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Performing open heart surgery on an awake patient

David Bicknell Published 29 October 2013

The Skills Funding Agency's engaging CIO Richard Field discusses how his organisation's need to transform itself is pioneering a new approach in moving from a legacy architecture to 'digital by default'


The Skills Funding Agency is a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), directing and overseeing the use of public funding to further education colleges, training organisations and employers in England.
Its mission is to ensure that people and businesses can access the skills training they need to succeed in playing their part in growing the country's economy.

The agency employs around 1,300 staff across England and invests about £4 billion of public funding annually to support over three million learners, including delivering the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and the National Careers Service (NCS) which support, fund and co-ordinate the delivery of apprenticeships throughout England by working with employers, learners and providers and offers information, advice and guidance to young people and adults on learning, training and work opportunities.

The agency's Information Management Services division provides a range of critical ICT services to the agency as well as business applications for the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and services to the wider education and skills sector.

Now, most of the supplier contracts that underpin these ICT services are coming to an end and so the agency is now in the process of procuring new supply arrangements that conform to the Government's ICT strategy.

In its prospectus about re-competing its ICT supply chain, the agency says it is looking for suppliers to work collaboratively with both itself and other stakeholders to provide an efficient and effective service to all its users. At the same time, in moving to new supply chain arrangements, it wants to achieve greater alignment to the Government's ICT and digital strategies using cloud-based computing whilst looking for opportunities to improve the user experience.

Currently most of the agency's ICT services are contracted through one main IT supplier, Capgemini, with the Learner Records Service (LRS) using a different supply chain. As these contracts come to an end, the agency wants to move to new supply chain arrangements that it says conform to the Government's ICT strategy using cloud computing services and providing opportunities for SMEs.

Simplification of the funding system for adult skills training is part of a drive to ensure scarce resources can be made available to the front line with minimum costs, to give workers the skills they need to better compete in the labour market.

At the same time, the agency has seen a reduction in its staffing levels. So its approach to technology must also ensure that the same volume and an increased standard of work can be delivered. That means using shared services and moving its processes and technologies to arrangements that are standardised and configurable, using packages and configurable-off-the-shelf technology where appropriate, rather than highly individualised and bespoke technology solutions.

That enables a standardisation on platforms, which can then easily be re-used for other purposes, building internal shared services and gaining benefits in terms of servicing, support, skills and knowledge.

The agency's current contracts in its ICT estate are due to expire next year. It is therefore imperative for the agency that arrangements are in place to ensure the provision of services and minimal disruption to the operations of the agency, the EFA and the wider education sector.

Richard Field, the agency's chief information officer (CIO) describes the agency's current ICT strategy.

"When I joined what was the Learning and Skills Council, we already had an outsourced supply chain. It was under Fujitsu and Xansa back in those days. We re-competed that in 2008 and Capgemini got it. We've also developed the Learning Records Service and used a different supply chain for that.

"Now we have the advent of the government's Digital by Default strategy and its procurement approach which, by the way, is absolutely the right direction of travel but of course we've also got the legacy to manage. And we're got to transition that. Our Capgemini contract is coming up for renewal and so the time has come to revise our whole supply chain.

"Actually we'll be one of the first in government to deliver on the supply chain transformation that the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service (GDS) want us to perform and that's what we're really right in the middle of now. So we developed a prospectus because we thought we needed to communicate effectively with the supply chain."

Embracing the digital agenda

Field says what he has to think about in terms of digital by default goes beyond considering the service towers.

"We had to think of service towers and SIAM (service integration and management). But we also had to think about where the agencies are going. We are trying to promote apprenticeships. Why I'm in this job really is about increasing the skills in this country.

"I came from the power industry about eight years ago, where staff development and skills development was very dear to me. I up-skilled my team in the private sector and again at the agency. I am passionate about employers of all sectors developing skills, and becoming more competitive. I practice what I preach with four high-level IT apprentices working for me. So really it's about spreading the word."

Field suggest that behind a lot of the work the agency does, particularly in the adult space, the agency has to be agile to policy development.

