Exploring the art of the possible with Derek Hobbs

Derek introduced RPA into the Department for Work and Pensions so we discuss what made him pivot towards automation and how RPA was received internally as well as externally. We also discuss Dereks role as Head of Strategic Marketing at the pensions regulator where he was hired for the role out of automated enrolment as well as his objective to make DWP paperless internally by 2022 - a huge task with considering they have 90,000 staff!

You’ve got such an interesting history within digital transformation including running your own consultancy. Could you tell us about your working history from completing your degree in Physics to working as Interim Director of Business Development and Digital Transformation at Careers Wales?


The alternatives with a Physics degree are to go into teaching or academia. I couldn’t afford to stay for a PhD, so I looked for work. I joined an engineering company, one of the top FTSE companies at the time, starting as a graduate trainee. One of the things we did as part of the training course was process design. We looked at some of the processes and big plants with a view to making significant efficiencies in the operations. The other advantage of the company was that they had plants in Wales, so I was able to move back to South Wales. I was production controller at one of their plants. They were using an obviously archaic method of planning the different rolling mills. The simple solution was a magnetic strip board which was very effective. 


I then moved on and started my own mail-order furniture company. I was talking directly to customers which allowed me to hone my digital marking skills. When the web came along, we were the first British mail-order company to have a presence. I managed to buy all my competitors’ domain names, so I know I was absolutely the first. I also arranged with one of the owners to give the money for their domain name to charity. It was a bit Wild West at the time. The rules have now obviously changed for domain names. In terms of marketing I was very analytical. I knew every advert that we placed in every publication and the response rates for each one. 


I then sold the business and became Chief Executive of an arts marketing company running their Local Authority venues across all of south Wales. I did an online booking system for them. Then I started the digital transformation stuff at the DVLA with the new online car tax system. I was taken on ostensibly to market it but, since it wasn’t fit for purpose at the time, the role increased and became more about shaping the service. I started the first user testing labs in government at the DVLA because I believed it was so important. We were using companies up in London that were not particularly good. at it, so we changed labs. We did the same thing for online driving licences. There were many barriers to us actually producing it ourselves, but we managed to get the changes made so that usability was really good. 


I moved onto the pensions regulator, where I was head of strategic marketing for the roll-out of automatic enrolment. It was more about communications and channels than digital though we obviously had to build digital services to handle every single employer in the country. It was still important to ensure everything we did was fit for purpose via communication. 


Next, I was asked to go to the Department of Work and Pensions as Head of Operational Digital Services, where I was responsible for all services apart from Universal Credit. I built several digital services there and introduced the concept of agile working and agile teams. I was keen to build up our teams rather than use outside suppliers though we did have to use them to start with as we didn’t yet have the capability.  We had a clause in every contract to have transfer of knowledge as part of the task. 


Part of my brief was to look at the digital efficiencies in the Department. I had an objective to make DWP paperless internally by 2022, which was a bit of a challenge if you can imagine the tons of paper with 90,000 people internally.  


Wow, to make DWP paperless internally by 2022 is a big task! Especially with 90,000 people internally. How did you go about that?


That’s when I started looking at RPA (robotic process automation). If you send paper out, you get paper back, so we digitalised as many of the forms as possible. We made sure that everything that came back in was scanned at source, so we were not passing around paper within the organisation. RPA cut out a lot of the other paper routes. 


You’ve had an incredible working history. What have your highlights been? 


I’ve been very lucky to fall into jobs that have given me a chance to do things. First of all, the online car tax, which people still talk about even up in Westminster as one of the great digital successes. I went around the country with Jodie Kidd doing PR in every BBC radio station at the time which was quite an interesting thing to do! The automatic enrolment of pensions was one of the most successful of any government service. Every employer in the country was affected by it, from the very largest to the smallest. Another highlight was carers’ allowance within the DWP, digital and carers, if you think about it, don’t tend to go together as carers tend to be older people. People probably thought it was a strange one to start off with, but it was the right time to do it and it was something that had not been touched for years. We built it mobile-first, six or seven years ago, and again we were criticised for that. 


