them about their ambitions for the year ahead and the key things we’re focusing on right now to drive our strategy forward.

You can find a transcript for the podcast below.

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Over the next few months we’ll be speaking to more of our in-house digital experts and leaders about some of the exciting projects we’re working on that are helping transform experiences for millions of people.

Make sure you don’t miss an episode, by subscribing to the DWP Digital podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify and by following #DWPDigitalPodcasts.


Stuart Money  0:03

Welcome everybody to our first ever DWP Digital podcast. My name is Stuart and today I'm speaking to Simon McKinnon, our Chief Digital and Information Officer, and Helen Roberts, our Digital Delivery Director. Today we're going to be covering who we are as an organisation and our digital strategy.

So let's get started. Simon, Helen, would you mind introducing yourself to our listeners?

Simon McKinnon  0:27

Hi, I'm Simon McKinnon. I'm the Chief Digital Information Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions. And I'm responsible for the delivery of all the digital services the department has, both running our operational digital services, but also transforming them for the future.

I started off in the private sector. I've worked in consulting in the finance sector, in the travel industry, in a range of entrepreneurial .com type start-ups as well, and joined the DWP about 11 years ago.

Helen Roberts  1:04

Hi, I'm Helen Roberts. I'm a Digital Delivery Director part of Simon's team at DWP. I look after a subset of our digital services, primarily those that support people in retirement or child maintenance and some of our counter fraud initiatives as well. I've been a civil servant with DWP for two years, I've always worked in digital roles in other organisations as well. So some things for logistics firms and for a data agency prior to that, and most recently at the Bank of England just prior to joining.

Stuart Money  1:37

That's great. Thank you very much.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is the UK's largest government department. DWP digital sits within DWP and is responsible for the digital transformation of the department.

So Simon and Helen, would you mind explaining our purpose, the range of services we look after, and the level of support we provide to the public.

Simon McKinnon  1:59

The DWP looks after the delivery of the welfare systems for the UK. It supports around 22 million citizens directly each and every year, paying out benefits to support people through the entirety of their life. It starts with maternity allowance, it ends with funeral expenses. But essentially we provide support for people who are out of work and need support, people who have health problems and we give support to them. We pay benefits to people to give them financial security in their retirement. And we also support the provision of child maintenance to make sure that people who are in separated families get the financial support that they need.

I think it's probably also worth mentioning the scale of what we do. We have one of the largest call centres in Europe, we have an estate which is nearly 800 buildings, most of you will have come across the jobcentres in most high streets.

We have about 100,000 people in the organisation that we're providing digital services and other office systems to support.

Stuart Money  3:21

Anything to add, Helen?

Helen Roberts  3:22

So I’ll do a bit about digital group. So within that setup, digital group provides expertise across a whole range of areas to make sure that we're providing services that are modern, secure, that people can use really easily. So everything from product design, service design all the way through to hands on software engineering, testing, getting stuff out the door in front of people, you know. We're involved in teams that span right across the department to make sure that we're bringing our experience and expertise to bear, so we can deliver services that really meet the needs of those that are trying to use them.

Stuart Money  3:59

That's great. Thank you both. I'm sure not everyone was fully aware of the scope and the range of things we cover within DWP and DWP Digital.

Stuart Money  4:08

So let's talk about our digital strategy or development roadmap, if you will. Where do you start with something like that? What steps are there to creating a meaningful strategy? And how do you decide the direction it takes?

Helen Roberts  4:19

So it's been a really fascinating process, actually. And I think the first thing that I'd say is, it's not really a digital strategy as such, you know, it's, it’s us understanding how best we can play a role in bringing together the vision for the department at large and you know, what it means for society in general.

So, the conversations that we've had within the department to start with are about ‘what does it mean to work for DWP?’ You know, what sort of organisation are we aiming at maybe five years from now? How do we want to operate? What sort of experience and expertise do we want to really develop, and to frame that into something that, you know means something for everybody within the organisation.

So once we've got that vision out in front of us, we can have a think about right - as digital professionals, how can we be part of that? And what are the things that we should really focus on and emphasise. So whether that's running secure and reliable live services, all the way through to trying some new stuff and seeing what it does for us, you know, seeing how we can experiment and learn as we go. Then we can really help shape our strategy and our approaches.

So there's an element that's very much about us as a department understanding our place and our role within that. But there's also us within government at large, you know, how are we going to join up with other parts of government? What is the priority for the government of the day? And what does that do to shape our approach and our way forward.

So there's a huge aspect of the bit of the jigsaw that we are and how that fits in alongside everything else. And once we've understood that we can really shape what that means for each year at a time, as we step into it.

