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Ian Trenholm: making Defra digital

Charlotte Jee Published 21 January 2014

An interview with the chief operating officer at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, on digital reform, making government technology 'more sensible', engaging with SMEs, and adjusting to 'continuous improvement'


Ian Trenholm is a man on a mission. A year and a half into his post as chief operating officer at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Trenholm has carved out a niche as a champion of digital reform across Whitehall and a keen promoter of transparency and open data.

Throughout our conversation, Trenholm reels off ideas about how government could be more productive, improve its interactions with citizens, work better with industry and increase the pace of its work. When we spoke in January 2013, Trenholm called on the digital leaders across Whitehall to 'go on and deliver', so I ask what he has delivered since then.

Adapting to Agile

In response, he is keen to promote the impact of Agile development both across Whitehall and within his own department. He explains that if they weren't using Agile methods to build the digital exemplar for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) delivery programme, "we'd be just about completing procurement now.

"We wouldn't have built any software, whereas actually we have built a load of software, we've been taking bits apart, checking it and integrating it since February this year. We simply would have never moved at that pace if we'd gone down a more orthodox route."

Trenholm says he agrees with Mike Bracken [executive director of the Government Digital Service] when he says that GOV.UK is not finished and is 'never going to be'.

He explains, "That's a fantastic lesson because that says if I build a Cattle Tracking system or a Common Agricultural Policy system or whatever it is, it's okay for me to build something which isn't finished and get it out of the door, because I know I'll keep going at it and my whole mindset is 'this can be better'. We didn't necessarily do that previously. We had the launch party, had the champagne and that was the end of it."

Continuous improvement

Trenholm describes this as a different sort of mindset in government, one of 'continuous improvement'. He says this as a "mindset that says 'I can always do this better'. We just need to recognise that the notion of a process or a piece of IT that supports that which is completely static is not acceptable anymore in the way it might have been a few years ago."

He adds, "This is about delivering digital services, not digital technology. We very much see the notion of services and the platforms they are on to be the things we're about. This is not about computer systems. Because if you look at what some of these technologies enable, when you start getting customers to self-serve a lot more, you change the service quite fundamentally. So, we know that if you look at the Common Agricultural Policy, we're doing less in the way of direct data entry but we will probably have to do more back end checking and auditing."

Digital leaders

We return to the topic of the Digital Leaders Network, a group with one representative from each department tasked with pushing the digital agenda across government.

Trenholm says that part of his role as Defra's digital leader is to "evangelise about digital. Someone in my position can have a disproportionately positive influence on these agendas. I am the person who chairs our transparency board which sends a message to the whole of the organisation that transparency is really important."

He adds, "I'm a big tweeter, so again, people know that matters. Every time I tweet something it live feeds onto our intranet so people can see that. I'm using Twitter indirectly as a means of communication. Bronwyn, the permanent secretary, tweets as well. This sort of stuff sets a tone which says 'social media is a good thing'. Digital leadership is about some of those sorts of soft things but people copy them."

He says, "I think the digital leaders group does that [promotes digital] on a broad scale across government. I think the GOV.UK stuff is just fantastic because if you look at government as a whole, it's a series of departments that operate in relative isolation. Departments do work together on certain projects but GOV.UK is probably the only unifying thing across the civil service and that's fantastically powerful.

"It's the first time we as a collective have said we're going to design something around what customers actually need, and we're using the tools and techniques that the Amazons of this world are using in terms of analytics and so forth. It's a product that not only have we built in an Agile way, but we're now iterating in an Agile way as well, and I think that's an important lesson that digital leaders have taken on and our passing back into our organisations."

Thinking technology

Trenholm is optimistic about another cross-Whitehall network: the Technology Leaders Network, which was set up in October last year to lead technology reform across government and work on common services and architecture.

He explains that the government needs to prepare for the various long-term, big IT contracts that are coming to an end over the coming years. He says, "I think what we need to do is to build something onto which we can go. What I don't want to do is get to the end, look around and have to build myself a desktop architecture and a network infrastructure."

Trenholm says he sees technology is a vital enabler of digital services. He says, "In some quarters people see digital as websites, and I think that's just fundamentally wrong. You've got to see a digital service as enabled by some core technologies and we have traditionally built, either on premise or data centres that we hire from people, very orthodox computing systems, very orthodox email systems, all of which are highly secure.

"Indeed, probably over secure for the purposes they are used for most of the time. The quality of the IT provision that we give our employees is not up to the same standard that you would enjoy at home. I have got a tablet but it's got an encrypted hard drive on it and it takes longer to boot than my laptop because I have to go through a number of security checks and enter four different passwords. If I lose that, it is completely secure and whatever's on it is never going to see the light of day. But at the moment my technology architecture just simply doesn't allow me to do that in a sensible way."

He says, "I need to build set of technical architecture that enables that to happen. Because if I'm starting to give people iPads and I'm enabling them to use Trello and various apps that they can just download, they are going to think quite differently about digital services. Whereas at the moment if I say to people 'think about digital services, think about how you deliver them', they're thinking about it from a lens which is completely and utterly based on the technology platforms that we already have."

