HMRC CDO, Kevin Fletcher - Creating new confidence in information-led insight

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels March 26, 2018
Data strategy is a core element of wider organisational change at HMRC, CDO Kevin Fletcher explains to diginomica/government.

Kevin Fletcher, chief data officer (CDO) at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), is creating a multi-layered data strategy that puts people and information at the heart of government decision-making processes.

Fletcher, who joined HMRC in 2005, assumed the role of CDO three months ago. Alongside a team of 300 data and analytics specialists, he is working to embed data and analysis across the organisation. Fletcher, who presented his data strategy vision at the recent Big Data World conference in London, told dignomica/government he hopes the strategy will help make people in HMRC more confident about using data – and he advises other public sector IT executives to adopt a similar approach:

My advice to other digital leaders in the public sector is to make sure your data strategy is aligned with your organisational strategy, and to make sure you build a long-term view of the capabilities in your team, while also adding the short-term value. It’s a great role and I’m really enjoying it. Success for me would be that we’ve embedded a data culture right across the organisation, whether that’s in terms of protecting data or generating good data for our people to work with. We need to make sure everyone is confident in using this information.

Fletcher says there are two key ways in which executives can think about a data strategy. One approach involves identifying business objectives first, and then tracing the strategy back to a range of key elements, such as acquiring information, selecting tools and delivering value. The other way – which is Fletcher’s preferred approach – is to think about data in terms of existing capability and potential improvements:

If you’re going to re-shape an organisation the size of HMRC, you’ve got to think about your data strategy in terms of how you build capability that lasts. You’ve got to focus on how your existing capability works when you’re operating in a brownfield site. You can’t just go and build a new tax system, so that you can create a fresh data strategy. You’ve got to recognise that you have a starting point, you have an annual budget and you’ve got to develop capability within your existing organisation to help serve 50 million customers effectively.

Building a multi-layered data strategy

Fletcher says thinking about data strategy in terms of existing capability has allowed him to think about HMRC’s use of information across several layers. The first layer centres on foundations and the creation an enterprise data model. This foundational process involves thinking about how the data team manages information as it runs through the organisation and how internal specialists can draw on external data sources to improve the quality of the insight produced:

Now, I’d like to be able to say that you can do that overnight but you can’t. You’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to pick off some early wins. You’ve got to think very carefully about the other data you might acquire – what that information is and how it might be used, both in terms of reducing our operational costs and reducing costs for the taxpayer.

The second layer of Fletcher’s data strategy involves a tight focus on capability within the organisation. Fletcher says developing skills within an organisation that employs more than 50,000 people is a complex process. He says the key to success is to ensure that people at all levels of HMRC understand the value of data, the requirements for protection and the potential power of using insight to inform business decisions:

We’re in a very fortunate position in that the board and the chief executive are fully behind our creation of a data strategy. As a CDO, you must make sure you go through the various layers of the organisation and ensure information is available to all individuals, and that they are able to interpret the data to make strategic decisions. Evolved decision making through data can only take place if you create organisation-wide capability to use information, from the top of the business to the front-line delivery of services.

Continuing to hone an insight-led approach

Fletcher says a strong data strategy is not just focused on internal processes. He says HMRC must think about how it helps other government departments to create their policies and make operational decisions. He gives the example of working alongside an organisation like the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and using HMRC tax data to help provide a clearer indicator of UK economic performance. Fletcher says a layer of analytical tools will help data professionals at HMRC generate valuable insight:

We’re placing significant investment into advanced exploitation for the 400 people who are involved in that work. The process might involve analysing what happens at contact centres, or understanding how we deal with criminal activity and collect debt. There’s lot of work that goes on in the organisation regarding how you undertake advanced analytics. But that has to sit on a bedrock that provides the right capability through the organisation.

Fletcher says embedding a data strategy within an organisation relies on a few core ingredients, including senior executive sponsorship, placement within a broader business transformation programme and the selection of the right vendor partners. Establishing good governance around these processes can help public sector organisations establish an effective data strategy. Yet Fletcher says effective data management is a complex balancing act for all digital leaders, regardless of organisation or sector:

If my job is to embed data-led change across the organisation, then as a CDO you must think about how the system you create will absorb change. If you don’t do that, you’ll end up with a broad group of concepts, and they’ll have nice business propositions attached to them, but no clear way of achieving your goals through the data strategy. You’ve got to be clear about how these concepts and propositions will be integrated into your system.

My take

Kevin Fletcher might be new to his role but he has big ambitions for the use of data across an organisation he knows both inside and out. After three months as CDO at HRMC, Fletcher has established a data strategy to help workers exploit information securely for the benefits of the government and UK citizens. It will be interesting to see how Fletcher’s plan evolves, particularly as the role of data science across public sector becomes ever-more important.