“The nature of the work here means the systems you're working on are just so important,” says Graham Camm. “Whatever it is you’re doing, it’s important.” He’s got a point.
The Home Office, where Camm works, is at the very heart of public life in the UK. Supported by 30 agencies and public bodies, its reach extends from immigration to crime to counter-terrorism to policing, all of which means that life there is not for the faint of heart. Camm, though, clearly embraces the responsibility of serving as Head of Technical Architecture for Biometrics. “It remains interesting, challenging and rewarding and its mission remains as pertinent as it was when I first started,” he reflects.
Camm, however, is no civil service lifer. His private sector career saw him take in roles at both Rolls-Royce and Dyson, among others, before heeding the siren call of public service. The common thread, however, has been engineering – and it’s this passion which has been an ever-present since his days at school.
Camm can pinpoint the very start of his engineering career and interestingly he says it wasn’t the moment he set foot inside his first place of employment, or when he received his first job offer. Rather, it was when he wrote a letter to Rolls-Royce asking for some assistance for a school project on its Concorde jet engine.
“They actually lined me up an interview with the engine’s chief engineer,” he recalls. “His enthusiasm for this rather unique piece of engineering was very inspiring and I think my own engineering career was set at that point.”
Rolls-Royce also became his first employer after graduation, working as a junior engineer before pivoting towards IT and priorities such as shop floor control systems. He followed this up by moving to Dyson, where he worked on manufacturing and business systems. Asked what it was like to work for such a famously innovative company, he says that what really marked it out was the sheer scale of its ambition.
“When I joined they had this impressive building in Malmesbury in Wiltshire,” he recalls. “The staff area was on a Mezzanine and they took me up to the window on my first day, opened the curtains to show me the warehouse space they had built for producing their washing machine. It was completely empty but I was informed that in six months’ time the first one would be rolling off the production line – and it did! It's a company where you're only held back by your own ability really – not too many rules, not too much structure – you just have to make your case, prove you can do it and then get on with it.”
Onwards to Whitehall
Fast forward a few years, though, and Camm was firmly ensconced at the Home Office’s headquarters in Marsham Street, a short stroll from the Palace of Westminster. What happened? What drew him into the civil service? It transpires it was the opportunity to work in an innovative – and fast evolving – IT environment.
“The Government Digital Service was very clear that government IT had to change and that departments need to own the design and understand user needs and be more Agile – all of which caught my attention, as did the large recruitment campaign that the Home Office was running at the time.”
But that didn’t mean that he wasn’t slightly apprehensive. Changing jobs is rarely without risk – especially when you’re moving from private to public or vice versa – and Camm concedes that it was with some trepidation that he took the plunge.
“I didn’t know quite what to expect from the civil service at that point,” he admits. “I was slightly fearful that I would be joining a set of programmes where the IT systems could be a failure, and after a few years of work it would be considered a disaster. So there was a little bit of apprehension but once I made the leap I was actually quite pleased with the transition.”
His first role at the department was with Border Force, something that was akin to his experience at Dyson it turns out. “I walked into the office at the start of January 2012 and they said ‘we have this Olympic thing’ coming up. There were a few risks which we had to solve in the next six months – so off we went to fix them. When you have a clear goal, the required funding and real impetus then you can just get on with things.”
Camm also had to adapt to new ways of working – not least adjusting to the comparatively slower pace of life in government. “My immediate reaction was to query why things take so long,” he admits. “And then after a few months you realise that the significance of the services you're dealing with means there’s a much lower appetite for risk, and arguably rightly so.”
“We remind ourselves daily that if we make a mistake it's people's lives we would be impacting and potentially people's freedoms being taken away. This drives our collective attention to detail, and it drives the assurance we put into the design and the testing”
Graham Camm, Head of Technical Architecture, Biometrics at the Home Office
To illustrate his point, he cites his current area of biometrics, pointing out that the innate nature of the technology means you can’t risk cutting corners. He and his colleagues are delivering a unified, real-time service to help government agencies collect, authenticate, verify, search and match individuals’ biometrics and forensics. It is vital for solving crime, preventing terrorism, protecting borders and supporting an effective immigration system – but risks nonetheless abound.
“We remind ourselves daily that if we make a mistake it's people's lives we would be impacting and potentially people's freedoms being taken away,” says Camm. “This drives our collective attention to detail, and it drives the assurance we put into the design and the testing. In many other areas of IT the impact of getting it wrong isn’t the same, so you can have a much higher risk appetite. This, for me, is the biggest difference with the private sector and it helps explain why things frequently take longer and cost more.”
