After more than four years at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), IT chief Mayank Prakash is leaving the public sector, beginning a new role in charge of the digitisation of Centrica’s consumer business in the new year.
As he prepares for his departure, Computer Weekly speaks to Prakash about his time at the department, challenges he has faced, his accomplishments, agile working and Universal Credit.
When Prakash joined DWP in 2014, the organisation was in the midst of its digital strategy transformation. There have since been significant changes at the department, which has gone from being a laggard to an exemplar when it comes to IT.
Prakash says the department is now hosting FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies “almost every week”, which want to learn from DWP.
“Behind it is one simple thing, which is that our strategy is to deliver,” says Prakash, adding that 11 million people in the UK choose to interact with the department online.
“To get 11 million people to interact with us online, and do that channel shift, means we’ve completely transformed how we deliver our services,” he says, adding that all services take a multichannel approach, offering telephony or face-to-face interactions too.
One of the first services to go online was carer’s allowance, which launched four-and-a-half years ago. Speaking about the success of the service, Prakash says it has gone from taking days to process the information, and customers interacting with the department via phone or post, to “online interaction which takes minutes and has 84% digital channel take-up and a 92% satisfaction rate”.
Prakash is clearly proud of this: “We thought that set a very high benchmark, but sustaining that over four years has now set a record,” he says.
Another successful service has been the check your pension service, which has been delivered in collaboration with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The service has 93% digital take-up, with 88% user satisfaction rate.
The work has not gone unnoticed. In 2017, Prakash won the coveted top spot in Computer Weekly’s UKtech50 most influential person in UK IT, reflecting the achievements he has accomplished.
Challenges at DWP
DWP has one of the largest IT estates in the UK. Prakash told Computer Weekly last year that it runs 55 million lines of code – supporting 85,000 employees who serve about 22 million customers and process £170bn in payments every year.
Transforming a department as large as DWP isn’t easy, he admits. He says the reality of digital transformation “is not smooth sailing”.
One challenge has been finances. To afford its large digital transformation, the department has also had to save and reinvest its budget significantly.
“To do all of this digital transformation, we didn’t get any extra money,” says Prakash, so the department had to reimagine its services without additional funding. “We did it by saving 37% of our billion pound spend, and then reinvesting it. That is close to £400m saved every year and then reinvested,” he says.
There have also been challenges around increasing capability, both through new hires and by upskilling current staff. “We have made a massive dent on that. We have added 700 people this financial year,” he says.
It’s not just people from outside the organisation coming in, but a huge focus has been on increasing learning and development among staff. The department’s people survey shows learning and development is up by seven percentage points, which Prakash says is an “unprecedented, statistically out-of-range movement for us”.
“It means we are inspiring colleagues to be curious,” he says, adding that in the past year, 10% of employees have been promoted.
Changing the culture has been a big undertaking. “We have changed from being a waterfall organisation which was really good at robust, large-scale product management, to large-scale digital product development with iterative, agile delivery,” Prakash adds.
Universal Credit delivered
Another key challenge, Prakash says, is that the department doesn’t get to choose its customers.
“Transforming a public service is more difficult than transforming a commercial service, because you choose which customer segment to go after in a commercial world. We don’t choose our customers,” he says.
“If you are transforming a service which is used by really vulnerable customers then that is exceptionally hard, and that requires us to focus on user needs, being driven by user needs, listen to them, cut out all the noise you hear from people who presume to speak for the user, connect directly up with the user and iterate fast.”
“Transforming a public service is more difficult than transforming a commercial service, because you choose which customer segment to go after in a commercial world. We don’t choose our customers”
Mayank Prakash, DWP
As an example, Prakash points to the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) full service, which was recently completed.
“That has been the result of over 100 releases as a result of agile, digital product development, delivering every fortnight, and now often every week, iterating to get better,” he says, “and that is the perspective of our customers.”
Universal Credit has been, and still is, one of the most controversial and criticised reform programmes in government. The huge benefits reform programme has had a checkered history since its inception in 2010, and was reset in 2014. However, the full business case for the programme was only submitted for Treasury approval earlier this year.
