Building the most digitally skilled population of civil servants


We caught up with Natasha Bhambhra, Senior Strategy Advisor at Government Digital Service. GDS is a team within the Cabinet Office tasked with transforming government digital services. Responsibilities include building GOV.UK, making sure that people can sign into government services safely and easily, choosing the right technology for government, improving the way in which the government buys digital services plus much more!


Can you tell us who you are and what your job is in the Government Digital Service? 

I’m Natasha and I have been at the Government Digital Service for almost six years, which is quite weird when I say it aloud! I have moved around GDSM, starting my career here on the working on the Government’s single domain programme. I originally joined as an assistant and then really got to grips with how the programme was working during that really disruptive phase in Government with the inception of GDS. I then moved to the policy space working with the many thousands of people who work with GDS across government. Most recently, I have been working with the central strategy team looking at the future of public services. 

 

That sounds like such a cool job. 

It really is, there has been so many highs – you get to work with amazing, intelligent people on the most complex problems working on a large scale. 

 

I would love to examine a past, present and future perspective. Can you give us a snapshot of how tech was being used six years ago, now and in the future at GDS? 

GDS leads the digital data and technology function across Government. Membership is approximately 17,000 civil servants across the UK. GDS is in a unique position, we are able to utilise the expertise and best practice across that function. Beyond that, it is important to ensure the technology meets users’ needs. There is a lot of exciting experimentation happening across Government, but Government is large and complex. When we are thinking about new technology, we have to be quite strategic about its implementation as ultimately it has to be able to scale up. It is difficult to give a blanket answer but if we continue to follow those principles and meet users’ needs we will always do the right thing. 

 

Is there a technology you think has had the biggest impact so far? 

I can talk about the AI guide we recently published, discussing the opportunities around AI. When we were putting together the Government Transformation Strategy, part of engagement formed a cross-Government AI review. This was jointly led by GDS and the Office for AI. This review had two main outputs: a review of the challenges and opportunities AI provides and how to implement AI ethically, fairly and safely. As a result of this review, we published the first ever guide to implementing AI in the public sector (published on Gov.uk). 

 

One example of the benefits is the use of machine learning to go through vast amounts of data. We have been using this on Gov.uk to help us structure content, around 350,000 + pages, into a taxonomy, not only to improve searching but also to future-proof government’s content. 

 

That sounds like a lot of things to bring together…

It was an interesting complex challenge using the data science expertise we had in-house to structure and go through lots of different datasets. It provided an excellent case-study for how you can do cross-disciplinary work.

 

It sounds like a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity. I know that in 2017 you set a vision of creating one of the most digitally skilled civil servant populations in the world. Can you tell me about how you are planning on accomplishing this? 

In 2017 we published the Government Transformation Strategy where we said we would build the most digitally skilled civil servant population in the world. There was some really good advice about how to organise digital technology in departments. We really focussed on growing digital data and technology, what we call DDaT professionally in Government – including consistent career paths and reward structures. To date we have mapped 38 roles to this framework from IT Operations to Project Management. We have concentrated on building the best possible learning environment for DDaT professionals through the Digital Learning Academy and the Data Science campus to improve data science capability with accelerated training programmes to allow civil servants to upskill themselves in this space. We have also been working on attracting a diverse workforce into technology roles in Government. We are coordinating closely with Civil Service HR to make sure that digital tools and techniques are imbedded in other professions. For example, championing user-centred design for policy professionals, continuing to put the needs of users at the heart of policy decision making. We are analysing new ways of working, incorporating agile working in different disciplines across government. We have also been working with Civil Service Learning to make sure that current and future leaders have the right training to help manage digital projects effectively. Finally, we are encouraging collaboration between policy and service design. 

 

You are working on such innovative projects; it will be interesting to see what happens over the next five to ten years. What stage would you say you are currently at with digital transformation in Government? 

This is a really difficult question to answer and something we continue to think about. There is no real clear measure across the Government, I have already alluded to the scale and complexity of Government from central to local. Government as a whole has varying levels of maturity and different departments are faced with different pressures. 

 

Since its conception, GDS has been at the forefront of the transformation of Government, developing digital products, ensuring standards, guidance, training and support which has seen the UK recognised internationally as a world leader in digital governance. Substantial progress has been made since then and a lot of GDS has changed, adapting to reflect the change in digital governance. GDS is now driving innovation, making progress in bringing the rest of Government along on the digital journey we are trying to champion. 

 

It is a complex question! I know that GDS has focused on redefining job roles and I would love to hear more about that.

