Guest blog first published in #TechUk’s Public Sector week here on the 24th of June 2022.
Legacy Transformation is one of those phrases; you hear it and just… sigh. It conjures up images of creaking tech stacks and migration plans that are more complex and lasting longer than your last relationship.
Within the Public Sector, over 45% of IT spend is on Legacy Tech. Departments have been trying to tackle legacy transformation for over 20+ years; but it remains the number one blocker to digital transformation.
So why is it so hard and what can we do about it?
The fundamental problem with Legacy transformation is that as an approach it’s outdated.
The problem companies are trying to solve is that their technology systems need modernising or replacing; usually (at least in the public sector) these programmes come about because a contract is coming to an end and/or the platform the companies’ technology was built upon is effectively burning and can no longer be maintained.
The problems with this approach are:
That it so often ends in a big bang transition due to the desire to avoid hybrid running of services because of the complexity of migration
The architecture of the new system is constrained by the need to remain consistent with the technical architecture used across the organisation,
Transformation programmes can easily fall into the trap of delivering a ‘like for like’ solution that misses out on opportunities for innovation; this can be for many reasons, often as they have a cliff edge contract leaving them in a rush to find a replacement quickly,
The programmes are developed in siloes, only considering the technical changes needed; but they don’t consider the wider business change needed to make transformation stick.
The value is only delivered once the new service goes live and replaces the old system when it’s turned off. This leaves many organisations needing to run both systems at once; but not wishing to due to the large cost implications.
Due to these issues the big bang delivery often ends up being a lot later than planned; costing significantly more while neither meeting the users or business needs; and quickly becoming outdated.
Don’t forget, the latest thing you’ve just updated will itself be considered Legacy in 5 years; so do we need to start thinking about legacy transformation differently? Is there an iterative approach to legacy transformation that works, and how should we approach it?
Within Kainos we’ve worked hard to bring the User Centred design principles we’ve used to successfully deliver Digital Services to accomplish high impact legacy transformation programmes. By understanding user needs and business requirements we can plan early for ‘just enough’ legacy change to support the transformation; prioritising and identifying the value that can be added where and when; building scalable and extensible services that will maximise automation opportunities; carefully evaluating transition options and data migration dependencies so we can ensure we’re meeting user needs and adding value at each stage without risking business disruption.
This incremental, user centred approach allows us to identify opportunities for innovation and truly enable digital transformation that focuses on the business benefits, reducing overall costs whilst realising value early and often.
By thinking about business change and taking this iterative approach to realise value early and often we’ve been able to stop assuming that every element of the old legacy service needs throwing out and replacing; and instead, we’re identifying those elements that can be kept with just a bit of love and care to update them and make them work, and which elements we need to deliver something new. By prioritising where we focus our effort and making sure whether it is something old or something new, or a combination of the two, we can meet those critical user and business needs.
Up-cycling doesn’t just work for vintage furniture and clothes after all, maybe it’s time we take that same mindset when we’re think about technical transformation; reinventing something old and making it into something better and new. After all tech changes faster than ever, so if we don’t change our mindset and approach, we will be left behind and quickly not just become out of fashion, we’ll be outdated.
By adapting our approach to Legacy Transformation, Kainos are able to build excellent services that are secure and that users want to use; transforming business processes to fully embrace digital channels; microservices architecture that reduces future legacy risk; and costs that are optimised to benefit from public cloud platforms.
Just over a month ago I got approached to ask if I could provide some advice on assessments to support phase two of the GovTech Catalyst (GTC) scheme. For those who aren’t aware of the GovTech Catalyst Scheme, there’s a blog here that explains how the scheme was designed to connect private sector innovators with the public sector sponsors, using Innovate UK’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to help find promising solutions to some of the hardest public sector challenges.
The Sponsor we were working with (who were one of the public sector sponsors of the scheme) had put two suppliers through to the next phase and allocated funding to see how and where tech innovation could help drive societal improvements in Wales. As part of their spend approval for the next phase, the teams had to pass the equivalent of a Digital Service Standard assessment at the 6 month point in order to get funding to proceed.
For those who aren’t aware, there used to be a lovely team in GDS who would work with the GTC teams to provide advice and run the Digital Service Standard assessments for the projects; unfortunately this team got stood down last year; after the recent GTC initiatives started, leaving them with no one to talk to about assessments, nor anyone in place to assess them.
The sponsor had reached out to both GDS and NHS Digital to see if they would be willing to run the assessments or provide advice to the teams, but had no luck; which left them a bit stuck; which is where I came in. I’ve blogged before about the Digital Service Standards; which led to the Sponsor reaching out to me to ask whether I’d be willing and able to help them out; or whether I knew any other assessors who might be willing to help.
