Interview: Richard Corbridge, CDIO, DWP

Only 13 weeks into his new role, the Department for Work and Pensions’ CDIO speaks to Computer Weekly about plans for artificial intelligence, data modernisation and how to complete a business plan in record time

Former Boots CIO Richard Corbridge is only three months into his role as chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but he is already shaking things up in the department.

Known as having one of the largest IT estates in Europe, DWP manages 50 million lines of code, which comes with huge complexity and scale.

Corbridge tells Computer Weekly he is excited to help deliver the department’s vision of providing great services to benefit society.

“The expectations of digital around DWP are high, and rightly so. I see my role as a facilitator, easing our progress towards our goals by clearing the way and removing obstacles,” he says.

“I want to join things up, make sure my colleagues have what they need to get the job done, and help them understand how the digital experiences they encounter in their everyday lives can be reflected in the services they offer at work.”

Fast and flexible business plan

Corbridge took over from former CDIO Simon McKinnon in April 2023, and while some of his settling-in period has been spent “trying to work out which way up is”, he has already created, agreed and published a business plan for the next 12 months at DWP Digital.

In fact, the process from beginning to end took just a few weeks. Corbridge came in and said to himself, “How can we get a business plan written, prepared and approved in 40 days?”.

“And we did it,” he says. This was accomplished through turning the business plan into a “human document”, changing it from an inward focus on technology to focusing on how DWP Digital can help.

“I think the change we’ve done in the business plan is to make it feel more like we are here to serve DWP, our colleagues, rather than concentrating on the technology piece,” says Corbridge.

Picture of Richard Corbridge, who is chief digital information officer at DWP.

“The expectations of digital around DWP are high, and rightly so. I see my role as a facilitator, easing our progress towards our goals by clearing the way and removing obstacles”

Richard Corbridge, DWP

The plan also includes pictures of DWP Digital staff and descriptions of what they do, in an attempt to “humanise what digital is”.

While the government may not always be known for its speed in putting business plans into action, Corbridge points out that this is not simply a “public sector” thing – it happens in most large organisations, due to the amount of governance in place.

“What we’ve got to do is work out how to reduce the risk, or what is the risk appetite for us to do something, and if it doesn’t work, be thankful that we’ve learnt it doesn’t work, because we’ve learned lessons from that as well,” he says.

Corbridge adds that it was important to get the business plan in front of people, evolve it and not take the stance that “it can’t be changed”.

“As long as you say it’s an evolving document, and people are happy with this iteration now but we can come back and change it, there is no reason for it to take six months to be written, prepared, tested and put out there, because it’s a living document,” he says.

“I want to get to a similar space with some of the innovations we want to do. How do we test and learn, and celebrate that we learned something, even if we had to turn it off, in the same way as we celebrate if we’ve put something out there and it works?

“We can, and should, feel that if we can offer services to 80% of our colleagues or 80% of our customers, and we have to do something different for the other 20%, that’s OK. We don’t have to get something that fits 100% of all cases that are out there.”

Testing ideas around artificial intelligence

DWP itself has gone through huge changes over the past few years. Once one of the largest outsourcers in government, the department has brought ownership of its products and services back in-house.

This includes looking at new and innovative technologies, and seeing whether any are a fit for the department.

DWP Digital recently put in place something called the “lighthouse process” – a way of evaluating the different opportunities for artificial intelligence (AI) and whether they could work.

“Does it fit the criteria that DWP holds really strongly, which is that a human has to make any decision around the payments for benefits or the support of a person? How can we deploy it? Where can we deploy it?” says Corbridge.

“By creating this framework, we now have a place to bring an idea, evaluate it, make sure it is ethically sound, make sure colleagues don’t feel threatened by what we may do, and that it does bring efficiencies across the business that we’re involved in.”

He adds that the plan is to have between five and eight different ways to apply different types of AI between now and April 2024, and test and learn what those different things are.

“The fact that they have to meet the ethics challenge and it has to be explainable is always really close to our heart,” he says. “If we can’t explain to our business how it works, we mustn’t do it, because that is too scary.”

The legacy challenge

In May 2022, the then CDIO, Simon McKinnon, launched the department’s three-year Digital Future strategy, aiming to reimagine digital services and make them more personal, accurate and efficient.

The five pillars of the strategy include providing reliable, secure, cost-effective services by enabling what DWP Digital described as “24/7 delivery of high-performing, sustainable, accessible digital services” for colleagues and customers.

Like most large organisations, DWP, despite its huge steps forward in recent years, still has a huge legacy estate, which Corbridge says needs to be better set up for “faster, cheaper and more efficient digital services to be built”.

