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Episode: 1

William Makower - Digital transformation lessons from the public sector for the private sector

Posted on: 10 Sep 2020
William Makower podcast cover

William Makower is the founder and managing director of the UK digital consultancy Panlogic Ltd. which has worked frequently with the UK government since the company's establishment in 1999.

This episode discusses the lessons that the private sector can learn from the public sector in terms of digital transformation. Due to Panlogic's work within the public sector, William offers first-hand experience, interesting case studies and actionable advice to businesses in similar situations who may be facing some challenges.


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“Take risks. You know. This is the opportunity, this is the time to take risks, cause if you sit back, someone else is going to do that. Jeff Bezos didn’t set up Amazon without taking risks; you must take risks.”

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thank you for tuning in! I’m joined today by William Makower, founder and managing director of Panlogic., a digital consultancy from the UK founded in 1999 and working frequently with the UK government. In this episode, William and I will be discussing what the private sector can learn from the public sector in the context of digital transformation. Welcome, William, thank you for being with us today - is there anything you would like to add to the introduction?

William Makower: No, if you’d like some background as to how we started the company, we can maybe talk about that for a bit, if that would be interesting to your listeners.

Tim Butara: Yeah, sure, if you have some interesting stories, go ahead.

William Makower: Well, I met with my business partner at business school. We were both at Imperial College doing an MBA, and we decided to do something involved with the internet. This was back in 1998 when my second child had just been born during the year. And the idea was to set up, originally, a digital agency to build websites. But when we looked at the market and when in particular we were looking at America, we saw that most of their real estate had been built, and the real opportunity lay in digital marketing, and so that’s where we began, we began sort of looking at web statistics and usage data. And our first client, very fortunately, was Honda, and so we worked with them for a long time. But then the dotcom boom happened, and then the dotcom bust happened, and we had to think very quickly how we were going to survive. And that’s when we started looking at the public sector.

Tim Butara: So, you said that you’re doing a lot of work in the public sector now?

William Makower: Yeah, I mean, for the last, so the business is now 22 years old, over the last 18 years we’ve been working mainly across the public sector. It’s not entirely - we do quite a lot of work in the charity space, and we do quite a lot of work for transnational organizations, like the OECD and G20 or whatever. But most of the work is here in the UK concentrating on the public sector, yeah.

Tim Butara: Hm, so ok, judging from your experience, what would you say are the crucial differences between digital transformation approaches in the public sector versus the private sector?

William Makower: Yeah, I mean, first of all, the government has got a massive task, starting from a legacy position. So, a lot of businesses have gradually, in the commercial sector, have gradually either transfigured themselves from being analogue systems into digital systems over a number of years, or indeed they started as a digital business, a government obviously starts from a very different place. So I think that’s one big difference, it’s got a lot of systems, a lot of legacy systems, and a lot of analogue, paper-based systems, so that’s one thing. I think the second thing is, it can take risks - in the way that, the commercial sector is obviously a profit-driven sector, virtually always, and so whenever it’s making a decision, it’s an investment decision, where it has to see a payoff in a certain amount of time. Obviously, government looks at it slightly differently - yes, of course it wants to spend public money wisely, and we might come back to that, but behavioral change is one of those really big areas for government, and it’s trying to create behavioral change, and so therefore profit motive isn’t always the same thing - and that means it can take risks, it can do things which don’t necessarily have the payoff that the commercial sector will require.

Tim Butara: That’s a very good point, because I think, from a kind of inexperienced perspective, I think a lot of people would say, oh yeah of course the private sector can take more risks than the government, but that’s not taking into account the profit factor, right, which you highlighted just now. 

William Makower: Right. Exactly, Tim. It’s a really crucial point. You know, I think often people look in at the public sector and think there’s a lot of waste, and it’s an inefficient sector, and there could be, you know, the private sector is much more efficient. And in some cases that is true, there is no question, there are very large IT projects, be they in health or the MOD or whatever, which are very well publicized and have cost the tax-payer a lot of money, and have not worked. But I think that sometimes it is the result of wanting to make significant change and change behaviors. It’s not always possible, I mean obviously, they were colossal mistakes, and no one’s trying to excuse them, but generally government is looking at how it can create behavioral change and how it can take a long-term view.

Tim Butara: Yeah, that’s another excellent point, because another misconception about digital transformation is that it’s about technology, but I think it’s as much about the people as it is about the technology.

William Makower: Of course. Of course. And government employs a large number of people, so there’s a lot of people to bring with you, over a long period of time.

