Digital disruption in my career: from civil servant to entrepreneur, and back again

By on 22/02/2021

John Fitzpatrick, director for digital enablement at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, explains how embracing digital transformed his professional journey – even if it hasn’t always been plain sailing

In the ‘90s, I was a career civil servant moving through benefits offices in inner-city Manchester, UK. I was focused on project work, policy, programmes and operations for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). But my career took a turn in 2013, when I worked on the department’s first digital strategy.

Since then, I’ve led digital training from the Cabinet Office and set up my own business. I’ve worked on digital services in prisons and probation, before trying out consulting and landing back in the civil service in my current role as director for digital enablement at the Ministry of Defence.

The digital disruption in my career has led me on a brilliant ride. Starting a business was untypical of me: I had a fixed-rate mortgage, had been in the civil service seen since my teens and was risk-averse. But the skills I learned from digital – a ruthless focus on priorities and delivery, bidding for work, versatility and pace – gave me a great foundation. Then I returned to the civil service, and by 2020 was ready to really put myself on the hook for delivery as a director. I’m not advocating my path to anyone, but I do want to communicate the empowerment and freedom it gave me.

Perfect storm 

None of this means the experience was plain sailing. In 2013, we knew DWP needed to radically change direction. We brought in a digital executive from the private sector who understood how to operate in an organisation of DWP’s size and scale, and delivered a digital strategy. But [the major benefits reform that created] Universal Credit was problematic, we were handling leaks and had to face a Public Accounts Committee probe into our technology spend.

Part of the new strategy was to build capability, and I kicked off work to establish the Digital Academy, which provides digital training across the workforce. This opened up a whole new world to me, allowing me to meet digital experts from industry with roles I’d never heard of before. I was gripped, and went through the first eight-week academy programme myself. 

Swapping emails for sprints

I immediately saw the potential to apply digital at scale in government, and wanted to learn as much as I could. I also saw the culture was a great fit for me. I think there’s more respect for expertise and experience rather than pure hierarchy in digital teams, and more effort is spent on bringing the best out of both the team as a whole, and each individual within it.

Methodologies such as ‘agile’ and ‘scrum’ bring focus and pace to clearly-aligned priorities. This is reinforced with ceremonies such as planning, prioritisation, estimation, defining what ‘done’ is. Likewise, setting clear accountabilities and empowering people to ‘get on with it’ whilst flagging and addressing risks or blocks daily maintains this sense of pace, as does setting out what each team member will deliver during the ‘sprint’ then reporting progress and the day’s focus at a daily ‘stand up’ meeting.

These were all significant differences from a culture of meetings, endless email debates and a sense of nothing moving very quickly. This extended into delivery, too: we released ‘minimum viable products’ then added features as evidence grew, rather than getting bogged down in lengthy requirements that imagined the end state.

One of the greatest assets to working this way is how quickly teams form and continuously improve. Fortnightly sessions on what’s been achieved and ‘even better if’ ideas allowed everyone to celebrate achievements and tackle things that weren’t working, whether business or personal. Importantly, nipping things in the bud and tackling them head-on was honest and refreshing.

Senior leaders also had to unlearn certain behaviours. In digital teams, the focus was on setting the vision, listening to the experts on your team and supporting them through key processes such as finance, commercial and governance. Without this, they would hit walls and expend effort on bureaucracy instead of outcomes. 

Transforming services

Another big difference was using some of the new (to me) methodologies – such as agile, user research, performance analytics and real-time metrics – to support better decisions. This made me learn how to be comfortable with being wrong.

The first service I worked on was delivering benefits for people with terminal illnesses. I had assumed this would entail digital speeding up the experience for users and making services better. But when the research came through, our views radically changed. People were worried about their relatives’ financial position rather than their own: they needed joined-up services that handled some of the other issues such as blue badges, healthcare services, counselling and support. So the user research changed the way we designed digital services – considering all the users’ needs, not just those we were accountable for delivering.

Tips for engaging with digital

My advice for others when it comes to exploring digital careers is to go for it, be curious, be brave. We have to constantly refresh our skills to do our best work and stay relevant. If you’re well organised and enjoy pace, take a look at delivery roles. Empathetic, structured listeners and observers, look at user research. If you’re great with numbers with an eye for detail, consider business analysis. 

The civil service is brilliant, but a spell outside really helps frame the incredible versatility, professionalism and integrity we have. You can make the step too: for example, if you’ve worked on a bill team in parliament, you know agile: you may not know this, but you practise it. 

Even if you’re not thinking about a radical move into a career in digital, I’d encourage everyone to put some effort into improving how we each use our technology, collaboration tools and culture. Learning something new – especially during lockdown – is one way to energise yourself and share that with your colleagues. Learn from your colleagues, online, read blogs, head to YouTube, design a website; there are countless ways to do this. Good luck!

John Fitzpatrick is the director for digital enablement at the UK’s Ministry of Defence.

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