Sarah Wilkinson's arrival at the Home Office last year ushered in an era of major transformation. Underperforming and expensive contracts, a history of major programme failures, and a client organisation with no faith in the IT department's ability to deliver were very public problems. Just over a year on and it's all looking very different: rejuvenation, vision and confidence have all reappeared.

Name and job title

Sarah Wilkinson, Chief Technology Officer, the Home Office.

How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
I joined the Home Office as CTO at the start of 2015, having spent 23 years running IT in the finance industry. The mandate was one of major transformation: the department had very limited technical capability in-house, was highly dependent on large monolithic contracts, which were, in many cases, underperforming and expensive, and there was a history of major programme failures (e-borders, ICW etc).

My first priority was to communicate a vision of where we could be and should be, in terms of capability and service delivery. The internal organisation was littered with very dedicated and professional individuals, with unclear goals, no strong mandate for change and little ability to lead or oversee service providers. The client organisation had very limited expectations and lacked faith in the IT department's ability to deliver. At every stage in rebuilding the IT function, the process has been one of explaining the target state to the organisation (employees, partners and clients) and providing sufficient clarity and guidance to build confidence that we can get there.

I redesigned the IT organisation last year and brought in some terrific new talent: David Howie from ISG, Pete Rose from HP (who led their assignment at GCHQ for many years), Richard Thwaite and Steve Deakin from the Met, Stephanie Cousin from Waitrose as COO, Paul Ellis on secondment from PA Consulting, Richard Sansome from Maestek and many internal and ex-gov hires. Under a refreshed leadership tier, we have undertaken major restructuring, an exercise in which approximately 30% of roles have been made surplus, and new (largely core technical) roles have been created and recruited into.

We are completely rejuvenating our relationships with the business: becoming deeply embedded in their management structures, and with a clear hierarchy of governance structures in place to manage demand and delivery. We're taking time to get out to operational units, watch and learn from their experience of using our systems, and understand what they need in order to be productive, and how technology could enable completely new ways of working.

We're rebuilding our supplier relationships. It isn't a simple shift from big to small, or a basic mechanical process of disaggregation. It's about focusing on the supply structure that maximises the quality of products and services we can deliver for our businesses, and electing to work with partners who understand that mandate. Our new partners must be committed to taking on work in the areas where they are strong, and supporting the involvement of other partners and internal teams where they are not the optimal provider. We're committed to our partners making a fair profit through the delivery of quality services and we seek to achieve that goal with them.

Perhaps most importantly, we delivered more new products and services in 2015 than in any single year in the organisation's memory, and with few issues. Delivery is the real engine of transformation: every new capability and service creates confidence and stimulates the next wave of demand. It's the most frustrating and most rewarding job I have ever had. The people, the criticality of the work, and the enormity of the potential for change make it incredibly exciting.

How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation, and to what extent?
Aside from being very clear about core standards of integrity and professionalism, I have focused on four key areas:

  • Creating a culture of technical excellence to enable us to take back control of product and service design and delivery confidently and safely. This is achieved by rewarding those skills very openly, applauding good designs, successful deliveries, effective tooling deployments, production performance improvements, etc.
  • Encouraging healthy debate: encouraging more specific and considered critique of ideas and proposals, making clear that diversity of opinion and clearly articulated perspectives are critical to a healthy IT organisation.
  • Reigniting internal demand. Regularly reinforcing with clients a) what we have already delivered and the impact on their work, and b) the art of the possible. Helping them to become intelligent customers by continuously educating them in the potential of digital and technology capabilities to transform their specific business activities. Celebrating client ambition and impatience!
  • Building a very different supplier relationship culture. Seeking out suppliers that can prove their capability and whose confidence in their own capabilities is evidenced by a willingness to advise, take risk and explore with us. Then treating them with respect, binding them tightly into the organisation (including them on boards, etc), taking time to foster mutual understanding, monitoring the value of the relationship to them and optimising it where possible, and embedding the mantra that it is a key role of internal staff to make third parties successful. The first response to issues should be to partner and support, not to berate.

Ultimately, exemplary behaviour is the key to leading cultural change, so I try to ensure that my actions and the actions of my management team are as tightly, and as visibly, aligned to these values as possible.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's company performance
We have delivered several new systems across all areas including new counter-terror capabilities, exit checks at the border, biometric residency permits for foreigners, an immigration health surcharge system, new port monitoring capabilities, integration of European arrest warrant data into UK systems and vice versa, significant upgrades of obsolescent systems, migration of all systems and services onto the new Public Services Network, deployment of new laptops.

The track record of IT delivery at the Home Office has been poor in recent years. We are recovering from a lack of technical leadership, poorly performing large third-party contracts, and fiascos such as the failed e-borders program, so it was critical that I achieved a steady flow of reliable, stable deliveries in the first year of the new Home Office technology organisation. We have achieved that across all areas. It has been a joy to see the scale of technology demand in our businesses escalate throughout the year as confidence in our capability has grown.

Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
Internally, we have been on a journey throughout last year to significantly increase instrumentation across our estate so that we can better understand the live environment and our technology platform overall, and monitor changes and trends. This has provided some great insights (especially in terms of operational risk), and an ability to better oversee service delivery from third parties.

We are also moving to increasing use of analytics to understand the nature of risk in the services we deliver by understanding, for example, correlations between certain data attributes and crime outcomes. This is enabling us to redesign processes in some areas to focus energies on areas of greatest risk or unpredictability. Across government, increasingly open access to services has enabled us to better integrate with data sources from other departments, and we are increasingly leveraging industry-wide open data and open standards.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
I redesigned the IT organisation at the start of last year to focus more clearly on internal customers, to foster reuse, and to build specialisations in key areas, including infrastructure, architecture and QA. The organisation is now structured around key client-facing business solutions teams, which have responsibility for the delivery of new products and services for their specific business area (there is a separate team for each of CT, borders, immigration, citizenship, crime/policing, etc). They are supported by separate functions responsible for building products intended for use across all our businesses (eg biometric capture storage and analysis systems, identity systems) and underpinned by new teams with specialisations in infrastructure (networks, cyber security, datacentres and hosting, IAM, data stores, EUC, integrated comms, etc).

We also have separate architecture and QA functions, and a live service organisation responsible for all aspects of service delivery and management. The business solutions teams can focus the bulk of their energies on understanding business need and project-managing change programmes, knowing they can depend on the underlying functions to create quality platforms and components to integrate into those solutions.

Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
When I arrived in the Home Office, a small team of digital design experts had already been onboarded, sourced from some of the leading digital design agencies (eg Razorfish). This team brought the ability to map the digital customer journey and design new digital interfaces, and has been very effective in these areas. I have focused on extending these capabilities into a front-to-back design capability for digital solutions: ensuring the full application tier and infrastructure services are considered in the design of new digital products, with the goal of optimising all aspects of the stack to deliver the required capabilities. The extent of our legacy platform means we still do more front-end digital than front-to-back digital, but the balance is gradually shifting!

Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
Our increasing data analytics capability is enabling redesign of various core functions – for example, individuals and applications can increasingly be more effectively risk-profiled. By increasing automation across numerous areas, we are also allowing the business to restructure to focus resources more on higher-risk aspects of the business.

How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organisation, and what impact is this having?
We have regular town halls at whole department and sub-department level, weekly round-up meetings for senior management to keep departments in sync with each other, regular roundtable meetings with staff at all levels, newsletters, emails and an internal Confluence system. Given the scale and pace of change in the organisation, I have found that what people want most (at all levels of seniority) is facetime with me, in small groups, to enable very open conversations about changes, successes, failures, needs of specific teams or clients, etc, so I dedicate a significant amount of time to these.

How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
We are, unfortunately, constrained by a limited risk appetite from ministers for social media usage. Most members of the organisation use LinkedIn, Twitter, etc, to some extent, but with caution. We share experience regularly with peer organisations across government and the private sector, but more frequently through face-to-face conversation, under Chatham House rules.

How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
There is frequent formal contact between IT and business functions through a fairly deep governance structure of steering committees and boards. Heads of the business solutions teams are also on the management team of the businesses they support. And beyond that there is extensive regular contact (predominantly face to face where possible) with senior business leaders. As a technology organisation, we run regular Learning from Experience sessions where we review the operational experience of the business and live service teams, with new products delivered.

Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
I read avidly! I also have a great network of CIO friends who constantly horizon-scan on behalf of the community, so a large proportion of the articles I read are shared with me by peers who have spotted them and identified their relevance to me.

I visit vendor R&D teams fairly frequently, and regularly ask my own teams to talk me through what's new in their area of specialisation. I'm a member of the Industrial Liaison Board for the Department of Computing at Imperial College, which creates fantastic opportunities for tracking new developments in academia, and a fantastic group of people to discuss new developments with.

We are currently developing a week-long training programme at Imperial College for our high-potential technical experts. The course will cover the latest developments in AI, data analytics, system design and system engineering, IoT and wearables, biometrics, chip design, NFC and various other areas.

Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
I have led diversity programmes (predominantly focused on gender diversity) in all organisations I have ever worked in, and am a member of various industry groups focused on increasing the percentage of female talent in IT. I have also delivered guest lectures to women's networks in multiple universities and schools. I believe it's critical to 'pull women up' through organisational hierarchies where they have the talent and capability for broader responsibility because often they self-promote less readily than men, so I commit significant time to mentoring and coaching. In the Home Office, we have a much healthier percentage of females than has been the case in my previous private-sector organisations.