Tim Butara: Yeah, I know that the UK has actually invested quite heavily in this field. Like, do you know any best practices or really good examples of processes in the public sector digital transformation?

William Makower: Well, I mean, I think internationally, one looks at, traditionally, South Korea and Estonia were two countries which sort of grabbed the digital transformation agenda across government. But here in the UK, it really began, I would say really began, around about 2010, and at that stage there was a lady called Martha Lane Fox who set up lastminute.com, and she was approached by Francis Maude, who was the Cabinet Secretary at that time, to look at government digital estate and government communications, and consider if what we had at that stage was the right thing. At that point we had something called Business Linked, which was government communications out to businesses, and then we had DirectGov, which was the equivalent to citizens to consumers.
And each department had its own website, each department looked utterly different, the Foreign Office looked different from the Department of Trade, that looked different to the Home Office, etc, and Treasury, whatever, and these departments were going off in different directions, there was no uniformity across all the communication, and of course large numbers of people were employed. And Francis Maude tasked Martha Lane Fox to have a new look at how digital might expand over the next period of time, and Martha’s paper sort of came back and said “This is revolution, this is not evolution. We need to make a fundamental change, we need to bring consistency to all our communication, we need to centralize this, we must stop the sprawl and the continuous growth of digital domains and websites, which was just confusing the public, we need to bring it all together. 

And that was the beginning of .gov. And so that was, I suppose, a sort of major change, major initiative, which is what we have now, and undoubtedly there was a lot of pain in the process, but it’s a much better process now, and a much better provision for the country than what we had before. So, that would be an example of, you know, a major strategic change across the public sector. Obviously, much more recently, we got the furlough scheme - the ability for companies to be able to pay their staff through the payroll and to get repaid within the week or the month or whatever it is - we haven’t actually furloughed anyone, so I’m not exactly sure - but that is all managed through an online process, of course it is, that’s what we expect to be able to do. Equally, the recently announced scheme for Eat Out to Help Out, Rishi Sunak’s idea that we should eat out Monday to Wednesday in August and get paid half the bill, will all be managed, obviously, through an online process. 

And these are applications and processes which we just wouldn’t have been able to have a few years ago, so they’re great examples of how government is using digital media to achieve substantial change, major change. In our own field, we’re doing a lot of work across the fire and rescue services. We’re doing a piece of work across the local government to get homeless people off the streets; we’re doing a piece of work for the NHS across those who present with multiple work mobilities, cancer and maybe diabetes or something else, I mean we can talk about those pieces of work if we wanted to, but I think there’s a ton of good examples, yeah, across government.

Tim Butara: Yeah it sounds like it was a really, especially in the UK, a totally nation-scale effort and initiative to kind of streamline the whole processes, and it sounds like it definitely has been effective so far. 

William Makower: Yeah, I mean, I think generally, you know, if I’m just talking to my friends or, you know, family, and we compare, you know, how it used to be, trying to get a passport, trying to sort out a health appointment, or whatever it was, compared to nowadays, undoubtedly people say it’s better. I mean, you know, it is a smoother process, some of the capabilities on .gov are better than others; I think Charity Commission is the latest one, which has been brought online through the .gov system. And, you know, when that happens, there’s pain, there’s pain for the people in the existing departments, and there’s a lot of technical change, but at the end of it, it’s better.

Tim Butara: You mentioned early on that government organizations are able to take more risks in their digital transformation efforts because, exactly because they aren’t constrained by profit. Can you tell us a little bit more about where and why they’re able to take bigger risks, and maybe some examples of really big risks in public sector digital transformation?

William Makower: Well, let me, if I may, just talk about a project that we’re doing, because I can talk about it with more authority and more knowledge. So we’re working with the UK Fire and Rescue service. So the UK Fire and Rescue service is a patchwork service, it’s made up of 50 independent fire services across the country, there is no consistency across all of them, there’s some consistency between them. And their operational guidance, how they operate, varies from region to region, because they have different reeling apparatus, they have different ladders, they have different fire engines - so, while you fight the fire in the same way, actually, what you do to fight that fire may vary from region to region. And they wanted to bring consistency of how this information was picked up by and used by the fire crews on the ground. And they also wanted to make sure that as learnings came up from a fire being fought let’s say in Leicestershire, that that was applied to the fire crews or the fire service down in Devon or in Scotland. 

