CIO interview: Ben Booth on transforming IT at the National Offender Management Service

The UK's National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has ended a year of IT-led transformation, managed by interim IT chief Ben Booth

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is the biggest agency of the UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ), with 60,000 staff. It has just concluded a year of deep IT-led transformation and is now shifting to a much sharper focus on digital.

Last month, interim director of change and IT Ben Booth ended his year-long contract at the agency, having overseen the technology changes to support Transforming Rehabilitation (TR), one of the government’s top five change programmes.

Booth was hired in February 2014 as a temporary leader to cover for previous incumbent Martin Bellamy, who left to become the first chief information officer at Cambridge University.

“My main role over the past year has been to make sure the technological changes to support the initiative were fully completed on time,” says Booth. “In terms of the technology and the business change, it’s been completely successful, to the extent that everything was ready and about 10% under budget.

“We delivered a significant programme, which is in very good shape. The system supporting Transforming Rehabilitation is solid and is being used. At the same time, we have been working on an upgrade to the technology infrastructure for prisons and NOMS HQ.”

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Foundations in place

TR is all about reforming probation and how offenders are managed and rehabilitated in the community. At present, people who have committed the most serious offences or present the highest risk of reoffending are managed by the National Probation Service (NPS) within NOMS, and the rest are the responsibility of 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).

A key part of the programme was to encourage bids for CRCs from the private sector and social enterprises. Since most reoffenders are those who have served short sentences, TR aims to dramatically reduce the social and financial costs of crime.

The technology underpinning these processes – which had to be up and running on 1 February 2015 – involved taking data and access protocols designed around 35 probation trusts, which had to be restructured to support the new NPS and the various CRCs, as well as work to support integration with systems in prisons and courts.

“To use private-sector terminology, we have integrated 35 separate acquisitions and divested 21 independent companies, together with setting up a separate business unit of 9,000 staff,” says Booth. “In all, 20,000 staff were affected.

“To achieve this, we involved our two large suppliers, Steria and HP, together with smaller software houses and a team composed of civil servants, contractors and specialist service providers.”

By 2013, NOMS had replaced 43 separate case management systems with a single system, National Delius, from Beaumont Colson (BCL). According to Booth, the data in this system had to be restructured to support the new organisation and some functionality was added.

The changes were carried out by Steria, which looks after the infrastructure and environment for probation, with BCL responsible for changes to the software code. HP provides the prison management software, which is a variant of a product from Syscon.

“It’s early days, but it’s fair to say the new systems are all being used as planned, with the first few offenders coming into the new regime and the new organisational structure of NPS and CRCs in place,” says Booth.

Moving to digital

Now that the technology foundations for NOMS are in place, the agency is better placed to pursue digital opportunities, in step with the government’s digital agenda. This was reinforced by the appointment of Booth’s permanent successor, Bryan Clark, who started work last week. Unlike Booth’s title of director of change and IT, Clark’s role is director of digital and change.

To date, the main digital project at NOMS has been Prison Visits Booking, a system that enables online booking of social visits to prisoners. For this project, the agency’s IT team worked closely with MoJ Digital Services.

The majority of [prison] visits are being booked via smartphones and this gives us some foresight into how consumer use of technology is evolving

Ben Booth, NOMS

“In contrast to many of our previous projects, this has followed agile methodology, which has seen much quicker delivery of the finished system,” says Booth. “Interestingly, the majority of visits are being booked via smartphones and this gives us some foresight into how consumer use of technology is evolving.”

NOMS is looking at other digital initiatives, both for public interactions and to make systems easier to use by staff. One example is video technology, which is playing a key role in how prisons work with courts. Booth says “big progress” has been made in initiatives such as enabling appearances in court from prison via video, where appropriate.

“Video is also being looked at both to enable social visits and professional visits by an offender's legal team,” he says. “In the future, NOMS will also be looking at opportunities for probation to make use of video for routine communication with offenders.”

