Tough Scotsman Joe Harley spent three years of his life in Alaska – known as the last frontier – working for BP. “You should have stayed for the winters,” he says with a wry smile.

But now Harley works on a frontier of a very different nature, as CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The department is vast, the job is high profile and it demands long days.

Those long days are spent in discussions with ministers and permanent secretaries about where IT can deliver welfare policy and where it can’t. Then engaging with suppliers to deliver the necessary systems to meet the policy agenda. All while operating a change plan of his own within the DWP itself.

The attraction of the DWP, he says, was the IT-enabled opportunity to help those less fortunate in society, the old, unemployed and disabled. Those who can’t be forgotten. He got the job he says “on track record and big ambitions”.

Controversy is never far from a list of projects that includes the new Employment and Support Allowance, Job Centre Plus, child maintenance reform and the biggest of all, Pension Reform and the introduction in 2012 of personal accounts.

For example, later this year Job Centre Plus will test Voice Risk Analysis software pioneered to help identify fake insurance claims. And the Customer Information System project that was scheduled for delivery in July 2007, “will deliver a database of key citizen information to be shared across the Department. The database will complement information available in the key customer information systems (the Personal Details Computer System and Departmental Central Index) and become their replacement.” This may be used across other government departments in the future.

CIO Lesson

Joe Harley highlights the different challenges and opportunities faced by a public sector CIO 1. “The CIO Council’s Supply Management initiative has brought together the 16 top IT suppliers in government to work collaboratively to establish better and more cost-efficient ways of working with government. It is unlikely that such a gathering could happen in any other vertical.”
2. “The development of deep supplier relationships is more difficult for the public sector CIO due to government procurement rules.”
3. “There is deep interest in bidding for government work from the supply community and, as a result, the public sector CIO can leverage the competitive tension to get the best out of the market.”
4. “The public sector CIO has a much higher profile in delivering IT systems due to high levels of parliamentary and public scrutiny than their private sector counterpart and, while the public sector is increasingly dependent upon third party suppliers to deliver its IT systems, reputational risk and accountability always resides with the CIO and their department.”
5. “The nature of public sector procurement means that, to introduce leading-edge technology, the public sector CIO has to put more emphasis on broking relationships between the smaller, faster moving technology companies and the IT services organisations with whom the CIOs typically have the contracts.”

Enabling change

“Quite frankly decisions will be made, ministerial ambitions are there, we have to respond to that in very positive manner but tell them if things can’t be done in the time scales (and costs) needed,” he says.

Expanding further on where policy meets technology, he explains: “The job of the CIO is to advise ministers and senior officials on the opportunities that IT can bring in delivering policy. My ministers and senior colleagues are very receptive to exploiting IT innovation. As part of Pensions Reform and of the planning work associated with the personal accounts, IT are engaging policy teams and ministers where the proposed approach adds disproportionately to the costs of the scheme. They are taking the feedback into account in the scheme design to help ensure it is both viable and efficient. In pension claims, we have changed the policy rules to allow state pension to be claimed ‘without signature’ – this was essential to enable claims to be completed ‘one touch and done’ over the phone as is now the case for the majority of new pension claims”.

That kind of functionality means delivery and that means managing suppliers.

Unlike some civil servants, Harley actually appears to elicit plenty of respect and not a little fear among suppliers.

“Whenever a big public sector contract comes up, we first look at what the DWP are doing,” says one, who asked not to be named.

Harley makes stringent demands on those with a profit motive to deliver the systems that control the £115 billion that annually flows through his department.

“We want the quality we expect at a price we can aford and the Treasury is always putting up challenging targets for us to meet. You have to be able to have an open and honest dialogue. As we depend on them for success, we need to know where they are headed.” The cost cutting is well publicised. Less so is how he gets EDS and BT to collaborate. In a department with such big projects, the incentive to the suppliers to deliver more for less is simply “getting more business”, he says.

“An intervention was necessary. It needed a big conversation with EDS and BT. The transformation of IT in the DWP was needed, but not at a higher quality for higher cost. It was crucial for our suppliers to engage,” he says. “Once a month we sit down with the top executives (from EDS and BT) to review performance and catch up. This was new to them… there was some “we can’t do this until you do that”… and they were a little suspicious at first.

But we said we won’t discuss commercial terms and conditions, we made that quite clear. It was a big change but it’s been going for a year now and they would say it is appropriate.” The savings are being provided from outsourcing and standardisation. From an internal organisation of 1,200 under three years ago to around 450 today, it consolidated seven datacentres into two.

The DWP will also be a major user of BT’s 21st century network roll out.

Harley points out that “We are EDS’ number-two customer in the world today; we have been making our position clear.

General Motors is their number one customer and they are saying the same thing. If their number one customer and number two customer are saying the same thing, that in transformation, we want standard services and reuse of components, they listen.” Another area of controversy to be managed is the use of consultants in the public sector with fi rms like EDS, IBM and Accenture hitting the headlines regularly.

Harley uses consultants as he sees fit.

“A key part of our services is the day-to-day delivery. We have a function that sits across suppliers. They (the suppliers) become the integration layer, with the primary purpose to ensure that the services are available where needed.” And in sheer scale, what Harley and the DWP are attempting is unprecedented. He says he’s looked around the world to see if there is anyone attempting a change of the magnitude occurring at the DWP. But while there are some interesting trends in terms of customer engagement in Canada and interesting projects in some US states, he hadn’t found anything that could be described as equivalent.

Working within the strictures of the public sector has its limitations but with so many citizens relying on his systems, Harley says he doesn’t have the option of failure.

That also meant major changes within the DWP.

“The transformation programme will only succeed with the help and support from suppliers. They have to have top performing people and processes; we don’t want any defects or faults. We are largely outsourced, and that means we have to be an intelligent customer and that involved a lot of internal upskilling,” he says.

“The skills of the past are different to the skills of the future, there is a growing professionalism and having people keen to develop is key. We can go to the market but we have to grow and leverage what we have,” he says.

Harley says that a key part of the role of the CIO is to be creative for business impact. Like many, he sees his role as that of change agent. “I have to find ways of engaging, with industry, research councils and academics and fi nd where the best practices and new models for IT are coming from. I’d say I’m a progressive CIO and in our environment, quality and resilience of service is paramount.

“It would be unacceptable for us not to be able to pay benefits on time to our customers – some of whom are the most vulnerable in society."

“However, IT is critical in enabling the business to transform itself in support of our customers. My job is to be a leader and to be proactive in making that happen."

CIO LESSON: Policy breeds controversy

The welfare state’s genesis came in 1946 when the National Insurance Act brought in the contributory state pension .
But from breaking the link between average earnings and state pension increases (1980) and the introduction of Pension Credits (2003), which brought 500,000 pensioners into means testing, welfare has never been anything but controversial and under constant reform .
From 2008 the New Employment and Support Allowance will replace incapacity benefi t for new claimants with existing claimants being brought in over time.Harley describes it as: “A big undertaking that has to succeed.”
A work in progress is the Job Centre Plus roll-out (700 sites).
Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (from the ashes of the Child Support Agency) is being established and will use many of the same IT systems.
And there is the Pensions Reform.By 2012 personal pension accounts will be introduced with an expected take up by ten million people