“Trust in the technology,” I told myself, as I attempted to connect with Alok Raj remotely rather than in person, as had originally been planned.
He, too, has been working from home for several weeks, but it quickly becomes clear that physical separation from colleagues has made little difference to how he approaches his dual roles of Chief Architect and interim Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the Department for Education (DfE). He remains brimming with ideas and passion, not to mention full-throated admiration for the values of his civil service colleagues.
“This is the first time I've worked in a central government department and I have found it both challenging and exciting,” he says. “When you're enabling the delivery of policy and seeing the impact on parents, children, teachers, schools, academy trusts, and so on it is hugely rewarding. But most fundamentally, I have been struck by the people I have found in the department. Their determination to be impartial and make a real difference is unlike anything I have come across before. It's absolutely amazing.”
Alok has been in post at the DfE for a little over two years, taking on the interim role of CTO last December. Prior to joining the civil service, he spent more than 25 years in the private sector, working across several different sectors and industries.
A common thread of his career has been helping organisations deliver technology and digital transformation, ranging from serverless tech such as cloud, to other advanced computer software. For example, DfE has used computerised learning methods to analyse patterns of under-investment in schools.
Recent weeks, though, have presented an altogether different type of challenge: leading the department’s technological response to the Covid19 pandemic.
So how’s he been getting on?
Life in the shadow of a pandemic
Much like many countries around the world, the UK’s schools, colleges and nurseries have been closed to all but the most vulnerable children and those of key workers.
As a result, the DfE has had to respond quickly to challenges such as cancelled examinations, supporting pupils eligible for free school meals and much more – all while its workforce has, like organisations up and down the country, been adjusting to working from home. Has this gone smoothly or thrown up some technical difficulties? Thankfully, Alok says, it’s largely been the former.
“Overall from my perspective the department has adapted very well,” he observes. “I think we were quite well prepared in terms of the tools the staff already had and the resilience of our infrastructure. So we were able to transition several thousand staff to start working from home the day after the official announcement was made, and they have been using their laptop and home Wi-Fi to seamlessly connect into the department's systems.”
He is keen to stress, however, that DfE didn’t arrive at this picture overnight – it’s been a process and one that has taken several years. “We've been on a journey where we have started to standardise corporate tools like laptops, tablets and phones and a lot of work has gone on,” he says. But this hasn’t necessarily been replicated across the government estate, and Alok pinpoints a lack of standardisation as key to these fluctuating fortunes.
“Every department does things in a different way and what I think the crisis shows is the need to think about interoperability and standardisation”
Alok Raj, Chief Architect and interim Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the Department for Education (DfE)
“Having spoken to many CTOs across government, I'm acutely aware that our experience has not been universal,” he admits. “This is because we don't have a standard desktop and we do not have a standard build of that desktop across the central government. This means that every department does things in a different way and what I think this crisis shows is the need to think about interoperability and standardisation.”
Fortunately for DfE staffers, they already were well equipped with vital tools such as laptops, but this hasn’t been the case for their counterparts in other government departments, it transpires. And due to a creaking supply chain, a remedy isn’t as imminent as it would be under normal circumstances.
“Unfortunately, we know that laptop supply has completely dried up but even if we had the supply chain, do we have sufficient numbers of technical people to take those laptops and build them out so they are ready for use?” asks Alok. “From my perspective, the crisis has also highlighted that you can talk about the best new product on the market and we can argue about using Skype or Teams or Zoom or whatever but if your core infrastructure lacks the resilience to be able to use these platforms then they all come to nothing.”
For DfE, though, thousands of staffers are now working from home and technical issues have been few and far between – much to Alok’s relief. “From a CTO perspective I don’t want IT to be the centre of discussion – it’s just an enabler at the end of the day,” he says. “Of course there have been some challenges – people are now juggling things like taking care of their family – but it has worked well from a technical perspective.”
Time for Agile?
Leaving aside arguments about the merits of big government or small government, one thing the pandemic has reiterated is the importance of effective government – both here in the UK and around the world. It has also shone a light on the importance of flexibility and the ability of government organisations to navigate unchartered waters.
To this end, has it created greater urgency around the benefits of Agile working? Although it’s frequently talked about, has Covid19 forced leaders to embrace and deploy this approach to getting stuff done? Alok agrees, – but says that Agile is not new and mustn’t come at the expense of planning and scaling up.
