In the early 1990s, Ben Goward got a job with Westminster Council. It was processing housing benefit claims for refugees from the Bosnian War coming straight off the train at Paddington. Now, I don’t know this for fact but I’m pretty sure that he didn’t class himself as a changemaker then, writes Mark Compton-James. Why do I think that? Well, because even now, nearly 30 years later, after knitting together the myriad services that made up Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea Bi-Borough ICT Service and landing in Harrow just as COVID turned local government on its head, he still doesn’t class himself as a changemaker. He laughs at the idea. But the reality is that housing benefit was pretty transformative for those refugees and transformation is a recurring theme throughout his career.
Between housing benefit and digital transformation, he went from service desk to desktop support to networks and infrastructure. Through all that he wouldn’t have described himself as a changemaker. Not even when the Internet came to Westminster and he used it to push the services with the highest volume of telephone transactions in the council online. Through asking for forgiveness instead of permission coupled with a bit of foresight and timing he enabled - for the first time - people to pay their penalty charge notices (PCN) through the web.
“I remember that day, sitting in the parking contact centre. We went live with the messaging at 9am. The room was full of contact centre staff. Immediately almost all the phones went dead. Nobody was calling. On the one hand, it was pretty traumatic being in a roomful of 30 people who suddenly realised that their old jobs weren’t needed anymore. On the other hand, technology was bringing real change to the council. That slightly subversive way of driving the change really stuck with me. When I look back, that’s what I really enjoy doing. Disrupting, and the massive impact that it has, so I'm always looking to recreate that same experience.”
No, he doesn’t see himself as a changemaker. For him, that smacks of self-aggrandisement. He’s just doing his job. He enjoys it and he’s good at it. But isn’t that what a changemaker is? Someone who gets things done. Someone who comes back every day to make the iterative improvements. It isn’t grand visionaries who changed the world, it is people prepared to do the work. After all, a vision without a plan is just a hallucination.
But no one is an automaton. We all need something to motivate us, to keep us coming back everyday. I wanted to know what keeps Ben motivated. Has he managed to recreate the buzz he got that morning in the contact centre when the phones went quiet? His face lights up. The short answer is yes. He knows Harrow is on the cusp of something similarly transformative. They’re transitioning from the old world of big, ugly, mean Waterfall projects to a DevOps world focusing on agility and pace. In turn, this means a culture change from services and projects to continuous improvement and a focus on business processes. This is all underpinned by the move from ‘on premise’ infrastructure to a mix of Platform-as-a-Service to genuine SaaS.
“The technology is ready for that, and our ability to exploit it is key. It has the same implications as delivering the Internet did back in the 1990s.”
So that is how he keeps himself motivated. The buzz. But what does he do when it comes to motivating those around him? His senior leadership team? The technology function he leads? Ben Goward has one fundamental - leading by example.
“If you’re excited and enthusiastic about initiatives, and really leading from the front, and rewarding behaviours that show the same enthusiasm and drive, then you create that environment without having to plan for it. I get super excited when we're doing something that is really innovative and out there. You not only become motivated and animated, you try to own the risk of it as well, by embodying that change, articulating the risks, and almost bringing them on yourself.”
But you can’t avoid the detail and transformative change is context specific. When coming into Harrow at the start of the pandemic, the organisation was (like so many other local authorities) on the back foot in terms of remote working. A smattering of laptops here and there. No established behaviours or norms around remote working. Perhaps most importantly, no remote working solution. As COVID closed offices and compelled the organisation to become remote overnight, something had to be done very, very quickly.
There is still this desire to bring in an expensive consultancy and pay them a small fortune to define that future state. That is wrong. Thinking that all the effort we put into such a fluid environment has to be absolutely aligned to that end state is a fallacy.”
And it wasn’t just the well trodden path to remote working. There was an initial step before making the teams productive, changing ways of working and giving them the technology to do their jobs. That was an enormous infrastructure project - deploying a host of laptops during a pandemic, where social distancing had to be maintained (they had COVID outbreaks in the delivery team). It was about getting the solution out fast and not necessarily having the time to drive user adoption, behaviours and culture the way you would in a normal environment.
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“Trying to get busy staff to suddenly adopt a platform like Microsoft Teams was challenging to say the least. If you get the basics really, really right, you create a platform from which you can do more. Any organisation that is far behind in terms of infrastructure, modernisation, and internal transformation, has got a brilliant opportunity to move right ahead.“
COVID has dominated the landscape for so long. It has changed everything. But the work of local government hasn’t stopped and I’m interested in what’s next. Digital infrastructure according to Ben. It makes sense. After all, London is expected to be home to 10 million people by 2029 and more and more of them want to access services online at a time and a place that suits them. But will everyone be connected? After all, access to and the affordability of a decent internet connection are problems across the capital. There’s been some quite chunky studies done on digital infrastructure but in short the reasons people aren't accessing the digital world (and all the services therein) can be summarised as follows:
- Ambition - people don't know what they’d do online once they got there.
- Skills - people don’t know how to get on line
- Connectivity - people don’t live close enough to decent broadband connection
- Money - people can’t afford the kit or the connection
However, IoT and 5G will have an impact on this. With super-fast broadband being piped into social housing and reusing council assets, such as lamp columns and rooftops, to roll out IoT sensors, there has to be some tangible benefits to come out of all this. I wanted to get Ben Goward’s view on this.
“We have been able to get on and do certain things whilst keeping an eye on how the market is changing. It's so volatile though and difficult to get right. Particularly in such a fast moving sector and that is quite liberating. We can’t have that vision for the future so we’ve just had to take it, deconstruct it into its parts and then execute against those individual parts. It's ok to get some stuff wrong, because although you might have wasted a small amount of money, you've moved the agenda forward, learned a lesson, and delivered something. When it comes to the strategic context for that, there is still this desire to bring in an expensive consultancy and pay them a small fortune to define that future state. That is wrong. Thinking that all the effort we put into such a fluid environment has to be absolutely aligned to that end state is a fallacy.”
I can sense that our chat is drawing to a close. A glance at the clock reveals that our hour is up. A pity because Ben is a smart, likeable guy who has achieved so much more than he’s prepared to give himself credit for. There’s more we could chat about but in this world of Zoom calls everyone’s diary is locked down tight. I pushed him on what piece of advice he’d offer to that skinny kid facing a long line of Bosnian War refugees. He smiles.
“It's all cliches, that's the trouble. I'm so mindful of that. There's no epiphany. I would say don’t be afraid. Whatever it is that you fear, the fear itself is much more damaging than the likelihood of it coming to pass. That’s the advice I would give to myself. And I would also tell myself to follow my gut instinct. I would say to be outspoken. If you think something, say it. There have been many times in my career where I felt something wasn't right, and I’ve said nothing. And when it turned out, it wasn't right, I really regretted it.”
And that statement perfectly articulates the resilience of someone who knows change comes from returning everyday. Picking up your tools and carrying on from where you left off yesterday. You keep going. Through the setbacks, the naysayers, the limited funding, the shifting priorities, the pandemics. Whatever happens, just keep coming back. And then one day, you look back and realise that enough small changes can add up to a tectonic shift. All those iterations, blind alleys, experiments and micro-innovations? If you put them all together, they can move mountains. They can make all the phones stop ringing.