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UKtech50 interview: Jacky Wright, CDIO, HMRC

The UKtech50’s most influential person in UK IT 2018, HM Revenue and Customs’ chief digital and information officer, Jacky Wright, on balancing priorities, leveraging new technologies and the changing role of the CIO

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The winner of UKtech50 2018, Jacky Wright, is at the helm of one of government’s biggest departments, driving its digital transformation.

The chief digital and information officer (CDIO) role at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is arguably one of the highest profile IT leadership roles in the UK, and Wright brings to it a wealth of experience.

Coming to HMRC from Microsoft on a two-year tenure in October 2017, Wright quickly made her mark as the department’s CDIO, tackling head-on the many challenges and opportunities at the department, despite the fact that coming from the private sector into a public sector role for the first time cannot be easy.

“The challenge for someone such as myself, who has never worked in the public sector, is to quickly understand the processes that make government work and how you drive your agenda through those processes,” says Wright.

“That in itself has not been easy, as there are many governance processes and procedures to traverse. There is also the element of cultures within cultures, and how you navigate those, which is also not easy.”

It’s a busy time to be driving digital transformation at HMRC. The department is undergoing one of the biggest ever changes to the UK tax system, through its Making Tax Digital programme, as well as focusing on myriad Brexit projects.  

The department is so busy, in fact, that earlier this year, it had to put 39 technology projects and changes on hold until after the UK has left the European Union (EU). 

Wright tells Computer Weekly the Brexit workstream is one of HMRC’s highest priorities as “its ability to keep the country going with trade and goods is paramount”.

“At the same time, we are still in the business of collecting revenues and improving our services for our customers, so keeping business-as-usual activity going is par for the course,” she says.

Balancing priorities

Working in such a high-profile department, where every decision is hugely influential and important, one of the biggest challenges Wright faces is balancing priorities.

“You have requests that come from many different sources – ministers, for example – and you have to be able to manage the delivery of those requests on the macro merits of the benefits, which is not always crystal clear,” she says.

It also means the department is open to criticism. In a report on HMRC’s performance in 2017-18, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that although it recognises that the department is facing significant challenges, the committee is worried about progress.

“The agility in balancing priorities against a tight deadline, with a moving target of requirements for a very large interdependent ecosystem, is the challenge at hand”

Jacky Wright, HMRC

Some of the concerns and criticism are around HMRC’s Customs Declaration Service (CDS), for instance, which is replacing its legacy Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) system.

Although the department launched the first phase of CDS on time in August 2018, the export functionality of the system is being delayed and will “now not be ready until March 2019 at the earliest”, according to the department. This concerns MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.

Wright says Brexit preparations are a challenge, and requires the department to take the criticism on board.

“The agility in balancing priorities – this includes EU exit – against a tight deadline, with a moving target of requirements for a very large interdependent ecosystem, is the challenge at hand,” she says.

“This once-in-a-lifetime macro event requires us to take the criticism, but be in a position to constantly communicate the challenges, needs, risks and alternatives, so that everyone is informed and we make the best decisions for all. I assume positive intent and do not take it personally; that is my mantra.”

Capability and new technologies

HMRC has gone through significant changes in the past few years, and aims to become the most digitally advanced tax administration anywhere in the world by 2020.

One of the biggest changes was the end of its Aspire outsourcing deal, going from one large overarching supplier, to smaller and more flexible contracts with several suppliers.  

According to the department’s annual report and accounts, it has already saved more than £100m since breaking up the Aspire contract.

“The Aspire contract ended in June 2017. Since then, our core strategy has been about creating capability, evaluating our services and ultimately putting a new operating model in place which underpins everything we do,” says Wright.

However, exiting the Aspire deal has brought about a big capability challenge.

“We want to be digital by default, but also digitally inclusive, which means leaving no one behind on this journey”
Jacky Wright, HMRC

“In an organisation that has been pretty much wholly outsourced for years,” says Wright, “how can you accelerate the infusion and development of capability to meet our current and future needs?”

The department is also looking at how to utilise new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots, “engendering a digital ethos as part of our culture”.

“We want to be digital by default, but also digitally inclusive, which means leaving no one behind on this journey. We have been embracing these technologies for a while, in various guises, in everything from how we interact with our customers – for example, utilising chatbots and robotics process automation – to how we drive our compliance agenda using machine learning,” she says.

“We’re also looking at how we can get the most from cloud technology – making our services more resilient, while at the same time reducing costs.

“At the heart of this is making sure we are always innovating, incubating and then embedding new ways of working into the department. There is a keen focus on how we are helping our employees build that experience and knowledge in HMRC – still lots to do here.”

Diversity and the changing role of the CIO

Diversity within the department, the public sector and the industry in general is something Wright is keen to drive forward. Despite huge strides having been made, there is still a long way to go.

“Without diversity, there is no innovation,” she says, adding that she has been, and continues to be, “in a world that has yet to make material change in its demographics”.

“I have a role to play by being the change I want to see, and I take that responsibility very seriously,” says Wright.

“We need to tackle the obstacle which is how inclusive are you: as an individual, an organisation and your culture? How do we remove biases? And, as technologists, are we clear about the role technology can play to remove the barriers, as well as the negative effects technology may be instilling, creating more barriers? There are many things we can do to tackle this, but that requires a more detailed discussion.”

The UK technology industry in general has also changed a lot over the past few years, and with it, the role of the CIO.

Wright says that as every organisation now has to become a digital organisation “in some sense”, the role of the CIO is to be a “business influencer with technology at the heart of the opportunity”.

“Creating the art of what is possible for every aspect of our lives and businesses. Data is being used in ways it never was before. We must also address the emerging sentiment of the ethical questions that are becoming more and more prevalent in our society with regards to the impact technology is having,” she says.

“Are we as leaders driving and influencing with these things in mind? Are we including the social agenda and implications as an integral part of the business agenda? There is still lots to consider in the changing world of technology.”

Read interviews with former UKtech50 winners

  • UKtech50 winner 2017: DWP CDIO Mayank Prakash talks about changing ways of working, the importance of culture and the role of new technologies. 
  • UKtech50 winner 2016: ARM Holdings CEO Simon Segars shares his thoughts on the consequences of Brexit, access to skills and the importance of security in a world full of connected devices. 
  • UKtech50 winner 2015: BT CEO Gavin Patterson on how to balance the demands of a global services business with the responsibility of being the national incumbent telecoms operator.

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