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UKtech50 interview: DWP chief digital and information officer Mayank Prakash

The UKtech50 most influential person in UK IT 2017, Department for Work and Pensions chief digital and information officer Mayank Prakash, talks about changing ways of working, the importance of culture and the role of new technologies

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The winner of UKtech50 2017, Mayank Prakash, heads up digital transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a job that comes with many challenges as well as opportunities.  

The department is huge – its 85,000 employees serve about 22 million customers and the DWP processes £170bn in payments every year.

Working on such a huge scale means anything IT-related is also big. Prakash tells Computer Weekly that the department, which runs 55 million lines of code, is a large organisation “by most parameters”. 

“The size and scale of DWP is a large challenge, but it is also a big opportunity to make a difference,” he says.

“We have to balance our impatience to modernise with the need to avoid disruption to services for both our colleagues and customers, because the services are mission-critical and they impact human lives.”

When Prakash joined the DWP back in 2014, the organisation was in the midst of its digital strategy transformation. Since then, there have been significant changes at the department. 

Most notably, perhaps, was the launch of Universal Credit (UC) – a programme that has been carefully watched and has attracted criticism.  

The fully digital UC service, which replaces six different in-work welfare benefits with a single payment, is on track to be fully rolled out by 2022.

“We have to reimagine the culture in the organisation. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Mayank Prakash, DWP

Prakash describes the UC full service as one of the ways the DWP is working to improve services to citizens. “Everybody in DWP Digital comes to work to reimagine those customer experiences,” he says, adding that this includes Universal Credit, which Prakash describes as the “largest digital transformation programme in Europe”.

He says the department has had “some great reviews on the platform we’re deploying”, adding that customers seem to love the digital service.  

Although UC is the project that has attracted the most public attention, it is far from the only scheme DWP Digital is working on.

The department has done a huge amount of work on pensions over the past few years, with 90% of all requests now being handled online and 92% customer satisfaction rates, says Prakash. He points out that the service did not even exist a year ago. “That’s transformation on a massive scale, impacting the entire country.”

The DWP is now working with the UK’s pension providers to create a “pensions dashboard” across the industry, he says.

Changing ways of working

Prakash and his team have put a lot of effort into changing the way the department works. It’s about breaking down traditional barriers, he says, showing that everything doesn’t need to be done with a huge outsourcing contract, it can be done in house, and that agile ways of working do work, even in a huge government department.

Prakash has worked to create a DevOps culture across the entire organisation, not just on the fringes, which has helped to change the way the department thinks.

The DWP’s strategy is simply to deliver, he says. “Even the best strategy is useless unless it’s executed, so we are learning by doing, and our strategy is simply to deliver. That is our fundamental cultural change across the organisation,” he says.

“We have to reimagine the culture in the organisation in order to implement our agile, iterative, transformation strategy as we are learning by doing. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

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These changes include moving services such as UC into the cloud, freeing up enough physical empty space “to park two 747s”, says Prakash. 

“We are driving innovation into multi-channel user experience,” he says. “We have replaced our datacentres with hyper-cloud, creating the ability to deploy into an elastic cloud. Most large enterprises are still only planning this.”

The DWP’s ambition is to “simply be the best at what we do”, says Prakash. That means looking outwards to the private sector, other industries and countries to see what others are doing and how to learn from that.

The department is also in the process of a huge recruitment drive, aiming to hire more than 1,000 new digital specialists in the next 18 months.

“We want to attract the best talent in the country, and we want to make a real difference,” says Prakash, adding that diversity is hugely important and the department is working to increasingly attract female and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) talent.

“We don’t just want to attract the best talent, but create a culture that encourages people to explore their potential rather than be told to do something,” he says.

New technologies

By looking outward, the DWP always has an eye on technological developments, and has experimented with distributed ledgers and smart contracts. Last year, it trialled blockchain technology to enable benefits claimants to use a mobile app to track their welfare payments. 

“We continue to do experiments around distributed ledgers, and we think smart contracting is still very early on in its development, so it’ll take a few years for these technologies to mature to a point where they can be deployed safely, securely and at scale for a large enterprise like us across the country,” says Prakash. He adds that although these technologies are not quite ready yet, “they certainly have got enough value for us to explore their potential and we are looking at enterprise implementations of distributed ledger technology”.

But Prakash is more sceptical about artificial intelligence (AI), saying the department is careful to “separate the hype from the reality”. However, the DWP is working with small businesses and startups, as well as large enterprises, to gain insight into the full potential of AI.

Neural networks and machine learning are being actively deployed at the DWP because they are mature enough, says Prakash, but beyond pattern recognition, “the rest is still a bit of a hype with AI”.

Be a business leader

Being in charge of digital at such a large organisation is no easy feat. So what advice does Prakash have to give to his peers across industries?

“I would encourage colleagues to raise their ambition and aspiration to be the best at what they do rather than just do what they’re asked to do,” he says. “Let’s up our game.” He adds that technology leaders need to act like business leaders and “remove the ‘and’ in business and technology”, because most businesses are technology businesses now. That requires tech leaders to act as business leaders.”

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