How UK government department BEIS is using innovation to develop digital products
As Director of Digital and Information at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Karl Hoods creates a forward-thinking digital strategy that embraces innovation and finds new solutions to challenges of the public sector.
When he joined BEIS in April 2018, Hoods inherited a team that had just transitioned from an outsourced IT system to an outsourced IT system. As he explained to diginomica a year later, his immediate priority was to redesign the internal operating model and put in place processes that would support the demands of the organization’s policy teams.
Over the past two years, Hoods and his team have focused on a range of projects, including organizational design, honing skills and team building capabilities, and moving to a modern cloud-based architecture. With the foundations in place, Hoods says the focus now is on delivering what he calls “digital products.” He says:
We’re largely a political department, but we’re changing – and that will mean more deliverables. So we’re starting to come up with some of the solutions now in order to think about what we need to do in our space.
While Hoods takes a new approach to innovation in government, he doesn’t think public sector CIOs are inherently risk averse. He says all IT officials in government face a range of varying constraints in terms of funding and value for money. Whatever the context they face, according to him, innovation must be part of the strategic cycle of the CIO:
We have an agile Government Digital Service methodology, which is to iterate and move forward. I think the nature of BEIS, given its involvement in research and development, is that we are a little more open to innovation. But my personal point of view is that we should be doing a lot more experimentation. This is how we can learn. And even the things you throw away you can learn a lot.
Take the example of grant management. BEIS manages a range of grants, the nature of which varies between voucher systems and specialized funds. In 2019, Hoods told Diginomica that he wanted to explore how the grant management process could be made more efficient and effective. Now the organization is considering what the future of the grant management platform will be. Hoods explains:
We take a step back and take a product-based approach, rather than what some places do, which is to develop a solution for a particular policy objective or problem that they have at that time. We want to say, “Well, actually there’s a lot of similarities between what we do in grants and funding, so how do we create something that can respond to that, and then we can create solutions very quickly.
Hoods says he wants to extend this product-based approach to all kinds of areas. In terms of other applications and services, he says that BEIS has undertaken innovative work at the proof-of-concept stage. One example is an augmented reality solution that was created for the insulation challenges that the building renovation team faces. He says:
There are goals that need to be achieved in terms of building insulation, and there are issues that the insulation needs to be modernized in buildings. You have to think about how you work with the construction industry so that this insulation is implemented at the right time.
BEIS worked with tech specialist Avanade to create an augmented reality tool, which uses a headset to allow people to virtually enter a room. Here they can find out the measurements of the room, the type of insulation that might be needed, and the potential bill for the materials. Hoods says:
We’re starting to think a lot more about how we use different technologies to help solve some of the policy issues. The augmented reality application could be developed and used as a training service for the construction industry. We plan to do more of this stuff through our innovation pipeline.
Hoods adds that it is crucial that these kinds of pioneering ideas be placed in a clear business context. Rather than just seeing “technology as the solution to everything”, he wants BEIS to have clear goals for how new products can make the world a better place. This process relies on creating the right culture first, rather than just spending money on technology. He says:
We focus on creating a training toolkit, which explains how we build more of an innovative mindset. It’s about giving people the kind of tools to think about issues from a different perspective. And when they do, then we’ll have a conversation about where technology fits in this business problem.
Hoods says some ideas remain at the proof of concept stage. However, the goal is to go beyond a hackathon-type approach, where new ideas are tested under laboratory conditions and remain on the back burner. He wants to find opportunities for innovation and quickly determine if they will work in reality:
We want to quickly provide new examples to see if a concept will fly or not. We’ve done the same with chatbots internally – we have an HR chatbot and we also have a knowledge chatbot. It can answer all kinds of questions about what you want to do with the classification of documents, what the retention periods are and where you should store them. It’s about saying, “Let’s experiment with these things, let’s see what a fly, and then we’ll see what we want to roll out company-wide.” “
BEIS’s internal IT team, made up of 130 people, has a clear roadmap for product development. IT staff are explicit with company colleagues about when they can expect releases and, if their requirements change, they have upfront conversations about how deadlines might change. His team works closely with his business partners and political colleagues to understand their challenges. Feedback feeds into the technology roadmap – and the need for innovation is appreciated:
You get pockets where you need to do a lot more persuasion internally, depending on their own workloads and level of understanding. But the bottom line is that BEIS is a fairly progressive organization, so there is massive demand for this type of activity. For us, it’s more of a pipeline and scheduling issue, so we can meet demand as quickly as people need, which will always be a balance when you’re leading a fairly small team.