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CIO interview: Tom Read, CDIO, Ministry of Justice

The MoJ’s chief digital and information officer, Tom Read, is keen on doing his bit to tear down the Whitehall silos, creating collaborative, simple and effective digital services for staff and the public

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When Ministry of Justice (MoJ) chief digital and information officer (CDIO) Tom Read decided to move on from his former role at the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to the MoJ, he expected to come in and run a department with around 450 people. In reality, it turned out quite differently.

The MoJ was in the process of introducing “single functional leadership”, meaning it was bringing together digital and technology functions across the department and its agencies, and Read was suddenly responsible for almost 1,000 members of staff.

This means that part of his job over the past year or so has been to “work out how to bring the different units together and create a cohesive thing without doing that horrible centralisation thing that’s just not going to work”.

He seems to have taken it all in his stride. Listening to Read explain the ins and outs of his role – which includes delivering services to a range of different people, from prison staff and probation officers to civil servants within the department and the public – it’s difficult not to be affected by the enthusiasm that emanates from him.

It’s simple really – Read is on a mission to make things a little bit easier for people. As he points out, if someone is having contact with the justice system “something’s probably gone wrong in their life”, so why not help them as best as you can?

Diversity and culture

Because the MoJ touches such a diverse range of the population, diversity within the organisation is key, he says.

“We’re doing a massive push on trying to make our internal teams more diverse and inclusive,” he says. One of the big focuses is to get more women into technical roles. “We have around 34% women across our group, and it’s not good enough,” he adds.

The diversity piece is important, and not just because it’s fashionable. Having a diverse set of people working on creating services is important, because “otherwise, we’re just not going to understand those different perspectives”, says Read.

As an example, he points to a service used by citizens to check if they’re entitled to legal aid, which is mostly used by people who are suffering from domestic abuse. “You can’t have a team of 10 white guys building that service; that’s just crazy,” he says.

One thing that has helped Read on his digital transformation journey is strong leadership support. When he was first planning to join the MoJ, he was told it was “a pretty tricky place to work”, but the warning has proven to be untrue. With clear support and drive from the top, he’s seen a real commitment to make it a better place to work and serious investment in the digital journey.

“This really helps, because it means we are all singing from the same song sheet,” he says. “The majority of things we’re building make life easier if you work at the MoJ.”

Digital prison services

One of the “citizen-facing” projects the MoJ is working on is to improve outcomes for people in prison by helping their friends and families. A few years ago, the department launched an online service for visiting someone in prison, and over the past year it has built two new services around that one.

One of these services helps people with the cost of visiting someone in prison, which had previously been dealt with through what Read describes as a “horrible form”. “This is for the most vulnerable people we serve, who really can’t afford to visit someone in prison, so we built a service for that,” he says.

The other service the MoJ has built enables prisoners’ relatives to send them money. Read explains that prisoners who can’t afford basics such as toothpaste, or cigarettes if they smoke, have an increased risk of tension in the first 10-12 weeks of their prison term, with extraordinary levels of self-harm and suicide attempts during those first weeks. To alleviate some of those stresses, the MoJ launched the “send money to a prisoner” service, which allows family members to use Gov.uk Pay to send money directly into a prisoner’s secure fund.

As a side effect of that, Read adds, the time it takes to process money claims has reduced from 21 days to just one day, which is also saving prison officers time, ensuring they can spend their working days looking after the prisoners. So far, £20m has gone through the service, with 60% digital take-up, which Read describes as “not too bad”.

Collaborating with others

Like most places in government, the MoJ has a tendency to work in silos, and it can sometimes be difficult to look at the bigger picture. This is one of the things Read is trying to change.

“I’m really trying to focus on breaking down the silos. Government is a nightmare with silos – we have silos between different government departments, between different bits of the same department, and between agencies within the departments,” he says.

Shaking up the siloed behaviours floating around Whitehall, the MoJ and the Home Office are working together on a project, which Read is careful to point out is still “at the very early stages”. The project, which involves the MoJ, the Home Office, police and the Crown Prosecution Service, focuses on serious group offenders. 

“I’m trying to break down silos. Government is a nightmare with silos – we have silos between different government departments, between different bits of the same department, and between agencies within departments”

Tom Read, Ministry of Justice

Every single police force has its own databases or spreadsheets, listing people with gang affiliations or similar. The problem is that as soon as these people go across county lines, the paper trail disappears.

