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CIO interview: Simon Liste, chief information technology officer, Pension Protection Fund

Experience of delivering digital change in the private sector means the PPF’s IT chief is well positioned to lead transformation in a critical public sector organisation

Simon Liste, chief information technology officer (CITO) at the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), is using his experience of leading digital transformation in a range of businesses and sectors to bring change to a public sector organisation.

Set up by the Pensions Act 2004, the PPF protects millions of people throughout the UK who belong to defined-benefit pension schemes. If their employers go bust, and their pension schemes cannot afford to pay what they had promised, the PPF pays compensation for the lost pensions.

Liste joined the organisation as director of IT and change in February 2018, having previously served as group head of IT at First Quantum Minerals. He previously held senior tech positions at real estate company Savills, legal firm Norton Rose and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Liste was approached about the PPF role and says it provided an opportunity to cut down on his travelling and to fulfil some of his leadership ambitions.

“There were a few other approaches, too,” he says. “But the reason I chose the PPF was because of what it stands for and what it does. I thought it was an opportunity to work for a great organisation that does such a lot of good – so that was a real big influence. 

“And then I had the discussions about the role, the possibilities and the opportunities for the future, and it seemed a great fit. I’m very passionate about technology and change, and the people running the organisation shared that enthusiasm for what those things can bring to an organisation as well. It just seemed to be a natural fit.”

Moving upwards

Liste’s initial role at the PPF didn’t come with a seat on the executive committee. However, there was an opportunity to help evolve his role into a more senior business position. In December 2018, he was promoted to his current job of CITO and says that increased seniority was a recognition of the growing importance of digital transformation at the business by the PPF’s chief executive, Oliver Morley.

“He was supportive of the technology strand in the organisation and realised its purpose,” says Liste. “We embarked on creating a 36-month strategy. That was about not just transforming a business around its technology stack, but also considering change and culture and behaviour, because all that obviously naturally happens as a consequence.”

“Being able to use technology to allow a business to fulfil its purpose is a great feeling”

Simon Liste, Pension Protection Fund

His influence within the PPF now extends beyond the technology and facilities departments, and covers cultural change and wider transformation, especially in regard to how it continues to embrace digital services.

“We always keep our purpose in mind and focus on how technology can complement that objective,” says Liste.

“Obviously, our number one priority is always paying members the right amount at the right time – that’s our key mantra across the whole of the PPF. As a member of the executive committee, I’ve been able to be at the front of strategic business decisions, and to think about where technology can actually help, assist or steer what we do as an organisation.”

Liste recognises that the growing importance of digital technology to the PPF means he has a broad, challenging role, but it’s one he enjoys. “I’ve always been a passionate advocate around technology and the benefits it can bring – there’s so much that digitisation can provide,” he says. “Being able to use technology to allow a business to fulfil its purpose is a great feeling.”

Bringing technology home

Since assuming the CITO role towards the end of 2018, Liste says a big focus has been on bringing IT back in-house. The PPF’s IT was previously outsourced to a managed services provider, including all aspects of governance, security, architecture and service delivery.

“It was probably the right thing at the time,” he says. “I know that, within the public sector, there’s a fluctuation between insourcing and outsourcing. So a big achievement has been exiting from that outsourcing arrangement successfully and taking full control in December last year.”

Read more about digital transformation in government

Liste says the PPF has disaggregated the support model to spread provision across a series of suppliers and to reduce the level of potential risk. Another plus-point of insourcing is that the organisation benefits from a good set of technically minded people internally, he says. This allows him to deliver projects to the business in an agile way quickly, while also making sure it takes place in a controlled, secure and governable manner.

“The change around delivery, and the kinds of methodologies around project management that we’ve adopted, has involved a big change and has been a big success,” he says. “We work in a hybrid way, so we use traditional Prince2 waterfall methods, but obviously we work in an agile scrum approach as well.

“We engage with the business units at all times, making sure that change is embraced and led by them. We’re trying to change the culture. It’s not just about being an IT department – we’re all part of the business, working collectively to deliver appropriate change.”

Moving to the cloud

Liste says he has also honed the PPF’s information security stance. Although the organisation had a security presence before he arrived, Liste has taken the management of cyber defence systems back in-house and developed an information security and privacy team.

“That’s a strong department, and it basically helps us to manage the risks,” he says. Those efforts have been even more important in recent weeks, as Liste – like the rest of his IT leadership peers across industry – has worked with the executive board to turn remote working into a business-as-usual activity in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.

“That has obviously shifted some of my priorities,” he says. “Operational stability in the current environment is key. We have to make sure our investment team can protect the portfolio that they’re managing at the moment. We must be able to put our members first and provide front-line support services.”

Liste says being halfway through his organisation’s digital transformation process helped to cope with the changes necessitated by social distancing. A decision to take a cloud-first approach to IT implementation means the organisation was already starting to invest in on-demand platforms and applications.

“The future for us as an organisation is about taking a position where we can enhance and transform the technology we provide through the cloud,” he says. “I think Covid-19 and establishing remote working will help support that shift to the cloud for a lot of organisations.”

Liste suggests that cloud will become a key element of the CIO’s arsenal going forward.

“People have often been preoccupied by the security layer of the cloud,” he says. “But I think the stability, the diversity and the high availability that the cloud offers people has been evident for a lot of organisations that have been able to successfully support their employees as they work from home.”

Stepping up to the plate

Liste agrees with the suggestion that a combination of cloud-enabled innovation and a rapidly changing business environment, particularly in the context of dealing with Covid-19, mean the CIO role itself is likely to go through a continuing transformation over the next few years.

He has already made moves in that direction and, as mentioned earlier, has been given oversight of facilities management at the PPF. That is likely to be an important role going forward, especially as the organisation continues to support its workforce as they continue to work remotely both now and in the longer term.

More generally, Liste envisages a situation in which the ever-increasing digitisation of business means that private and public sector organisations make greater use of the experience and knowledge of CIOs. In fact, he believes that transition will mean the role of the CIO will look very different in the future.

“Do I think the CIO role will exist in its current form in 10 or even five years’ time?” he says. “No, I don’t think it will – I think it will become much more business-focused.”

Leading from the front

Liste says his key priority during the next couple of years will be landing the transformation strategy that he has developed to help deliver the digitisation of the PPF’s services. This strategy includes giving workers the capability to use any device to access the PPF’s applications from any location at any time. External hooks will be important, too.

“We want to allow a secure interaction with anybody – we want to really increase our digital footprint through connected technology,” he says. “Data for us is key, so I really want to transform the way we consume data and how we interact with other government bodies and other external parties.”

Liste wants to use digitisation to help the PPF evolve as a business. He says such data-led links will help to build the organisation’s reputation and to foster positive perceptions across the business world and out into the popular media. It is also important that the PPF continues to find new ways to interact with its members, he says.

“Two years from now, our approach will be full of choices. There will be multi-channel options for contacting us. Our members today will be different from the members that we’re going to have in 10 years’ time. Those members will be a younger generation and, therefore, they are going to have expectations about tech-based interactions,” he says.

“That means being completely agnostic about devices and being much more focused around web consumption. It will be secure, of course, and services will be consumed on applications depending on the devices that people use. It’s all about creating the choices and options for people to be able to consume our services.”

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