Client Conversation: 
Meet Defence’s ‘Digital Ninja’

Client Conversations
Exploiting the potential of new technologies requires the best and brightest at decision-making tables – such as the team who make up the Defence Digital Service at the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Here, Mivy James sits down with its leader, Richard Crowther, to hear about life as a start-up in the heart of government
Richard Crowther HeadshotTake a walk through the Ministry of Defence (MoD) main building today and you can’t help but notice that it is quieter than usual. Of course, there are people still rushing to and fro – defending the realm does not pause for Coronavirus – but the buzz, the atmosphere, is markedly softer than usual.
 
The empty desks are a testament to not only the impact of the pandemic but also a digital revolution now well underway across the department.
 
While many teams – both civilian and military – are involved, the increasing sway of Richard Crowther and his colleagues at the Defence Digital Service (DDS) is apparent across the MoD.
 
From digitising the way in which the military understands its’ available resources to respond to operational needs to busting cyber security myths, DDS’ impact has been swift and far-reaching. No wonder Crowther and his team have been christened the department’s “digital ninjas”. Crowther, however, is just getting started.
 


Growth spurt


Growth icon“We often think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Crowther, and it’s easy to see why. Operational for just under a year, DDS is part of the MoD’s Defence Digital organisation, which is responsible for ensuring that effective digital and information technology is put into the hands of the military and business frontline.
 
While DDS’ numbers are currently comparatively small – “we have six staff with a couple of additional teams working on specific projects which takes us to just shy of 20 people,” says Crowther – they pack a mighty digital punch. Partly that’s because each team member is an expert in their field. “We’re building a team that is highly capable,” he adds.
 
“We need a team that can pick off difficult digital challenges or problems that might be too abstract to outsource. We want an in-house capability where we can take the digital techniques and ways of working developed elsewhere and apply them to Defence problems. I see myself tasked with building self-confidence in our ability to deliver and use these modern techniques on difficult pan-Defence challenges. That is at the core of what DDS is all about.”
“We want an in-house capability where we can take the digital techniques and ways of working developed elsewhere and apply them to Defence problems”

Richard Crowther, Head of Digital Defence Service at the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD)

And of course, DDS is not operating in isolation – anything but. There is a growing ecosystem of digital “start-ups” operating across Defence which, in time, will be federated and scaled up. These include the Navy Digital Service, the Army Digital Service, similar capabilities in the RAF, and several more, which are sharing best practices and capabilities.
 
Another way of understanding the DDS role is by viewing them as a digital “skunkworks” team. Skunkworks, which refers to a small group of people who enjoy a high degree of autonomy in order to develop radically innovative ideas and solutions, is a term widely used by and to describe a their colleagues across the pond – the US Digital Defense Service – and Crowther says that a shared lexicon is only one part of their budding, dare I say, ‘special relationship’.
 
“They are very good friends of ours who are playing a bit of a mentoring role as we get ourselves established,” he explains. “It makes sense as they have been through a similar journey to the one we’re on and have a lot of lessons to share – we also hold similar values and a stubborn resolve to get things done.”
 


Getting down to business


Get down to business iconSo how has DDS found its first year? Where have Crowther and his team been focusing their efforts? 
It transpires that much of their energy has been directed towards overcoming the challenges of the cultural and commercial aspects of life in government. “It can be quite hard to walk the path of balancing security, user needs and cost,” admits Crowther. “So while we are walking that path we are trying to share how we approach projects so other teams across Defence can benefit from that as well.”
 
They are taking a similar approach to balancing the benefits of Agile with the commercial restrictions that often spring up across the whole of government, not just Defence. This is because the rules of spending taxpayers money lends itself to a waterfall methodology, which assumes the details of a solution are clear before you even embark on a new project.
 
This is particularly important when beginning a multi-year programme as it’s never clear at the start what the final technical solution will be. Asked if DDS can help address those needs while also being able to bring in emerging technology, Crowther says it’s absolutely a priority. “The way that we traditionally do our budgetary planning makes it quite difficult to work in an Agile way,” he concedes.
 
“For example, planning funding is very difficult as we won’t know the exact skills profile of the team or the technologies needed for each project when we’re at the beginning of development – we need the flexibility to change tack as our understanding of the problem evolves. Trying to fit in with the traditional approach results in a bit of a stop-start journey, and that’s not sustainable for long. We haven’t cracked this problem yet but we know there are good examples in other government departments that we can learn from, and making some headway in this area will be vital for us to scale.”
 


Expectations vs reality


Expectations iconCrowther is himself relatively new to the Defence world. Having studied computer systems engineering at university, he joined the civil service as a technologist and has worked closely with many departments in the public sector, including the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Home Office among others.
 
He was then tapped by the MoD’s CIO, Charles Forte, to come and head up DDS. “Ultimately I’m an engineer and problem solver that can work with techies and senior leaders alike. I love to get in to the technical detail of particular problems but also enjoy trying to change things at scale – both aspects are needed to overcome the barriers that we have to digital delivery,” he reflects. “However, having been in this post since January I can’t really describe myself as ‘new’ any longer.”
 