When the data came in, we had huge uptake with it and over 50% of the people who use the service use their mobiles to access it, so we were absolutely right. You have to remember that a lot of the time friends and families do the forms on behalf of the person being cared for. This way it is easier, they can do it from home rather than having to be on the spot. It proved to be a really successful service, but it is also about changing the culture of the organisation. We used to have a 16-page form for carers’ allowance with 300 questions on it. I challenged our policy colleagues for what they needed each answer for and if they couldn’t tell me then I wouldn’t include it. We managed to cut it down to 90 questions, which is still a lot, but they were all essential and there for the benefit of the customer. It was a 20 minute online process, which was the target, rather than taking hours. Normally when a new digital service is rolled out the staff go to bed with a few headache tablets wondering what is going to happen the next day and preparing for everything to go wrong. They actually came out the night before our launch and had a drink with the digital team because they had been an essential part and were completely confident. 



I love your approach; you really strip back the process and go back to what the actual point is. 


Absolutely, sometimes you do have to replicate what is there because it is a fact of life that you have to prove some points. But usually these processes have been built and developed many years ago before we had the opportunities of different channels. It is really important to look at the purpose of each process, especially with benefits. In the case of benefits, we want to make it as easy as possible for genuine people to claim benefits. If we make it too easy and the amount of money goes up, then that’s the Government’s problem as far as I am concerned. However, if people who get the benefit who aren’t entitled it is my problem, but apart from that I make the service as easy for people to use as possible. 


You mentioned that people were worried about the mobile carers’ allowance system. What do you think they were dubious about?


I think the public sector especially is in a state of continuous change, so they are quite used to change and, therefore, sceptical about supposedly new, revolutionary projects. Digital is the first thing which can actually do that. You have to convince people, the best way I have found is to get an early success. Start with something small, don’t boil the ocean, find a service that is reasonably small with which you can get a result fairly quickly and then people can see the art of the possible. You get a few people understanding who act as a catalyst for the changing the rest of the organisation’s minds.  


You also need to make sure that you are always communicating what you are doing. When you are launching something, don’t tell people on the first day. I am always mindful of it and I have not done enough of it before, which I would go back and change, but it is difficult when you have a lot on and have to prioritise. Communication, both internally and externally is an essential part of digital transformation. 


You introduced robotic process automation into DWP, tell us more about this ...


It was really when I got the job of making DWP completely paperless that I looked for efficiencies. Some of our processes were very manual, boring and repetitive. I knew HMRC had done a really good job with RPA with some of their processes, saving a significant amount of manpower and budget through it. I went to them and had a look. It is important if someone has done it before not to reinvent the wheel but to ask them the advantages and disadvantages. 


I made a recommendation within DWP to start looking at RPA. We built the capability ourselves and the reaction was quite negative from operational colleagues. Part of the reaction was that you always need operational colleagues to be product owners. They need to have the time to consult on the project. The other thing was from the technology section who thought that by automating part of a process it was just building technical debt that you should be examining the process and stripping it back. As I said before, that is my normal approach. However, in order to improve the principles of some services, you have to automate what isn’t an optimum process. 


To combat the pushback, I actually got the Director of Operations to go to HMRC and see the savings. He came back with his eyes open and told me to “make it happen” basically, which really helped. We also chose four different operational directorates, who started work with us. Through that they save the value of it and even built the “Automation Garage”, which was a section concentrating on the knowledge and skills needed to do RPA. The automation we put in saved 5 million in the first year, which is not a huge amount in DWP terms, but it only took 12 weeks. The crew has now got 50 different projects running, after the first four they said they will analyse the process from start to finish, reengineer it and look where RPA fits into that. The other thing to say is that we did have pushback from staff, thinking automation would take their jobs, but I knew with the conversations from HMRC that it wouldn’t be a problem. When we got the things working the feedback from staff was that it had taken the monotonous aspects of their job away from them and they were able to serve customers better, leading to huge rises in staff satisfaction. 


