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Interview: How the DWP Dojo innovates

Juan Villamil, director of enterprise infrastructure and production operations at DWP Digital, discusses how the Department for Work and Pensions tests out new tech ideas

The web giants have demonstrated how giving people time to experiment and try out their own ideas can lead to innovative projects that often have profound business benefits.

It is an idea that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been trying to emulate as it looks to improve how citizens interact with and use the services it offers.

Juan Villamil is the director of enterprise infrastructure and production operations at DWP Digital. A former chief technology officer (CTO) at BT Sport, he joined the DWP three-and-a-half years ago with the goal of helping the department to drive digital transformation and build digital capabilities.

He says one of the key areas of digital transformation is innovation. But a question many organisations need to ask themselves is, ‘when is the right time to embark on innovation?’ He points out that the timing was not right when he joined DWP.

The department’s IT had been outsourced to HPE. However, as McKinsey & Company’s The age of innovation article notes, innovation is too important to be outsourced. Authors Alex Kazaks, Parker Shi and Holger Wilms recommend that companies should get very good at taking ideas themselves and figuring out how to commercialise them – and they should then roll them out on a large scale, and integrate them with existing processes, functions and lines of business.

So before it could innovate, the DWP first needed to take control of its systems. Speaking to Computer Weekly at the recent Pega Customer Engagement Summit in London, Villamil said: “We needed to drive a technology refresh and stability.”

When the opportunity came, the department began looking at how it could become more innovative. “We want innovation to be at the heart of what we do as we start to build capabilities in our internal teams and start to transform,” says Villamil.

In a blog post from May 2016, Villamil described a technology vision for the department that would allow it to adapt to new technology breakthroughs. “Today’s generation (Y and Z) is ever growing: ‘digital natives’ that have grown up addicted to technology – emotionally attached to their mobile phones. If we are to serve today’s new generation, we have to rethink how we build infrastructure. We can no longer sustain a model where we deploy new infrastructure every time a new disruptive technology service comes along,” he wrote.

IT at the DWP previously focused on delivering policy – but it now focuses on delivering systems that are easier and faster to use.

Creating an innovation engine

“Across all of DWP, we want everyone to think about the citizen. We want everyone to think about how we deliver our services to our customers,” says Villamil.

This means that, from an innovation perspective, the team needs to assess the potential of emerging technologies to understand how they can be deployed at DWP and to improve the services offered.

According to Villamil, there is a machine of ideas at DWP, which comes about by people rethinking how certain tasks are achieved. “We do not have unlimited resources, so we have to manage and prioritise this backlog [of ideas],” he says. Priority is given to the ones that potentially offer the biggest value to the DWP.

“We want innovation to be at the heart of what we do as we start to build capabilities in our internal teams and start to transform”
Juan Villamil, DWP

A year ago, Villamil set up the DWP Innovation Dojo. A dojo is a safe place for martial arts students to go to meditate and practise their skills – similarly, Innovation Dojo offers DWP’s tech team a way to try out new ideas in a safe environment, away from criticism.

Explaining the rationale behind the Dojo, Villamil says he wanted to remove the governance of having to build a business case or proof of concept every time the team wanted to try something new.

“This [level] of governance doesn’t work with innovation. [Now], we can build things with very few rules. We need to let people experiment and let people fail,” he says.

While failure is often frowned on in government, within the confines of the DWP Dojo, Villamil says it has created a safe place for the team to fail. “When we fail, we move on – there is unconstrained thinking,” he says.

This allows the Dojo team to spend time investigating how citizens can use the services the DWP provides. “We have to be able to see the bigger picture,” adds Villamil.

Rather than focusing on how things have always been done in the past, Villamil urges the team to think about how services can be improved – by focusing on the outcomes. Ideally, he wants the DWP Dojo team to come to him with an idea and suggest to him how they would deliver a better service.

Accelerating blockchain innovation

Villamil’s approach avoids the need for a formal request for proposals (RFP) with hundreds of requirements. “We want to quickly explore the opportunity technology gives us to understand if that technology is ready now, or if it will be ready in five or 10 years’ time, and whether it delivers real value,” he says.

The team also explores how the technology can be supported. Only then is it taken to the next stage as a proof-of-concept project.

One of the areas the DWP Dojo team was tasked with investigating is how blockchain could be used to facilitate fast payments. The DWP Dojo first assessed whether blockchain was mature enough and then looked at the problems it could solve, says Villamil.

The DWP handles £170bn of payment transactions a year. Reducing fraud and error rates and ensuring a payment transaction is successful are among the key requirements. “When you make a payment, there is an industry of payment platforms for fraud and error handling,” he says. “Blockchain has these capabilities built-in, allowing us to make a transaction securely and with traceability, and the transaction is also immutable.”

The DWP Dojo team explored the use of a hyper-ledger fabric to create a payment messaging platform. “We created a permissioned network to demonstrate that we could transact in the volumes the DWP needed,” he says. The project is now being taken to the next step through a proof-of-concept with the Bank of England.

In terms of innovation, Villamil’s DWP Dojo approach effectively separates good ideas and emerging tech from formal RFP specifications and proof-of-concept project work. This allows the DWP Dojo team to assess the potential of ideas and emerging technology before a firm business case is written. It gives them the freedom to innovate by testing new technologies without the risk of being tainted by a failed project.

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