Interview with Arif Harbott: CDO at the Ministry of Justice​

A new role has emerged at the top table of many organisations to advocate and take command of the key area of digital.

Digital is the new normal. Irrespective of their sector, organisations are increasingly being impacted by digital – how they attract and engage customers or citizens, how they create and deliver products or services, and in the roles and capabilities that make up their teams.

Our paper, The rise (and fall?) of the CDO, presents our perspective on the relatively new role of Chief Digital Officer (CDO). We have drawn together our experiences of working with a range of organisations, and interviews with a range of CDOs to understand the traits needed to succeed, support structures relative to various digital skillsets, and tips for effectively leading a digital transformation.

In the interview below, Arif Harbott, CDO at the Ministry of Justice, highlights the challenges of working in a public sector environment, and the advantages of using agile principles in traditional, non-technical environments. Three months into his role, Arif shares his unique viewpoint on digital leadership, given his varied sector background – Morrisons, Lloyds Banking Group, Booker – and his extensive remit.

“We have to have a massive focus on user needs because there’s no external competition to create that for us”

What are the remits of the digital leader within your organisation? How does your role fit with the CIO/CTO roles?

The key aspects are leading the department’s digital transformation, building digital platforms, citizen engagement and delivering digital by default public services. Sometimes we do the delivery with government agencies, sometimes we advise – we use a hybrid model because there’s so much to do. I do believe that CDOs will push further and further into the traditional IT space occupied by the CTO currently – as small digital services replace big outsourced contracts, the role will change to reflect this. There’s a huge change element, but there’s also the ‘day to day’ – supporting products we’ve built in the last three years.

Are there any industry-specific challenges for the CDO role in your sector?

Our users and our service
It’s fundamentally different on a number of levels from the private sector. Specifically in this department, people are under incredible stress when they come into contact with the justice system. In addition most people aren’t used to the justice system – people go through it on average once in their lives – so that familiarity isn’t there. This means simple, user focused services which use simple, plain English and are easy to understand are key.

Digital in government
More broadly across the public sector there has to be a big focus on user need because there’s no external competition – we have to put that pressure on ourselves. If your online shopping isn’t working you just go to another company; you don’t choose where you go to court, or how you get there if you are in custody. These days digital is on the radar of everyone in government. It makes those key conversations a bit easier. The way we deliver helps too – we ask for a much smaller amount of money than IT departments of the past, and can quickly deliver something usable which stakeholders can give feedback on. In some senses it’s almost easier to deliver here because Government Digital Service (GDS) is championing the digital agenda; usually in less digitally mature operations there are only one or two people banging that drum.

What advice would you give a new CDO?

  1. A new CDO should ‘Go see’. This Japanese expression encourages spending time where the work is being done. Relying on reports means that your information is getting filtered. Go and spend time with your users - go and sit in a courtroom, visit a prison, spend time in police stations. Workshops alone won’t help me understand users of the justice system. Seeing first hand – and combining that experience with user research data – is the way to get real insight.
  2. Build credibility with a ‘Goldilocks project’ – one that is ‘just right’. It needs to be big enough to be a significant victory, not so easy that it can be dismissed, but must be an opportunity to deliver quickly. Find a sticky problem, galvanise the team with the challenge, and deliver real value early to convince people to come on the journey with you.
  3. Work out how work gets done. I’ve spent time talking to the Home Office, DWP and HMRC, I’m constantly looking sideways to borrow thinking and assets across government. We’ve had the same growing pains because we started doing similar things within the same timescales. We really don’t need to spend taxpayers’ money on a problem that’s been solved a number of times by other people. Asking who’s solved something – or something like it – before, inside or outside your organisation, is a helpful starting point. We can’t always use another department’s asset, but we can very often use the insights they have gathered along the way.

What cultural changes have you brought in? Why and how?

  • Focusing on Data: Data is the foundation of the efficient delivery of digital justice. There’s a lot of really good data locked up in legacy systems that we should surface. Principles like data stewardship need to come with this – placing an equal weighting on security and sharing rather than 99% security, sharing data on the basis of your security clearance not your department, and having clear ownership of data.
  • End to end services: Digital is more than just the front end, it is the entire user journey. We are moving from just looking at citizen facing services, to considering the end to end service transformation. We need to look at service design, process design, legacy system transformation using micro-services and working closely with Technology to tackle challenges more broadly, rather than just building front end public services.
  • Scaling agile: Moving from a few to many agile delivery teams means that we need to learn how to scale agile by being more flexible and more responsive. We can be more aligned to business need by cross–skilling, developing our people with a more rounded skill-set so that there’s less impact when there’s spike in demand

Where do you see the role of the CDO evolving over the next few years?

I don’t think CDOs will be around in five years. Currently the title has value as a change agent – it allows people to see that digital is being taken seriously at a board level – but the people working in future organisations won’t need to be educated about, and convinced by, digital. They’ll have a childhood like my kids who have had tablets and smart phones since a young age - my children try to swipe my TV, and wonder why a manual toothbrush doesn’t work automatically like an electric one! At some point, once the transformation elements are finished, the title will go away. The people at the top in ten years will all be digital people. In all likelihood we’ll be looking at a ‘digital CEO’ instead. We’ll expect CEOs to grasp digital now in the way that we expect them to understand the fundamentals of finance and marketing today.

How was the CDO chosen within your organisation, and why?

I took over from a previous CDO, but the role was originally created when the old CIO role was split into a CTO and a CDO. There’s an opportunity in that situation to bring in an external CDO as a symbol, someone from a more digitally mature operation who is immersed in user experience. The right route for an organisation varies - it depends hugely on what outcome you are seeking and your capability. If you’ve got 2000 digital people and can’t find any serious candidates then there’s something wrong. Not everyone even needs a CDO – for instance the role might well be called a CIO if broadly all your IT has undergone transformation.

N.B. since this interview took place, Arif has become the Ministry of Justice’s Chief Digital and Information Officer.

Did you find this useful?