Preparing for the Assessments
As there were two services to assess; one of the first things I did was talk to the wonderful Matt Knight to see if he’d be willing and able to lead one of the assessments. Matt’s done even more assessments than me; and I knew he would be able to give some really good advice to the product teams to get the best out of them and their work.
Matt and I sat and had a discussion on how to ensure we were approaching our assessments consistently; how to ensure we were honouring and adhering to the core tenants of the Digital Standards whilst also trying to assess the teams innovation and the value for money their services could deliver in line with the criteria for the GovTech scheme.
What became quickly apparent was; because this was to support the GTC scheme; the teams doing the work were fully private sector with little experience of the Digital Service Standards. A normal assessment, with the standard ‘bar’ we’d expect teams to be able to meet, wouldn’t necessarily work well; we’d need to be a little flexible in our approach.
Obvious, no matter what type of Assessment you’re doing the basic framework of an assessment stays the same (start with user needs, then think about the End-to-End service, then you can talk about the team and design and tech, and along the way you need to ask about the awkward stuff like sustainability and open source and accessibility and metrics) can be applied to almost anything and come up with a useful result, regardless of sector/background/approach.
As the services were tasked with trying to improve public services in Wales, we also wanted to take account of the newly agreed Welsh Digital Standards; using them alongside the original Digital Standards; obviously the main difference was the bits of the Welsh Standards that covered ensuring the well-being of people in Wales and promoting the Welsh Language (standards 8 & 9), you can read more about the Well being of future generations Act here.
The assessments themselves
The assessments themselves ran well, (with thanks to Sam Hall, Coca Rivas and Claire Harrison my co-assessors) while the service teams were new to the process they were both fully open and willing to talk about their work, what went well and not so well and what they had learnt along the way. There was some great work done by both the teams we assessed, and it’s clearly a process that everyone involved learned a lot from, both in terms of the service teams, and the sponsor team, and it was great to hear about how they’d collaborated to support user research activities etc. Both panels went away to write up their notes; at which point Matt and I exchanged notes to see if there were any common themes or issues; and interestingly both assessments had flagged the need for a Service Owner from the sponsor to be more involved in order to help the team identify the success measures etc.
When we played the recommendations and findings back to the Sponsor, this led to an interesting discussion; although the sponsor had nominated someone to act as the link for the teams in order to answer their questions etc. and to try and provide the teams some guidance and steer where they could. Because of the terms of the GTC scheme, the rules on what steers they could and couldn’t give were quite strict to avoid violating the terms of the competition. Originally the GTC team within GDS would have helped the sponsors navigate these slightly confusing waters in terms of competition rules and processes. However, without an experienced team to turn to for advice it leaves sponsors in a somewhat uncomfortable and unfamiliar position; although they had clearly done their best (and the recommendations in this blog are general comments on how we can improve how we assess innovation across the board and not specifically aimed at them)”
Frustratingly this meant that even when teams were potentially heading into known dead-ends etc; while the sponsor could try to provide some guidance and steer them in a different direction; they couldn’t force the teams pivot or change; instead the only option would be to pull the funding. While this makes sense from a competition point of view; it makes little to no sense from a public purse point of view; or from a Digital Standards point of view. It leaves sponsors stuck (when things might have gone a little off track) rather than being able to get teams to pivot; they are left choosing between potentially throwing away or losing some great work; or investing money in projects that may not be able to deliver.
Which then raises the question; how should we be assessing and supporting innovation initiatives? How do we ensure they’re delivering value for the public purse whilst also remaining fair and competitive? How do we ensure we’re not missing out on innovative opportunities because of government bureaucracy and processes?
In this process, what is the point of a Digital Service Standard assessment?
If it’s like most other assessment protocols (do not start Matt on his gateway rant), then it’s only to assess work that has already happened. If so, then it’s not much good here, when teams are so new to the standards and need flexible advice and support on what they could do next etc.
If it’s to assess whether a service should be released to end users, then it’s useful in central government when looking to roll out and test a larger service; but not so much use when it’s a small service, mainly internal users or a service that’s earlier on in the process aiming to test a proof of concept etc.
If it’s to look at all of the constituent areas of a service, and provide help and guidance to a multidisciplinary team in how to make it better and what gaps there are (and a bit of clarity from people who haven’t got too close to see clearly), then it’s a lot of use here, and in other places; but we need to ensure the panel has the right mix of experts to be able to assess this.
While my panel was all fantastic; and we were able to assess the levels of user research the team had done, their understanding of the problems they were seeing to solve, their ability to integrate with legacy tech solutions and how their team was working together etc. none of us had any experience in assessing innovation business cases or understanding if teams had done the right due diligence on their financial funding models. The standards specify that teams should have their budget sorted for the next phase and a roadmap for future development; in my experience this has generally been a fairly easy yes or no; I certainly wouldn’t know a good business accelerator if it came and bopped me on the nose. So while we could take a very high level call on whether we thought a service could deliver some value to users; and whether a roadmap or budget looked reasonable; a complex discussion on funding models and investment options was a little outside our wheelhouse; so was not an area we could offer any useful advice or recommendations on.
