MoJ CIDO Tom Read on putting prisons on the cloud

Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Simopala
Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Simopala

The Ministry of Justice’s chief information and digital officer outlines the organisation’s move to digital

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The Ministry of Justice's chief information and digital officer (CIDO) Tom Read outlined the organisation's move to digital at the opening keynote of Cloud Expo Europe 2018 this week, insisting that if a prison can put its services on the cloud, anyone can.

Read explained that the MoJ is doing "a lot on Azure" and "a lot on AWS", as well as looking into how Google Cloud Platform could fit into the organisation.

For example, the MoJ has moved all of the Office of the Public Guardian - the government body that supervises finances for people who are deemed unable to make financial decisions themselves - onto AWS infrastructure.

But he also said there are challenges with procurement, especially letting smaller vendors pitch for contracts (the mission statement of David Cameron's G-Cloud, and later Digital Marketplace).

He asked: "Why do you buy just Azure and AWS? Don't you need to be fair and let everyone come to the table? It's really hard because the answer is: they're better."

Microservices

It was revealed earlier this year that the MoJ was spending tens of millions on the digital transformation of its courts system, all while police services and prisons are underfunded and lacking in resources.

Nevertheless, Read said as part of its digital programme it can't "spend £200 million replacing our prison system or our legal aid system," he said. "We don't have the capital, because austerity."

So instead, the MoJ is building APIs and microservices around existing legacy architecture, and is actively consulting users on what it is they want in order to deliver these.

For example, to overhaul the old prison system, the MoJ sent researchers to prisons, to track prison officers, and conduct ethnographic studies of how people work – how they use the current systems, and why some things might still be on paper when an IT system exists.

"You have to get user research with your real users. Talking to them, following them around," Read said. "If we can do it in prisons we're really sure you can do it in your business.

"The output from that is we're building much, much nicer, responsive applications that tell them things they really need to know."

The prison officers "love it," according to Read. "They really do like it because they built it and feel empowered by it," he said.  

Read added that the ministry is also working in the non-criminal space, including digitising the courts.

"If you're separating, and you need the courts to decide what to do with your children when you can't agree – it's a really painful moment in your life – we're building services to allow people to do that," Read explained. "Part of my job is to help people do that online rather than go to a court, because courts are really expensive and it's your taxpayer money we are spending there.

"So what we did was brought a ton of people in and interviewed them. We get them to try prototypes, people who are actually going through this at the moment," he added. "We redesigned it and redesigned it, and hopefully [it's] a much better system to allow people to get help from the justice system without having to physically to go to a court, because it's 2018."

Read explained that the MoJ also takes an API-first approach to new projects – "build APIs, not systems" he said –  as part of a shift away from the more traditional public sector approach of building monolithic systems.

This old architecture also leads to what Read calls "monolithic siloes." He said: "We find in government that a lot of our really interesting data is locked away in these databases.... in a cluster of broken databases in a data centre somewhere and we can't get to that data and so can't hook things up to that."

To address this, the MoJ first speaks to the users, then builds an API around those needs. "If we need to build a proper application in the background, we build that," Read said. "But we build the API first."

Encouraging diversity

Read also spent some time talking through the department's commitment to equality and diversity, and explained that it has "diversity champions" for example in ethnicity or in mental health awareness. Drawing from a recent talk by permanent secretary at the MoJ Richard Heaton, he set out five business cases for why taking diversity seriously matters.

The first is legal compliance. "If you're 90 percent white men you are consciously or unconsciously biased and you are excluding people, and you are not allowed to do that," he said.

"Number two is licence to operate: in our world we're building services, for example in legal aid we have a service to see if the government will pay for your legal fees. For some of those users, an example is people who are suffering from domestic abuse, who are going on the website to understand whether they'll get enough legal fees to cover the risk of taking that to the police or to the courts.

"We can't design that if it's 10 white guys in a room. Users won't believe we have the right to tell them how this service should work, so it's a basic licence to operate."

Then there is fairness, that it's the "right thing to do". "We should be building more diverse teams in terms of race and ethnicity and LGBT and gender and social mobility," he said.

"Four, talent is scarce. If you're hiring from a really small pool you're probably not going to find the best people. So if you're just hiring people who look like you you're not going to find the right people and you're not doing yourselves any favours."

But the main reason, Read said, is that it makes you more effective, he said, citing McKinsey reports on diversity and inclusion – one of which noted that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above the national industry median.

"So if you don't want to do it just to be legally compliant or because it's the right thing to do or because you'll hire better people, do it because it's going to impact your bottom line, or in my world it impacts our efficiency."

How to achieve that? Talk about it a lot, Read said, blog about it, and make sure your workplace is a safe place to be. "Make it OK for people to come to work if they're not part of that traditional IT guy persona," he said.

Lastly, Read recommended that an effective CIO or CDO should be aiming to make their own role redundant within five years.

That means sprinkling digital talent everywhere so that there's capability throughout the organisation. And from the CIO side, he notes that the trend is leaning towards buying commodities, so the number of teams that you need actually building software is getting smaller and smaller.

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