Simon McKinnon  5:52

I suppose we have to really think about the various users that we have. Because obviously, we want our strategy to live what the users want, we want to be user centric. And I guess we have to think about three or four different groups of users.

So the first one is the people who use our services and how they should access them. How do we make those systems easy for them to use, and give them a quick response to solve their life problems?

The second set of users we try to think about are the people who work in DWP.  And how do we make the systems easy for them to give the most effective service that they can.

A third group of course is taxpayers, and we have to make sure our services are delivered in a cost effective way. We don't have unlimited funds, we do need to make sure that we provide value for money. And then the fourth category we have to think about is government of the day, and the policies that it wants to introduce and making sure that our systems respond to those policy needs, in the most flexible way that we can find.

Helen Roberts  7:02

And I guess if that wasn't enough, the last piece that we added into that thought process was where we are right now. So there was a really good exercise that was undertaken as part of this strategy being developed to look at what are the services that we currently run, you know, how well placed are we to look after them? How well do they support all of those user groups that Simon's just described to really start to piece together the things that we would protect and maybe invest in and put more energy into, and the things that actually we need to replace and modernise, and move in a slightly different direction, perhaps. So all of those elements coming together, to then shape up a plan and an approach that takes us through the next few years.

So yeah, it's been really an interesting process to be part of, but I think we've landed somewhere that's very positive when we look at the five or so years in front of us.

Stuart Money  7:53

So Simon, what are the key things we're focusing on right now to drive our strategy forward?

Simon McKinnon  7:59

So at the highest level, I think there are kind of three things that are on my mind. The first is making sure that we deliver outstanding service, that our systems are reliable, that they're secure, they're accessible, that we built them in a way where we can continue to support them going forward.

The second is, how do we take that base set of systems and build on it and to transform it? And I'll come back to that and talk about that in a bit more detail. And then the third aspect of our strategy is building our own capability and skills, encouraging talent to come and join us, making sure that we're a good place to work, and that we’re inclusive, that we're diverse, that people want to come here and deliver something which supports society.

But if you go back to that aspect of transformation, I think we have a legacy, a history, of building systems in silos so that there is very limited interaction between the various benefits that we provide. And so our strategy is focusing on how do we make sure we provide a joined-up experience, both for the citizens and for the agents that support them, so that when a citizen comes to us, they can get the full range of services, and be supported across those services, in the right channels, and in as few engagements with us as are necessary.

So it's about sharing data between systems. It's about building commonality in the way in which we deliver those, so that users experience a consistent set of interactions. It's about making sure that we build technology only once and reuse it in a more flexible way. But above everything, it's about making sure that we look at how we can make those user experiences the best they can, using data that DWP has or that other parts of government have to provide a very slick, modern data enriched service as we transform those customer experiences.

S Money  10:24

That's great. Thank you,

Stuart Money  10:27

Helen. Recently, you gave a presentation, which talks about our digital ambitions and where we're heading. I’ve seen a three tiered approach based on our strategic ambition, strategic themes and delivery systems. Would you mind telling us about those levels and the detail within them?

Helen Roberts  10:42

Yeah, I mean, it really picks up on what Simon's just talked us through, actually. So the way that we're thinking about the years in front of us, there’s three really big themes, if you like, of activities for us to go after when it comes to transforming services specifically.

So the first of them is around digitalising benefit delivery. And this is basically us looking at end to end service provision and saying, right, you know, for each step of this process, firstly, is it needed? You know, is it still something that we actually have to do as a department in order to give a citizen an experience that they’re after? If the answer to that is yes, is there a way in which we can automate it? You know, can we simplify that part of the process, and take that step out, or make it much easier for us to process it through and get to the next point along the journey. So there's something about automation that we're really focusing in on.

There's something about enablement, as well. So this is where as Simon’s described, you know, if multiple benefits need a similar sort of thing to happen, so the ones we go to, maybe someone needs to upload some sort of documentation and send that to us. Or maybe we actually need to make a payment. You know, these are things that can typically be done in a consistent way, regardless of actually which service line we're talking about. So we call that enablement. And we're looking to identify how many of those we have, and whether we can do things in a more consistent way across the board. So there's an element of that as well. And together, those things help us drive out the chance of error happening. So sometimes people inadvertently put the wrong information into a claim or, you know, when they're changing some information about themselves, they might mistype it. And sometimes that's because we've just made our services a bit more difficult to use than they might be.

