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Using technology to change the way we work

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The Cabinet Office Technology Transformation programme (COTT) has replaced the old, inflexible system with new technology that has opened up new ways of working. Stefan Czerniawski, Head of Corporate Strategy in Cabinet Office, explains how a user-centred approach is behind the successes of the programme.

I wrote this article on my work laptop linked to the Cabinet Office’s wifi without a network cable in sight. It connects to the network instantly and automatically wherever I am in any Cabinet Office building. And I didn’t need to be at work – it works just as well wherever I am, connected to the network pretty much wherever there is wifi (and if there isn’t any wifi, my phone can link the laptop with the mobile data network). I can choose to share this – or any other document – with people I want to work on it with me and collaborate in real time, not sending comments back and forth, but watching the text change instantly on the screen in front of me.

The right tools for the job

A few years ago, it would have been unimaginable for most civil servants to write that paragraph about the IT they had to support their work. Now it’s rapidly becoming unimaginable for many of us to work any other way. This is the story of how we have introduced new – and radically better – IT to the Cabinet Office over the last few months. But it’s not really a story about IT. It’s a story about an ambition to work differently and better. It’s a story about using the explosive pace of change of IT to help us keep improving, breaking away once and for all from the cycle of expensive projects to replace technology that’s ten years out of date with technology that’s only five years behind the times. And it’s a story about creating a modern civil service equipped with the right tools for the job.

Image of a hand touching an interactive screen

Frustration with inflexible and ineffective IT is not unique to Cabinet Office of course. It’s one which many civil servants share. Nobody meant it to be that way, but it was the almost unavoidable result of the intersection of policies on technology, procurement and security. Attempting to define what we needed for years ahead, seeing security as the application of a set of rules rather than an outcome to be achieved, and focusing more on cost than on value, all contributed to a world in which the IT usually just about worked, but rarely seemed to work well enough.

Eighteen months ago, the end of the Cabinet Office outsourcing contract was in sight. There was a fundamental decision to make. We could go through another version of the process which had led to such dissatisfaction last time round. That was safe and relatively simple. Or we could start from the other end of the problem, by working out what people needed and building that in a way which allowed us to adapt quickly to changing requirements and the changing technology landscape. That was more complicated and required the reawakening of skills and capabilities which we had lost – but with the potential for being both cheaper and better in what it delivered.

It turned out that we were lucky in our timing. We were in the right place at the right time to do things differently. The work of GDS on public- facing services, bringing service design based on user needs, developed iteratively through agile techniques had created precedents we could expand and build on. The changes to the security classification system in April 2014 shifted the focus from detailed compliance with restrictive technical standards to understanding risks and threats and ensuring that we had the right level of security to defend against them. And we had strong and sustained personal leadership and commitment from Richard Heaton as permanent secretary.

Understanding users needs

The starting point wasn’t the technology at all. Instead we began by talking to users and understanding their needs. What work did they do? Where and how did they want to do it? What sort of things did they actually want to do with technology? What sort of devices would suit them?

The frustrations about the old systems came through loud and clear. But more positively – and more importantly – there were clear messages about what we all wanted to be different:

  • We wanted much more flexibility in where and how we worked, both within the office and well beyond it.
  • We wanted to collaborate much more effectively, sharing documents, conversations and information seamlessly and instantly.
  • We wanted to be treated as adults, not trapped in a locked down world where useful tools and sites were blocked.
  • We wanted to be ready for the unknown: ways of working are changing fast, and we need our IT to keep up with us, not hold us back.

We set out to turn those ambitions into reality. We needed technical expertise and a deep commitment to meeting users’ needs, but crucially we needed to restore our long-lost ability to manage and develop our own working environment. So with the encouragement and strong support of our colleagues at GDS, we set up the Cabinet Office Technology Transformation project – rapidly becoming known as COTT. We started with a single focus on Cabinet Office itself, but soon realised that our close neighbours DCMS and the Crown Commercial Service had very similar needs and that we would all be better off if we worked together on a single solution. Across the three organisations, over three thousand users have moved onto our new system since October last year.

From the outset, we established a series of principles for the project. We would favour short contracts, transparency and flexibility. We would strike the right balance between security and usability. We would never forget that the point of better IT is to help us work better and that we were planning for a future where digital skills are at the heart of the organisation.

Making things simple is hard. We were building not just a system from scratch, but the teams to build and then support and operate it as well. We brought in people who combined deep expertise and experience with boundless enthusiasm and energy to form the core of the project team, and got to work. There were seemingly endless challenges to overcome, big and small. It’s not easy to put pervasive wifi into listed buildings. It’s harder to keep track of dozens of small procurement exercises than one big one. It’s tough to ensure that authentication and security (to say nothing of legality) are robust when using a cloud-based provider (in our case Google Apps for Work) for applications and data. And so it went on.

