Interview: DWP’s Mayank Prakash on AI, DevOps, and working with GDS

Written by Sooraj Shah on 9 October 2017 in Features
Features

The department’s chief digital officer opens up about recruitment challenges, and says his team love getting stuck in to the “messy” work of transformation

The Department for Work and Pensions’ IT systems manage 7.35 million benefits claims each year, paying £165bn in benefits and pensions. Overseeing these systems is a team of digital, technology and data experts, working under the banner of DWP Digital and under the leadership of chief digital and information officer Mayank Prakash.

Prakash joined the organisation back in 2014, two years after DWP published its Digital Strategy which aligned with the government’s own digital by default strategy.

While the latest stage of DWP’s digital journey began five years ago, Prakash believes the department is still undergoing digital transformation.

“For DWP, it’s about re-imagining user experience, making our organisation more effective and efficient and improving outcomes for our 22 million customers,” he says.

Prakash calls transformation “messy” but insists that the digital team likes getting their hands dirty.

“What makes this possible for us is a steadfast focus on user needs, our commitment to building one of the UK’s most talented teams, our partnership with leading product and service vendors, and our shared ambition to do things we are proud of,” he states.

Power Struggle

Digital transformation in the public sector is perhaps more difficult than the private sector, and this hasn’t been made easier in the last few years, with a high turnover of senior IT staff in government departments – and power struggles between big government departments like DWP and the Government Digital Service (GDS).

When GDS appointed DWP’s director-general Kevin Cunningham as its new chief, the relationship between the departments could have gone either one of two ways; some speculated that it could strengthen the link between GDS and DWP, while others suggested that it would mean powers that had been vested in GDS would go back to departments, and that it was a politically motivated move.

When asked whether DWP’s relationship with GDS is stronger than it had been in the past, Prakash chooses not to answer this directly, instead stating that the department works closely with most parts of government, including GDS.

He adds that the two departments have many shared goals “around improving services for citizens, design, security and use of data, and [we] have regular conversations around these.”

 “We're neighbours too, with the GDS Academy operating from our hubs in Newcastle, Leeds and soon-to-be Manchester. And lots of our colleagues have regular day-to-day close working with GDS colleagues. Sharing our progress and resources across government is a priority,” he says.

DevOps: a key digital ingredient

Like many large organisations, DWP is adopting a DevOps culture to try and break down traditional barriers between different professions, and unlock the full value of technology and data to transform its services. Prakash says the department has made significant progress in its DevOps journey – but that there is still some way to go.

He says that traditionally, DWP’s organisational structure had been characterised by hierarchy, vertical service delivery models, and relationships with third party suppliers.

“By adopting a DevOps approach, we’re moving away from building to specification, to digital being at the core of how we solve challenges iteratively for users of our services, at a higher pace,” he explains.

The progress so far includes re-designing DWP Digital to create multi-disciplinary teams which allow individuals to share ideas across grades and hierarchies. The department has also formed centralised DevOps teams which provide common services for engineering teams, as well as smaller DevOps teams in our different business units.

 Prakash believes the department is seeing improvements in service delivery as a direct result. To make DevOps a reality, organisations usually rely on DevOps engineers, although there is much debate about what the role really consists of, and whether or not it’s just a new term for a role that already existed before the concept of DevOps was around.  

Prakash defines a DevOps engineer as someone who writes infrastructure as code in order to deliver resilient, scalable and secure services. But more importantly, he says “they’re helping developers write code easily and operations colleagues deliver reliable services”.

But, Prakash says that recruiting DevOps engineers, along with designers and data scientists is extremely difficult.

“We operate in a highly competitive recruitment marketplace where demand outstrips supply across the board,” he says.

“The last few years have given us a good feel for the recruitment market, as we’ve hired hundreds of specialists in roles, including user researchers, business architects, hybrid cloud engineers, software developers and product owners. We continue to search for and recruit for experts who are at the top of their game and who are interested in making a genuine difference to society,” he adds.

Recently, the department has published job adverts for two senior roles: a new chief technology officer (CTO), and an operations digital director, both of whom will play an active role within Prakash’s executive team, and report directly to him.

Prakash explains that neither role is new – the organisation has a CTO on a fixed-term contract, while the operations digital director is being filled on an interim basis.

“The CTO role is vital in helping us evolve a modern, flexible microservice-based, data-driven and cloud-based architecture, and the director role is aimed at strengthening our partnership with operational teams - our colleagues who deliver services to our customers,” he says.

Neither of the positions have been filled as yet, but Prakash says that there has been strong interest from talented digital leaders across retail, financial services and internet native businesses.

AI and machine learning

DWP operates on a colossal scale; and Prakash says it could therefore benefit greatly by exploiting technologies which drive automation and augment decision making.

“The big prize for us is freeing up colleagues’ time for interventions which our customers need – such as supporting vulnerable customers.

“We’re using neural networks to look for patterns in the way customers access job-seeking support, and machine learning algorithms are helping us use open data to improve policy design and operational processes,” he says.

Under Prakash’s lead, DWP Digital isn’t standing still. Instead, it’s looking at the latest practices and technologies in order to transform the organisation and the way it delivers services for those 22 million customers.

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