Similarly with people that actually process them, you know, DWP colleagues, for some of our services have got really good experience. But for some of them, we're still improving, which means that things are a little bit more difficult than they need to be to get stuff done. So all of that together, that digitalisation, that first group of things, should help us take a bit of error out of the system as well.

I think the second grouping that we've been talking about is improving customer experience. So this is where, you know, the expectations of society change, of course they do as change occurs. And when you look back 10 years, you know, things like the iPhone had just been invented, a variety of other things were new on our agenda, or now they're really used quite prevalently across society. So there's something about us keeping up with the times and understanding how best do we open up ways in which citizens can interact with us as a department, and it's not to standardise, it's not to just give people one opportunity to talk to us. So we don't just want to go online for the sake of it, especially when you listen to breadth of people in society that make use of the services we offer. We don't want to force everybody to have to talk to us in a certain way. But we do want to be able to offer choice. So if people would prefer to send in a paper form, great. If people would prefer to go online and do things for themselves without necessarily needing to talk to us, great. If people want to pick up the phone and have a conversation with an experienced service delivery person at the end of the phone, great. And the idea is that we can provide that choice across the board more so than we do right now. And we can use that conversation that we have with people to then help us better understand their needs, better understand what it is that they're trying to achieve, and actually improve our services as we go, so to heighten our own understanding of our customers by offering more contact with them. So that second grouping of things around improving customer experience has been really important.

And then the final one is about, as Simon referenced, our use of data. So, you know, we actually have a lot of information that people have shared with us already. At the moment, if somebody is in receipt of multiple benefits, it may be that they actually have to phone us more than once or contact us more than once, in order to update their information across the board. We believe that if someone's told us something, we should be able to share that assuming that they've given their consent for us to do so. And that we're able to do that and provide a much better experience along the way. And not only that, if we can put data together in a way that makes sense to our operational staff, then actually, there'll be even better placed to have really good conversations with the citizens that they come into contact with. So there's something about unlocking the power of the data that we've got, not just within DWP, actually, but in the longer term data that we hold across government, you know, can give a better experience to people if they choose for us to use it in that way. So they're the three things, the three themes that we spoke about in the presentation you referenced; digitalising benefit delivery, improving customer experience, and unlocking the power of our data along the way.

Stuart Money  15:33

Since the outbreak of COVID, has our strategy changed much? Did we need to adapt to meet this unexpected challenge?

Simon McKinnon  15:41

Obviously, COVID changed our strategy quite significantly. We had to do an awful lot to adapt to a different way of working. And the immediate challenge we had was how to get 50,000 people working from home, whereas previously they'd worked in the office. We've also had to manage our way through a very rapid increase in the number of people we have working and delivering employment services. And we've been recruiting people at up to 1,000 a week. And we're building over 100 new jobcentres in a few months.

So those challenges have been enormous. But we learned some things from the experience. We learned that citizens were willing and able to adapt to using digital services more quickly than we thought they would be. And we learned that we were able to introduce new transformed services, in order to free up more of our internal capability to work on the labour market challenges that we've been having.

And Helen, you put in place a programme of additional transformations, that I think has been quite remarkable.

Helen Roberts  16:59

Yeah, thanks, Simon. I mean, like you say, when we were faced with that scale of challenge that you've just described, you know, there were two big priorities for the department. One was to keep our colleagues safe. And the second was to make sure people got paid, you know, we needed to make sure that everyone got the money that they were entitled to. And to do that we really had to pivot as the organisation as Simon’s described. And that meant that some of our benefit lines and services had fewer people working on them, frankly, than they did previously. And what we were able to put forward was a way in which we could accelerate some of those things we spoke about earlier in terms of modernisation and digitalisation to say, look, if we can invest some of our digital expertise, some of our service delivery expertise in some of these areas that are less well attended than they have been, we think we'll be able to make a real difference and keep service levels higher.

So that got really well supported, we were able to crack on with a huge endeavour, actually. So there was a whole range of stuff that we went after. Some of it was just protecting existing live services that we knew would be under much more strain. So importantly, adding in scale, volume, protection, all of those things that you need, when live services are in higher demand than otherwise expected. We were able to stand up some new services remarkably quickly. So there's ones that are out in the public domain around, for example, the ability to pay back a debt to the department. So if people have come on to benefit for a short time, perhaps taking advantage of an advance and then being able to find employment, they're actually able to log on to what is a brand new service, and pay back that advance or pay back the debt that they owe to the department without ever having to contact DWP directly. It's the first time that we've had that capability as a service. And from start to finish that took us four months to get up and running. You know, we rolled it out in a small scale to start with, but actually, it's one of those things that I think will expand quite a lot over the course of the months to come.