A flexible and modular system

But the payoff for persevering is huge. We have a system which is much more flexible and much more responsive to people’s different needs. We can choose the laptop which best fits our prefered working style – with the choices running roughly half and half between Macs and Windows. We can choose where to work without worrying about network cables – or being in the office at all. We can work with others, not through soul-destroying trails of emails stretching over days but through immediate shared focus on producing work together in real time. We can talk to each other in all the old ways, but just as easily by immediate videoconferencing. Less obviously to users, but at least as importantly, we have designed and built the new system to be flexible and modular. We can change one element or one supplier without changing everything – which means that over time we can change and update the whole without ever needing another big disruptive project to do it.

The journey wasn’t always smooth. Rolling out new technology for thousands of busy people is no easy task, and there will always be problems to iron out, as we discovered. But the alternative is to fall further behind and to be trapped in ways of working which just don’t let people work efficiently. There are real costs in not changing – and there are some very hard savings from making the switch. We're expecting to see a 40% saving in the cost for each user. Ours will be one of the cheapest IT systems in Whitehall.

Like so many other digital projects around government at the moment, this one boils down to a very simple approach: understand your users, understand their needs, then build something that meets those needs.

Our users happen to be civil servants who want to do their work. Our job was to give them the tools to make that as straightforward and as hassle- free as possible. The old IT was a barrier; the new technology is a toolkit. I’m really excited about what it will help us do.

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  1. Comment by Matthew posted on

    Excellent news. I'd like to understand if you are or are intending to make use of Chromebooks?

  2. Comment by Iain Sanderson posted on

    Great article - one of my biggest interests is IT and so I was glad to see the Department(s) taking it more seriously as of late, however I have one question with the following section:

    "We can choose the laptop which best fits our preferred working style – with the choices running roughly half and half between Macs and Windows"

    Is this stating we can use Macs for office work? I currently work from home a couple of days a week and the Desktop to Go program I use is apparently not (yet?) compatible with Macs (or so I was told), has this changed or is the above referencing another way to work with Macs? Grateful for any help.

  3. Comment by Julie posted on

    Extremely encouraging to see that the Civil Service is becoming ever more flexible and optimising its use of technology. We are required to minimise travel / hotel expenses to essential needs only, so the videoconferencing, teleconferencing, etc. equipment we have been provided with is to be applauded. However, it does negate to a large extent the need for the HS2 rail project. The demand for travel, when meetings / exchanges can be instant, is much lower now and will continue to diminish over the next few years as the advancements in technology supersedes the need to travel.

  4. Comment by John Hudson posted on

    "We can choose where to work without worrying about network cables – or being in the office at all."
    Lucky staff in the Cabinet Office. In HMRC we have just been told at a "Building our Future" conference that homeworking has been ruled out.

    It is now four weeks since my office PC and telephone were first reported as being out of action. Cabinet Office must have much better suppliers than other departments.

  5. Comment by Roger Dent posted on

    I fully understand and long for the IT capabilities of the major conurbations but in the depth of rural Lincolnshire there are large areas of cell blackouts and access to broadband by wifi or indeed by hard wired connections can be only a dream.

    The claims of the service providers are off extremely fast fibre up and download speeds are forever being expanded but it just seems as though the 90% who live in urban areas are to get even better services whilst those who work and live in the rural areas will continue to get less.

    It would surely be of benefit to government for rural areas to have a reliable speed at least a 2mb. After all Lincolnshire is not on the fringes of the empire.

  6. Comment by Ian posted on

    What does GDS stand for?

  7. Comment by Buster Friendly posted on

    Wifi? Better IT? Lucky for you. Outside London, I have eight cabinets full of paper documents to manage. The software system which was supposed to allow me to input information directly- and was the rationale for reducing my team from six to one- has never worked in the eight years since its' introduction, and is now to be ditched. Meanwhile, I am still working with paper and pencil, endlessly coding, filing, sorting, asking for missing paperwork to be sent, checking sent work against and signing receipts. Nothing is changing, or is likely to.

  8. Comment by Jeni Sword-Williams posted on

    How nice it must be to work at the Cabinet Office with the latest technology enabling more efficient working. Unfortunately, we don't have wi-fi in DWP, at least not in Quarry House.

    • Replies to Jeni Sword-Williams>

      Comment by Anonymous posted on

      This is all well and good, but in my experience (DfE) whether you can have access to remote working solutions is very much dependant on grade. It's a given that G6 and above have an automatic right to new technologies, if you are an EA/EO/HEO you almost have to beg for it, even though you can work just as effectively remotely. it's time that these opportunities are available to all staff who want to take advantage of them, not just the privileged few.

