Staff (people) deserve better

For the last two years I’ve been lucky enough to lead Digital work developing new services for staff working in Prisons.

The landscape across England and Wales is that the main system used by prisons has been a large ‘monolith’ that wasn’t designed around users. Imagine one of those HR or finance systems, then think about hundreds of screens and how things were in around 2000.

This monolith wasn’t cheap, I’m told over £500m. With a fraction of that budget, probably 2–3% over 5 years, we are seeking to move away from the outdated system and provide staff with a range of new services that are designed around their needs.

It’s a large undertaking and there are lots of challenges and constraints, such as having to work alongside the legacy systems and ageing infrastructure (the default internet browser is IE8!). And these are critical 24/7 services that need lots of looking after.

Services/applications include:

  • a single sign-on
  • self-service password resets
  • an enhanced prisoner search, with filters to easily find key information
  • prisoner quick look- the main information on a prisoner is now displayed in easy to use pages with important ‘alerts’ and ‘flags’ far more visible.
  • the ability to manage and change important information
  • create, view and filter case notes. A rich view of an individual’s case notes with easy to use filters for types.
  • key worker allocation and management. Each prison can assign key workers to prisoners and manage sessions. This includes real-time dashboards to show how many key worker sessions are taking place.
  • whereabouts. The ability to manage prisoner attendance to things like workshops and visitor appointments.
  • categorisation tool. Using data to support decisions on which category of prison is appropriate.
  • creating a Licence — Home Detention Curfew. A new service that supports Prison and Probation staff in their assessment of suitability for release on a tag.
  • APIs. We have developed APIs to link the legacy systems (which we moved to the cloud) and have started removing the previous silos. That means, for the first time, data and documents can be properly shared across Prisons and Probation.

There are a number of other services under development and we have an internal form builder application which is being used regularly and means development is much quicker. It’s designed to manage multiple workflows and user roles. A number of the services also use Gov Notify so that staff get email notifications when they are required to complete an action.

Over time I hope more money and effort is invested in developing Digital to support staff doing really important and often difficult work across the country.

Most importantly, the staff feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Users love being given the right tools to do their jobs and are often surprised that they are getting services built around their needs. With an improved infrastructure and new hardware (being delivered over the next 2 years) they will continue to see real improvements.

The Lessons Learnt — What has worked well

  • Support from the top. In the same way that locally the multi-disciplinary teams doing the work have been empowered, the whole Digital studio in Sheffield has benefitted from some great leadership and senior support.
  • Being 200 miles from London. Yes as a born and bred Londoner I’ve said it! There’s some amazing talent outside of the M25 (and wonderful people)((they still mock my accent though)). Not being in the line of sight of HQ people has also helped us to go about our business quietly.
  • Users. We are proud of the fact that we are actively bridging the gap from the front-line to the centre. Our extensive research with staff ensures we develop services for them.
  • Not asked for permission. The teams and our users know what’s needed so we’ve just got on with it.
  • Been truly agile and lean. Possibly controversial but a number of key people have worked across multiple products and services (and we moved to a super team model). That’s allowed us to scale up but keep a team identity. And when we have developed simple micro services we’ve taken a proportionate approach to how these are developed.
  • Avoided process and moved fast. There was a very limited opportunity to show what could be done by a Digital team, and we had to earn credibility by delivering rapidly. The teams have made lots of calls to focus on MVPs and taken some risks (though they aren’t really risks when they turn out to be right).
  • Delivery, Delivery, Delivery. Of course it has to be the right things and we have had to get a balance between tactical, pragmatic and longer-term work. Separately the portfolio is being balanced so some services are basic (but important improvements), others showcase service design and then there’s work to help the organisation see and realise the benefits of using data in its daily operations.
  • The Teams. It takes time and work behind the scenes but getting this right is so important. Getting a truly agile culture with trust, empowerment and honesty makes such a difference.
  • It’s a rollercoaster. Embedding change and being responsible for delivery has lots of ups and downs, there’s often climbs and a few bumps, but generally far more positives and good points. And we keep learning and improving as a team.

For September usage of the new Digital services just exceeded 200k user sessions in a month, each session averaging nearly 13 minutes. That’s a lot of staff now using software built around their needs.

Hopefully this is a reminder that investing in giving staff the right tools and embracing Digital can have a significant impact on improving outcomes.

Lastly, if you want to know a bit more background and how my experience of technology 20 years ago was very different, there’s a part 2. Thanks for reading =).

Digital Transformation lead. Delivery includes Registered Traveller (a GDS exemplar), Electronic Visa Waivers, UK-US Global Entry, MoJ Digital.