In prisons, NOMS is also looking at mobile technologies for prison officers and what can be provided in prisoners’ cells, to add to the landing-based kiosks that are already deployed.

Upgrading ways of working is also on the agency’s digital radar and the plan is to move from a “pretty much desk-based model with desktops and PCs and so on” to doing much more with mobile technology and supporting more flexible working, says Booth.

Cementing supplier relationships

Another key task he had was to “cement the relationship” between the agency and its two main IT suppliers, HP and Steria. HP provides services to more than 100 prisons around the UK, as well as to the NOMS HQ. Steria is the main supplier for probation. 

The model for technology provision across the MoJ is also changing under the Future IT Strategy (FITS), an approach based on ITIL methodologies and following government best practice to move away from a single supplier.

“This is a big change, as instead of one supplier across the whole of a particular area of business, we will have several, but covering the whole ministry,” says Booth. “FITS is projected to yield significant savings and we lose the dependence on single suppliers.

“However, the transition to the new model and subsequent service will need to be closely managed and the IT team is working with [MoJ CTO] Ian Sayer and his team in MoJ technology to make sure this all goes smoothly.”

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Although FITS is the future, HP and Steria are still the two big technology suppliers for NOMS and are instrumental in the TR initiative. 

“We have been working very closely with them, and one of my tasks when I started in February last year was to make our relationship a much stronger partnership, as we had a very aggressive timescale to achieve delivery,” says Booth.

Achieving the required working relationship involved “a multi-faceted approach”, he says.

“To start with, we sat everyone down – civil servants, contractors and suppliers – and explained the importance of what we were doing and that we had to work together as a team. There would be no point in pointing the finger of blame because if we failed, we would all be responsible.”

Booth also put in place a stronger programme management office, which, following a competition, was provided by EY. He also strengthened governance and engagement with the business units that would ultimately use the systems.

To ensure that everyone understood the gravity of the programme, Booth also set up a communication channel between directors-general and ministers and the suppliers’ top management.

“That we delivered on time and under budget is, in my view, entirely due to this teamwork approach,” he says.

However, with the introduction of FITS, the model for technology provision will change again, so at the same time as they have been implementing TR, both Steria and HP have been involved in planning the transition to the new strategy.

Support from the top

According to Booth, the biggest challenge of leading the technology changes to support TR was the fixed-term timetable, which had no flexibility. However, backing from senior government figures was a major help during the process, he says.

“I suppose the key to success there was having the support of, and close interest from, top management, including the secretary of state, Chris Grayling, and NOMS chief executive Michael Spurr,” he adds.

“Both took a close interest in the technology strand and met us in various forums almost on a weekly basis to look at progress. So we had an extremely tough timetable, but with very good support from the top.”

We had an extremely tough timetable, but with very good support from the top

Ben Booth, NOMS

Booth, who has been pursuing an interim CIO career after he left market research firm Ipsos in 2012, says his only regret from his year at NOMS is that he was not able to spend much time on other initiatives, or on developing the team.

“That is because I had a specific, a big programme to focus on,” he says. “And that’s a regret, but I think that was also something that couldn’t have been changed.”

Booth thinks he would have been a strong candidate for the permanent role, but says that was not something he even considered.

“I think the interim role is often one where you need to make a particular change or turn something around, or to complete a particular programme,” he says. “Overall, it’s a slightly different set of skills and deliverables to what would be expected in a permanent role.”

Given that the foundations of TR are now in place, it would be easy to suggest that his successor’s role will be more “business as usual” – but there is still a lot to be done.

“I think the reality will be much more demanding – completing the changes in probation, working with FITS and developing a range of digital opportunities,” says Booth. “Also, there is much to be done to build on the existing capabilities of the team and there is the whole change agenda to be addressed.

“I’d say that Transforming Rehabilitation has got a good foundation, and my successor has got a good team, as well as the basis of a strong infrastructure. But there are still plenty of challenges for him to apply his initiative, skills and feelings to. It’s a very exciting role going forward.”

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