For the SFO, large cases can involve scores of investigators reviewing millions of documents. By introducing an AI robot (developed by an innovative startup), Ben Denison has not just enhanced the accuracy and efficiency of investigations, but also slashed the cost – in some instances it is now one-fifth what it was. With volumes of data in cases increasing exponentially, machine learning is going to become an ever more essential and critical part of every investigation, allowing the organisation to move faster and more cheaply.

Job title
CTO

Company name
Serious Fraud Office

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
We don’t have customers in the traditional sense. The SFO is a specialist prosecuting authority tackling the top level of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption. We don’t take on many cases, but the ones we do are big, high profile, and can last for several years. My job is to show how we can use technology to make that process as efficient and effective as possible, and allow us to make the best possible use of our scarce resources.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
The key challenge for me is using technology to process the vast amounts of information we seize during our investigations. The Panama Papers involved one of the largest leaks in history. More than 400 journalists across 80 countries took part in that investigation, which carried on for more than a year before any results were published. That was 11.5 million documents, which is an average-size case for us. In a large one such as Rolls-Royce, which resulted in a £671m settlement, we had 70 investigators working to review over 30 million documents. It’s just not possible to manually review that amount of data, so we worked with our technology partners to develop an AI robot to assist with that.

We were able to prove that this approach is both more accurate and much more efficient than human review alone – in some instances at one-fifth of the cost. The volume of data in our cases is increasing exponentially, and it won’t be long before we have one that is two or three times the size of Rolls. Because of that, using machine learning techniques will be an essential and critical part of every investigation in the future so we can move faster and deliver better value for money.

I have carried out a series of other internal change projects geared at making our overall operation more efficient, but these are much less interesting than our use of AI!

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
We have armies of lawyers, accountants and investigators who review vast amounts of information. Working with them, I led a project to replace our primary e-discovery or review platform, which we use to analyse the evidence in our cases. We’ve just signed a contract for a new system that these people will use daily in the course of our investigations.

Introducing new technology like this and the AI robot has an impact on much more than just the time and cost of our investigations. It allows us to take a more innovative approach to how we resource our cases, because it automates repetitive tasks, which makes the work both more interesting and challenging. This also helps with recruitment and retention, which is critical, because we can never compete with City law firms on salary alone.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
While the SFO is different in terms of mission and culture to a lot of large central government departments, it is still the civil service. That comes with the usual frustrations, in particular around procurement and recruitment. What does differentiate us is that a lot of our workforce come in and out of the private sector (including me), and with that comes ideas about different ways of working, and a drive to change for the better. I try and identify and work with people who are keen to improve things, in particular where we can use technology to solve a problem.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
My board are supportive of my agenda, and have been since I got here 2.5 years ago. They recognise the importance of technology and the impact it can have on our investigations, and have made sure I’ve had the financial resources I need – even at the expense of their own divisions as our headcount is fixed. An update on my projects is a standing item at every meeting, and they then communicate and where required champion the various changes across their own divisions.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
We worked with RAVN Systems on the robot referred to above. RAVN is an innovative startup focused on the legal AI space. This is our most interesting partnership, and the benefits of it are clear to both organisations, in particular in recent times due to the coverage we’re receiving, for example in the Rolls-Royce investigation. They have a site-based team that works closely with the IT team as well as our case teams, and the idea for the robot came from an informal discussion about a problem someone was having.

We also work with a range of other providers, large and small. We’re also a customer of OpenText, which will be providing our new e-discovery platform launching later this year.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
Recruitment and retention is a challenge for us – in particular because of the salaries we are able to offer and how those compare with others who use similar systems, such as law firms. I am always carrying vacancies we can’t recruit to. The civil service can be more flexible than the private sector in some ways, so that is a draw for some, but it’s still not enough. We have partnered with a number of universities to offer student placements in our digital forensic unit, which has helped, and the civil service is generally aware and good at challenging any potential unconscious or conscious bias when recruiting people, but we can always do more. That said, we are better than some organisations I’ve worked for. Gender diversity remains a challenge, and as a sector we need to work hard to change that.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
I recently took over a number of other teams, including those who manage and process our evidence. Processing and ingesting that evidence into our review system is one of our core business operations given that volumes exceed 100 million documents annually. The change has allowed me to clearly align and link those functions – from the physical booking in of evidence, to the digital forensic processing, the ingestion into our review platform, and the training and support of end-users.

I also manage a standard helpdesk and support function separate to what is effectively a business systems team. We have also launched a programme to review and develop how we manage our non-casework-related information, and develop an information management strategy. But everything we do is driven by business need, and any requirements must be aligned to them. My primary objective is to provide our operational divisions with the tools they need to do their jobs.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
RAVN for the AI robot, and OpenText/Recommind for e-discovery. IBM for storage (and we use a lot of it). And Capita for core infrastructure and desktop support.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?
Continued use and enhancement of machine learning and AI techniques to make our investigations more efficient, and the introduction and migration to a new e-discovery platform, which is the primary tool used for the investigation and prosecution of the SFO’s casework. With 250 million documents to migrate that will keep me busy!

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
We’re expecting the same price increases as everyone else, and so are trying to adjust our budgets accordingly. There are unlikely to be other effects on my role, but it could present the organisation with challenges around information sharing, and cross-border law enforcement issues such as extradition which don’t generally exist within the EU.

YOUR ROLE

When did you start your current role?
August 2014

What is your reporting line?
COO

Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Yes

Are you a member of the board of directors?
Yes

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
None of the above – those areas fall within my remit or those of my team at department head level. We have a head of e-discovery who effectively covers data. These types of functions all fit within my remit, though.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
Weekly as part of team or board meetings, and as needed on a one-to-one basis, but that is fairly rare.

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
675

BUDGETS

What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
About £10m this year including capital, out of a core budget of £36m. But our overall budget fluctuates based on our case needs. Total annual budget could be £50-60m.

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
About 70/30, but that is not exact.

CIO INFLUENCES

Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. CIO peers
  2. Media
  3. Industry bodies
  4. Analyst houses
  5. Consultants

IT SECURITY

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
No

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
No

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
Yes – our SIRO (senior information risk owner) is responsible for security, although we work together on cyber issues.

RECRUITMENT

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

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

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
Yes

How many employees are there in your IT team?
47 staff plus 16 based on site as part of outsourced agreements.

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

TECHNOLOGY

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • datacentre/infrastructure/server
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • devices (mobile)
  • devices (desktop).

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • datacentre/infrastructure/server
  • enterprise applications
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • devices (mobile)
  • devices (desktop).

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
AI and cognitive computing are having a major (positive) impact on us.

THE EU

Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
No

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Yes

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?
Yes