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A better approach

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Technology Leaders, Technology Transformation

Dr Jerry Fishenden

In his recent blog post, Sir Bob Kerslake outlined five of the principles driving the adoption of a better approach to technology for civil servants. I thought it would be worth setting out a little more detail of the thinking behind these principles, and why it’s important that the public sector has the best possible technology - software, hardware and services - to carry out its essential work.

Moving to digital by default is as much about how we operate, organise and run the public sector to be as efficient and well-organised as possible as it is about delivering transactions online to the public. This means helping overhaul and improve the technology that civil servants use across the public sector, from mission critical systems handling services such as taxation and welfare, to the devices used by employees in government offices or when they’re out on the frontline working in the streets and homes of our communities.

All too often in the past, technology and poor processes have obstructed and frustrated our employees. It’s therefore essential that we ensure civil servants have the right technology, backed up by the right operational processes, to do their jobs more effectively, as an integral part of the current programme of reform.

Building our IT around your needs

In the past, civil servants were not often closely involved with the design and selection of the processes and information systems they were expected to use. As a result, they could end up with technology that was not well suited to their needs and which hindered rather than helped them in their work. Ironically, given the high cost of many of these systems, the technology that employees use at work compares increasingly poorly with the services and devices they use and access at home.

This out-dated approach is now being replaced, and users and their needs are being placed at the centre of design. Civil servants’ needs will in future help determine the technology solutions required, rather than the older approach of choosing technology and then making users work around its limitations. As Sir Bob made clear in his blog, this will not be achieved instantly - particularly given some of the existing contractual constraints - but these changes will begin to deliver much-needed improvements to civil servants’ working environments over coming years.

Having appropriate security controls

Good security requires an appropriate balance involving people, processes and technology - yet all too often technology has been used in isolation to try to deliver security. The result has included the legendary, and absurd, 20 minutes or more for users to login to their PCs and laptops. Using technology alone to try to achieve security has proved a frustrating and largely fruitless experience for users and unfairly implied a lack of trust in civil servants. As well as adopting a more appropriate security regime for government, we are moving to rebalance security as a people-centric and risk-managed issue rather than a technology-driven one, and to improve the processes and technology used in order to achieve the right balance.

Having software and services that are delivered through a browser, making sharing and collaborating easier

Modern, standards-compliant web browsers are available across a wide variety of digital devices and operating systems. They provide a consistent way of accessing software and services regardless of the device being used - and without locking users down to any particular software or hardware vendor. This makes it easier for civil servants to choose the tools that work best for them whilst knowing they will still be able to work efficiently and effectively with colleagues, both within their own department, and with other departments, agencies and the public.

Having services that are device and operating system agnostic

With the move away from desktop PCs as the standard way of accessing applications and information, there is a growing diversity of devices that users are adopting to carry out their work in the most effective way. From smartphones to phablets, tablets, laptops and PCs, this divergence of devices running a variety of different operating systems and software means that the way that applications are delivered needs to ensure that they are usable regardless of which device is being used. In part this is being achieved by the adoption of open standards for many of government’s requirements, and partly by ensuring delivery of services into web browsers. Our work on open standards enables us to converge on a set of mature and consistent standards that ensures interoperability, whilst simultaneously supporting the growing divergence in the devices being used to meet users’ needs.

Being able to use social media when appropriate to engage with the public and our stakeholder groups

In the past, out-dated, inappropriate or poorly specified technology has impeded civil servants in their work. They have often found themselves unable to access and use the internet effectively due to arbitrary constraints that have been placed on its use, or because of out-dated technology on their PCs. Supporting the appropriate use of the internet in the workplace, including the use of social media, is a HR and people issue and yet, as with security, all too often crude, technology-led constraints have been implemented. Feedback and discussion of proposed public policies often takes place online - from blogs and media sites, to social media from Twitter to Google+. It’s neither desirable nor sensible to impose artificial technical restrictions in our workplaces that deny civil servants the ability to access such feedback and to engage directly and transparently with the public in the course of their work. As a result, there is now a presumption that access to the internet will be enabled by default rather than by exception, helping us move from a 1990s organisation-centric approach to one better suited to trusting and empowering our employees to do their best work.

What do you think of these five principles?