We also have an open and tolerant culture and a flourishing LGBT network. The most critical diversity challenge is BME, so I'm focusing my efforts this year on working with agencies and head-hunters to diversify the applicant population, which is currently incredibly thin in this area, and to focus our marketing campaign with the specific goal of making this organisation more attractive for BME candidates.

Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
I find the best way to collaborate and influence the senior management team in the Home Office, particularly given the previous poor track record of IT delivery, which has resulted in lack of confidence and closeness between business and IT, is to spend as much time as possible with the senior leaders and their teams, to listen very carefully to their priorities and concerns, and to talk with as much clarity and specificity as possible about how IT can address their needs. Beyond that, I ensure we prepare carefully for boards to ensure a professional and high-quality presentation of the organisation in all forums.

Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
I have been incredibly lucky throughout my career in being selected for some phenomenal leadership development programmes. I'm currently on the Civil Service programme for the 24 individuals across government with potential to move to permanent secretary (not that I have any desire to leave IT yet!) and I'm taking up everything the programme offers, from formal education to meetings with leaders of the Civil Service.

I completed an MBA at London Business School in 2000, which gave me a breadth of leadership skills that my maths degree didn't really provide! I have also had some amazing personal coaches. One in particular, Joseph Jupp (formerly an academic at Cranfield Business School), has stuck with me for 20 years. That continuity and depth of relationship has been an incredible privilege (although some things are still not strengths, 20 years on, alas).

What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
Machine learning/artificial intelligence, data analytics, NoSQL, wearable technology, enterprise apps, IoT, automation and robotics, and the sharing economy. New techniques in AI, data analytics and management of large data sets are particular areas of focus, and we're increasingly open-sourcing our own products and leveraging third party open source in our products. We're also deploying an internal ride-share platform to help people adapt to new commutes as we're moving our core population out of Westminster to Croydon and Hendon.

How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
We start by ensuring we have a very deep understanding of the business requirement. This informs us of critical aspects such as security and sensitivity, which can be the primary decision drivers. Then we look to the external market to understand how peers across public and private sectors are addressing similar challenges, what products and services are available externally and who the key suppliers are.

Where there are multiple options (as is almost always the case), the economic profile and risk profile of each option is assessed. We then look at how the implied preferred option emerging from that analysis would sit with our existing system and supplier landscape. To avoid unnecessary proliferation of new technology flavours, and excessive fragmentation of our supplier community, it sometimes makes sense to select an approach that isn't simply the most economic option when the demand is assessed in isolation.

Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Yes, we try to meet one or two new vendors every quarter, largely based on recommendations from peer organisations or interest arising from press articles. We are also devising a series of technology programmes for our staff.

Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
Our core sourcing strategy is to optimise our use of the external market in the delivery of products and services for our businesses. We maintain a map that describes which vendors we are currently working with in each business function and technology specialisation, and we overlay that with a view of emerging interesting suppliers and established and proven suppliers in each space. We want to combine a purist approach that seeks to use the best suppliers for each specific need with a holistic approach that builds critical mass in the provision of some services where we think this will enable us to build deeper and stronger relationships with providers. Our overall direction of travel is towards a broader church of providers, with small niche providers included where appropriate, and with ongoing strong relationships with the major systems integrators. All procurement activity is governed by public sector procurement legislation.

Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
We have designed a common data platform which will enable us to better integrate the core platforms across businesses in the Home Office (linking, in the first instance, border force and immigration businesses). This join-up is critical not just to increase the intelligence of individual services but also to drive efficiency.

We have made increasing use of data analytics in multiple areas, which is enabling us to change the shape of our business processes. We have introduced new technologies for biometric capture across fingerprint, facial and DNA. We have integrated networks and services at an infrastructure level to bring the service for various directorates together (many of which have been integrated into the Home Office through relatively recent machinery of government changes and thus had quite separate IT platforms). This has enabled systems from email to core apps to be integrated.

What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
Unfortunately, our procurement rules preclude publication of any specific deal information, but we have signed multiple major contracts (multiple tens of millions of pounds in value) during the last 12 months.

Rank in order of importance your sources for innovative technology suppliers
1 CIO peers. 2 Media. 3 Industry body. 4 Consultants. 5 Analyst houses.

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?

Is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?

When did you start your current role?
January 2015.

What is your reporting line?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What is the annual IT budget?

How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
£250m cap, £450m rev – but bear in mind that definitions of revenue vs capital sometimes shift in government!

How many users does your department supply services to?
Around 30,000 core Home Office staff and around 210,000 police FTE.

Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?

How many employees are there in your IT team?
Approximately 1,000.

Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?

What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?
Approximately 1,000 FTE and 3,000 outsourced, so approximately 25% in-house at this time, although the balance is shifting towards employees.