The department began deploying the UC “full service” countrywide in May 2016, covering the full replacement of six different in-work welfare benefits with a single payment.
Mayank says the roll-out is now completed, signifying a huge achievement for the department, particularly with 100 releases of UC full service deployed.
“That is Europe’s largest transformation delivered,” he says. “It is an exemplar on record for how to design, build and scale digital products and services.”
When asked about the criticism UC has faced, Prakash says: “UC is rightly so debated in Parliament and is the focus of a lot of attention because [we] live in a democracy and we elect people to debate what is right.”
He won’t comment on the policies of the day – “that’s why we have Parliament and we have a government that decides those things” – but he’s happy to talk about the success of UC as a digital product and service, which he says “only gets rave reviews from anybody who reviews it”.
Mayank Prakash, DWP
Not everyone would agree with this sentiment. In 2017, Charity Citizens Advice issued a report calling for the roll-out to be halted, as it had found serious problems with the UC digital service, including people lacking the digital skills to use the system and struggling to verify their identity.
The latter issue, in particular, is an interesting one. The UC digital service aims to use the government’s flagship identity platform Gov.uk Verify, but Computer Weekly revealed in January 2018 that only 35% of UC users were able to set up a Verify account online, 30% were unable to do so, and the remaining 35% could use Verify but did not.
Cheryl Stevens, deputy director of identity and trust services at DWP, told Computer Weekly last month that UC was achieving a lower success rate than Verify’s 44% average. This means that perhaps as many as 60% of claimants need a face-to-face session at a jobcentre.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has also been critical. The current system was “not as automated” as envisaged by DWP in the beginning, as “payment calculation, appointment booking and management of advances are not fully automated”, the NAO said.
Another more recent criticism came from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who said in his report that the belief within DWP that claimants are online and digitally skilled is contradictory to views from “some officials”, and that although jobcentres offer online access, he found there was very little digital assistance available “and official policy is to keep ‘face-to-face’ help at a minimum”, which is putting the digitally excluded at a disadvantage.
However, Prakash does not share the view of critics, and says the facts are very simple and “contradict” the perception around digital skills and access.
“UC is offered to our customers, like other services, as two or three channels. You can come and interact with us online, you can come and phone us, or you can come and meet us face-to-face in a jobcentre,” he says.
“We have got the government’s biggest retail deployment across the entire UK in terms of jobcentres, where we meet face-to-face all of those customers. The facts are really simple. There is a choice that our customers have to interact in either of those ways, and if you look at the numbers, they exercise that choice.
“We recognise that when we launch a service which is at this massive scale, and when we don’t choose our customer segments, we are not going to have everybody engage with us online.
“And so by design, we have designed a multichannel approach to interact with our customers on the phone and face-to-face because we are interested in the outcomes of these services, which are supporting really vulnerable customers, and that matters for colleagues across DWP who deliver that service, and the other thing we’re interested in is offering that service in a timely way in a way that works for those customers.”
Regardless of differentiating views on UC, that project, along with others, have been huge undertakings for the department and Prakash.
One of the biggest achievements has been migrating to a hyperscale hybrid cloud environment, which has hugely increased processing efficiency, cost savings and the speed it takes to spin up a new service.
Mayank Prakash, DWP
“The key benefit for us is it means our overnight batches now run so fast that we have more time for services to be available for users,” he says.
Prakash adds that he is “very proud of the success story that’s been created by colleagues across DWP and our partners to get us to this point”.
“Driving large-scale transformation doesn’t happen by luck alone. It happens as a result of continuously, with tenacity, executing on our strategy to deliver.
“That is not something I do on my own in a dark corner. That’s what thousands of colleagues do across an ecosystem, and so I suspect that will continue to happen in the future.”
One of the key things Prakash will take with him from DWP is the importance of listening, learning and understanding the context – something he will use in his new role at Centrica.
“Part of what we’ve achieved together at DWP is because we don’t want to be average at what we do, we want to be extraordinary. So I am looking forward to understanding what it is that will be extraordinary in the next challenge,” he says.
Prakash leaves DWP and begins his new role at Centrica in the new year. The department has yet to find a replacement for him, but has begun recruiting for the role, offering £180,000 a year.
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