And that bottom-up as well as top-down approach to best practice was something which they didn’t have, because it was a patchwork service, it was all done as independent level, at individual region level. So we’ve been building a massive platform to reconsider how best practice, how guidance, how risk etc. is considered for the fire crews and for the service operators in all the fire services. And that’s an example of a project which if you were to look at it in terms of return, well, the return is in lives, it’s in security and safety. It’s not a profit thing, it’s got nothing to do with profit. But you know if we can save, you know, lives by having better practices, well of course that’s what, you know, the government is there for, it’s there to protect its citizens.

Tim Butara: Yeah and that’s an excellent selling point. And especially kind of shifts the whole conversation, the context of the conversation, whereas on the one side, in one area, you have profit as kind of the key driving factor, and on the other side, you have stuff like basic human rights, you have stuff like health, like lives, as you just said. It really kind of gives you a new perspective of how risky stuff is and how to approach it, stuff like that.

William Makower: We have, Tim there’s another example, because it’s all related to Covid.

Tim Butara: Hm, yeah, good example.

William Makower: Yeah, I mean obviously everyone’s thinking about Covid at the moment. We were doing a piece of work and have been doing a piece of work for the Office of National Statistics. The ONS run lots of surveys; they have something called a time use survey, so this is a longitudinal survey, and they want to see how we use our time and how that has changed over the generations. Obviously nowadays we spend a lot more time on digital media and devices than we used to let’s say 20 years ago. Now the way of collecting that data, traditionally, has been paper and pen, and you identify what you’ve done for every 10 minutes of your day - you cooked, or you cleaned, or you went to bed, or you looked after your granny, or you went out to the theatre - whatever you did, every 10 minutes of your day you note down on a bit of paper. Now obviously that’s highly labor-intensive, both for the person completing the survey, but also for the statisticians and the analysts looking at thousands of bits of paper, and trying to bring it together. And they commissioned us to develop that in a digital format, that obviously makes easy sense, makes good sense. And we started working on this project in around October/November, one particular section of it. 

And as the project developed, we kept sort of improving it and listening to user needs and all the classic things you do, and started building it. And of course then Covid hits, and lockdown hits in March, and the Office of National Statistics then started using this survey to understand how our time has changed, and what we’re doing at home, how much obviously we’re using digital media like this to conduct interviews. Because that will impact the decisions which are made by the Treasury and spending departments, where they need to put resources going forward. And so that survey which was just looking at time use is now looking at resource allocation and what that means for government in terms of what it needs to provide as we change our working practices across the country because of Covid.

Tim Butara: So it was really fortunate that you started this project months before Covid hit, which means that it was readymade for the lockdown and the pandemic.

William Makower: Exactly, and if you go on the Office of National Statistics’ website and you search, you’ll find the results from the use of that survey tool are now being used in real-time. So it’s being, you know, there’s an example of government thinking ahead of something it wanted to do, and then reacting really quickly. And again you know government can be criticized for being slow and lethargic, but here’s an example of them being really reactive to the situation, saying, we’ve got something, let’s use that to achieve what we need.

Tim Butara: But, that also means that you have to have a really good digital transformation partner, right, because you, I mean as Panlogic you were able to satisfy their needs so accurately and so significantly that it was much more helpful than you ever anticipated.

William Makower: Yeah, I’d like to think we did a good job, but I think also - that’s nice of you, Tim - but I think also, you know, at all levels of government you have, you know at all levels of society, you have people who are innovators and passionate, and you have people who are slow and more methodical. And it just depends on that mix of individuals in your client as well, whether they’re also, you know, taking risks and brave, and able to make the case to their superiors that they should spend money in this area because that’s important. So, you need, you know, you need good people around. 

Tim Butara: That’s a very good point. So we’re actually back to the people now again, as we pointed out in the beginning. 

William Makower: Haha, yeah - always.

Tim Butara: Do you have any other really interesting examples of projects that Panlogic has worked on in this area?

William Makower: There’s an interesting project we’ve been doing with NHS. So this is actually being led by guys at St. Thomas’ and MacMillan Cancer Care. So as we probably all know from our personal lives, if you have a friend or a relative who gets cancer, that’s a major illness, and that needs treating. But if you are an octogenarian or a nonagenarian in your 80s or 90s, and you develop cancer, it probably is not going to kill you. There is probably something else that’s going to kill you, maybe diabetes will kill you, or heart disease will kill you. But when that patient arrives in hospital with cancer aged 84, it’s immediately assumed that cancer treatment must trump all other diseases that patient presents with. And NHS were saying “Well hold on a second, that may not be the case, we need all the experts around us, we need a diabetes expert, we need a cardiovascular expert, we need a heart disease expert, we might need someone who’s a specialist in the industry of eyesight, because this patient has issues with all these different areas, and cancer - and then we need to consider which of the illnesses we need to treat first, which ones are most likely to produce a death or further complications. 