He goes on to say that he has been pleasantly surprised by the sheer quality of the leadership within the Defence Digital organisation, as well as the common alignment when it comes to future plans.
 
“There is some great leadership around that has been coming together behind a shared vision,” he says. “I’ve also got to know a lot of people in uniform and there is certainly a lot of talent in the military that can be applied to these digital problems. I’ve been struck by the number of people interested, excited and wanting to get involved. One of my challenges is how to harness that passion – I’m really excited by the prospect developing our own internal ‘digital ninjas’ as well as bringing in experts from the outside as well.”
 
Of course, one thing that he we can’t have foreseen would have been the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced his team, like so many others, into the daily routine of remote working – hardly ideal for such a new unit. “We have new teams formed that have never met each other – one of them got together in a park recently to rectify that,” he says.
 
Crowther has himself been heavily involved in identifying the strategic implications of this way of working for those in Defence. “As well as supporting an immediate shift to remote working for much of Defence and the rolling out of technology for the Nightingale Hospitals, the CIO commissioned an additional group to take more of a long term view about how the technology in Defence and our ways of working needed to change to take better advantage of remote working.”
 
Crowther ended up leading a virtual team which looked at the technology the MoD has provided to people for remote working, as well as the cultural aspects of such a shift. “We identified a significant need arising from how people can find information in Defence which is exacerbated when you’re not in the office and without an easy network of people to ask. This led to a DDS project trying to help people find and share information. So in a way, it’s been an opportunity to find ways we could improve across Defence.”
 


Mapping the year ahead


Navigate iconSo what’s next for Crowther and DDS? It’s clear he wants to maintain the momentum of the preceding months and to do that he is focusing hard on delivery.
 
“By this time next year, DDS should have a portfolio of examples of services it has delivered – we need to do this to earn trust that we can deliver,” he says. This ‘strategy by delivery’ is a direct reflection of the approach embraced by the early GDS pioneers. For example, its first director, Mike Bracken, was clear that his role was to deliver – often, iteratively and repetitively.
 
“This is something that has been driving my team from the start – we didn’t write a strategy about how we are going to do digital transformation, we thought we’d just better get on and start doing it.”
 
With this in mind, he pinpoints growing the digital delivery capability in the centre of Defence as a key objective. “I hope we’ll have made significant headway in terms of applying modern thinking to things like security accreditation and assurance processes,” he adds. “We think we can improve security whilst reducing bureaucracy and in doing so help all teams across Defence to get things done.”
 
“We didn’t write a strategy about how we are going to do digital transformation, we thought we’d just better get on and start doing it”

Richard Crowther, Head of Digital Defence Service at the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD)

And perhaps unsurprisingly he also identifies legacy technology as an area ripe for investigation. “Legacy is a big priority – there is a big cross-government push on addressing legacy technology, so it’s not just in Defence. The more we can reduce our technical debt the more capacity we’ll free up to move forwards,” he says.
 
“I see us playing a role in helping set the standards for these things and maybe making sure we are focused on the right things as well. There is a tendency in Defence to write a lot of rules about how things should be done – I think we should be focusing rules and standards on the essentials whilst empowering teams to make risk-based judgements supported by clearer guidance.”
 


Steps to strides


A newbie no longer, Crowther is evidently fired up and ready to continue the momentum of DDS’ first year in operation – pandemic or no pandemic. “At the end of the day, my role is about boosting Defence’s self confidence in its ability to do incredible things with digital and technology,” he concludes. “I want us to remove some of the mystique and the barriers so many more people can do it, not just the DDS team. That’s what I’m here for.”
 
His enthusiasm – both palpable and infectious – reflects both progress made and work still ahead. And certainly, while his is clearly a pivotal and high-pressured role, he shows no visible signs of bearing any burden.
 
Quite the opposite, in fact.
 
 

About the author
Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
mivy.james@baesystems.com
 
 

Further Reading

  • Defence’s Digital Disruptor. Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE may lack a digital background but his has been a career steeped in military achievements, professional ascent and ongoing drive and curiosity. So how did this “knuckle-dragging infantryman” find himself spearheading the British military’s embrace of all things digital? Mivy James investigates…
  • Stepping up on Cyber Defence. Christine Maxwell is a woman on a mission – a cyber mission. She tells Mivy James about overseeing the ever evolving challenge of Cyber Defence and Risk at the UK’s Ministry of Defence
  • The appliance of science in Defence. Dr Paul Kealey’s has been a life spent pushing boundaries. He tells Mike Stratford about exploiting cutting edge science and technology to strengthen the UK’s defences
  • Delivering digital change in Defence. Continuing our examination of Agile working, Kevin McLeod spotlights the technological whirlwind reshaping the UK’s Defence sector. But with change comes challenges...
  • Making the Ministry of Defence more Agile. Agile working is by no means limited to the private sector. Continuing our series examining transformation, Mivy James sits down with the MoD’s Adrian Bailey to talk process, product and pace
  • Building an Artificial Defence. Although the potential for Artificial Intelligence in Defence is clear, it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves. David Henstock explains why it’s more marathon than sprint