DfE Digital and Technology podcast

Think digital, act human #1

May 18, 2021

Think digital, act human is our pilot podcast series. We'll be shining a light on the human stories behind our digital and technology projects. 

In this episode product manager, Adaobi Ifeachor, meets our chief digital technology officer Emma Stace to reflect on quite a year, discuss topical issues and look forward to what’s next for DfE Digital and Technology

 

Transcription 

[Music plays]

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Hello, welcome to Think Digital act Human, a podcast where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. I'm Adaobi Ifeachor a product manager here at the Department for Education. In a moment, I'm going to introduce you to our first guest. But let's dig in a little bit more into why we're doing this podcast, what the concept is. Every day, millions of pupils, teachers, frontline workers and educational professionals are affected by the work we're doing in the background here at DfE (Department for Education) digital and technology. And our work is centred around these users. But who are the people making it all happen and what drives them to do it? What are the stories behind the user stories? Well, this series will shine a light on the human stories behind our digital projects, the stories behind transformational work and the skills and attitudes our people bring to and take from their work. So absolutely no pressure then to our first guest, Emma Stace, Chief digital and technology officer. Welcome Emma. 

 

Emma Stace] Hi. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Can you tell us a bit more about what exactly does a chief digital technology officer do? 

 

Emma Stace 

Okay that's a big question. I think I'm still trying to work out. What do I do? I would say that most of my work is about people and very little of it is actually about technology. And so as the leader of digital and technology, my role is focussed on making sure that our work impacts the people we're here to serve - children and learners and also create the environment in which all of our people working across digital and technology can do excellent work to deliver value to those children and learners. So, you know, most of my day is focussed on people. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So full disclosure to listeners, I am actually pretty brand new at the department and the civil service completely. So as I understand it, this group we're talking about today didn't even really exist five years ago. We're going to dig into that, and we're going to find out what it is you've been up to over the last four years or so. And we're also going to talk about the DfE (Department for Education) digital and technology merger and what your plans are for the future. But first, I have to know, what was your journey? How did you get here? Who is Emma stace? 

 

Emma Stace 

There are no simple questions on this podcast.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

I'm going to need to know the meaning of life at the end as well.  

 

Emma Stace 

[laughs] I'll try and figure that out as we go along. So who am I? In terms of the real basics I have three children, one beautiful child from my first marriage, Kiran, two children from my second marriage. I am the daughter of a civil servant. I travelled the world with my father growing up. I went to American schools. I went to boarding school at 13 while my parents were living in India. And then I married an Indian and lived in South Africa for a while. So my lifestyle and my background have been very nomadic and I arrived back in the UK about 10 years ago and I'm determined now never to leave. I like being settled finally in my life and in my work. I think those experiences are pretty formative in terms of how I got to where I am today. My father instilled in me the values of public service and thinking about others and dedicating your life toward others. He always tells the story of leaving LSC with a doctorate when he was 24 and he went to Unilever and they were offering him lots of money and big bucks. And the one question he posed to them is, can you tell me why I would dedicate the rest of my life to selling soap? And that was the story he used to tell at the kitchen table, which totally shaped who I am and what I value. And then probably the other informative part is, is all of that travelling. So I've had the great gift of experiencing many different people, many different cultures, and also working across many different industries. I came to the civil service eight years ago. Before that, I was in television production. I worked for a multimedia agency. I've ran my own business. I've been a consultant. And I just I love diversity of thought, diversity of talent, and I love the power of what you can achieve when you can bring all of that to the workplace. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

A lot of people, when they think government, when they think civil service, technology and digital they're not necessarily the first things you think of, if that's a career that you're looking to go into. How did you end up in this particular role? I'm assuming you didn't start off in a digital and technology role in government or did you? 

 

Emma Stace

No, I did. So, I was living in Australia with my young family and had ran an organisation in Australia which was aimed at supporting young people in their mental health, an organisation called Reach Out. And in that organisation, I was what was called a chief operating officer and was responsible for transforming the whole organisation to be more service focused and more user focussed in terms of how we reached young people and delivered to them and I got the real bug there for digital and transformation and business change and cultural change. And when I came back to the UK, I was shopping around for what are the most interesting and important things happening in the UK that bring all of those passions together. And at the time, the government digital service led by Mike Bracken, was this force of change within the civil service. I met a giant of digital and technology, a gentleman called Tom Loosemore for a coffee. We had a chat and then I found my way into the Government digital service, leading transformation across multiple agencies for what was then the Department for Business. So my way into the civil service was through the Government digital service. And then as my time there matured, I really wanted to not just be in the centre of government, but actually have the privilege of working within a major government department to do the do but from the inside. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I have to say, a bit of advice for listeners who are considering making a career change, asking someone for a cup of coffee, asking them for their time, asking them for a remote cup of tea is really powerful because not only are you forming those relationships, but you find out stuff that you wouldn't necessarily find out if you just emailed them. Would you agree with that? 

