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CIO podcast: DWP Chief Digital & Information Officer Mayank Prakash

Picture by Matt Gore
Meet the man from the DWP

“Technology is not an enabler, it is part of the core design; as leaders we must never put an AND between business and IT,” says Mayank Prakash, Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in a discussion on the Horizon CIO podcast. “Be proud of delivering business outcomes that either disrupt the value chain of the business that we are in, or disrupt the value that we create in a competitive market.”

Written and presented by Mark Chillingworth photographed and edited by Matt Gore

Prakash has been leading technology at DWP since 2014, when he joined the public sector from financial services. DWP is the largest department in central government with a far reaching remit from managing the state pension, child benefit and the Job Centre network to name just three. Under Prakash DWP has refocused its operations and its IT teams to be data driven as it strives to deliver user needs based digital services.

We are very data rich and our data is spacial because our data is about our customers. Who are our customers? It’s your family, your children, your parents our uncles and aunts and the people who live on the same street as us, so this data is very precious and as well as a huge opportunity to make a difference to people’s lives,” Prakash says of the value of data in a Whitehall department that has a cradle to grave relationship with each and every citizen in the UK.

“The fascinating thing for me is that people often forget that the I in IT is the I in information. We got a bit too focused on technology in the last few decades and the profession has changed to turn data into reliable information and to turn that information into insight which is a competitive advantage. The more real time the data is, the more segmented it is, the more personalised it is and the better the user experience, the more loyalty you get, because it is no more about automating processes and it is about killer user experience,” Prakash says in language you hear typically from retail CIOs, but also increasingly from leaders in government technology.

As with any organisation pursuing a data led strategy, DWP is working towards using real-time data to improve efficiency, accuracy and the range of services it offers. 

“Imagine you are a carer looking after somebody who is disabled. You are living many lives, you are looking after somebody, you have your own life that is personal, you have a work life, so in these many lives you are short of time.

“So what did we require a few years back? We required for you to come in and meet us. Now most carers reach us online and typically they reach us in the evening when we don’t have to be open, so you can see that real-time decision making adds real value from the perspective of the user and the customer,” he says.

Our interactions with DWP may come at some of the most challenging times in our lives, when we lose our jobs, need extra support for our families or retire. But Prakash believes that the same pressures of consumer demand exist for DWP as they do a major retailer.

“The expectation that you and I have as users of technology do not change we are in different environments.

“The unique thing that we experience is that we have to nudge behaviour, as this is social interaction and that means we have to put in behavioural science into the user experience. It is not just about putting a transaction online,” he says.

DWP has a core master data set, Prakash tells the podcast, but has to go beyond the typical master data thinking of most organisations. There are four lines of business: working age, children, pensioners and disability, but the CIO says there has to be times when data is segregated.

“There is certain data that is retained and is unique to a line of business or a service. When parents are separating, we make sure that we support the children, there is some master data that is shared across services, but there is some data that is private.

“We think we can set an example for all industries for how we can use data to respect privacy, but also using data to deliver new services and better outcomes, we think these two are not exempt of each other, we think we can be exemplary in this,” he adds.

Although the CIO has high ambitions, he’s also a pragmatist: Crudely, our business is similar to a large retailer, we have over 22 million customers and are on every high street across the country. When you do high volume transactions with a large number of customers, you are going to see fraud, error and debt and that is the nature of a very large system that you operate.

“Reducing error saves money, if you process over a million transactions not every single one of them will be correct, in any system in the world, it doesn’t matter whether it is in travel, retail, financial services, government, they will not all go well.

“So upstream we are designing our services to reduce error and downstream making sure that the error can be corrected automatically without human interactions,” he says.

Creating data focused teams

On this podcast and within our social media communities a number of CIOs have expressed the need for and the challenge of finding data scientists. Prakash and DWP have been developing a data science team since 2016.