And, again, this is something that’s quite difficult to do with bits of paper, because you have multidisciplinary units, that is what they call them in the NHS, they all go off to their different areas of the hospital, they might work in different hospitals, and digital media or databases can really help identify for that particular patient what their needs are, and make sure that cancer is not always going to be the trump card and all the other morbidities are disallowed, are not considered. And so this is a piece of work we’re doing where we’re trying to help the doctors and the clinicians prioritise what they’re presented with, and work out together what is the best way to deal with this particular patient.

Tim Butara: So it’s another example of something that has a direct impact of, direct impact on a huge number of people’s lives, just as we were talking about before.

William Makower: And I think, you know, government, you know of course what can happen is there can be lots of these different types of projects which aren’t joined up, and someone has to sort of look across the whole piece. Interestingly, in that particular project, it’s co-founded by not only the NHS but by MacMillan. And MacMillan have got an overview of what’s happening with cancer across the country, so they’re able to know that this project is happening, it doesn’t need to be replicated up in Preston or in Scotland or wherever that might be.

Tim Butara: And, maybe now we’re kind of more concentrating on the positive sides of the public sector digital transformation, but, do you remember a particularly troublesome challenge that you encountered and had a hard time solving with Panlogic in your digital transformation projects? 

William Makower: Well, there’s a project which was set by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to get homeless people off the streets. And this was trialed in London, and it has had a number of difficulties, or we’ve definitely been involved in. And one of the difficulties is, every London council has a housing officer, and they have independent systems. So, local government is less joined up than central government, generally. And each individual housing officer has their own way of procuring and identifying and making available properties to citizens in their local authority. And so when you’re trying to create a national system, or even just a pan-London system, you have to consider all the different that these different boroughs are doing it, and different councils are doing it. And that is complicated, that is, you know, that’s messy, and you go down a path and then you realize that’s not right, and then you have to retrench, or you have to rebuild something. And that’s, I think that’s where you need really good management, to say: “Hold on, stop, we need to reconsider this” or “We haven’t thought about these legacy systems, we need to look back at this to get back to it”. So, yeah, I mean, mistakes happen, obviously.

Tim Butara: But, again, it’s largely up to the people involved in the projects and initiatives. As you said, good project management. 

William Makower: Yeah, a good project manager is essential, and you can tell when a project’s going off the rails, it’s because project management is not being considered. Tim, you’re probably aware of agile as a methodology, and most of these web projects now are delivered under an agile methodology. Agile methodology is fantastic, and it does allow, you know, changes to be made mid-scope, and you aren’t just sort of locked away on a waterfall project. The Achilles heel for agile and government is all the procurement departments find it very difficult, because they don’t know what they’re procuring. It’s not like you’re saying: “I want X, how long is it gonna take, I’m gonna pay Y”, it’s “I want X, but I want to be able to change my mind as this thing goes, and therefore I don’t know what I’m going to get out of the far end”, and that makes it very difficult for procurement departments.

Tim Butara: Yeah, that does sounds like it introduces a lot of additional complications to any process or project.

William Makower: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

Tim Butara: Well, now I only have a few more general questions, but before I move on to those, is there anything in this subject area that you’d like to point out that maybe I missed or that’s also you think is important?

William Makower: I think there was, if people listening are thinking, you know, “We would like to start working with the public sector”, maybe I can give some sort of hints and tips, and some sort of suggestions. So, first of all, I’d welcome that, and, you know, people can always get in contact with us and say “We’re interested” and sort of start in this area, and, you know, the more people serving this area, the better. But the way that procurement works is through tenders, and so people need to be aware that they’re going to have to write quite heavy documents, and they’re going to have to have quite a lot of processes, which they need to be able to articulate their process, their risks and how they manage risks. Obviously accessibility is really important, GDPR is really important, usability, you have all these sorts of areas where in the private sector are also important, but they’re not front-and-center, because they’re not, well, they’re not always front-and-center, cause it’s not public money which is being used. So, when public money is used, the requirement to be able to satisfy the procurement officers that you have got thorough processes is really important. 

