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One organisation, two leaders for digital public services in Wales

14/02/22

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Harriet Green and Myra Hunt
Image source: CDPS

There can be big advantages in a job share, especially when two people have been doing it together for a long time, according to Myra Hunt and Harriet Green.

They are in a month into the roles of joint chief executive officers for Wales’ Centre for Digital Public Services (CDPS) but have been working as a team for 11 years, first in leading global digital transformation at the British Council then as chief digital officers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Green (left in the picture) says: “We are two different people with different styles and sets of abilities and we’re able to form relationships with a breadth of stakeholders and colleagues.

“But at the heart of it there is something about the quality of decision making as everything you do is discussed and peer reviewed between you. Something doesn’t come to the light of day unless it’s been through both of us, and therefore it’s high quality and more clearly expressed.

“There are also two sets of energy – Myra works first half of the week I work the second half – so I’m fresh when I come in and have done some thinking about work. There’s space to think operate in the role, and from my point of view organisations for which we work will get a high quality of delivery from us.”

It is striking when speaking with them that there is never an awkwardness in who picks up a thread of the conversation; they seem to know when the other is ready to take over, and say there is seldom a problem when other people have to pick up a conversation with one that they had with the other on a previous day. Which is where Hunt picks up:

One conversation

“We try to ensure we have communicated so much behind the scenes that if you start a conversation with Harriet on Thursday I am able to finish it on Monday. It’s our responsibility to make sure there is no additional burden, and that stretches from managing stakeholders, reporting to the board and performance management.

“As a job share we need to be absolutely joined up, so we’re quietly, at the crack of dawn or close of the day, doing quite a lot of pre-meets to agree on the line to take.”

They are now bringing their approach to the CDPS, an arm’s length body of the Welsh Government set up in 2020 to support the design and delivery of public services in line with the Digital Strategy for Wales. It is a relatively small organisation with about 40 people at present, but has been funded to operate through the term of the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) until the next election in May 2026.

Last week Green and Hunt issued their first public statement highlighting initiatives and priorities, which were generally in progress as they joined.

One is a review of public services to shape the CDPS portfolio of projects. The findings of its alpha phase should be released soon to sketch the landscape and maturity of digital services, followed by a phase, to be completed by Easter, of looking at exemplar interventions on which it can work with public sector partners.

Specifics of this are yet to emerge, but Green says they include systemic issues such as where it could be possible to use more components and libraries, and interventions that would be relevant across Wales.

Identifying themes

While there are a lot of possibilities to improve specific services, at the moment they are more ready to identify themes. These include the need for more interoperable technology, a stronger focus on service users, the need to improve digital inclusion – thrown into focus by the emphasis on online service during the pandemic – the need to ensure digital services support all areas of Wales, and the commitment to bilingual services.

“The other component is that there is a very strong political commitment to grow the SME economy,” Hunt says. “We have the M4 corridor but still have real challenges in building a thriving digital supplier sector.

“It’s really important that we open up our procurement across the public sector to encourage smaller suppliers to grow and diversify, and increase the number of digital start-ups.”

As part of this CDPS has been talking to SMEs in the sector about how to make it easier for them to compete in public procurement.

“The Nirvana is that across the public sector in Wales we are able to expose that digital portfolio and pipeline of coming pieces of work, so that companies are able to invest and grow their footprint in response. It’s about visibility and transparency in procurement and making it easy.”

Integrated care priority

It is no surprise that projects to support the integration of health and social care are in the pipeline, and Green says that Wales has advantages in the wide responsibilities of ministers and close relationships between the relevant departments, which makes collaboration easier.

As an early step, CDPS has recently launched the trial of a beta version of its Track My Request text notification service for people who need support from social services, working with Neath Port Talbot Council.

“It’s a real hot spot for us as it’s the point at which the interoperability between local authorities and health is absolutely key,” Hunt says. “At the moment we are evaluating that piece of work and looking at what service design can be done, and looking at data and the digital wraparound to enable local authorities and health to work effectively together.”

The organisation is also focused on building digital skills in the Welsh public sector, with a small training team and a plan to build a network of partners to support the effort. This is partly in bringing in apprentices and graduates, but both emphasise the importance of upskilling existing public sector staff into DDaT roles

“We’re doing training for civil servants, health workers, local authority workers, senior executives, mid-level officials, and we’ve done work on apprenticeship schemes and trying to work with apprenticeship bodies in Wales to ensure the DDaT (digital, data and technology) skills are being delivered,” Hunt says.

Commercial challenge

CDPS has so far supported about 100 people and will provide training another 500 in the next few months, but with the aim of scaling it up it needs to assess the commercial model.

“At the moment we’re trying to determine our commercial model,” Hunt says. “There is the potential to recharge for our services but we have to remember some arm’s length bodies are very small and don’t have deep pockets.

“If we want to scale beyond the backbone of funding we will have to develop some kind of internal charging mechanism.”

The organisation is also planning to offer a level of practical support with the development of an online toolbox for digital initiatives. It currently includes a set of service standards, a guide to agile terminology and plans to develop technical standards.

While this reflects the efforts made by the Government Digital Service (GDS) for Whitehall, they say that standards and best practice will be tailored to what is needed in Wales.

Unique demands

“The trick is going to be taking the best, sharing the lessons and recognising that Wales is different and unique,” Hunt says.

“We’re doing an interesting piece of work with primary care, looking at how people have interacted with the NHS App for example. It’s about whether there are differences between the English and Welsh experience and what might be behind those. We are being pragmatic.”

CDPS has just appointed Rhiannon Lawson, a former GDS staffer, as its interim head of standards, and Green says an important part of the role will be to explore where Wales needs to take a different approach to Whitehall with digital.

But Green emphasises that they will work closely with GDS and the Central Digital and Data Office.

“We have really good contacts, expect those to continue and will continue to sit on some boards such as the diversity board and GDS data group. For us it’s about gaining benefit wherever we can and there is certainly benefit to be gained from relationship with GDS.”

Knowledge sharing

The other major element CDPS’s work is in sharing best practice. It has a series of knowledge sharing programmes that are free to attend and runs communities of practice, with a view to influencing how the public sector approaches digital projects.

“We seek for everything we do to be exemplary of something, so everything we invest in has to have a scalable element,” Green says. “It’s showing best practice in some area or showing an opportunity to solve a bigger problem.

“We’re seeking to influence the larger spend beyond CDPS; so in setting the digital agenda for Wales, and creating the consensus around how we respond to digital challenges and opportunities, we seek to influence spend beyond what we do ourselves.”

This is always a big demand, but they both say there are advantages in making the effort in Wales. It is a relatively small country in which public services are not too deeply entrenched in their siloes, and officials have a stronger culture of working together. This promises to make the public sector as a whole more receptive to the work of CDPS.

“Wales is a really exciting place to work because people are very collaborative,” Green says. “There is collaboration rather than rivalry and a real desire to do things better, so we can spot opportunities from across Wales to make a difference.”

CDPS will be taking part in UKAuthority’s online Powering Digital Public Services conference over 9-11 March. Further details and registration can be found here.

 

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