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  1. Comment by simonfj posted on

    Hi Jerry,

    Nice post. I hope you don't mind as i think out loud by writing from the perspective of "bureaucrats should be treated as well as an ordinary citizens". It might be useful in offering an outside perspective to the inside one. e.g. ".... devices used by employees when they’re out on the frontline working in the streets ... or in government offices". (and there will be no smart comments on what they are doing on the street 🙂

    Could we use "Building our Networks around your needs"?
    It's only a slight change. But it does give civil people the idea that their network managers can help overcome the old org-centric network approach, by being able to offer services like Devices are just a way for to a civil servant/citizen to access "their" part of the PSN, with appropriate security, regardless of where they are. But have a thought for the poor old IT managers who must do the provisioning.

    We still suffer from the idea that a public servant must "deliver', and this lingo is out of date. We are all, in a self-service world, civilians. So "Moving to digital by default is as much about how we operate, organise and run the public sector to be as efficient and well-organised as possible, as it is about co-designing and 'sharing' transaction services (and social places) online with our publics".

    Having appropriate "Levels" of security control.
    It might seem an inconsequential change. But network people think in levels of security. So, as more common ways of 'interpreting' security standards become accepted, and communication channels (like this blog) becomes more open, we might even consider the idea of a definition for "SOCIAL". As the guidelines say for OFFICIAL "This includes routine business operations and services, some of which could have damaging consequences if lost, stolen or published in the media". I think we're all a bit tired of "mainstream" media.

    Having software and services that are delivered through an (IP) endpoint.
    OK it's a bit geekish. But trying to get people who think about a network, as two cans with a piece of string between, is the hardest concept to overcome. If we can start thinking about a network as just two points, between which a bunch of services can be shared, we'll have (groups of) people getting inventive about the services they want; at the office or on the street.

    Having services that are device and operating system agnostic. Good.
    But could we be clearer about the change in Communication's model. i.e. "Our work on open standards enables us to converge on a set of mature and consistent standards that ensures interoperability "between groups" (or peers) in different orgs, whilst simultaneously supporting the growing divergence in the devices being used by users (citizens?).

    It's quite important as we have some confusion between "Agencies and other public bodies" ( ) and "Groups" ( ). Their inter-network requirements/shared services (i.e. collaboration tools) are likely to be very similar. So we do need to start considering the new orgs as 'topical groups'.

    Being able to use social media when appropriate to engage with the public and our stakeholder groups
    Hmmm. It's the same story about "appropriate" level of security, working from home, and the concern about "the media" beating up a story. It's hard when there's no "internal" training ground for Community managers. We really do need to have something like for both National and Local groups. It will also help in defining the most common services required.

    There lots of servants being civil around the social traps, and this kind of documentation is OK, although rarely seen in practice. e.g. i take principle No.1. to heart which is why, as a citizen, I spend the time around the 55 But I'd never expect civil servants to engage in their own domain. No leadership I'm afraid. Prove me wrong?

  2. Comment by Alison Nicholls posted on

    This all sounds very laudable. Meanwhile back in the real world...........

    The internet is struggling to cope, we want to create our own FB page but can only do that from a PC in another building; a bit like the mandatory online training that we can only do on a completely different network from ours.

    I have more passwords than a sane person can ever remember!

    I am afraid I can't help wondering whether all of this will happen before I hit retirement (if I haven't pulled the emergency handle before then!) I hasten to add I have a good few years left in me yet.

  3. Comment by Peter Lane posted on

    The recent move to Internet-based telephones has, in the general view of those using it, been a backwards step. Staff in my area now waste time accessing or clearing voicemail and missed calls, trying to understand conversations through the low quality sound, and suffering generally from this 'clunky' system. Added to which we now have to pay £25 each time a staff member changes post, which for us means £50 a time when staff move between posts. Another contract signed without being thought through and assuming "one size fits all" which benefits ATOS not the taxpayer.

  4. Comment by John W posted on

    Principle sounds great. When are you going to do it?

    In HMRC right now, we can't access social media because it's blocked. If you're saying it should be unblocked, why not just do it now? What are you waiting for?

    • Replies to John W>

      Comment by Mark Dearnley, HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer posted on

      Dear John,

      Thanks for your comment. We're currently working on commissionning and installing a ‘Data Leak Prevention’ platform. We then need to give everyone Social Media training. I'm hoping access to Social Media will be available to HMRC staff by the end of 2014.