When we started in the public sector, we partnered - this was a very strategic point, and again I think it might be a helpful point - is we partnered with an, we had a piece of technology which we thought would be useful in the public sector. We went and found a partner who had relationships in the public sector, and it was the Museum and Library Archive, and we went to them and said “We’ve got this bit of technology, we don’t have many relationships in the public sector, if you want a project, or you think we could bid together for a project, you know, we’d be pleased to share our technology, you can take the credit, but all we want out of it is a case study”. And so we got a case study, and that then helped us get on to a framework, and of course then it builds from that point. So, partnering to get in is probably easier than trying to apply right from the beginning, because the amount of paperwork you need is enormous.

Tim Butara: I think that’s actually a very invaluable piece of advice, because it’s not the most intuitive thing that you would think while trying to secure such projects, so I think that this will be very valuable to our listeners, thank you.

William Makower: Not at all. Not at all. I think the other thing I would say is, I remember someone saying to me, a person much younger than me, said “There are no competitors anymore”. I thought it was a really interesting comment; of course there are competitors on the edges, but actually, fundamentally, partnering is the answer to many of one’s issues. And you have to work out a model, a commercial model which works for you for partnering. But, taking a long-term view is often helpful.

Tim Butara: I definitely agree. Great piece of advice. And, maybe, do you have some more general pieces of advice? Like, now this is, this is digital transformation, public sector-specific, but what about kind of some piece of advice related to what we’re facing now in 2020 and now that we’re kind of moving into the second part of the year, and maybe a second wave of Covid, and the “New Normal” in quotation marks approaching?

William Makower: Yeah, I mean, I think one thing we’re definitely going to be looking at is whether we need office space. Obviously, we’re a digital business, it’s been easy for us to work from home; but, equally, the conviviality and the community of coming together in an office is something we missed, like everyone. So, I think just, you know, we’re going to be looking at whether we can have an office Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but we don’t need an office 5 days a week, maybe we can share it with someone else, or maybe we can find some hot desking arrangement in some office space for that, so that might be something we’re going to do. You know, there are going to be companies that don’t survive in this space, it’s going to be very difficult for them. 

But, you know, with every downside, there’s also opportunity. And there’s no question that, you know, working practices will change, and I’ve pointed to the office space one, and so, you know, in that space, office space providers will change. They will offer something different, they’ll have to, they’ll have to adapt, and I would say the same is true for all businesses, you know - we will need to adapt. In that instance and in other ways as well, it’s important to be nimble. And it’s really the bigger businesses who are going to find this more difficult; the smaller businesses will be more nimble, the bigger businesses, it’s a bigger oil tanker, it takes longer and it’s harder for them to change. So there’s a real opportunity for, you know, small businesses to start up, to adapt from their current practices. 

My advice there is: talk to people, network to people, talk to as many people as you can. Partly because you’ll get advice from them, and you know, some advice you’ll want and some advice you won’t want, but also because that becomes a network, and that network’s invaluable as you’re changing a business and thinking for new opportunities. I’d say, the other thing I would say is generally, two other things I would say, so one is: what drives decision making is very simple. It’s either fear, or it’s greed. And if you can identify fear or greed - now, in government, a lot of it’s around fear. They’re worried they’re going to be caught not doing the right thing, the scrutiny is increasing all the time, and they need to make sure that they have really thorough documented processes, so they can point to that if something goes right. 

So, that would make my first point, think about fear and greed, what is the driver for this when you’re thinking about how to help someone. And then the second thing is: take risks. You know. This is the opportunity, this is the time to take risks, cause if you sit back, someone else is gonna to do that. Jeff Bezos didn’t set up Amazon without taking risks; you must take risks! Obviously, they’ve got to be considered. Opportunity favors the bold. Go out, have a go, go and talk to people, you know, it will take time to someone on the other side who’s also willing to take a risk, but if you’re passionate enough and believe in what you’re doing, you’ll break through.

Tim Butara: Yeah, because, whatever you do right now poses a certain amount of risk, so, why not just go all the way and take advantage of the opportunity, as you said, and take the risk that you need to take, and that you need to take to drive change for your company or your organization.

William Makower: Right. I mean, Richard Branson always said: “Take as many risks as you want, just protect the downside, just make sure you can only fall so far and you can’t fall any further - but protect that, but then take as many risks as you can.

Tim Butara: Yeah. That’s a great note to finish, but just before we do, if, if people want to reach out to you to learn more about you, what would be the best place or way for them to do that?

William Makower: Well, I’ve got a difficult surname, which is Makower, so my email address isn’t immediately easy. It’s william.makower@panlogic.co.uk, but if you don’t catch that, there’s info@panlogic.co.uk will reach us. I’m happy to be in touch and help anyone.

Tim Butara: Ok, great. Thank you, William, for taking the time to have this great talk with me. And, to our listeners - that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe!

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