"And as in most of government," he says, "they tend to respond in the way we used to deliver IT, in a more siloed approach with a user interface. Take one of our services, the National Careers Service. There is a whole policy approach for that and we deliver to that."

But now, says Field, the agency has to "embrace" the digital approach.

"Now what we've got to do and are doing, is embrace digital. Recently at our board meeting I took a paper on what agile means and why it isn't just about what I do, it's about what we all do. I am the digital leader for the Skills Funding Agency. I'm on the board and I'm the open data champion. We're getting rave reviews on the data we've already made open, and we're high up the hitlist in our parent department for the number of accesses we get to that data."

The agency has been working on one of the Government Digital Service exemplars for one of the agency's services, the National Apprenticeship Service, making it easier for employers and prospective apprentices to find their perfect match.

But there is more depth than just a digital interface.

"We have delivered things like the Unique Learner Number that enables us to build a personal learning record that is owned by the learner. Those people of my age did their O levels and then left school and went on to what was then the local technical college. And you had to tell them what your qualifications are. Now, if you've got a validated, secure record, with qualifications data in there, then you begin to streamline the whole system.

"We've been working on that approach for several years and we are now consolidating onto a common platform, with services which are available across the sector. The Amazon model is quite a good example of it and it's what GDS are espousing. We've got a common underlying infrastructure at the Learning Records Service that we can build on. So for instance, we could build an enrolment capability. Who did you say you were? Have you got any proof of that? Ah, so you've got a unique learning number and personal learning record."

Field is reluctant to comment on whether such an approach might be applicable to, say, the NHS. But he says it is appropriate for education.

Field points out that one of the problems with legacy systems is that, going back ten or fifteen years, they were hard coded in, so any subsequent changes turn out to be expensive.

"It's certainly transferable across the education system and it is attracting interest from the youth side and the Higher Education side of the house. It is built using modern methods and using SMEs. It is rule-based, and it enables us to be able to quickly modify what we do.

"As a taxpayer, I really want to do this," says Field. "The problem I have is to balance business continuity throughout the process, keep the business running whilst moving at pace. It's worth moving at that pace, not only because GDS want us to, but because of the benefits that are there. A lot of what we're doing is transferable and GDS and the Cabinet Office want it to be transferable. But it is anyway.

"There are elements of what we do that we need to join together and that's where it links back to the role of the agency and what it needs to do to fully embrace digital. It's not just about the technology, it's also about the user experience, because I need to appeal to a 16 year old, and say, 'We need you to want to go into learning, and we need you to want to build your skills. Therefore we have to design what we do to appeal to you.'

"So for instance, in the latest iteration of working on the National Careers Service, we think we've got it bang on. We're working directly with groups of users, and making sure our digital services are accessible to all. This includes working with the Royal College for the Blind when we discovered, despite all of our accessibility testing, that our services weren't as accessible as we thought."

The legacy journey

Like most Whitehall departments and agencies, Field is wrestling with how, in IT terms, you get from legacy to transformation.

"What we've got to do is look at what we've got, which is a fairly big legacy infrastructure. And then say, 'How do we divide this up to then detach elements of it, be they complete services or elements of infrastructure, and then transition them?' We also need to do it with the co-operation of our current suppliers who themselves are probably not that overjoyed at what's happening. But as a taxpayer we need to do this and the suppliers know that we need to do this".

Field accepts that the agency has to move more quickly than it might like because its contracts are ending in 2014.

"We've got to see what the logical chunks are, build the plan, and at the same time worry about business continuity. It's a bit like doing open heart surgery except that the patient's awake. We are one of the first undergoing a transformation from legacy to digital by default. We've got a good relationship with GDS. We've got operational business, a bit of open heart surgery, and relationship building going on. It's quite an agenda. Exciting, because it's nice to be breaking new ground. But I do have to keep the business running too."

Field suggests that working with GDS is certainly making him think.

"I think I should probably have engaged, and now am engaging, far more often. I'm talking to the element of GDS which is running the exemplars and personally met them without their or my team there to say, 'OK, how do we do it? Are we doing what you need us to be doing?'And they are saying, 'How is this going down?' And it's actually going fine. There are stresses around: we've got to get things approved to be able to move forward. But we work very well with the commercial part of GDS and the spending controls people. And the more they understand about our business, the better."

