Digitalisation or Californication? ‘Get more skin in the game’ says DfT’s digital boss


The head of digital transformation at the Department for Transport (DfT), Sir Nic Cary, has called on the public sector to embrace new ways of working or risk being ‘controlled from California by a series of software businesses’.

Sir Nic admitted this was ‘a rather bleak warning’ but offered examples from both Highways England and HS2 Ltd as to how the public sector is embracing change and how digital transformation is about enjoying yourself.


In a keynote speech at the Yotta Conference this week, Sir Nic laid out a philosophy behind new digital working practices centred on ‘business transformation’ based around user needs, collaboration and in fact, having fun: ‘It's not all about websites and IT, it's a business practice.’

He told delegates that new agile working practices and digital research had become core business skills, and ones that would drive partnership and collaboration, instead of working over 'the terrible wall of a contract’.

He added that under the new model, work is more about self-empowered individuals, with working practices that are no longer dominated by managers but rather with managers working to enable the potential of workers to innovate.  

Asked by Transport Network about the need for the public sector to transform its management of key transport modes in light of the digital paradigm and Mobility as a Service – which Sir Nic described as 'a season ticket on drugs’ - he suggested it would have to change or risk having change done to it.

‘[Digital] is a grassroots movement. It’s a recognition that we have to take some ownership or it is going to be done to us. I have issued a rather bleak warning that if we don’t do this we are going to be controlled from California by a series of software businesses.

‘They are great and they do a great job. [But] The open route, with open source, open data is a lot less expensive and gives us something that we can then use to free the user and encourage innovation. The change will happen, we just have to recognise it is happening. It is something that needs to seep into our consciousness so we gradually understand the need to do this.’

Taking the philosophy of digital transformation from practices such as hackathons, Sir Nic gave examples of how the public sector is already taking an involved and collaborative stance.

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‘Get more skin in the game’

Sir Nic: 'We need to get more skin in the game. Highways England Area 7 was one of the first times they put some boots on the ground and I think we need to do that across our industry.

‘Get more involved, get out there. Get into partnership and collaboration; see what is happening on the ground. Be available to our suppliers, and be available if we are a supplier to work with our customer and highways authority, to actually solve the problems there and then. That way you can build more capability together.

HS2 agile working

Sir Nic also gave an example from an area of HS2 Ltd’s consultancy contracting, which has developed ‘an entirely agile process’.

HS2 would previously write a tender specification, award an OJEU contract and then send the consultants off to do their first iteration of the consultancy document, Sir Nic said.

This might result in consultancies returning in a few months with something that no longer fitted HS2’s needs. The consultancy would argue that it had followed the specification, but HS2 would say that the situation had developed since then.

‘Now HS2 contracts under an agile process and they donate people into their supplier organisation and together they work on the solution. It's much more fun, enjoyable and successful in delivering the right outcome,' Sir Nic said.

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