 

Emma Stace 

Yeah, it's interesting. I was on a forum yesterday evening. We were talking about the values of the civil service and how is it different from the private sector. Because money isn't the motivator, profit isn't a motivator in the civil service I think it brings a culture and attracts people who are very generous with their time. And I have been gifted a lot of time from some very brilliant people and, you know, in the position that I am in now I want to give that back. So someone reaching out and saying, let's just have a coffee and a chat, I think is incredibly powerful. That can take a bit of bravery, I guess, on the end of the person reaching out, because that's an assumption, isn't there, that everyone's really busy and these are important in inverted commas, people that I try to make myself as available as I possibly can be to anybody who just fancies a chat. Because as you and I are experiencing now, there's power in conversation, and there's power in connection. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Well, I've got my cup of coffee right here, so let's have a look at some of the work that you've been doing over the last four years or so. I hear that things started in a basement somewhere. Like this digital tech team. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how it's developed? 

 

Emma Stace 

The legendary basement in Sanctuary buildings in DfE. So I think the most important thing to say is technology has existed in the DfE (Department for education) for many, many years. But digital in terms of digital first service delivery and the skills of user centred design, software development was new to the DfE approximately four years ago. The apprenticeship service is our most mature service within DfE and as part of machinery of government changes, that service arrived at DfE four years ago. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

And by service you mean anything that helps members of the public achieve a specific goal? We're helping them to do that? 

 

Emma Stace 

Yes. So the apprenticeship service helps young people find employees in which they can undertake apprenticeships effectively. So going back to the basement, a few individuals from the apprenticeship service arrived in DfE and actually seeded the beginning of where we are now, which is a single digital and technology function. And it's interesting, isn't it, that it has literally started from the bottom up digital, and the basement is a good analogy of where we began and where we are now. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So where are we now? What are some of the things that we're doing now that we weren't doing four plus years ago? 

 

Emma Stace 

Gosh, these are good questions. And what I'm struck by as we're talking is the past year working in Covid or through covid, we have just gone at a hundred miles an hour for a year. And so actually even pausing with you this morning and having to cast my mind back four years ago feels like an opportunity I haven't had for a really long time is what I'm reflecting on. So where have we come in four years? I mean, firstly, it's often really hard to articulate that because change has happened quite organically and incrementally. And it's really hard sometimes to celebrate those successes and see how far you've come because you're so caught up in the present. What, I would say is we are constantly maturing. So I think we've gone from digital being seen as something that the organisation was relatively wary of to now, something that is front and centre in our strategic approach, about how we're thinking about the future. And clearly Covid demonstrated the absolute necessity of having a good digital and technology capability within the organisation that can pivot really fast to the demanding and ever changing needs of our users. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

One moment kids were in schools, the next moment, you're expected to work from home and you might not have a computer, for example.

 

Emma Stace

Right? Yes, our technology teams and our technology infrastructure kept us going and working throughout Covid, I mean on a dime we went from being in the office, didn't we, to working from home and is now just become new normal, hasn't it? I think covid for every organisation, not just for the DfE, has put digital and technology front and centre. It no longer feels like we're having a 'we need to become more digital' conversation. The question is now, what do we need to achieve and how do we need to achieve it? And that's a mindset shift more than anything else. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I mean, you're right to point out that everybody had to suddenly shift to working from home. But I'm specifically pointing out with that question, there were kids as well, kids who maybe had the use of a family laptop, but then all of a sudden maybe even children with quite different ages are having to fight over the family laptop and still get learning and and DfE had to help support that. It's a challenge. 