I imagine that staff found more time to do more interesting tasks and perhaps even sharpened their skills. 


I suppose without RPA and with the increasing pressure that was coming on the DWP, which I think is the case on all Government departments, they had to cut their cloth according to the time they had. If you have processes that you have to do, you get them done, and whatever time remains you spend with customers. That’s the wrong way to do it. We took the drudgery out of their job and they could spend 100% working on customer service which made them happy and we got better results. 


Your consultancy service covered culture change, agile practices, channel shift plus much more. Can you tell us more about it and some of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on? 


Bear in mind that I only left DWP eighteen months ago and have only been working on my consultancy service for twelve months, I took a few holidays in the meantime! I have done some digital transformation work with Oracle and a slightly different project with the AA which was related to GDPR. The AA wanted someone who understood digital and agile practices and wanted a training course which allowed their digital teams to understand GDPR better. After going in and talking to them, I discovered that they needed education on a whole range of new legislation and authorities. There’s the GDPR, the remnants of the DPA, the Financial Services Contract Authority, PRIIPS (Packaged Retail Investment and Insurance-Based Products) and the CAP (Committees of Advertising Practice), among others. They had a whole raft of different legislation that cut across what they were doing and, of course, the digital team were integral in building new services to meet those needs. What I did was look at all the common features of those services together. That way they didn’t have to learn about the way that they use cookies for each service, they had one lesson on cookies that covered all of them. We did that for all of the legislation! 


You should write a book! Is that your next project? 


I’m actually writing music at the moment. I’ve been doing it for a while now and it is about time really that I get it finished. I come from Maesteg and there is a fabulous story about it that is just ripe to turn into a musical. 



A musical! Amazing! I’ll definitely be coming to see that! I know you offer a lot of services, where do you start in terms of digital transformation at Careers Wales? 


If you look back to 2003-5, Careers Wales had an award-winning website. It was really ahead of the game and offered a good service for the early noughties. Unfortunately, things have happened since, including a lot of Welsh Government initiatives and each time a new one comes along a badge was added to the front page. It made it difficult to use from my and customers’ point of view. It was also built on an inflexible infrastructure. Our first job was rebuilding that, so we now have a Cloud-based infrastructure. Microservices use API as we have to put in a lot of data from various organisations. We also have a lot of customers with alternative learning needs who need special characteristics, so our security had to be top-notch to protect all the sensitive data. 


We are building our registration systems to make sure that partners, internal staff and customers all have entry points to get to the data they need. We are building the tools we want on the website at the moment. Our most recent project was “BuzzQuiz”, which looks at the personality of young people and comes up with a Myers-Brigg type animal to represent them. Kids love that and it starts them thinking about themselves and their personality. Confidence is so important and especially in the Valleys, where I come from, people don’t have the confidence to look beyond the context they live in – what their friends and family are doing. Their experience of the world of work is limited and they do not have the confidence to go outside it. That is our first job and we are working on a lot of projects to help that. 


Until now Careers Wales have been mainly focusing on secondary schools, but we are now branching out to primary schools. We recently had a new big contract from the Welsh Government for Working Wales, which takes people from 16 years old to retirement. Our job is to find the barriers to unemployment and help people to look for work in the right place with analysis and the help of various organisations. Once they have been through the barriers, they can come back to us for careers advice. It is about getting people to raise their game with regards to employment. 