In moving towards the digital agenda, Field is working with GDS as well as utilising an in-house capability that it is strengthening and working with SMEs.

"We have good relationships for years with some SME suppliers which we using on our current initiatives. There is quite an interesting question going forward as to what is the right balance. Is outsourcing bad? Is full insourcing good and we must do forever? I think it is a balance because you've still got to detach yourself from the legacy. And that's where the mission critical processes are operating today."

There are nine lots in the agency's procurement plan, including one for systems integration and service integration & management (SSI).

Tranche One of the procurement comprises SSI, end user computing services, a service desk, identity and access management for staff and network services. Tranche Two comprises application maintenance and support, application development and hosting of all of the agency's citizen-facing services including the Learning Records Service, the National Careers Service, the National Apprenticeship Service and the agency's 24+ Advanced Learning Loans Services.

Tranche Three will cover application management and support, application development and hosting of all the services used by the agency and its partners in support of the Further Education and skills sector funding, including the Human Resources Service, Finance Service, Funding, Contract Management and Payment Service, Data Collections Service and the Management Information Service.

"There are nine lots in the whole thing," says Field. "I think we're still learning about SSI. We've taken professional advice as well, just to clarify our thinking. So it's evolving, for all suppliers too, big or small. For SSI, there are question marks over what our suppliers are prepared to do. How much risk are we prepared to take in-house? And what is sufficiently attractive to suppliers? So it's culturally challenging as well and there are a lot of variables. I have to deploy my team to carry out open heart surgery, while also making sure that we are adhering to what the parent department and all the various bits of the process required"


As the digital agenda has taken off, there has been much discussion over the future role of the chief information officer (CIO) in central government. So how does Field see the balance between the CIO and the digital roles?

"Historically, I've been a CIO on the board, reporting to the chief executive. The government model that the Cabinet Office is just working through is basically about the co-ordination of activities that has to happen at that level. Whether you call someone a CIO or COO doesn't really matter. It's the co-ordination of the activities that's key.

"And personally, in my role up to now, I've been a party to all the business decisions too. That's exactly what the traditional CIO model is meant to do. But if you look at the elements of digital, technical, and continuing mission critical activity, it all needs to be co-ordinated. And that co-ordination needs to come together somewhere. That can be a scary prospect for traditional business leaders who suddenly have to start developing agile services."

Field is one of those CIOs who ended up in IT because he could bring a business context to the role.

"I actually come from a business background, a very strong business background. In my earlier career, I ran a services business in the energy industry. And it was only because of the traditional IT issues in businesses that I was asked by my chief executive to be in the IT department. I said, 'I'm a business leader,' and he said 'That's why I need you in the IT department.' The GDS framework, I know. We can do that. But it all comes down to aligning what that user-driven process is with what the business strategy is trying to achieve. You've got to bring those capabilities together.

"Uniquely, our lead times are very short for what we have to deliver because that's what our policies demand. Which is another reason why we've got to do this. I'm desperate to find a way to deliver quicker and cheaper so that I can meet ministerial ambitions. I think because of the reusability of stuff we will be able to offer more services actually - and that's why having to go through the spending controls process. Some of the GDS questions like, 'Is this re-usable?' have changed a lot of behaviour."

Knowledge transfer

Field is now sharing his experiences with other departments or agencies though, when asked, he insists this is not a one-way street of knowledge transfer.

"We can learn from them too by the way. It does drive the culture of an organisation and that is a big element of all this. The change in the way we do things, not just how we do them. As we are unpicking what we've got, we have to decide whether to transition or transform, and it's all on a case by case basis. What do we transform? And what do we just transition and then transform later?"

Despite all the challenges, Field remains genuinely interested in the user experience of the learner, doing his best to help give workers the skills they need to compete better in the labour market.

"My own children are going through it at the moment. I heard a presentation from an apprentice recently and it's quite amazing what can be achieved if you get it right."

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