How can we deliver and assess innovation better going forward?
If we’re continuing to use schemes like the GTC scheme to sponsor and encourage private sector innovators to work with the public sector to solve important problems affecting our society, then we obviously need a clear way to assess their success. But we also need to ensure we’re setting up these schemes in such a way that the private sector is working with the public sector; and that means we need to be working in partnership; able to advise and guide them where appropriate in order to ensure we’re spending public money wisely.
There is a lot of great potential out there to use innovative tech to help solve societal issues; but we can’t just throw those problems at the private sector and expect them to do all the hard work. While the private sector can bring innovative and different approaches and expertise, we shouldn’t ignore the wealth of experience and knowledge within the public sector either. We need people within the public sector with the right digital skills, who are able to prioritise and understand the services that are being developed inorder to ensure that the public purse doesn’t pay for stuff that already exists to be endlessly remade.
Assessment can have a role in supporting innovation; as long as we take a generous rather than nitpicking (or macro rather than micro) approach to the service standard. Assessments (and the Standards themselves) are a useful format for structuring conversations about services that involve users (hint: that’s most of them) just the act of starting with user needs – pt 1 – rather than tech – changes the whole conversation.
However, to make this work and add real value, solve a whole problem for users (point 2 of the new uk govt standard) – is critical, and that involves having someone who can see the entire end to end process for any new service and devise and own success measures for it. The best answer to both delivering innovation, and assessing it, is bringing the private and public sector together to deliver real value; creating a process that builds capacity, maturity and genuine collaboration within the wider public sector. A space to innovate and grow solutions. True multidisciplinary collaboration, working together to deliver real value.
Big thanks to Matt for helping collaborate on this, if you want to find his blog (well worth a read) you can do so here:
At Difrent we always talk about our desire to deliver in partnership with out clients. To move beyond the pure supplier and client relationship to enable proper collaboration.
One of my main frustrations when I was ‘client side’ was the amount of suppliers we’d work with who said they would partner with us, but then when the contract started, after the first few weeks had passed and the new relationship glow had faded; the teams and the account managers reverted to type. I can’t recall how many times I had to have conversations at the supplier governance meetings where I was practically begging them to challenge us; to be a critical friend and push for the right thing; to feedback to us about any issues and suggest improvements. It always felt like we were reaching across a gap and never quite making full contact.
As such, that’s one of the areas in Difrent I (and others) are very keen to embody. We try to be true partners; feeding back proactively where there are issues or concerns or where we have suggestions. Trying to foster collaborative ‘one team’ working.
We’ve obviously had more success with this on some contracts vs others. There’s always more we can learn about how to better partner with our clients; however; given we see a lot of complaining about strained partnerships between clients and suppliers; I thought I’d do a bit of a case study/ reflection and praise of one partnership we’ve been working on recently.
Difrent won a contract with the Planning Inspectorate last year, and it was the first completely remote pitch and award we’d been involved with on a multi million pound contract.
From the start of the procurement it became really clear that the Planning Inspectorate wanted a partner; that this wasn’t just lip service, but something they truly believed it. As part of the procurement process they opened up their github so we could see their code; they opened up their Miro so we could see their service roadmap, they proactively shared their assessment reports with suppliers etc.
For us this made not only a good impression, but enabled us to develop a more informed and valuable pitch.
Since we put virtual feet in the virtual door that dedication to partnership has remained as true 6 months later as it was then. Outside of our weekly governance calls we’ve had multiple workshops to discuss collaboration and ways of working. We’ve had multiple discussions on knowledge transfer and reflecting on progress and ways to iterate and improve.
Where there have been challenges we’ve all worked hard to be proactive and open and honest in talking things through. They’ve welcome our suggestions and feedback (and proactively encouraged them) and been equally proactive on giving us feedback and suggestions.
This has helped us adapt and really think about how we do things like knowledge transfer, always challenging (especially remotely), but something we’re passionate about getting right. We’ve all worked so hard on this, so much so that it’s become on of the core bits of our balanced scorecard; ensuring they as a client can measure the value they’re getting from our partnership not just through our outputs on the projects we’re working on, but our contributions to the organisation as a whole; which is also really helpful for us to be able to help us analyse and iterate our ‘value add’ to our partners; and ensure we’re delivering on our promises.
I think there is a lot of learning for other Departments/ ALB’s out there looking to procure digital services or capability on how a good partnership with a supplier needs to start before the contract is signed.