A healthier alternative
When Rich ard Calvert joined the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as Director of Strategy and Resources in April 2007, he immediately identified as a problem the low level of investment there had been in information technology since the Agency was created in 2000.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a non-Ministerial government department set up by an Act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food. It was formed by bringing together parts of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and parts of the Department of Health (DoH). Its vision is safe food and healthy eating for all, and it works with businesses, local authorities, food law enforcement bodies and others in taking firm and prompt action against transgressors, and providing reliable and up-to-date information to consumers to help them make healthy choices about food.
Paul Clements has worked in IT projects and change programmes for most of his 22-year career, including seven years as an interim executive. Armed with a PhD in chemistry, he began his career as a chemist at Merck, Sharp and Dohme. When laboratories started bringing in computers, he grew interested in data handling and robotics, subsequently spending several years in consultancy developing his management and information systems knowledge. He has since run transformational programmes in companies including GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, ABN Amro, DHL and Dixons Group (where he was interim deputy CIO).
He has also had undertaken major public sector IT assignments at the DTI and Identity & Passport Service.
“Being able to borrow thinking and technology from elsewhere is one of the advantages of being a bit late to the IT party. In moving from a very poor IT position to one that is leading edge, we probably skipped a couple of stages. And because Paul had worked in so many different places he had very good knowledge of what had been done elsewhere.
But Paul’s strategic and communication skills proved invaluable too. He developed the strategy and route map very quickly, and won very good buy-in for that right up to board level. He communicated very clearly and generated real enthusiasm for what he wanted to do. As a result, he established credibility as a member of the senior management team rather than being viewed as a technical consultant.
When I first met him I was confident he would fit into the organisation well. People welcomed his energy and enthusiasm on a personal level, as well as recognising his experience and skills. It was a crucial cultural fit, and it has resulted in what has been a very successful assignment.”
Richard Calvert, Director of Strategy and Resources, the Food Standards Agency.
When Richard Calvert joined the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as Director of Strategy and Resources in April 2007, he immediately identified as a problem the low level of investment there had been in information technology since the Agency was created in 2000.
We are moving very quickly from being a poor relative of many government departments to a leading-edge collaborative enterprise
“The Agency was still using old legacy systems, and IT was tucked away in the ‘back office’ rather than being viewed as a value-adding strategic resource,” he explains.
“Not only were we at risk because our systems were not robust enough, but we were also missing out on opportunities for improved remote working and more effective partnership working with local authorities and enforcement agencies, because our systems wouldn’t support them. The team was under-valued by the business, and expectations all round were too low. We needed to turn IT into a high-performing function with vision and leadership, which could deliver on its promises to internal customers.”
He needed help – and he needed it fast. He wanted someone who, as well as being able to work out what needed to be done, and how, would be able to build and shape the IT function. This would involve hands-on delivery and team building, rather than someone who would, as Calvert puts it, “just stand back and tell us what we needed to do.”
An interim executive seemed the obvious solution, and he turned to Impact Executives, who fielded technology and change management expert Paul Clements to act as Interim Chief Information Officer. Clements joined the FSA a month after Calvert.
My brief was to rapidly create a new information systems (IS) strategy, which meant coming up with a new vision, moving away from the old legacy systems and putting together a programme of change that would act as a platform for my permanent successor to deliver on,” says Clements.
“We needed to invest in new technologies, define core processes and revamp the team, so part of my role was to assess the existing team and to define new roles and responsibilities to ensure that they could deliver the new catalogue of professional services. That also involved finding out what both our internal and external customers really wanted from IS.”
The technical solution to the FSA’s IS problems was relatively easy to deduce and implement.
“We had inherited a disparate infrastructure, with massive email boxes and around 3,000 databases – almost four databases per person in the Agency,” explains Clements. “That highlighted a ‘silo’ mentality and a lack of effective strategy and governance over the way we created and managed information throughout the Agency.”
To help break down the silo mentality and to allow appropriate access by both FSA staff and its partners to the information that is the very lifeblood of such an evidence-based organisation, Clements chose a collaborative solution, based on the most recent 2007 versions of Microsoft Office, SharePoint and Outlook technologies.
He explains: “A large proportion of the FSA staff are young (or young-atheart) scientifically-trained people – the typical Facebook generation – who are totally at home with features like instant messaging, discussion forums, wikis, blogs and videoconferencing from their desks. They felt very motivated and excited to be brought into this brave new world, and we are moving very quickly from being a poor relative of many government departments to a leading edge collaborative enterprise.”
And because the new system involves understanding and using one core set of skills – Microsoft – it also allows the IS team to be much more responsive to requests from the business for advanced functionality or rapid business changes.
With new technology and a far better understanding of the appropriate structure, roles and responsibilities required in the IS team, the FSA can now begin to ‘right-size’ the IS division, says Clements. He explains: “They will use fewer contractors, and staff will be able to deliver a higher valued-added, more responsive service with fewer people.”
Because Clements was so busy, he took the unashamedly pragmatic approach of looking across government and the private sector, re-using tried and trusted solutions wherever possible.
“For example,” he says, “we adapted the remote working tools solution, such as new-generation laptops and secure BlackBerry devices, directly from the Department of Trade and Industry [now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – or BERR], who were delighted to help us. That saved us between six and 12 months of development time and money, so it was a great example of joined-up government in action.”
When he departed in May, Clements left the organisation in good shape for his permanent successor Mike McElwee, who joined from English Heritage.
Calvert sums up his contribution to the FSA. “We’ve come a long way over the past 12 months. Some of the progress is around new systems and tools, but there’s also a growing confidence in the IS vision and our ability to deliver it, and a growing sense of the opportunities for more joined-up working that the new technology affords. We still have a lot to do to realise the full potential of the technology, and that will take some time. But I’ve been really pleased with our ability to get so far, so quickly.”