In terms of 3-16 years old age group that’s coming our way because careers-related education is part of the new curriculum. That gives us a great opportunity. We do “Career Check”, which is a check on the whole cohort of Year 10 every year and have been doing it for a number of years. It is about 30,000 young people across Wales, roughly 90% of the cohort. When I asked for the data, they gave me the first two years and I said that they had made a mistake because the two sets of data were identical (within 1%). They checked it and sent it back, but it was exactly the same. That told me that young people do not have experiences outside of their context: their teachers, parents, siblings. Every year, different students come in with the same ideas, so it is important to get to them in the primary schools before the concepts take hold. 


It is amazing the effect that technology can have. 

We don’t have much more money to work with, but it is about working with what we have got. Careers advice has traditionally been face-to-face, but we can expand the self-service options so that when people work with advisors face-to-face it adds real value. That’s the biggest challenge at Careers Wales, understanding that the system is changing. We used to guarantee everyone in Year 11 and 12 a careers interview. We cannot do that anymore and perhaps it is not the right thing to be doing either. People would rather be doing it remotely or digitally, some people won’t benefit from it, and we might be missing out on face-to-face interaction where it really counts. It is about really understanding our customers’ needs and delivering services which provide those. 


Which technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on Careers Wales? 

I think it comes back to channels and communication. All this is about communicating as far as I am concerned. Telephony is still important, most people contacting us via our contact centre are happy to communicate via a phone call. If someone comes via a digital route, they are happy to have a digital response. If they call in at one of our centres, they may want face-to-face interaction or a digital appointment. It is a good opportunity to find out what they want. 


We are already using 360° VR; we have headsets and various work opportunities. For example, you can walk through a hospital and see the opportunities. I would like to see augmented reality come into it. My dream is that everybody would have their phone, look at a building and it would tell them what jobs people do there and whether there were any vacancies. People could see what is available just by walking around a neighbourhood.


We do webcasts at the moment which are really good, but they face the problem that many schools don’t have the bandwidth to handle the webcast or our other digital services. We often find that schools can’t access our digital services. Kirsty Williams announced last week that the Welsh Government has realised this and is investing in better capabilities within schools. 


The value that would bring versus the money it would take to implement, I think it would be worth it. 

Schools are struggling for money, like all public sector organisations. You can either degrade the service because you don’t have the money, or you look up another way of delivering it. In schools, if resources could be pooled online, they could be shared to make teachers’ lives easier. 


What would you say have been the biggest challenges thus far in Careers Wales? And which technologies have helped combat the challenges? 


One of the things that public sector organisations are expected to do now is give 24 hour service. We cannot do that, though we have webchat when our network is open. We are looking seriously at developing a chatbot at the moment. We are going to do in a simple way to start with, building a signposting bot to learn. Then we will see whether we can build a chatbot with machine learning in it. I think that for many of our services young people are as happy to interact with a chatbot as someone face-to-face. It won’t work for everyone but if we can give answers to people’s questions at 1am when they are really concerned it would be an added advantage. Our face-to-face careers advisors would then have more quality time to speak on their customers. 


Do you find that a lot of queries are outside of working hours? 

Yes, we have demand audit on our various services, and we know our main issues concerning contact which comes in. Much of it is about booking so we are developing an online booking system that we can point people towards. It will take a lot of work, especially for the telephony automation element, but there is the demand to address. It will mean that our experienced trained agents can give people time and help them move on in their career path. I have listened to calls which lasted half an hour but could have been done in 10 minutes and equally I have listened to calls that were 10 minutes but would have had more benefit if they had been half an hour. It is not about managing time but making sure it is effective. 



Absolutely, because careers are so personal, and you need that human touch to understand people’s challenges. Automation can really help with the simple things and give people that streamlined system. You could answer someone’s query quickly via a bot and then they can have a long phone conversation to answer another more profound queries.  


That is where you get the real benefits since a lot of the stuff is captured in the record. You would not have to spend the first half an hour of the conversation getting their data again. You have the data and you can think about it before the person comes in the room. The careers advisor is then more about mentoring then advice. I see careers as opening up the world to young people to show them a whole range of things and later on as they pass through school narrowing the funnel with them to see what is actually appropriate for them. If we can do that, we have cracked it. 