    • Replies to Jeni Sword-Williams>

      Comment by Stefan Czerniawski posted on


      There is always a tricky balance between celebrating where we have been able to do new and better things and recognising that there are lots of people who are still having to struggle with older systems. I spent many years using DWP systems, so I can well understand that the world looks very different in Quarry House.

      There isn't an instant solution to that, but the good news is that there is increasing recognition that what we have done for Cabinet Office and DCMS is the right approach, and that testing it out in two relatively small departments is a step in the right direction for improving IT across government - as this blog post by Andy Beale on common technology services makes clear.

  9. Comment by Simon Weston posted on

    Has anyone told the MoD about this? We are still computing in the dark ages.

  10. Comment by Wayne Stuart posted on

    I'll be lying in a box in the ground before my department ever considers anything even remotely resembing this. Here, upgrading to Windows 7 and IE 9 is consdered 'modernisation'. Which of course, in these days of austerity, will be running on vintage Core 2 Duo boxes. And as for being allowed to choose an Apple Mac to work on, that's a fantasy world that only exists somewhere over the rainbow. The civil service has to use bottom of the range everything.

  11. Comment by Alex posted on

    I' m at DCMS and, having been through various IT changes at a range of departments in the past, I'll admit I was a little sceptical when the plans for this overhaul first started to emerge.

    But although there were the usual teething troubles that are inevitable with any major change, it has all been worth it. The new system is so much more flexible and user-friendly than anything I've experienced in Whitehall before. The usual suspects who complain about any kind of change continue to do so, but nothing could convince me to go back to the old way of working.

    I'm sorry to hear that Jeni (in the comment above) doesn't even have wifi in her building, but I'd hope that the success of the model rolled out in the Cabinet Office and DCMS will see the same thinking extended across the Civil Service sooner rather than later.

  12. Comment by Simon Forster posted on

    We should make the mantra of "Understand your users, understand their needs, then build something that meets those needs" the starting point and end point of every ICT/IM/KM/EDRMS/CMS's the only way to truly build something that is effective for the all inportant 'user'...and if it isn't usable its useless 🙂

  13. Comment by Declan Trant posted on

    Absolutely thrilled for the Cabinet Office! When I wait ten minutes every morning for my XP/256mB RAM/20mB HDD to boot, I will ponder on what might be with great envy.

  14. Comment by Louise Johnson posted on

    This great new and efficient way of working with wonderful modern technology hasnt made its way to Birmingham either yet.....i shan't hold my breath waiting for an up to date version of Excel

  15. Comment by Joy Dwyer-Smith posted on

    I have read your article and its very interesting, however we at a smaller DMB office wont have such upto date technology. We have only just been given Windows 7. Still its interesting to know that the Cabinet office uses WIFI.

  16. Comment by Nigel Lewis posted on

    Always happy to hear that the jam is on its way!

  17. Comment by Anne Heywood posted on

    I am glad for the Cabinet Office, my hope is now that the rest of the Civil Service will be brought up to standard. Front line staff are battling daily to use poor IT and still we manage to give a great Customer Service. Looking forward to the upgrade.

  18. Comment by Stuart Fenton posted on

    I agree with 'all of the above'.
    The centre always will get technology first, however it is often people who don't need it that get it even at the furthest reachs of the civil service. The number of people I hear about that have been issued Blackberry smart phones that never leave the office!!
    My staff and I still use carbon paper. Remember that stuff? And we use it to copy documents for 'customers'.
    So never mind poor IT, just let us have some IT (needs to be portable).

  19. Comment by JOHN posted on

    Good for you - I only hope that the Home Office gets somewhere near there before I die or am pensioned off. My experience has seen an open source contract which, in my opinion, has been poorly negotiated, and not considerate of user needs, and kafkaesque in its limitations. 'Security' requirements are used as an excuse not to improve IT. My experience is that it is getting worse and slower. I have given back a laptop which was previously usable but is no longer able to deal with a major ISP connection even with a 'fix'...... It's just not good enough. The amount of time and money that could be saved in using IT fit for purpose is, as they say, a 'no brainer'.....

  20. Comment by Helen posted on

    Brilliant that Cabinet Office is leading the way here.

    It would be great if more could be done to roll this out across other departments. In Defra, we at least have wifi throughout the building, and have recently been allowed to download chrome as a browser so we can access sites such as yammer.

    The days of being able to work on documents collaboratively remains a distant dream though. Partly as a result of IT, but also the culture. A signficiant chunk of the organisation do not yet realise the benefits that these new ways of working can offer, but with ever increasing budget cuts, I see little alternative.

    What is being done to encourage the roll out across departments?