However, replacing legacy isn’t always easy, not just at DWP, but anywhere.

“It’s very difficult to build a return on investment to replace something old with something new,” he says, adding that there needs to be a way of putting a value on the risk of not doing it, and putting that in a business case.

“There’s definitely a real interest across government to work out if there is a way that we can do that for all government, so that we start to understand the cost of running IT, as opposed to the return on investment on doing translational stuff with IT.”

Modernising data management

Hand in hand with all of this goes data. As a department, DWP has a lot of it.

Data modernisation, Corbridge says, is in many ways similar to the legacy challenges, in that the department needs to take a holistic approach.

He adds that without a modern data layer, “we can’t do the cool stuff that everybody’s talking about with AI”. To tackle this challenge, the department is in the process of finishing its data modernisation strategy.

“That will take us to a place where we don’t just remediate where data is stored and put it into the cloud,” he says, but it also allows the department to use cloud-native services to “help us get more from our data, being able to look at how we use identity in particular, across that whole piece, so we can trace and track single points of contact”.

“Let’s use our data to offer mass personalisation for the labour market and benefits for people, taking as much friction as we can out of the process”
Richard Corbridge, DWP

“We want to get to a place where a customer tells us once and that impacts change on everything we’re doing across the system,” he adds.

Coming from a healthcare background, having been both the CDIO at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in his home city and CIO for the Health Service Executive in Ireland prior to his role at Boots, Corbridge draws parallels to the healthcare sector, and its mission to create more personalised services, and how this can be applied to DWP.

“What if we were able to know that somebody had lost their job or needed a benefit, and therefore get in touch with them proactively to say: ‘We know these are the skills you’ve had in the past, these are the jobs that are local to you, let us help you apply for those jobs’,” he says.

“Let’s use our data, and tools that exist around personalisation, to clearly offer mass personalisation for the labour market and benefits needed for people, taking as much friction as we can out of the process.”

As we settle into a post-pandemic world, with cost of living on the up, both the breadth of customers that need support and the different types of support they need are increasing, Corbridge adds.

“The labour market has changed what people expect from a job, and the type of work people are willing to do has changed. We need to be mindful of that as well,” he says.

Digital identity

Creating these personalised services is very difficult to do without a digital identity, or a common identifier. Currently, DWP has different places for customers to log in for different services.

“We have a whole function that is looking at the shared services that need to be created across all of the things that DWP offers,” says Corbridge. This includes looking at how to create a single login capability that sees across all DWP systems.

If a customer logs into one benefit, and reports a change of circumstances, Corbridge wants that to be fed through to other benefits or systems.

DWP now also offers an application programming interface (API) to broadband providers so they are able to find out who is on certain types of benefits, and be able to offer a discount or book broadband provision into people’s homes.

“The same API will, hopefully, be used by other providers as well,” says Corbridge. “It can be reused. The key is to think how much of this stuff can we build so can we reuse the key concept for strategic reference.”

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is currently creating a digital identity system, One Login, which is being trialled by several services across different departments. While departments will be mandated to use it, other digital identity systems can still run in parallel.

DWP, Corbridge says, is leading the way on One Login across government. “We’ll be doing some early stage stuff this side of September, with a plan to really take that into everything we possibly can in 2024,” he adds.

Recruitment and skills

Like most large organisations with a massive amount of work to do, DWP is looking for the right skills to do so. However, Corbridge says it may be easier to recruit the right people in the public sector than it is in the private sector, as working in government tends to attract the “sort of people who are on a mission to do good”.

“We’re going to attract people who want a career that is based in professionalisation and growth, not just in the financial elements of the end of the month,” he says.

Corbridge adds that DWP doesn’t have the “cut-throat nature of one-upmanship” that you see in some other organisations. It’s very much a case of how we can support each other, because the end goal is the good of our customers, making colleagues’ lives as easy as possible to offer those services”.

DWP is also working with BCS to create a programme of professionalisation across different digital skills so they can be accredited and recognised.

Corbridge is also keen to point out that he wants to continue driving forward a culture that empowers people in the department, as well as celebrating diversity.

“We will remain consistent in our commitment to diversity and inclusion across the organisation as I embrace my role as gender champion for DWP,” he says.

Alongside the rest of government, DWP will be adopting the Disability Action Plan on Assistive and Accessible Technology during 2023/24.

Read more about DWP and technology

  • The department has taken an in-house approach to swapping its virtual machine environment (VME), getting rid of legacy infrastructure and replacing 11 key benefits systems.
  • DWP launches trial to see how well artificial intelligence can be used to help job seekers find work more quickly.
  • In response to the pandemic, DWP aims to improve collaboration and develop a reference architecture.

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