BEIS CDIO Karl Hoods on insourcing, innovating with AI and working with GDS

Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah By Sooraj Shah February 27, 2019
Summary:
The department’s new digital leader is changing BEIS’s operating model to better support policy teams

BEIS Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
When Karl Hoods left Save the Children as CIO and joined the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the first thing that struck him was how collaborative his new environment was.

“There’s a real sense of drive and ambition which was really good to see.”

For example, although Hoods’ team does not work on the controversial smart meter programme, his team do offer subject matter expertise and are involved in some of the assurance part of the project. There is also a separate futures team that looks after the likes of AI, as well as a data analytics team, both of which work closely together with Hoods’ IT team.

In his role as chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at the department, Hoods has been busy leading a number of projects, including a redesign of BEIS’s operating model, which consisted of evaluating what his team need to deliver to support the objectives of various policy teams. He explains:

“We’re designing that from scratch and deciding how we fill the various roles that we have available, moving from what has been largely an outsourced environment to an insourced one, in line with GDS and government strategy.”

His team are still building out processes and controls to make this a reality. They currently have an operating model to deliver services in what he calls a transitionary phase, but going forward, this might look different as he said the team actually wants to look at an enterprise agile approach in aligning development teams more closely with policy teams. He says:

“At the moment however, it’s about embedding that core service and making sure we can operate that.”

Having the resources available to deliver using that operating model has been a challenge for BEIS. Hoods goes on to say:

“From a skill-level perspective there are some highly-level skilled people here which I had expected but there are some gaps in the team, which is what we’re looking to fill.”

A skill shortage has been long talked about, particularly in public sector IT, but Hoods believes the actual skills themselves that are needed are continually changing.

“Five or ten years ago DevOps wasn’t a thing, AI wasn’t as prevalent, and development languages, techniques and approaches have all changed over time too; yes the skills gap has been talked about for so long, but it’s something we need to do more of as a collective of CIOs that are involved, in addition to tech companies, to look at how we plug that gap.”

Transition away from external suppliers and introducing innovation

Hoods sits on a board of a school federation, where out of 3000 pupils that might be eligible to sit GCSE Computer Science, the take up is 250 at best. He believes that something has to be done to change this situation, otherwise both the public and private sector will be faced with this problem forever.

For now, BEIS is working with an SME to help support its delivery plans because of this skills gap. He explains:

“The plan is that we transition away from external suppliers on the whole and have a team that is capable of doing delivery and the internal advisory work, but we’d augment that with third parties as and when we need depending on capacity and demand.”

Another big programme that Hoods is leading on is CIRRUS, which aims to deliver new services to improve the end user experience through the use of collaborative platforms based on cloud technologies including Microsoft Office 365. It will mean that all staff within BEIS can use an Office 365 environment and start to collaborate and share information through the likes of SharePoint and Microsoft Teams. The department is also evaluating its ERP programme. But aside from core IT projects, BEIS is also starting to work on some proof-of-concepts (POCs) using new technologies.

“Our science and innovation team is looking at a virtual augmented pilot for building insulation, and we’re looking at using chatbots and AI to help provide 24/7 automation in our telephony and call centre.”

In addition, the likes of AI and machine learning are being looked at to see if grant management applications and workflow can be improved. Hoods adds:

“The goal is to make day-to-day work more efficient and effective but [looking at AI] also makes us question how we innovate. So we’re looking at innovation programmes within our digital services team, and we’re asking if we turn that into our innovation lab and then start to create solutions to problems with the policy teams, using analytics.”

This would mean working together with policy teams, SMEs and other suppliers to come up with answers to particular challenges across a range of subjects such as energy and advanced manufacturing.

A positive experience with GDS

While Hoods mentions GDS as a reason why BEIS has chosen to go back to insourcing rather than outsourcing, the influence that GDS has now has been questioned for several years, with many influential leaders departing, and a constant debate about the future of GDS – particularly after the Prime Minister confirmed that the data policy and governance functions that sit within GDS would move over to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). There is also currently a parliamentary inquiry into the role of GDS and digital government.

However, Hoods says that collaboration with GDS has been very positive.

“We’ve worked together on a number of things, and recently we had a positive meeting with them around our business passport initiative – which looks at how SMEs interact with government as a whole. We’ve had nothing but positive experiences so far, they’ve been able to offer us resource and advice and help us to deliver some of our projects.”

However, he acknowledges that the role of GDS had changed.

“It strikes me that [GDS] is in a different position from when it was first established which was more about initiating that key change in terms of approach for government tech, and it’s morphed into doing something different, so it will be interesting to see where it goes next.”