“True data scientists are gold dust. We have these waves of hot roles and everybody rebrands themselves as a data scientist. The first challenge is spotting the real data scientist from everybody who believes they are a data scientist.

What you need is a combination of skills and a depth of expertise, so do I want to hire PHDs who are deep neural network engineers, or do I want to hire somebody that understands how visualisation works with neural networks? Our realisation has been it is not one or the other, you need both.”

DWP now operates a data science hub with scientists embedded in all four business lines.

“We have just moved out of our datacentres into a hybrid cloud and this has left enough space to park two Boeing 747s and have space for tennis courts around it, so that is the size and scale that we operate at”

Reboot of IT

Back in 2011 CIOs of DWP and HMRC had to face a government inquiry and some stiff questions about decade long contracts with single global vendors. As Prakash tells the Horizon CIO podcast, IT has had to reinvent itself within DWP.

“Our business runs on 50 million lines of code, so when you have this size and scale the reality is that you work with every leading provider in the world. You could name any leading organisation and I am probably their customer and we see that as an opportunity so we have moved from having fixed long term exclusive contracts to relationships that are flexible and commercial.

“We have just moved out of our datacentres into a hybrid cloud and this has left enough space to park two Boeing 747s and have space for tennis courts around it, so that is the size and scale that we operate at.

“When we look for a partner, what is the competitive advantage that they offer? And we look for what provides the best value for our customers and that means we work with large providers and we work with startups and small business and scale ups and incumbents and that whole spectrum allows us to constantly take advantage of new technologies, new methods,” he says.

“We used to start with what the contract allows us to do,” Prakash says of how the internal IT operation has changed to understand its influence and the opportunities it offers providers. “We now start with what is the right thing to do?

“Contracts need to enable us to deliver and we understand that like any large and mature organisation we need to be part of partnerships; so for us it is not about we are the customer, and to be demanding and how can I get a penalty.

“We look at our vendors as partners, what are we going to do together. The potential of  a relationship is not what we can tell you can do, it is what we can together explore that we didn’t set out to do,” the former service provider CIO says.

“That has fundamentally changed the business, we no longer have sales people doing contract bids, we now have people who say ‘this is what I am doing in this industry to help people improve their lives and wouldn’t it be great if we did that in your business’ and we explore that together.

“I would also say one of the privileged positions we are in is that we don’t compete with anybody and that means that we have no problem collaborating with anybody and that is a fantastic place to innovate.

“For any large IT organisation, the last decade has required us to reinvent ourselves because it is no longer about a certain technology, it is about leveraging the data in an organisation and to design business processes to start with user needs and to design the customer journey,” he says.

Transformation programmes

DWP is not only transforming its technology estate, but the entire way the organisation operates.

“What makes transformation in government unique is not transforming a logical business, it is transforming how human beings interact with each other and that is not predictable,” Prakash says.  “What my relationship with other people is, is not predictable and therefore it is not easily automated. People have a set of different relationships and that is a complex IT environment to automate, but we have overcome that challenge by iterating every fortnight for our digital products and services and that has resulted in over 85 services launched.

“Of course version one was not perfect and of course version 85 is the one that gets praise because we have had 85 fortnightly iterations of Universal Credit Full Service to make it better,” he says of iterative development and mirroring what Trainline CTO Mark Holt told the Horizon CIO podcast on its launch over a year ago. “It is a credit to the team that there is praise for the way it has been developed.”

“The last three years have seen DWP focus on four goals. We are actively building our future.We are creating a million lines of code a year and that is building our future. The second goal is to make DWP more efficient and we are working on two elements. It is a huge organisation and how do we make the digital services stable and resilient so it can deliver services more efficiently. We have seen a reduction in service outages, but there is far more to do.

“Most organisations and industries have done transformation around the edge, the real transformation challenge comes in changing the core, doing that in an organisation that has 100,000 colleagues spread around 700 locations is the most complex challenge and we are having fun doing it?”


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