  5. Comment by Nicola Bolton posted on

    Makes sense to me

    • Replies to Nicola Bolton>

      Comment by Conan Forrester posted on

      This is all very nice in theory but in practice we have been sitting with Windows 7 optimized machines for 3 years now and they are still running XP which has been made obsolete by Microsoft for almost 4 months now. Our IE browser is so far behind (just recently updated to IE8) that we cannot view half the Civil Service's own web-pages.

  6. Comment by sandy osborough posted on

    Hello Jerry,
    As an aspiration - better I.T. is a noble quest. It can feel a little like a lost quest, when at an Outstation level I am managing a Team who use 4 computers on a shared 1mb access. This has been the same for the last 9 years, and we do not envisage any change soon. Every few months or so when it gets particulary slow I raise a Service Ticket like the one below -:

    Dear ICT,
    I cannot function as an effective Manager with the computer system we have.
    Ever since the ‘upgrade’ to Windows 7, the computers at SSQ are ridiculously slow – even more so than they were.
    Logins have been timed by various members of staff of 17 – 20 minutes. I had one yesterday which was at 30 minutes – 30 minutes! – requiring ICT tinkering to get it to work.
    Spreadsheets take an age to open, and my Internet Explorer freezes and locks multiple times each session. As I type it has been frozen for 12 minutes, and cannot be shut down or reset.
    Genuinely, this is intolerable, and needs urgent attention.

    Every time I raise one of these, our Computer gurus look into a connection or a setting, then reply back in a few days saying the issue has been resolved. Which it hasn't.

    So - from a humble Team Manager's view in a Portakabin by the M4 - the notion of a quest for a 'better approach built around my needs' seems a long way off.

    Thank you.

    • Replies to sandy osborough>

      Comment by James Findlay, Technology Leader for the Department of Transport and Chief Information Officer of High Speed Two posted on

      Hello Sandy,

      First of all thank you for your feedback. As Jerry highlights in his blog, there are a number of challenges across the government digital and technology arena, which I’m sure you can appreciate will take time to fix. Within DfT there are a number of digital and technology transformations underway across all of the Agencies, which are aimed at significantly improving how we deliver public facing digital and internal technology services.

      The Highways Agency are aware of the issues you’ve outlined and these same issues are being experienced at some other outstations. The problem is related to the distance from the telephone exchanges to some HA outstations, but as part of the wider IT transformation work that is going on within HA, the new connectivity provider will be delivering increased bandwidth over more reliable connections, and this begins next week at Tingley. This will be the pilot site where there will be a number of performance tests undertaken, so that anticipated improvements can be fully analysed ahead of the full roll-out to other stations.

      Stanton St. Quinton, which I understand is the site in question, does not have a date allocated as part of the rollout due to some extensive ground works required to improve the connectivity there, but I have been assured that this will be undertaken as part of the wider connectivity programme, which should hopefully see your issues fixed in due course.

      • Replies to James Findlay, Technology Leader for the Department of Transport and Chief Information Officer of High Speed Two>

        Comment by sandy osborough posted on

        Hello James,
        Thank you for your reply. One thing I can assure you is that we have been enduring this for the last 9 years. As the Highways Agency approaches its 'NewCo' status I do not see this being held as a high priority for the next few years, nor am I holding my breath for an improvement as the recent 'upgrades' have resulted in an even worse connection as the old computers struggle with Windows7 and IE8.
        At least our new outstation has heating and we don't have to type with gloves on like we used to do! (That bit is not made up by the way!).
        If you want someone to contribute in any way to surveys or testing I would be more than happy to engage with the CS at any level. Thanks, Sandy

  7. Comment by Mark Bennett posted on

    I agree completely - it will make my role far easier.

  8. Comment by Karen Brice posted on

    It's all good in theory, but we still remain quite behind with the desktop technology. Everything takes so long to roll out to us end users that it is out of date before we get it. e.g. I am still using MS Office 2003.

  9. Comment by Alex posted on

    This would be great if it were being followed - but we're just about to roll out two new systems to all staff, neither of which comply with the aspirations set out above.
    What would be useful would be some idea of how each Government / CS organisation is embedding these principles; it occurs to me that perhaps we don't move fast enough in keeping our IT people up to date, and the knock-on effect is outdated systems.

