Why every technologist should do a tour of duty in government

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

My current tenure working in government digital, data and technology is coming to an end and I wanted to share my experiences and lessons learned.

I have worked in many private sector organisations but government is one of the most exciting and rewarding places I have worked: for its scale, complexity, and the difference you can make to people’s lives.

I was fortunate to have worked both sides of the fence. Firstly, as Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Ministry of Justice, a front-line department with over 80,000 people. And latterly as Government Data Advisor for Government Digital Service (GDS) in the strategic centre of Cabinet Office.

Transforming Together

Things I have enjoyed

The scale and complexity is a technologist’s dream

The scale of the Civil Service is immense. There are over 420,000 civil servants, who serve the 65 million citizens in the UK. This means the systems and technology that run government have colossal scale.

The technology landscape includes almost every technology you can think of from the last 30 years. Legacy systems running alongside cutting edge digital solutions, means there are always complex and interesting problems to solve.

There is never a dull day working in government.

Making a difference to people’s lives

Profit is not the primary driver in government, instead the objective is to save money for the tax payer and positively impact citizen’s lives.

This opportunity to make a difference is perhaps one of the strongest forces in the civil service.

Learning how government functions

I have lived and worked in UK my entire life but, until I worked for the government, I never really understood how our country is run.

I have learned about how primary and secondary legislation is developed, how decisions are made and the process that runs our democracy. It is the only job I have talked about with my children at the dinner table!

Things I have learned

Getting things done is all about relationships

Stakeholder management is especially important in the civil service as often there is no strong CEO-type figure that can dictate outcomes.

A good piece of advice that I received early on was that if you think you need to convince 5 people it is probably more like 50. This is labour intensive but it does mean that there is much more common knowledge and collective buy in.

GDS still has a very strong role to play

Under Kevin Cunnington’s leadership, GDS will transform itself to meet the needs of government departments. This pivot towards collaboration will enable the next wave of transformation.

Whilst the big departments have made good progress on their digital and technology journey there is still a long way to go.

Contrary to popular belief the speed of change is fast

Most people assume that the pace of change is slow. This is true if you are trying to get new laws passed because of the very necessary checks and balances.

However, the speed of operational change can be very fast. There is a lot of autonomy to drive rapid progress, so long as you stay within your budget, and evidence you are saving money or improving the citizen experience.

Things I would change

Monolithic business cases drive the wrong behaviours

Large programme budgets encourage poor fiscal management. Once budgets are approved, the motivation is to spend money at pace. The ability to start small and grow spending in response to effective delivery is hampered by the fear of losing unspent budget.

It would be much better to release funds incrementally or fund teams instead of projects. There is also very little thought given to how products or services will be sustained and maintained in the long-term.

Working across departments needs to be simpler

There has never been more need to work across department boundaries. End-to-end services often cut across many departments.

However, there is a big roadblock if one department needs to spend money to enable savings in another department. This manifests time and time again when trying to fund data sharing.

Thanks for the memories

I have no doubt that I will be back. The appeal of making the UK a better place through digital technology will inevitably draw me back in.

Until then, I wish GDS and all the other digital and technology teams in government the best of luck….

… Keep modernising, collaborating together, and transforming government for the better.

Why every technologist should do a tour of duty in government
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