“Agile has become something of a buzzword,” he says, arguing that much of it was inherited from the manufacturing industry, and has now been adopted elsewhere, including by those working in software development.
“Within the department we are keen to do this while also delivering in small increments and test things out while also scaling them. Sometimes I’ve found that that Agile – in the digital context – can mean no governance and lack of assurance but in general I do support the fundamental principles of delivering in increments, delivering faster, delivering proof of concepts quickly, while at the same time designing your wider systems so it can be scaled up and scaled out in a resilient way. This is my own interpretation of Agile, rather than innovation gone rogue, which is when people can pursue the goal of digital development in different and competing ways.”
Talking of digital development, it seems pertinent to ask how the DfE’s digital projects have been impacted by the crisis – and it turns out they have been come to a complete standstill. “This crisis has identified two lifeline activities that this department exists for,” Alok points out.
“Our first job is about our finance and payment capability – ensuring that money goes out to the education, skills and children services sector. The second is around communication, collaboration and engagement.
This is not just about technology – it’s also about our face to face engagement with our national/regional school commissioners, local authorities, the regulators and many other channels. These activities are what the department is really all about, rather than spending huge amounts of money on things like shiny new websites, which are just portals at the end of the day.”
This, he believes, means that the pandemic has been helpful in resetting and reminding everyone that tech is an enabler and something that underpins the business, rather than the other way around. “Thanks to the crisis we're not doing digital transformation any more – we’ve gone back to the fundamentals, like the core network infrastructure and getting the right standardised laptops to everyone in the department. People once thought that was pretty boring but it brings it back to where the real value is to an organisation. It’s about whether we are really delivering and enabling value to the citizens.”
It’s clear that at any time, let alone in the midst of a pandemic, he has little time for those who get into debates about what constitutes “digital” and what constitutes “tech”. “The whole debate between the two pairings has not been helpful at all – especially from a policy perspective,” he says.
“The fundamental thing is that you can’t do a digital transformation without having the technology and data in place. The crisis has helped crystallise in lots of people's minds the differences between digital, data and tech, rather than them being one and the same thing. In actual fact what they are is enablers towards delivering business value and outcomes.”
Adapting to the new normal
When he’s not crouched over his laptop or phone, Alok – like so many of us – is home-schooling his kids and sharing workspace with his wife, who is also working from home. Although it’s had its ups and downs – “there's a lot of juggling of different priorities” – he very much recognises the impact of isolation on people’s mental health and general wellbeing.
“We’re probably working more actually as you're not as aware of the need to take a coffee break or go for a walk,” he reflects. “All these things like walking to the printer and chatting with colleagues en route have gone.” He goes on to say that he and his colleagues in the leadership team are looking at how to best support colleagues across the department about some of the best practices – how to exercise, take breaks, and have time for things like video chats with your colleagues.
“It's also highlighted the need to look after each other,” he adds. “It's a new experience and many aren't used to working from home at all so we need to make sure they are comfortable about sharing their challenges. And not everyone has their own home; a lot are in shared properties and it's not easy to find a private space to work comfortably from.”
An outsider’s perspective
Looking ahead, managing the impact of the pandemic will clearly take precedence in the weeks and months to come. To do that, he will be bringing his experience from the private sector – something that he has valued from day one of starting his role.
“Having this outside experience to call upon has been immensely helpful and I’m not alone – a lot of people have joined the department over the past few years. I think there is a huge value in bringing people in from outside as it helps the DfE shake things up a bit, think outside of the box, think laterally and focus efforts on the things that matter.”
For now that means not the nitty gritty of a digital transformation, but rather ensuring how technology can best be deployed to help schools, universities, colleges and nurseries cope with the drastically changed circumstances prompted by the pandemic. Interestingly, this outward looking approach is by no means the norm.
“We actually have very little to do with the technology in schools themselves because it’s so autonomous,” he points out. “Schools have the freedom to go out and buy what they want. As a result, some schools are well equipped and have a resilient network to be able to move their pupils online, but some in more rural or disadvantaged areas are left behind.
“The whole department is now thinking about online and remote learning and how we can help. It comes down to helping those in most need and those who are most vulnerable and have been left behind. Doing nothing cannot be an option.”
About the author
Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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