With a particularly high rate of gang membership in youth offender institutions and prisons, the aim is to join up data from all the police forces, the prison system and the probation system in a cohesive way.

The goal is to have a set of digital services that can be used across the system – by police, probation or prison officers – so that when people are moving in and out of prison, or out of prison and into probation, there is knowledge and understanding around where they should be kept away from.

Putting a gang member in the same cell as a rival gang member is probably not a good idea, and having that kind of data in place could help alleviate flare-ups and tensions both in prison and on the street.

“It’s really about making prison a safer place,” says Read. He admits that “it may not go anywhere”, but he’s really excited about it because “it’s an application programming interface-first digital service that is completely department-agnostic”.

Read, as a former Government Digital Service (GDS) employee, is all about sharing and collaboration, and it’s pretty clear this is driving his thinking when it comes to MoJ digital.

While the department isn’t collaborating with GDS on any projects currently, the relationship between them is “good”, according to Read. The MoJ already uses several GDS services, including Gov.uk Notify and Pay, as well as a very small amount of Verify – although the latter is likely to become much more prominent in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service programme to digitise the court system, a project which actually sits outside the MoJ’s remit.

Read believes in the GDS mantra of common platforms. He is keen to get into what he calls the “long tail of digital government”. So far, there has been a lot of focus on the GDS exemplars, but as Read points out, there is a long tail of services.

The MoJ, for example, has around 3,000 online forms in PDF format, which people have to print out, fill in by hand and physically post. They don’t necessarily have high levels of transactions, which makes the economic case to make it a digital service “quite tricky”.

Instead, Read says he would love to “work with GDS on a form builder”, which at least converts the PDFs into a proper front end, using the Gov.uk design to make it better for users in the first instance, even if it’s not fully integrated or joined up.

“We could do it on our own. But if we’re doing it, I bet HMRC is doing it, I bet DWP is doing it, so why not do it together?” he muses.  

Internal upgrades

There are many things Read would like to do to improve services for customers. But the reality is that the department is under severe financial restraint, and sometimes the focus has to be on services within the department, not just customer-facing ones.

Some of the civil servants in the department are still on 10-year-old Windows XP machines, and a priority programme is rolling out new laptops and desktops to 30,000 members of staff. It’s also installing fibre cables to ensure better connectivity.

The department is also working with the Cabinet Office complex transaction team to look at its current services and disaggregate them as much as possible.

“This doesn’t mean we’ll only use tiny companies, it just means we will bring the architectural brain back in-house,” says Read. He wants to have an internal manager responsible for each end-to-end service, citing Wi-Fi as a good example.

“At the moment, [Wi-Fi is] just a sub-clause in a massive contract. I want a person who is in charge of Wi-Fi – they own the total cost of ownership, the technical vision, and if they want to hire someone to help administer that and fix Wi-Fi across the estate they can do it however they want, as long as they work with our commercial team,” he says.

Read wants to use that model on several services, allocating them an in-house civil servant owner. Although he believes in disaggregation, it isn’t the be-all and end-all. The department does have several big contracts, some of which, Read says, are great. Not everything needs to be split up.

“We want our contracts to be like a hotel, not a prison. If you’re in a hotel and it’s really nice, you might stay for another week. You’re not stuck in it, that’s the key,” he says.

Read is also working on a big push to get the department’s large legacy systems into the cloud. “We’re doing a combination where we’re working very closely with AWS [Amazon Web Services], and we’re also working with [Microsoft] Azure,” he says.

“At the moment, we’re putting some in Azure and some in AWS. That’s kind of to see where they fit, and to see which offers the best value for money, and then we’ll probably go quite heavy with one of the two.” 

Executive agencies

The digital work doesn’t only affect MoJ staff. The department’s executive agencies are also reaping the rewards.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, based in Glasgow, is one of those. Perhaps not one of the most known services, it deals with compensation claims from citizens injured in a violent crime. Read’s team is in the process of replacing the in-house case workers’ tool to make the process more efficient and speed things up.

At the same time, the team is building a front-end digital service to allow people to track their cases much more efficiently, which uses Notify to update users as their case goes through the different stages.

It’s a difficult challenge – balancing budgets, services and priorities. So why does Read do it? “In the public sector, you have a duty and moral obligation to make digital services good,” he says.

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