DWP chief: ‘Technology undertakes mundane tasks – people provide empathy and judgement’

Perm sec Peter Schofield discusses the department’s plans to improve service levels, and how he made a shocking discovery about wrapping paper

The annual perm secs round-up published by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World sees Whitehall’s senior leaders open up on their biggest challenges and opportunities – as well as their remembrances of Christmases past. The Department for Work and Pensions is using technology to improve service levels but permanent secretary Peter Schofield explains why new tools need to be complemented by different ways of working.


What was your highlight of 2019?
I’m very tempted to say it was England winning the Cricket World Cup but, in reality, I think it was another international event: this year’s Windsor conference. My opposite numbers from New Zealand, Australia, the US, Canada and Ireland came together to hear how other countries tackle their respective challenges, and hopefully learn from them. This year, I hosted the biannual conference and it was a fantastic experience to have happen in the UK and with the Department for Work and Pensions. We were able to visit a jobcentre and show the great work of our colleagues – disseminating and taking on knowledge, and working across traditional boundaries. I look forward to the next conference hosted by Australia, which has met some of its labour market challenges in interesting ways – delivering services for individuals in a new and successful model.

What has been the most significant change in your organisation this year?
Change is a constant at DWP. One of the ways we are adapting to serve customers better is by changing how colleagues work together as a team. In the past, the focus was on an individual’s performance. We have now eliminated personal performance reviews and ratings and changed to a people performance system based on teams working towards collective aims. The new approach also emphasises the role of line managers in colleague wellbeing and development. It’s a different way of doing things for us and our colleagues tell us that this is a big improvement. We are implementing this from the executive team on down, and I think it will be critical in our efforts to create a more team-based culture with new ways of working.

What will be the biggest challenge of 2020 – and how are you preparing to meet it?
Our vision for a service excellence organisation is that technology undertakes more mundane tasks, freeing DWP colleagues to do the things only people can do – providing empathy and using judgement to make decisions, with tailored support for customers with complex needs. Our role as leaders will be to create the culture and framework that enables innovative ideas to be developed to benefit the people we serve. This isn’t just about new technology and the tools for working. It’s about developing stronger working across departments, with external partners, empowering multi-disciplinary teams, and trusting our colleagues to solve problems together.

Tell us a favourite festive memory from your youth…
My parents insisted that we unwrapped our Christmas presents very carefully so that the wrapping paper could be reused. The old wrapping paper then went into a huge sack that we used to wrap presents in future years. I naturally assumed wrapping paper was a finite commodity, and I remember my surprise when I was about 10 years old to discover it was possible to buy new wrapping paper in the shops! 



Sam Trendall

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