Accelerating our lives through digitization

Accelerating our lives through digitization

Yiannis Seglias, chief information officer at National Grid Electricity Transmission and Capital Delivery – Britain’s equivalent of Greece’s ADMIE – emphasizes the importance of making use of data to promote transparency and policymaking in an interview with Kathimerini.

Seglias was born in Athens, attended elementary school here, secondary schooling in Luxembourg and studied computer science at Imperial College London. He also served as chief digital officer at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), holding the post from March 2016, three months before the Brexit referendum, to September 2019.

Has the pandemic led to a quantum leap in digital governance? Will the day after really be different on this front?

Based on my experience, businesses and governments were already on a digital journey, knowing very well that staying still is not an option. We can see digitization examples across all industry sectors including older more traditional ones like automotive where cars are now computers on wheels and marketed on their in-cabin connectivity or their green credentials, rather than just speed and comfort.

I believe the pandemic has forced businesses to accelerate their digitization and digitalization plans, and to think very differently about how we work. I expect we will not go back to the old ways of working 9-5 in an office. In the UK we are already seeing many families selling their city houses and moving to the countryside as they expect they will spend less time commuting and more time working between office and home, and enjoying a different lifestyle. That kind of structural change, of course, has massive implications for downstream industries and governments. Do we, for example, continue to invest in expanding the rail industry if less people will use it for commuting? What need do we have for a big road network if we no longer commute to work? And how do governments replace the taxation on petrol if cars are no longer used for long commute journeys and in any case are all electric within 20 years?

The past year has also changed the way we interact with governments, even in countries where digital adoption of public services has historically been low. But this now has to expand to all public service sectors including, for example, health where all of a sudden it is okay to have a doctor consultation over video.

But the big change will come from digitalization, i.e. not just digitizing current paper-based or face-to-face processes, but completely rethinking your business or industry through the lens of digital transformation. Governments need to step back and rethink how the public sector could be completely different because of digital. Industries and businesses need to rethink their raison d’etre. It is great, for example, that cars are becoming green, but will we need to own cars in the future if we no longer commute to work and most of our shopping is ordered online and delivered to us?

These are the type of questions a forward-looking business/government should be asking, and planning for, because it will require digital skills that are hard to come by and ways of working that are not present. Digital is not something that is owned by the IT organization. Digital needs to be integral to the business just like finance or sales and everyone from the CEO down needs to speak the digital language as well as they do finance for example.

Which countries have been most successful in using digital technology for Covid surveillance/suppression and why?

I have not kept a close eye on this but we know of countries that have used technology for this purpose, especially in Asia. Examples include South Korea and Taiwan. They have had exposure to, and lessons learned from, previous pandemics and they were more prepared to react. It is well documented that China has used big data and AI and other digital technologies to track and contain the spread of the virus. There may even be an element of social acceptance in those countries when it comes to using digital technology to control pandemics, even if that does encroach on private liberties.

Why is interoperability such a tricky issue in the public sector? How successfully did the UK deal with it through gov.uk? How much of your time did such issues take up at DEFRA in the context of Brexit readiness?

Gov.uk was quite successful in creating that single point of entry to digital public services for all UK citizens. And of course GDS was successful in a few other areas too, for example changing the approach to IT procurement, supporting the move to more digital and data driven teams and delivering common cross-government IT platforms.

However, departments have their own challenges and outcomes to deliver and, of course, are funded separately from each other, and this sometimes results in a siloed approach to digital transformation. At the same time I do not think a single, central, large IT function is the answer. In my opinion the right approach is to bring IT functions together and plan that interoperability in the medium to long term. Some of that was already in place when I was in DEFRA and was quite successful. Some of our systems, for example, interfaced with systems from other departments and we had working groups that owned the interfaces and their roadmaps to ensure that as systems changed, the interfaces continued to work.

In the context of Brexit, we had the challenge of having to plan for all exit scenarios and deliver at pace. That meant our main priority was to put in place what we called Minimum Viable Products (MVP) in time for the original Brexit date of March 2019, but also have a backlog of improvements for the future. One of the big challenges was the interfaces between systems and platforms that were all still in a design phase and would all go live at the same time. In DEFRA we had to build 11 new systems from scratch in 18 months to support Brexit. But we tried not to cut corners. Some of these 11 systems were foundational, including a reference data service, a new warehouse, data integration layers to name a few. So we were designing and building the foundations of the house at the same time as the house was being built on top. We had to get all the interfaces absolutely right and we also had to get our interfaces with other departmental systems right. That is where those working groups came in handy.

How central to your work as CIO of the National Grid are cybersecurity issues? How is the UK public sector preparing for the new security challenges of connected infrastructure and the age of Internet of Things?

Cyber is central but I’m afraid I cannot go into details due to the sensitive nature of the work being done.

How do you judge the steps of digital modernization in Greece in the last couple of years? Has the country started to find its footing on this crucial front?

It is difficult to keep track of the level of digital modernization from afar, but it is clear there is now in place a new approach to digitalization, and in the true Agile spirit, a new approach in delivering solutions quickly in the first instance, whilst iterating and improving products. This has clearly been the case over the past year during the pandemic. I think one of the big catalysts has been the availability and adoption of Cloud, the ability to quickly stand up infrastructure and platforms. Decisions on the adoption and delivery of technology can now be made in a matter of days or weeks rather than months or years.

How strong an antidote to clientelism and blind ideology is data-driven policymaking? Are there stand-out examples in the public sector in terms of waking up to the value of digital data for crafting the right policies and integrating such data into the policymaking process?

There are a few examples of using data to make policy decisions from my time at DEFRA, where one of our design principles was that our data would be open by design, with few exceptions. DEFRA have data analysts and scientists who use data to inform, for example, policy on flood prevention or even the future of farming. There is even a DEFRA data services platform that allows anyone to either view environmental data or even connect to the data using APIs. DEFRA recognized the importance of data not just for the department but also society as a whole.

During the pandemic we have also seen the importance of data increase, either in the way it is used to inform the public, but also in decision-making. Just today (17/02) the UK prime minister said it is “absolutely right” to take a “data not dates” approach to leaving lockdown. Access to data has now been democratized and therefore decision-making can, rightly so, come under scrutiny if it goes against what the data says.

What we need next is to automate some of that decision-making, and business/public service processes, through the use of data and of course AI and ML. As long as we know there is no bias in the algorithms, we can then rely on impartial decisions. I do believe though we will need that human oversight for a while until we are able to program compassion into algorithms. The question is, is the public ready to accept the decision of an algorithm versus that of a human?

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