 

Emma Stace 

Yeah, it was huge. I mean, we spun up what is the biggest delivery of laptops. I don't know if it's in the world, but certainly it's a massive undertaking, one point four million laptops shipped to young and vulnerable people so that they continue education. And I think that whole experience has brought us as an organisation and digital and technology in particular, much closer to the front line of what's actually happening across the country and the importance of schooling, not just in terms of supporting education for our children, but also in supporting their mental health and their well-being and their connection to their community. So, you know, and it sort of reaffirms why you work in the public service when you receive a message from a young person who's just received their laptop and feels connected to their school and their community. That's why you get up in the morning isn't it really. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

A couple of things we've briefly touched on for the briefest of moments. I'd like to hear a bit more about, you mentioned user centred design and I know there's this user central design lab, unfortunately, because I started working here during the pandemic, I've not even been into the office. I'm not even sure I would be able to find the office without Google Maps. So tell me, what is this user centred design lab? 

 

Emma Stace 

Well, the user centered design lab is a group of very talented user researchers and user centred designers who are tasked with ensuring that what we are trying to achieve in the Department for Education, we're doing it with a lens on our users. And when I say users, we should probably start talking more specifically about teachers, school administrators, people working in early year centres, in some instances, social workers, people who are working in FE (further education) colleges, they use our services. And the end goal of that is improvement to young people and learners. So the user centred design lab is working with policy colleagues to ensure that whatever policy, design or policy outcomes we're looking to achieve as the Department for Education, we're doing it as much as possible with a view on how that policy impacts people in the real world and the options to deliver it effectively. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Policy seems to run through the veins of everything in the DfE. That's understandable, I suppose, but the other thing is service ownership. I wasn't familiar with the service ownership model before I started here and I'm assuming there will be quite a few listeners who aren't either. So what is it exactly? 

 

Emma Stace 

So I think what we're trying to achieve with it is introduce this notion of end to end service. So end to end service is, in my very simple terms, a series of transactions that a user will go through in order to achieve an outcome or a goal. And very often in government, we have been guilty in the past of throwing things incoherently towards a user, and the user has to figure out all the steps that they need to do. So service is about trying to make it really clear and simple for our user about how they achieve their outcome. One of the best examples in government, in my view, is the passport office. It takes you right from, 'How do you apply' through to the physical act of going into the building and picking up your passport and so on. So that is for me, an example of service. Service ownership is about establishing within government a culture of an individual and a team being responsible for the end to end experience for the user around the service. And in DfE we try and blend it as much as possible into a role that combines policy design with the delivery of the service. Because so often the quality, the efficacy and the experience of the service is dictated by policy. So what are we trying to achieve? What are the rules that someone has to go through in order to get a passport or a visa, for example? Service ownership is about trying to blend within our culture an individual and team that is responsible for policy and delivery, combining all the skills, commercial, digital, technology and policy design and user centred experience into a team responsible for that overall outcome. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I think there are some organisations and charities, NGOs like people who work very much from a policy basis as well where it almost feels like the rules, the policy comes first and then it's like, OK, what can you do to make this happen in the digital and real world? Just before recording this a new strategy was launched for digital and technology. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What are you hoping to achieve? What's the vision? 

 

Emma Stace 

So it's worth saying that this strategy or plan or whatever we want to call it really marks the beginning of the first year in which digital and technology are working together as a single team. And I think you said in your intro, digital and technology came together last summer and we can definitely cover that off in terms of what that's been like and what we've been overcoming and the opportunities that we're now set to take advantage of. I think the purpose of the strategy is to provide a really clear, joined up view for our teams around what we hope to achieve in twenty twenty one, twenty twenty two. And it has kind of four key themes. The first one is we've got to run the business. I mean, technology and our credibility rests on our ability to keep the whole organisation running. So that's number one. Number two is continue to respond to the needs of our users and children and learners as we move from what effectively has been a year of crisis response into educational recovery. So what are we learning and what does it mean for the, you know, vast numbers of young people who are coming back into full time physical education and lost learning, as well as impact on mental health? How do we make sure that we support young people moving forward out of crisis? The third one is around what we call raising the bar around our own operational maturity. So we're still maturing. Digital and technology is never a fixed state. We can't stand still ever, because if we do, we're falling behind. So we've got to continuously be investing in our people and our skills and our practises and our ways of working. And then finally, we we need to work really hard on what we call reducing burdens. So I think it's common language within the DfE to say, what we do clearly impacts the sector. And it's our duty to make sure that the way that we're trying to deliver to the sector is as simple and easy for teachers and school administrators and frontline staff as possible. And then equally within our own organisation to make sure that we can move at speed and take out some of the friction of bureaucracy that can stop us achieving value quickly. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

It feels like there's an ambition to be a thought leader in terms of digital and technology there if I might interpret it a little bit like that. So what would you want other organisations in the public sector to know about the service ownership model, if they were considering doing something along those lines, what would you say to them? 