I felt really daunted choosing a career when I was a teenager, when you’re in school you think it is the biggest decision of your life. I would have welcomed everything you have talked about. Do you remember being at that stage and trying to pick a career at school? 


You’ve only been in school for 15 years; you’re going to be 50+ years in work so it is going to be a long time. When I came through university, I think 7% of people went through university and if you wanted a job for life you could get one. It is not the case anymore, almost 50% of people go through university, there are fantastic apprentice degrees out there now which people do not know about despite the fact they are great opportunities. We need technology to explain that change to people. 


It’s about getting to them where they already are, especially as young people interact so much online. 


We are trying to introduce gamification as that is a great hook, particularly for people with alternative learning needs. We had a conference with the ALN schools across Wales over the past week looking to see what can help and they think it would add value. A lot of the people with autism can understand games and enjoy them. I’ve contacted some gaming companies in south Wales about working with us to develop a game that would be really beneficial to people with alternative learning needs to teach them about the world of work. The company can retain the IP and sell it to other careers organisations around the world. I’m hoping to get something from that. 


I’m sure you will. I’m doing my Marketing Foundation degree as well as working, I’ve just completed a module on gamification, and it is really interesting.  


You have to go where people are. It is a lot of money to bring them where you want them to be so if you can go there it’s great. We are working with BBC Bitesize to have access to their library and WJEC to get Welsh language bitesize videos about work and employment. We are also working with Skills Development Scotland to see if we can share assets with Scotland and Northern Island. 


BBC Sesh would probably be a good one for that, it creates a lot of engaging videos about the top challenges for young people, but they are always very fun and lighthearted.  


I will definitely do that. The BBC have also released Click 1,000, which they call the future of television, where you decide the next chapter of the story done really professionally so it flows regardless. Being able to tell those stories visually is really important for us. 


For you personally, what technologies are you most excited about? 

I suppose, though it is a bit boring, big data and AI combining. I think data is really important to understand the bigger picture. Data scientists are in short supply at the moment but if we can automate that using machine learning we can get it done more systemically, which is a really important step forward for businesses.


I agree, there is so much to be done there. Overall, how do you see emerging technology transforming businesses over the next decade? 

I think it is a huge opportunity and necessity as we are not on our own, particularly with Brexit, people all over the world are doing it. Part of the world which relied on cheap labour is now embracing AI and technology probably more powerfully than we are. The advantage that we might have had to be ahead of the game is starting to slip away from us. I think it is really important to adopt these technologies and businesses that don’t will have gone out of business within ten years. 


One thing we do need in terms of AI is legislation. There are some fantastic examples of AI taking the gender bias out of certain things. There needs to be a form of non-onerous legislation that gives us the confidence that what is happening is fair to all. It needs to be done quickly as soon we will be too far down the slope and it will be difficult to backtrack. We need to make these decisions early on. 


Can you share your favourite resources? 

I am not a techie, so I need to start up-to-date. I always look at whitepapers, I have links with different companies and take the time to read the appropriate whitepapers as soon as they come out. In terms of podcasts, I like Trending, Tech Tent and McKinsey’s podcast. I spend a lot of time on trains, so I usually listen to podcasts then. The trouble with books is that they go out of date so quickly. 


The only book that has made a real difference to me is called The Best Service is No Service by Peter Massey. I’ve worked with Peter before, he runs the Chief Operating Officers forum in the UK, which I have been lucky enough to have been a part of in the last few years. He runs a company called Budd which does some excellent stuff. If you think about it, if your customer service is brilliant you don’t need customer service. Therefore, I take into account that no one wakes up in the morning going “Whoopee, I have to contact DWP five times this week” today. Customers want a service that is simple to use and delivers what it says it will deliver. I enjoyed that book because it was a different way of looking at things. Rather than building complex systems you build simple organisations with better communication.