Former NAO digital chief - ‘Many in public sector think tech, not customer’

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett May 21, 2017
Dr Sally Howes OBE, former digital lead at the National Audit Office (NAO), shares her lessons on what it takes to become a digital organization.

Sally Howes and Joe Fuca
Dr Sally Howes OBE on stage at FinancialForce's Community Live event in London

Too many public sector organizations are approaching digital transformation from a technology standpoint, to the detriment of the project and customers. This was the warning given by Dr Sally Howes OBE, former executive leader of digital and innovation at the UK National Audit Office (NAO), at FinancialForce’s Community Live event in London this week.

Howes, who is now an independent digital consultant and a board member at technology consultancy Methods, told delegates that she has witnessed a lot of digital transformation, in the public sector in particular, over the past six years. But too often, the customer is missing from the equation. She explained:

A lot of people and particularly the UK public sector come into digital transformation thinking tech. But it is absolutely about an organization getting its head around why they’re there for their customers and how they keep their staff with them. It’s no longer about the tech, it’s about the organization, the people and the processes. The driver should always be changing the customer experience.

The people who are on the front end – in government, that’s the people serving citizens and delivering public services - you can devolve decisions to them and you organize things so they’re not these big linear projects and you put all your bets on one thing and hope for the best. If you have a digital platform, you can slice it up.

Having strong leaders in place, who are open to change, is another key component of a successful digital transformation. Howes said:

Often in public sector organizations, which are quite legacy – I don’t just mean in terms of technology but also their management philosophy, and courage and confidence of management as well - it’s actually about creating a culture where people can do their best.

We all want to work differently. Fewer employees respect a leadership who work in a slow decision-making environment. People want to be accountable for things and to be able to do something about the things that they’re responsible for.

Going native cloud

Howes said that the NAO had an “interesting journey” to digital. The organization knew it had to change its business model to reduce the cost of operating the NAO and remove the dependency of running all its own technology. She was part of a small internal group who knew they wanted to buy a cloud-based product. But more than that, the target was a native cloud system, not existing on-premise software that purported to be cloud-based. FinancialForce was chosen for its cloud ERP tools. Howes added:

But then you have to explain that decision to colleagues - and accepting the National Audit Office full of auditors is very risk-averse, understandably - this was quite a challenge for us and FinancialForce. It was very hard to see how you would explain the data security to others in the organization and integrate what we would be buying with our own information assurance procedures, which are very rigorous.

The NAO did not have the luxury of being able to reference existing projects to allay any concerns around the cloud. This was because it signed up directly with FinancialForce, rather than via the usual route of coming in as an existing Salesforce customer. As FinancialForce’s president of Worldwide Field Operations Joe Fuca estimated, 90 percent of delegates at the event would have started Salesforce first, meaning they would have already dealt with questions around cloud security, scalability and reliability.

Fortunately for Howes and her team, FinancialForce was able to offer transparency in the contract and a few other things that meant the NAO project got signed off. She said:

You have to go a little bit further with your explanations. It’s a bit of work.

Having led the transformation project at the NAO, Howes left last year and took up a position on the board at Methods Group, an organization focused on digital public services, which also happens to be a FinancialForce customer.

Methods, she said, is doing very well with lots of market growth but wants to keep checking itself and finding improvements. Part of this approach has been to make use of FinancialForce to help get around the silo challenge highlighted by Tiffani Bova, global customer growth and innovation evangelist at Salesforce, earlier on at the event. Howes explained:

We’ve been able to do this through data. There’s a huge possibility for the company, in that in an organization as you grow there are always tensions about how well is everybody doing. When you’re in a data-free environment or nobody’s trusting the data, those tensions just boil over.

Now Methods have some solid data, they have a lot of individuals who’ve never had the luxury of working with such powerful and real-time data, they have an opportunity to develop and become more business-oriented as well.