  10. Comment by Paul c posted on

    I entered a comment on Sir Bob's blog on IT on the 5th of June
    I asked for a simple assurance that when new kit is installed - that the outside contractors do not leave the site - until they have signed off that the new kit is 100% working - and is compatible and linked to our other devices
    I have not received any sort of reply
    Are we not prepared to demand a decent level of service from our suppliers ?
    Have you read the recent "Have Your Say" article regarding the havoc experienced at Quarry House following the Workplace Transformation ?
    Why are we such a "soft touch" for our outside contractors - who manage to obtain profit margins 3 to 4 times greater from Government contracts - than from private contracts ?
    It al keeps coming back to weak management .

  11. Comment by Martin Price posted on

    Some interesting points here. Appropriate security still seems to be a struggle as even on a new contract, the default is to lock everything down, then you have to fight to get the most basic change to meet business needs. I like Simon's idea of govroam or something similar, but we could go one step further. Why not share WAN links altogether in shared buildings? With the recent innovations in software defined networking, could we have it so you go into a government building (using our new civil service wide passes), scan our card, which allows the network and workstation to offer the login and connection that the user can use?

    With more browser based applications and lots of useful online tools out there, we shouldn't be restricting access to alternative browsers such as Firefox, Chrome and Opera, given IE has lower levels of standards compliance than other browsers.

    On being more device agnostic, The Digital Services Framework goes a long way to encouraging the use of open source technologies, and we have seen in-roads in other areas (e.g. intranets), but there is more to be done. By investing in this area, we could see a shift to open source across desktops and applications. By investing in further development of open source applications and OSs to meet our needs, we can meet our needs with less licencing costs, but also contribute back and help to grow the viability of this movement - imagine the long term savings if all UK public bodies could use open source with enhancements to meet government needs shared across UK plc and with the wider open source community. Also, if UK plc was to shift to open source, you would create a large market pull with improved compatibility and additional offerings.

  12. Comment by KaronW posted on

    I am all for improvements in our IT and means of communication both internally and externally but no one ever considers the people who use Assistive Technologies until after the event and then we end up with situations as now that we cannot be transformed until some date in the future but when! It might be an idea that these are considered first not last.

    • Replies to KaronW>

      Comment by Jonathan Ayre, Chief Technology Officer at DWP posted on

      Good to note your support for improvements to IT, Karon, and I’m sorry that it has taken so long to provide solutions to you and other colleagues who use assistive technologies. The need for these was considered from the outset but it has taken much longer than anticipated to produce compatible solutions. This is a challenging piece of work impacted by the range and age the various assistive technologies in use across the department, and the speed with which the various providers of those technologies could upgrade them. Progress is being made and the pilot of the first transformed assistive technology solution (Text Read/Write) is expected to start 07 July

  13. Comment by Andy Croft posted on

    There is a case for having two classes of government computer systems, those that can manage with basic commercial standards and those like the MoD who need a lot higher. It is inherently more expensive and time consuming to clear updates and new systems to high security levels so why not have one clearance system for each and allow departments to share clearance, eg, MoD and FCO? At the moment, each has to do their own clearance for their own system although probably 90% plus of the clearance is identical! Our contractors must rub their hands in glee.

    I would also put it to you that whilst the BBC’s main website has a downtime measures in seconds per year, many of us measure it in hours per month… there is something fundamentally wrong in the way some of systems are set up and run. This may well be in part due to the way contracts have traditionally been issued but surely many of the problems could be reduced by sharing government LAN infrastructure. The example of the person above who only has a 1 MB connection for this team to the main servers is ludicrous – I have a 30 soon to be 50MB connection at home like many other people. I would not be surprised if the person’s connection above could be connected to the government LAN by a short link or alternatively, could they, security permitting, be routed via a VPN through the likes of Virgin’s network for a few pounds a month? Ho no, that probably will not be allowed as BT seems to have all of the government sown up.

  14. Comment by John Smith posted on

    Oh to live in such a world! Our computer system was so slow that we have been asked not to have our emails open at the same time as Cam to see if that makes things a little quicker!

    We have also just had 2 DAYS where our Pension Centre could not operate because the whole computer system went "pear shaped" who will answer for that, no-one higher up the food chain I would suspect!!

    In the Pension Centre where I work we pride ourselves in giving good customer service, at the same time being given time based targets. The amount of time waiting for our "egg timer" to actually do something is both stressful and frustrating.
    Having to apologise to customers on EVERY call about the time it takes to get into their account is not good customer service.

    • Replies to John Smith>

      Comment by Bob Mount, DWP Infrastructure Modernisation Programme Director posted on

      Dear John, thanks for your comment.