 

Emma Stace 

Well, the service only model requires collaboration at its heart. It's about bringing a melting pot of different teams, perspectives and skills together to deliver that outcome for a teacher. So if I think in the example of one of our key services is helping teachers find jobs. We got a team who are dedicated towards that, who are a mix of skills from right across the department. And I think this is the big challenge for digital and technology is how do you blend yourself into the organisation? Digital shouldn't be something that is other to the organisation. It should be embedded at its heart. And so getting to the service ownership model is a collaboration between myself and policy directors and policy colleagues, as well as commercial and finance colleagues. So it's about bringing people to the table. I don't have full ownership end to end of that service. My job is to bring the digital and technology expertise to it. But I think what I would say is it's organisational change, not just digital and technology. It's how we think about what we deliver and how we deliver and how we measure our performance. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

As a side note to that, I have to say, as a product manager, I would love to be in the room at the very start, the inception of things when you're talking about those policies. With digital, we can reimagine this, this could be something drastically different. So it would be quite exciting to kind of see people collaborating from the very beginning of a process. 

 

Emma Stace

There's that great quote from Hamilton, that song I love, 'you got to be in the room where it happens' do you know that one?

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Yes, I saw Hamilton. Actually, all my friends are like Adaobi, can you stop talking about Hamilton? I'm like never. 

 

Emma Stace 

I love that song and I think that's a real challenge. If I speak to my fellow CDTOs (Chief Digital and Technology officers) across government, it's a real challenge getting into the room where it happens. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

CDTOs? Another thing I've noticed being in the Civil Service, people speak in a different language here. 

 

Right There is something that I have been wanting to ask you about. It goes back to one of the first things we were talking about, which was changing from four people in a basement to, you know, over 100 people and building this reputation amongst the rest of the department that, hey, we're not trying to restrict you, in fact we want to enable all your dreams to come true. But this is like a culture shift, isn't it? Have you come up against, I imagine you must have done, have you come up against a more traditional view of how services should be created and implemented? And how have you tried to negotiate your way around that? 

 

Emma Stace 

Yeah, well, I think it's a tightrope walk is the way I describe it. Because you've got to be both a challenger within the organisation, prepared to take risks and show what is possible. But you also need to bring the organisation with you. I mean, I think I've definitely been guilty in the past in some instances of sort of say berattling. And I don't know that that's the right word, say rattling. But what I mean is advocating too strongly and losing people as a result. I'm really trying hard not to talk about the word digital. I'm really trying hard to talk about what is it we're trying to achieve? What is the best way to go about trying to achieve that and sort of deconstruct, if you like, some of the mythology around digital. And at times, I think we're really bad at helping ourselves. I think we speak in a different language. Digital can seem like a dark art or a mysterious art. And I think we are also guilty within the digital community of putting some of that language around us as well. So a lot of it is about just trying to get people to the table to talk about what is the solution to this problem and bring user centred design and expertise and product ownership to that question. But to try and neutralise it, because otherwise, I think certainly at the very beginning of digital in government, there was a perceived notion of us and them. Digital being new and fantastic and actually, I'm not sure if that helps, specifically when it comes to taking a whole organisation with you. It requires a degree of impatience to get going and patience to accept that it takes a while for the organisation to come around. So I would say that most of the days I get quite confused. Are we doing enough? Are we going too fast or are we not going slow enough? But it takes time, it takes a lot of time. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I think also just talking to people on a human level and building relationships, I mean, that's harder to do, now that we’re at home. And it's all video chats and things like that. 

 

On that subject, how have you coped in terms of managing your mental health at home? I mean, there's two aspects to this. I guess there's what you're personally doing and then how exactly do you encourage that in your senior leaders? 

