December 2020. It’s been quite a year. A time of huge challenge and difficulty, a period where the British state has been under greater stress than it has for generations – and there is still more turbulence ahead.
But one thing remains constant – the end of any year is an opportunity to take stock. To consider what has worked and what might be improved. To better understand where we have been in order to leave ourselves better placed for the future.
Here, we speak to a number of leaders from across government, public sector and the armed forces to hear their reflections and thoughts on the past 12 months.

Anit Chandarana, Chief of Staff, Network Rail

It is not just the pandemic that has defined 2020, but this year we have also seen a huge shift in the focus on BAME communities both inside and outside of the workplace. This year has sparked a debate on a global scale and, as a result, we have started to see some positive steps being taken to help and support the BAME communities.

This year has forced us all to think, act and behave differently, and for me personally it has been a kick up the behind to make the difference we have all been demanding for so long. I recognise that I have a huge responsibility as a role model to be a voice for minority groups within Network Rail and with my position I can influence far bigger changes in the organisation. I remain committed, with the support of my team to deliver real change in the future.

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director of Military Digitisation,UK’s Strategic Command

Reflections on 2020 Pandemic icon Clearly COVID-19 has been the topic that’s dominated the agenda over the last year and its impact has been felt so uniquely by each of us that there can be real danger in making sweeping generalisations – one person’s commute-cutting, working from home dream can be another’s claustrophobic nightmare.
Similarly, in an organisation as large and varied as the MoD, there have been an enormously wide range of impacts across the workplace, with some roles being far more accommodating than others of the restrictions that COVID-19 has placed upon us. However, for me, the pandemic has presented an interesting mixture of both threats and opportunities for us in Defence Digital to manage this year.
High among the threats has been its effect on collaboration with our co-workers. Whilst modern IT gives more options than ever before for communicating and collaborating with others, too often only the quantity of messaging increases, while the quality suffers. With so much of effective human communication being non-verbal, coupled with the important role that (often noisy, competing and dynamic) office based dialogue can play in informal collaboration, the current capabilities of electronic tools still struggle to fully replicate the spontaneity of the traditional office.
In a similar vein, no amount of technology can replace the needs of many of us for social human interaction – the risks of COVID-19-induced isolation to our physical and mental health being widely acknowledged.
To respond, Defence has had to up its game both technically (investing rapidly to improve access, reduce latency, and increase capacity on our networks), and organisationally (to better educate our users on the tools available and to change our ways of working to accommodate and benefit from them). Despite these efforts and much success to date, as an organisation we must remain alive to the challenges of remote working and manage its effects proactively.
At the same time, the sudden and rapid shift to routine and wide-reaching remote working across much of Defence has presented us with a number of unique opportunities this year.
Firstly, whilst 100% remote working may not be a viable (or desirable) proposition just yet, the last few months have certainly opened Pandora’s Box, and there will be no putting the lid back on. Online meetings and the flexibility to work in different places and at different times has become a habit that I’m sure will prove difficult to break. Whilst the rules to allow flexible working have been around in the MoD for some time, the cultural shift to embrace them has taken a giant leap forward this year. Such a shift in approach has enormous opportunity for improvements in quality of life, recruitment and retention and reducing environmental impact.
Secondly, as an organisation we have reminded ourselves of the impressive feats we can deliver when it really matters. The responsive and agile approach to delivery demonstrated in the spring, when it became an organisational (and even national) imperative to transform our network – almost overnight – was a reminder of what we can achieve. There is now a valuable opportunity to learn the lessons of this crisis to help deliver other transformative projects and programmes in the future.
Thirdly, the enforced remote working has accelerated the digitisation (and digitalisation) of processes that until recently had been resolutely archaic. I’m sure we can all think of examples of a paper form that previously had to be printed and signed, that can now be emailed; a rule that previously required attendance in person that now no longer stands.
Which leads me to my final thought, on where we in Defence Digital are heading next. Despite the Integrated Review being postponed, some clear themes had been emerging – signalled in speeches leading up to the planned publication and through the new Integrated Operating Concept for Defence – about the need to adapt to the changing character of warfare.
As conflict becomes more nuanced, sub-threshold, and narrative focused; as the environment becomes more complex and the decisions needed to gain advantage become harder to make; two things will help us compete – Multi Domain Integration and the use of data as a strategic asset.
Both of these principles are too vast to cover in detail here, suffice to say that to support them, Defence Digital will be delivering a portfolio of improvements under the banner of the “Digital Backbone” over the coming years, which will address shortfalls across the People, Process, Data and Technology aspects of our information services. As a product of 2020, the Digital Backbone will no doubt reflect the lessons and experiences of the COVID-19 era, and hopefully be the stronger for it.

