MoJ CDIO Gina Gill appeals for digital pragmatism

As a young Indian girl growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, Gina Gill was attracted to IT from an early age. She took computer studies in secondary school before going onto computer science and management science at university. But her career journey to become CDIO at the Ministry of Justice, where she is responsible for supporting the 70,000 staff working in courts, prisons and probation services, wasn’t straightforward.

Gill started her working life as a software developer and took on a variety of programme delivery, operational and commercial roles before joining the Civil Service in 2017, having previously worked mostly in financial services for the Financial Conduct Authority, Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays Capital.

She joined the Ministry of Justice as COO to the digital function, and later became CDIO on an interim basis prior to being appointed full-time in February 2021.

Now responsible for all digital and technology services across the MoJ—bar the courts and tribunal service, where she provides end-user compute and infrastructure, but not software—Gill has set about revamping a 17th-century institution, with an emphasis on aligning with central government, making it more user-focused, and modernising legacy IT.

A digital transformation strategy for 2025

Like many of her predecessors and current peers, Gill, who spoke at the Official CIO UK Summit in mid-October, endeavoured to make strides in a UK government known to overcomplicate its digital transformation efforts with a plethora of strategies, and be rife with ministers playing high-stakes musical chairs.

At one point, there were 40 strategies across the MoJ, and Gill simplified the vision for her teams through the creation of the department’s 2025 digital strategy.

“It was about summing up the ‘So what?’ What are we here to do as a digital function?” she says. “And what are the things that we need to focus on over the next three years?”

With the vision of delivering a ‘world-class justice system that works for everyone in society’, Gill explains that the strategy centres on addressing legacy technology and improving data accessibility, as well as building services that better support users. The latter, she admits, requires a cultural shift and more talent in an increasingly challenging recruitment market.

“We need to work differently, so cultural change is needed in terms of policy, and operational and digital teams need to work together to define the service upfront,” she says.

The strategy has been designed to protect the public, reduce reoffending, and improve safety in prisons—and it’s starting to deliver.

The MoJ has also deployed in-cell and education services for prisoners to help reduce reoffending by making time spent in cell more worthwhile. New digital services have been introduced to calculate prisoner release dates, and to help arrange accommodation upon release. There’s a move away from paper forms, and while in probation, the MoJ has built a new digital service to cut the time it takes to prepare a case for sentence in half.

“It’s about operational efficiency, but it’s more than that,” says Gill. “It’s about making our services simpler for our users, whether they’re internal or external,” adding that prison officers should spend more time with offenders than systems, and caseworkers on legal aid or guardianship.

Collaborating with the CDDO

In January 2021, the Cabinet Office launched the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) to set digital, data and technology (DDaT) strategy in collaboration with government digital leaders, and to monitor the progress of digital and data programmes.

It was initially met with a lukewarm response, with some suggesting it added further complexity and management in an already top-heavy civil service, and others saying it would improve visibility and oversight on programmes underway across central government.

When the CDDO announced the new ‘Transforming for a digital future’strategyearlier this year, industry figures also questioned how departmental strategies would work in the face of increased centralisation. But Gill has seen the advantages.

 “We were working on our strategy at the same time as [the CDDO was] working on the broader strategy,” she says. “That piece of work was genuinely the biggest collaboration effort I think I’ve ever seen.”

“[The CDDO] worked with CIOs across all government departments, with permanent secretaries and ministers. It was about getting buy-in from everyone, but also working with us to make sure that what we were agreeing resonated, and was part of our priorities and was achievable.”

Gill believes that the CDDO’s introduction has brought department CIOs together to discuss common challenges and collaborate on government-wide policies, such as the new DDaT framework, the spending review, and the 2025 civil service strategy. Yet put to her that this latest government strategy is little different than previous iterations, many of which have promised to improve citizen services, reduce technical debt, and enhance access to data, she admits that the new CDDO strategy doesn’t necessarily break ground.

“It’s not new,” she says. “I said this when I launched our strategy that I’m not going to tell you anything ground-breaking.”

She did, however, add: “If I look at the CDDO strategy, there are more specific measures in terms of what we’re looking to collectively achieve. And it has that buy-in from departments. Rather than a strategy being developed somewhere in a in a dark room, and then sent out to everyone to say, ‘Please do this’, we’re actually part of it.”

Promoting the DDaT profession, women in tech

In May, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to cut up to 91,000 jobs in the civil service, saying it had become ‘swollen’ due to Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic.

After being challenged by civil service union PCS, the 20% headcount reduction has subsequently been shelved under new PM Rishi Sunak, with another of Johnson’s policies—the cancellation of the fast-track apprenticeship scheme—reinstated.

At a time of economic instability, Gill believes the fledgling DDaT profession must be protected against the possibility of future cuts.

“It’s a really important profession,” says Gill. “As with private sector organisations, we’ve got issues in terms of recruiting and retaining enough skilled people. The market has gone absolutely crazy since Covid.

“We’re working on what our proposition is, what’s our offer because we’re never going to pay the highest salary the marketplace. It’s largely about the mission, the culture and the flexibility we can offer.”

Given this, there’s an understanding that talent can come from other areas. Gill says that up to 40% of her digital teams started out in operational roles, where they got the opportunity to understand the business and its users, while 39% of the digital and technology function are now women.

She believes the key to encouraging more women into the industry lies in storytelling and workplace flexibility. The other aspect is how to get young women and girls interested in a digital career by capturing their imagination at a young age, and get them interested in technical roles.

“It’s about taking away the myths that you’ve got to be really technical, or you’ve got to have come from this background,” she says. “It’s building that understanding of the sheer range of roles and skill sets you need to be successful in DDaT.”

A focus on legacy and delivery

As a ministerial department that oversees four million in-person and remote court cases a year, serves more than 80,000 prisoners, and distributes approximately £1.7bn in legal aid, the MoJ is a juggernaut in its own right with 86,000 internal colleagues operating across 13 organisations and 1,000 sites.And while the pace of change may feel glacial, new obstacles constantly emerge.

In recent months, it has faced junior barristers striking over low pay, and seen two quick-fire changes in prime minister, a sombre autumn budget and a Public Accounts Committee review, which found that legacy systems, poor supplier oversight and overspending were dearly costing the taxpayer. On this last point, Gill, noting that the review is specific to electronic monitoring, says MoJ is working “closely with the programme leadership to improve delivery models and ensure there’s functional expertise and governance in the future.

Now her focus turns from strategy to delivery, ROI and building digital culture.

“It’s about getting some delivery done against that strategy, and being able to measure and demonstrate the benefits,” she says. “The thing I want to get right over the next three years is that cultural shift. If I deliver nothing else other than the organisation understanding the potential of digital, then I’ll be super happy.”

Chief Digital Officer, IT Leadership, Women in IT