 

Emma Stace 

If I think about this last year of leading through covid, it has definitely been the most challenging personal journey in terms of professional working life, and also helping to lead others through that. I suffered from anxiety and I found the crisis at the beginning sent my anxiety through the roof. I just remember being very triggered and very anxious. So I'm fortunate enough that I can recognise that in myself now. And I have a number of strategies that I put in place to support me. So I gave up drinking. I made sure that I did yoga in the morning, in the evening, and spent as much time as I could off screens when it was available to me. And I think that's really important for me because I think the job of the leader is to bring positive energy to work. And so if I'm not taking care of myself, how on earth am I able to take care of others? In terms of looking after others, I think I try and lead by example. Part of me sharing what I just shared with you now is to encourage other people to talk about their mental health and put in strategies to look after themselves and to know that it's okay to say I'm not feeling great today. Being able to share your vulnerability is for me, a mechanism that I use to help others share theirs so that we can create a workplace in which we're looking after each other, in which it's okay to say I'm having a bit of a crap day, maybe even having a crap week, and for team mates to support and encourage each other. And like you said, we're meeting each other across an electronic screen this morning. And yet you can still have human connection, can't you? I mean, I'm looking at you and I can feel your energy in this conversation. So I think the job of a leader is to look after their own energy and then to help others manage that. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

You're not just a CDTO, chief digital and technology officer. You're also a mother. How has this last year been on your kids? How has it been being a mother and suddenly a schoolteacher and trying to do PE lessons in the front room or something? 

 

Emma Stace

I am very fortunate. I mean, the one thing about covid is it’s affected all of us, hasn't it? No one has gotten away without being impacted. I'm really lucky. I've got three healthy children who have managed their own mental health really well throughout. The biggest challenge being my gorgeous 17-year-old son. Frankly, I think it's been really tough on teenagers. I'm lucky because I know that it's impacted friends and family and I'm a governor of my local primary schools. I know and experience the impact that it's had on other families. So I would say overall we're in pretty good shape. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I think you've mentioned before that your son is mixed race, is that right?

 

Emma Stace Yeah. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor I didn't want to end our discussion without mentioning everything that's happening in the world in terms of George Floyd. As a black woman myself, it feels there was a world before George Floyd’s murder and there was a world after it. I know how it's been like for me and all of my black friends and family, but what is it like as the mother of someone who is mixed race? Did you have to have certain conversations? I mean, what was your experience like? I don't want to assume anything.

 

Emma Stace 

I will share with you 2 experiences. So, one on the personal front: I have a brown skinned boy who was electrified by George Floyd's murder and brought a new level of discussion around race to the family dinner table, no question! And then at work, George Floyd opened up a conversation around race, which we were having in terms of inclusion and diversity. But I don't think we’d really, truly scratched below the surface of. What started off as very difficult ended up in a really open, enquiring place around race within the civil service. And what I learnt through that experience as a leader is it's my responsibility to make sure that black and brown voices are at the centre of all the conversations we're having around race and inclusion and diversity. And that actually I have a role to make sure that I enable those who may not feel naturally confident to voice their experience, to give them the space and the safety to do so. And so this is a long journey we’re on right, there are no easy answers, but I'm committed to making a difference and to using whatever small influence and power I have to ensure that our work place is one that is fair and open for everybody. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Thank you very much for sharing that. That means a lot to me. I know it would mean a lot to our listeners too. 

 

Emma Stace 

Across digital and technology, we have the Race working group, which is a brilliant bunch of individuals who are really committed to ensuring that we stay vigilant and we take action. I have a race mentor, an individual who I speak with every fortnight. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

You have a race mentor? What’s that about then? 

 

Emma Stace 

I've got the lovely - I hope she doesn't mind if I say her name - Lindsey Williams. We sit and chat every fortnight around what's going on and how’s it feeling. And I think one of the things that I've learnt is, you know, we can talk about inclusion and diversity in the metrics, but really it comes down to how are people feeling in the workplace? Do they feel seen, recognised, supported? Does it feel fair? So I really work with her on what more I can do. But she also sort of plugs me into and  grounds me in what people think. And we're going to launch together a new initiative where we're going to have people come and spend time with me and follow me around and we'll have a conversation at the end. There is no secret sauce when it comes to being a leader. And hopefully by opening up what it means to be in a senior position, it makes it more accessible to people to aspire to that position themselves. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Thank you so much, Emma. It's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you, listeners too for joining us on this journey. We hope you got a lot out today. And we've got so many topics that we want to talk about and delve into. Next time on ‘Think digital, act human’, we'll be speaking to a black colleague about their experience of DfE digital and technology. You heard from Emma some of the things that the department has put in place to start talking about race and start sharing black experiences. But we also want to hear some black voices and hear what they’ve got to say about the matter. So that's going to be on our next pod. We hope you join us. You'll bring your own cup of coffee and we'll have a good time. Many thanks to Emma Stace once again, and thanks to the producers of the podcast, Rosie Roff and Louise Mullan and the show creator, Nettie Williams. Thanks a lot. Bye.

 

 

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