A decision-making platform for Whitehall

Trenholm says he has a particular problem with the way in which the e-mail system is used in the department. He explains, "In any large organisation, the e-mail system is used as a workflow engine. It's a completely user-configurable workflow engine if you take a positive view of it, but it's an enormous pain if you take a negative view, in the sense that, I get e-mails from people who are expecting a decision, but because of the way they phrase the e-mail, or if I'm copied in, I don't realise so I just delete it. It sounds like a really trivial thing to say but in terms of productivity for the enterprise as a whole it is just hugely unfortunate.

"So I'd like to see a decision-making platform for Whitehall where we push things around the civil service. Something that enables decisions to happen quickly and easily in a pre-formatted way. That then enables internal digital services, it enables data in common formats that can be made available to people and so forth, whereas at the moment trying to extract information and data out of e-mails is incredibly difficult.

Trenholm says that the way e-mails are currently used "almost feels like a kind of electronic version of what we'd be doing in the 1960s, and for me the challenge is to re-think how we work at a desktop level, and then make sure that desktop is completely portable.

"So we need a technology package that enables that to happen and that's where you get into serious conversations around Bring Your Own Device for work, which is a complete waste of time at the moment given the infrastructures we currently run."

Preparing for change

Defra's 'e-Enabling' contract with IBM doesn't expire until 2017, however Trenholm says they are already engaged in discussions with them about 'what the future might look like'.

He says, "We're not going to just sit here and just wait until the contract expires. Our expectation is that whatever we replace the current contract with will be profoundly different. There will be a much more defined space for SMEs to play in - and that's not something we've done.

"We're starting to talk to SMEs and we're using our leverage as a big customer of IBM to say we want more of the money that we spend with IBM passed through SMEs or work with them more directly. So we're trying to use the size of some of these contracts as an enabler to do other things. We're very definitely not just sitting on our hands waiting for the contracts to expire."

Trenholm adds, "I suspect that, come the end of the contract, it will look quite different to the contract we have today, because we will have negotiated our way to a different place with IBM. And they're up for that conversation in fairness to them. They're not an organisation who is taking a negative view of this. It's a very positive conversation all round so hopefully we'll get somewhere."

However, Trenholm warns that once the first digital services have been delivered, the next challenge will be to tackle how to migrate away from legacy systems.

He says, "Our digital challenge in the short term is to deliver a set of services the public can see and touch and recognise. But what we will have to get really good at is linking those digital front ends that have got a lot of functionality and usability to quite gnarly old legacy systems. It's a challenge a lot of banks deal with- when they get a new system in, do not change their back end systems, but they put enough of a thick digital layer on the front end that they can get away with it.

"I think our challenge in government will be, once we've got past the first hump of releasing the first set of digital services, the challenge in the background around how do we turn off and migrate away from our legacy back end systems while keeping the lights on at the front end. That's a big, big challenge for us. It's a challenge we're engaged in right now on my programme [CAP delivery]."

Hopes for 2014

Regarding his hopes for the year ahead, Trenholm says, "I think we're going to see a lot better desktops; we're going to start to really nail down our long term plans around desktops, which will be important.

"I think we will be looking a lot more at the way we deal with our data. We've put a lot of data online but I'd like to go further and do that in a way that makes it as easy as possible to get to. At the moment we're publishing on, we're putting data in the right file formats, but I'd like to go a bit further than that and make that available so an SME can just plug and play almost. We're having conversations with people at the moment about how we might go around doing that. Mike Bracken calls it 'wholesale' and it's exactly that: how can we be a wholesaler of data, which is going to deliver some interesting applications?"

He adds, "I think that sort of interplay between industry, citizens and government is going to be a trend for the next couple of years. Because, if you look at the macroeconomics of the government, we can't afford to keep just delivering more and more services, and we need to find the same level of value and outcomes without necessarily doing direct delivery ourselves."

Being a positive deviant

When asked his advice for other leaders across the civil service, Trenholm points to the American surgeon and writer Atul Gawande and his thoughts on being a 'positive deviant'.

He says, "What that's about is asking the unscripted questions, being prepared to challenge to what can feel like a slightly unreasonable level. So rather than comparing what we're doing with the Department for Work & Pensions or DfE [Department for Education] or whatever, compare what we're doing with John Lewis or Amazon."

Trenholm's other piece of advice is to "Change and do it quickly. You never regret not going fast enough. No one ever says 'that piece of change I've just led, it would be good if it went a bit slower'. You always look back and think 'actually if I'd pushed a bit harder there or there, the whole thing would have been better'.

"So I guess being a positive deviant is probably the thing- just challenge convention a little bit, but do it in a way that takes people with you. Don't be too stupid that you break the elastic band between where you are and where other people are, that's when you alienate people. But just push and push and push, bit by bit."


Related articles:

Defra calls for views on open data

Trenholm calls on digital leaders to 'deliver'

Defra introduces single integrated system for CAP funding

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