How British Government department BEIS is using innovation to develop digital products

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels November 4, 2021 Audio mode
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s CDIO Karl Hoods is pioneering a creative approach to public sector IT.

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As chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Karl Hoods, is creating a forward-thinking digital strategy that embraces innovation and finds new solutions to public sector challenges.

When he joined BEIS in April 2018, Hoods inherited a team that had just moved from an outsourced to insourced IT arrangement. As he explained to diginomica a year later, his immediate priority was to redesign the internal operating model and build out processes that would support the demands of the organization's policy teams.

During the past two years, Hoods and his team have focused on a range of projects, including organizational design, honing team-building capabilities and capacities, and moving to a modern, cloud-based architecture. With the foundations in place, Hoods says the aim now is to deliver what he refers to as "digital products". He says: 

We're largely a policy department, but we are changing - and there's going to mean more deliverables. So, we're starting to stand up some of the solutions now in order to think about what we need to do in our space.

Although Hoods is taking a fresh approach to innovation in government, he doesn't believe that public sector CIOs are inherently risk averse. He says all government IT leaders face a range of varying constraints in terms of funding and delivering value for money. Whatever context they face, he says innovation must be part of the CIO's strategic cycle:

We have an agile methodology from Government Digital Service, which is all about iterating and moving forward. I think the nature of BEIS, given its involvement in research and development, is that we're slightly more open to innovation. But my personal view is we should be doing much more experimentation. That's how we can learn. And even the things you throw away, you can learn a lot from.

Take grant management, for example. BEIS manages a range of grants, which vary in nature between voucher schemes and specialist funds. Back in 2019, Hoods told diginomica he was keen to explore how the grant management process could be made more efficient and effective. Now, the organization is thinking about what the future of the grant management platform is going to be. Hoods explains: 

We're taking a step back and having a product-based approach, rather than what some places do, which is to develop a solution for a particular policy objective or problem they've got at that moment in time. We want to say, ‘well, actually, there are lots of similarities across what we do in grants and funding, so how do we build something that can cater for that, and then we can spin up solutions really quickly.

Augmented reality 

Hoods says he's keen to expand this product-based approach to all kinds of areas. In terms of other applications and services, he says BEIS has undertaken innovative work at the proof-of-concept stage. One example is an augmented reality solution that was created for the challenges of insulation that the building-retrofit team faces. He says: 

There's targets that need to be met in terms of building insulation, and there's issues that come with insulation having to be retrofitted into buildings. You have to think about how you work with the construction industry to get this insulation implemented at the right time.

BEIS worked with technology specialist Avanade to build an augmented reality tool, which uses a headset to allow individuals to enter a room virtually. Here, they can find out the measurements of the room, the type of insulation that might be required, and the potential bill for materials. Hoods says: 

We're starting to think much more about how we use different technologies to help solve some of the policy problems. The augmented reality application could be taken forward and used as a training service for the construction industry. We're looking at doing more of those kinds of things through our innovation pipeline.

Training toolkit

Hoods adds that it's crucial these kinds of pioneering ideas are placed into a clear business context. Rather than simply seeing "technology as the solution to everything", he wants BEIS to have clear objectives around how new products can make the world a better place. That process relies on building the right culture first, rather than simply spending cash on technology. He says: 

We're focused on creating a training toolkit, which is about how we build more of an innovation mindset. It's about how we provide people with the kinds of tools to think through problems from a different angle. And when they do, we'll then have a conversation about where technology will fit into that business problem.

Hoods says some ideas remain at the proof-of-concept stage. However, the aim is to go beyond a hackathon-type approach, where new ideas are tested in lab-like conditions and remain on the backburner. He wants to find opportunities for innovation and work out quickly whether they're going to work in reality:

We want to provide some new examples rapidly to see whether or not a concept is going to fly. We've done the same with chatbots internally - we have an HR chatbot and we have a chatbot for knowledge, too. It can answer all sorts of questions around what you want to do with classifying documents, what the retention periods are, and where you should store them. It's about saying, ‘let's experiment with these things, see which fly, and then we'll see what we want to deploy on an enterprise scale.

The 130-strong internal IT team at BEIS has a clear roadmap for product development. IT staff are explicit with business colleagues about when they can expect releases and, if their requirements change, they have upfront conversations about how timelines might change. His team works closely with its business partners and policy colleagues to understand their challenges. Feedback feeds into the technology roadmap - and the need for innovation is appreciated:

You get pockets where you need to do a lot more persuasion internally, depending on their own workloads and their level of understanding. But the key thing is that BEIS is fairly progressive as an organisation, so there's massive demand for this sort of activity. For us, there's more of an issue around pipeline and scheduling, so that we can meet the demand as quickly as people need it, which is always going to be a balance when you're running a fairly small team.