We had some existing plans in place that we were able to say, to the teams, you know, is there any way that you can accelerate these things? So if we were to maybe bring in some people that can add additional help, can you move quicker than your plans would have suggested otherwise? You know, some teams were really up for that, especially if I think about our Pension Credit service line.

So there was a plan already in place to give people the ability to claim Pension Credit online. That plan was going to start in 2022. The team said, ‘you know what, we can do this now’. ‘If we can make some regulation changes which our policy colleagues were able to get through’. Then that Pension Credit online application process was stood up. So it was stood up in eight weeks and now over 50% of people that claim Pension Credit actually use that as their way of contacting us as a department. So it's been an amazing story, frankly, during the course of 2020

We were also keen to do some exploration of this year. So to use last year's kind of gaps and opportunities to push on with some discoveries so that we know that this year that we're now in in 2021 is going to be a really busy year for us as a department. Are there things that we can prioritise now? In order to answer that question better, we needed to invest a bit of last year's effort in discovery work, in understanding the problems that we're really likely to face and how best we might go about tackling them. So there was a bit of advanced thinking, that we were able to get on with as well, which was really, really important for us.

And then we've just, we've been able to persevere with some of the foundations that are really going to be sort of the building blocks of our future, if you like. So there's been a huge amount of energy put into our underpinning data platforms. And hopefully, some of the things we described earlier explain why that's important for us. Data really is at the heart of all of this transformation that we describe. And we've put some more energy into exploring different operational ways of working as well. So unfortunately, one of the services that has received a lot of contact during the last 12 months has been our bereavement service and the service delivery team have done a remarkable job actually in joining up the way in which they are able to answer those phone calls, answer those queries and really help people going through a very troubling time in their lives have a much more joined up experience than they would have had otherwise.

So they're just some of the glimpses, a few of the things that we were able to pursue last year, that will actually put us I hope, in really good stead in the year to come and beyond that, as well. But I'm not sure how much of that would have happened  without this strange world that we were in in 2020. But there's certainly some things in there that we can take the positives out of as we move into 2021.

Stuart Money  21:59

That's really interesting. Thank you, guys.

We've talked a lot about what we're doing right now. But what does the future hold for us? Where do we see ourselves in one or two years’ time?

Helen Roberts  22:08

So the vision is really clear, actually. We see ourselves as an organisation where people can get in touch when they need help, we can help them understand if they’ve come to the right place, first and foremost. And assuming that they have, provide a much more joined up experience for them, by which I mean, a conversation that helps them, regardless of whether their situation means that it triggers two or three or four of our services. For an individual that's unimportant, they just need help with what's going on for them at a moment in time.

So the plans that we have now, the vision that we have for ourselves as a department takes us to that place. And it means that the people that work for DWP and provide these services also have opportunity to be better informed, to be more able to help more easily, and to just provide a better service than we've been able to do up until now. And that's not to say it's not moving in the right direction. But I think some of these things that we've described, really help us push on with that as an aspiration for ourselves, and move us towards that as quickly as we possibly can.

Now I'm not dodging the question you've asked about one to two years from now. It's quite tricky, actually, to how quickly some of this stuff's going to happen. You know, we're learning as we go, and what we learn will help us shape our plans and better understand that the pace at which we can make some of these changes. So I'm not sure precisely what one to two years from now looks like. But hopefully, we'll have brought a lot of that to life for people. And  we'll be pushing on with that agenda and pushing ourselves forward as an organisation.

Simon McKinnon  23:52

I think if you look back over the last couple of years, we've done some amazing things at improving the quality of the services we provide. We’ve built our internal capability, taken back ownership from supplier-led services and fundamentally transformed our infrastructure, so that we're on a broad range of new technologies.

What we haven't done up to now is transform our application portfolio to change the way in which the department delivers its services, as Helen has described. And so I think what you're going to see over the next couple of years is the start of what was probably a five-year transformation agenda. And you'll see us start transforming our services in new ways, and delivering much better services for citizens that are data led, much better experiences for our agents as Helen has described, and delivering some really exciting projects going forward. It's a place where we want to own the journey and to build our internal capability, to build a way in which our people work more effectively together. And it's one of the best places in government to work, because we have a really important social agenda and a really exciting transformation agenda to apply to those services. I think it's a really exciting few years going forward.

Stuart Money  25:25

So that ends our podcast for today. Hit the subscribe button if you want to make sure you don't miss our next episode. And I would like to thank Simon and Helen for taking part in today. I certainly found it interesting, and I learnt a lot about our digital strategy, and I hope you did too.

So thanks for tuning in and I'll see you next time.


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