      A programme of work is underway to improve the performance of PTP CAM. Some problems have already been resolved and work continues to resolve the remainder.

      An unrelated and major incident affected performance across the IT estate earlier this week. A solution was deployed during the evening of 01 July and this enabled service to be restored from start of business 02 July. Work is being carried out in the background to identify the root cause of this problem and to agree measures to prevent a recurrence.

  15. Comment by Howard posted on

    Well done for acknowledging the absurd log on times. When multiplied this leads to a lot of days lost. This also increases when the IT falls over and you have to reboot.

    For any internal software system these should be designed for the user and not what management thinks the user needs which is where things can often go wrong.

  16. Comment by Pam posted on

    Magistrates Courts Fine Enforcement and Collection is being privatised for the very reason of inadequate IT systems and this is down to lack of funding! It would now appear to be the top priority - it sounds good and makes good reading. Sadly we will have probably missed the boat and could well be out of a job this time next year!!

  17. Comment by Jerry Fishenden posted on

    Many thanks for taking the time to provide these insightful and candid responses. There’s clearly much that needs fixing - it’s a message the technology leadership community has been hearing repeatedly at various roadshows ( too.

    We all need the right technology to work effectively. It’s why meeting your needs is number 1 on government’s Technology Code of Practice (

    1. Ensure systems, information and processes are designed around the needs of the service user, providing as simple and as integrated an experience as possible. Be very clear who the users are and how to engage with them and ensure their needs are met.

    There’s a long way to go to turn this aspiration into reality. The frustration that shines through in your responses to my blog makes clear just how inadequate much of our technology currently is.

    This is something that the Technology Leaders Network ( is well aware of, and anxious to tackle. So please keep your feedback coming. Transparent and open communication between you and your technology leaders needs to be routine: technology should be there to help you and if it isn’t working as it should, that needs to be escalated and fixed.

    On open internet access, the policy is clear. All departments and agencies should by now be actively encouraging staff to use online tools which improve productivity or enhance digital skills. See for more details. If you remain unhappy with the current state of internet access and progress towards improving it, please use the email address on that page to let us know. Sometimes of course there may be a good reason for a delay - but it’s important that where this happens those reasons are clearly communicated to you, together with a date for when they will be resolved.

    I appreciate that words alone on a web page mean nothing. So if you have ideas for how we can accelerate progress, remove blockers, fix problems with technology and generally make our workplaces more modern and more productive then please do share them. Technology should never get in the way - it’s there to improve the way we work and the services we deliver, not to frustrate us.

  18. Comment by Mike Stone, Chief Information Officer, Ministry of Defence posted on

    Alison, Karen and Conan

    Thanks for your comments, which have just been brought to my attention. As the new MOD CIO I have heard a lot of similar views from across MOD since taking up my post in May. I have been charged by the Permanent Secretary and Commander Joint Forces Command (to whom I jointly report) with addressing the perceptions in this space at pace. There are some significant commercial constraints, but I intend to write out to the whole of MOD at the end of July to explain the following:

    - What the endstate for the Defence Information Infrastructure will be two years hence, in both the fixed and deployed environments
    - What Defence can expect to see by way of improvements in the period Sep 14 to Mar 15, with the aim of demonstrating that we are on the path to delivering the endstate. The aim is to
    - have a programme of deliverables each month and to celebrate success as we go.

    Discussions with partners are still underway, so I fear that I can’t give you a taster just yet, but it is only 3 weeks or so now till I write so watch out for the communication. I’m pleased to say to Alison that she will indeed see some improvements before she retires and I will be writing out again in September to layout the programme for the remaining 6 quarters that will get us to the endstate.


  19. Comment by Rob Knight posted on


    I applaud the approach to use secure, COTS implementations where possible. Naturally, more sensitive systems need to adopt suitable measures to protect the information they process and this will undoubtedly result in a user experience that isn't the same as on less secure systems.

    Remote working is a growing area within both public and private sector but there are still some impediments to the former which aren't necessarily experienced by the latter.

    One issue relates to internet connectivity and generally, if it requires unlocking via a landing page (i.e. captive portal) before access is granted (usually by entering some details such as a room number, credentials, accepting terms and conditions etc.) then it cannot be used.

    Low cost commercial solutions exist which overcome this issue without changing the security policies on the laptop or tablet. They are already in use by a number of departments and enabling end users to get connected and work overseas when in hotels etc.