A buzz for biometrics
But what are biometrics exactly? You might not realise it but you’re probably pretty familiar already. Unlocking your phone with your face is possible through biometrics and so, too, is secure banking through voice recognition. In essence, biometrics can fix a person’s identity by linking them to biographical information in order to verify who a person is, or to identify them amongst many others.
This ability to recognise people based on measurement and analysis of their biological characteristics or behavioural data is increasingly widespread and is being used by the Home Office in a number of ways. For example, in the year ending September 2018, 51.9 million passengers used ePassport gates across the UK. The gates use facial recognition technology to compare the passenger’s face to the digital image recorded in their passport, facilitating more efficient and secure movement across borders.
That said, the advance of biometric technologies also crystallises the need to protect civil liberties. And given the rapidly accelerating pace of technological change, government also needs to be flexible enough to respond to each potential new deployment.
“In many other areas of IT the impact of getting it wrong isn’t the same, so you can have a much higher risk appetite. This, for me, is the biggest difference with the private sector and it helps explain why things frequently take longer and cost more”
Graham Camm, Head of Technical Architecture, Biometrics at the Home Office
It was 2014 when Camm stepped into this arena, and he is quick to admit that it was comparatively new terrain. Fortunately, he has had a strong set of colleagues around him – “I’m very proud of the team we’ve built up over the past six years and they are definitely one of the reasons I have stayed put” – and the programme is now well into the actual delivery, focusing on areas such as service continuity and reducing running costs. That doesn’t mean it is all smooth sailing, however.
“We have made significant changes to the immigration biometric systems driven by the EU exit,” he points out. “There's still some negotiation going on and we remain ready to adjust our IT systems if any policy or legislation changes arise in the next six months.”
There have also been plenty of technical challenges. To overcome them, Camm and his team deploy different methodologies – some Agile, some Waterfall – into their operations and release cycles. Camm says it’s all about enabling suppliers to use the method they prefer.
“We let suppliers work in the way they want to work and then we bring it all back together with the integration testing,” he explains. “Lining up releases bang on time is often a bit tricky but if one supplier needs to put something into service or testing ahead of another then they can do that so it is all backwards-compatible. We’ve also created a biometrics services gateway – the front door into the systems – which is managed in a more Agile way and this gives us the option to address any issues as they arise.”
Another positive Camm alludes to is their “proactive” approach to legacy systems. Not for them a rush to cast aside what had gone before, instead they have purposely seen them as an asset at their disposal. “We've started from the premise of looking at the problem and considering if legacy systems are still fit for purpose in our potential solution – we’re not just going to throw them away,” he says.
The approach has proven effective – “in annual performance reviews we've generally been classed as amber or green” – and Camm and his colleagues are in active dialogue with other government departments as well. “We're talking to other departments and treating them as potential customers to aggregate their demand needs and then respond accordingly,” he explains. “We're trying to formalise this product management approach and move from being a programme organisation to a product one.”
The move towards product management has been underpinned by an increasing reliance on cloud technologies. The majority of their systems designed from scratch have been designed for cloud – a process which has proven by no means straightforward. “It takes a lot of effort to get the security and encryption right,” says Camm, “and so we refine and apply these lessons to each new project that we start up.”
Another lesson gleaned from the past few years is that cloud run costs. “We are aware that cloud run costs have the potential to be higher than initially estimated, this necessitates a strong focus on cost control during development followed by cost optimisation after going live,” he says. “We are using our experience to improve both the cost control and estimating to keep within the budgets” he continues, adding that the push to get over the line often means bringing more resources in, which is easily done in the cloud, can lead to cost spikes which need to be minimised.”
These lessons are also being applied across the whole of the Home Office but the pace of change means that these hard-won insights do not always remain pertinent. “The cloud is still quite an evolving space and there are new services coming out all the time so are constantly reviewing, adjusting and learning new lessons,” he points out.
“So the way we might have done things six months ago is no longer considered the best way to do it. That’s why we try and maintain relationships with cloud service providers so they are informing us about what is coming down the line. This means we can aim to take the best decision we can and be able to stick with it because the scale of the data in biometrics means changing direction can be quite tricky.”
As for the future, Camm admits he’s “not very good” at planning too far ahead but it appears that a return to the private sector is not on the cards. “The Home Office is continuing to build out its civil servant IT capability and I intend to follow this path,” he explains. “The department has appointed different CTOs for different parts of the organisation and this is opening up more opportunities.”
Whichever option he pursues, it’s fair to surmise that it will be one that enables him to combine impact with cutting edge engineering – why break the habit?
About the author
Chris Hesketh is the CTO at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence for the Central Government Client group
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