It is really about mapping those 38 or so job roles to the DDaT framework. It has been widely adopted across Government, giving a baseline for what good digital looks like in those spaces.  It is currently mapped to the DDaT roles, but we are currently thinking about how to scale it out to other policy professionals across the board. It relates to what I spoke about earlier about what we are doing to grow talent internally. 

 

Is this where the GDS Academy comes in? 

It is part of the equation, it started 3 years ago above the job centre in Fulham and now runs from four permanent locations as well as popups around the UK so it has matured a lot. We also deliver bespoke courses, for example Government Departments come to us with a problem such as “We need to improve our skills in x or y, can you help?” We then go away and create a course which fits their needs. The Academy is really to give Government employees the skills they need to improve and maintain Government services. To date, the Academy has trained over 10,000 people, on courses like “Digital and Agile Foundation Course” and an “Introduction to AI in Government” so there is a scale of learning available. Last October we started running the GDS Academy masterclasses, taught by world-leading industry experts. 

 

The skill gap is often discussed in the digital sector so is growing your own talent something that is important to the Government or do you head-hunt from the private sector? 

Absolutely, we have an emerging technology programme. For example, developers are paired with academic experts to help tackle some of Government’s most complex challenges. That programme is currently in its first phase and we are hoping to learn more about how it can equip civil servants with the knowledge and confidence to lead digital change in Government. We are definitely passionate about growing our own talent, we are currently offering apprenticeships beyond the 10-week programme we offer to civil servants. Of course, we want to attract the best talent to tackle the Government’s most complex problems. We have improved our incentive structure and our pay scale to better reflect the market rate. The Open Innovation team, who sit in the Cabinet Office, work with universities to offer placements to PhD students. Most importantly, it is not just about attracting talent from the private sector but about attracting the best talent from all sectors, which is what we are really keen on. 

 

 

It is a challenge across the board really, especially in government as a whole. All your programmes sound really interesting. 

It is a chance to work on some of the most exciting challenges you ever will at a scale that you could probably never face again in your career. 

 

What technologies are currently impacting the Government the most? 

At GDS we take an agnostic view on technology, it is about driving the best outcomes for the citizen and continuing to meet our users’ needs. Emerging technologies can help with that, but it is important to take a strategic position and make sure that it is the right approach to the problem we are trying to solve. As I mentioned earlier on, the AI has highlighted the applications of AI such as using machine learning to detect fraud. Even though there is not a whole bunch of technologies impacting Government, what is important using the right technology in the right way. 

 

How do you see technology - like AI, bots, data capture and voice technology – transforming the way governments operate over the next five to ten years? 

These are all really exciting technologies with promising applications, but it is important not to be drawn into the hype curve and to make sure that the use of these technologies meets the needs of users. 

 

Government is already playing around with machine learning. For example, we have already equipped over 12,000 pieces of Government information to be able to read by voice devices like Alexa so you can ask Alexa, “Hey, when is the next bank holiday?” We have also been working on restructuring Government content to make it future-proof. Government will have a responsibility to respond to the rising expectation of users and how that interacts with technology, but it is hard to say what one specific technology will have a significant effect on Government. We are seeing a move towards using things like voice and wearables to be able to access that information. 

 

Voice is great, people are just able to get information at their fingertips from home which is important especially for the more vulnerable members of society who have that access wherever they are. 

Exactly, people just want to be able to consume information in a way that is convenient for them. We are definitely seeing that shift in the way people are accessing the Government’s content and services. Mobile was the first wave people accessed that and now we are seeing a move to people accessing information from their in-house devices. I do not think that is unique to Government either it is a move across the board. 

 

What’s the technology or app you could not live without? 

I don’t think I could live without my Alexa; she sets my alarm every day and also sends me to sleep with rain sounds every night, which is now synonymous with my lifestyle. 

 

Do you have any recommendations of resources which you use to gain greater insight or knowledge into technology in the public sector specifically? 

Absolutely, I think whenever you are devising strategy you cannot think about it in isolation. I often look to information across different industries and companies are doing, like Google and Amazon who are considered leaders in that space. I read WIRED every morning - I get an email in my inbox. In terms of the public sector specifically, I like the Digital Leaders blog. I get their daily digest which discusses digital transformation across local authorities where there are great pockets of activity. It is lovely to read about how local authorities, who are often pressured with budget constraints, can adopted new and emerging technologies to deliver better services. I find it quite inspiring. I also look across the board at how new technologies are being used and how they might be adopted by the Government.