Dr Paul Kealey, Head of Cyber and Information Systems, Dstl

2020 has been a year of grasping the exciting opportunities for data, cyber and space to meet our ambitions, including machine speed command and control – a very difficult problem.
The conversation throughout Defence and Security this year has been on data; be that data in war or data as war. Critical technologies across space, cyber and fundamentals including artificial intelligence point towards significant opportunity, and innovation is the current focus across these topics. The opportunity is massive and the leadership challenge is vital. There is a pressing need for discipline, for focus and to ensure this revolution delivers multi-domain integration at scale.
My focus at Dstl has been the science inside, ensuring Defence understands the priorities, the technical and organisation challenges and to ensure progress is made, and the hype delivers the much needed capability.  We have started this journey, but many challenges are ahead. Collaboration will be key to success – with AI Fest being an early example of how we will bring more talent into key Defence challenges.

Christine Maxwell, Director, Cyber Defence and Risk, Ministry of Defence

Reflections on 2020 Flexible icon 2020 has been the busiest and most unusual year of most of our lives. But also a good year in modernising Defence’s ways of working and creating better work life balance. I’m really proud what we’ve achieved this year.
From a defensive cyber perspective it’s been a year whereby its importance is more recognised across Defence than ever, and I’ve been really impressed in the engagement we’ve had from our Cyber Confident awareness campaign.
I have also been working closely with the broader transformation programmes to get security embedded into programmes such as the Windows10 build and other systems going live. What’s next? My priority is to further develop Secure by Design and get it into embedded into more programmes and suppliers beyond the pilot group.

Kristina Evans, Head of Cyber and Security, Information Directorate, British Army HQ

A challenging year for the Army as it supported the nation whilst adapting to the global challenge of COVID-19. We modified our information security practices rapidly, affording us unrealised opportunities as well as new security challenges.  This allowed us to maintain essential Defence outputs and generate forces in support of the national effort.
We continued to develop the Land Cyber programme and announced our new Cyber Regiment, which will protect vital Defence networks at home and on operations overseas.  Work is ongoing to develop the Regiment’s Cyber and Information Services Centre (CyISOC) and to enhance the capabilities of its Cyber Protection Teams.  There is a significant focus on upskilling our cyber specialists, ensuring they are at the leading edge and are a potent force for the Army and as part of a federated Defence capability.
This work is supported by a more comprehensive approach to security culture, education and awareness across the whole force. This sits within a series of broader security development activities addressing risk management, governance, threat intelligence, incident response and resilience which are seeking to remediate risk across all Army activities.

Andy Christopher, Gloucestershire Police MASH manager

Reflections on 2020 Safeguarding icon What was predicted to be a routine year has turned out to be far from it! 2020 has been the year of agile working and has seemed like juggling new problems whilst balancing on a tightrope. Safeguarding has become virtual with all the complexities that bring and virtual meeting platforms are now the norm, however why so many?!
But as usual, policing has risen to the challenge and is now delivering its core functions in a very different way. Within Public Protection we are generally remote working, but continue to deliver an effective multi-agency response with partners, albeit in a slightly different way. Staff induction, training and supervision have all required different processes and IT competence and curiosity has taken on a new level. Relationship building is essential but how do we sustain this without human contact?
Amongst all the difficulties and issues we have faced there are positives, however. We have had the opportunity to question what is important and where we can create capacity, which has enabled us to re-focus and question our operating priorities, as well as stripping out some inefficiencies. 2020 has changed the way we all work and in some areas I see no return. The challenge will be in what the new normal working environment actually looks like and can this continue to work into the future?

Richard Crowther, Head of the Defence Digital Service

It’s certainly been an interesting 12 months to set up and establish the Defence Digital Service (DDS) – our new digital start-up operating in the heart of UK Defence.
The pandemic threw up a wide range of unexpected challenges. As well as the unexpected and vital projects it created for my team and many others across Defence, it meant we had to be creative in how we built and established the team. We are growing slower than we wanted but we’ve managed to bring in some exceptionally talented people to join DDS, and we’ve played a key role in building some communities of practice across Defence, which is helping to share good practice and lessons learned.
I’m proud of how DDS has played its part in supporting and enabling Defence whilst it helps to support the nation through the pandemic. We helped shift some policy, technology and cultural barriers to remote working. And we identified longer term changes needed to enable much of our workforce to be more productive. We’ve started to address one of the key problems we identified affecting many users – the problem of how users find and share information - through an Alpha which has looked at possible solutions. And we expect to take forwards a Beta to create a minimum viable product in the New Year.
Our work on improving readiness reporting as well as the understanding of supply and demand of resources across Defence has been one of our main areas of focus this year. This work is currently in a Beta phase and we look forward to our first release in the New Year.
Both of these projects have helped give us a platform to discuss the importance of product management, user-centred design and agile ways of working with all of the teams and stakeholders we engage with, and that has paid off – it’s no longer unusual to hear “we need to understand what users need” being said by our senior leaders – which brings a smile to my face every time.
Next year is full of exciting opportunities for DDS. We are working with the other digital teams in Defence to build a stronger federation to collectively transform many more services and capabilities, both in the business space and in the battle-space.


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