Solving silos with strategy: Interview with ONS Solutions Architect

“Data is a strategic asset and it should be cared for like one”. Being able to share high quality data across organisations was a major theme of the government’s 2022 to 2025 digital and data roadmap and yet on the ground, data is the missing word in strategy meetings. At the same time, the power of data remains trapped in silos, stunting productivity, connectivity and data-driven decision making.

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Peter Holroyd, ONSPeter Holroyd, solutions architect for the Office for National Statistics (ONS), is seeking to change the organisational approach to data management. In our interview, we discussed shifting from tactical to strategic, repelling silos with a platform-first approach and balancing security with interoperability. 

In the words of Gregor Hohpe, “solutions architects are like elevators,” Holroyd told us. Moving between senior leadership and engineers, solutions architects operate up and down the ONS organisation tree to bridge the connection between concept and physical implementation, occupying themselves with questions of both vision and feasibility. 

This aerial perspective of organisations has given Holroyd a clear understanding of the problems of silos and the long term damage they can do to an organisation. “There are so many benefits of thinking about data in terms of its end to end lifecycle. If you build a school or a hospital, you need to know its functional end to end. You can’t get people to build individual rooms because that’s 20 sets of suppliers. In too many organisations, that is how data is treated, but by adopting a platform service supplier approach, data can be unified and the whole product lifecycle considered”.

Siloed data, mindsets and organisations

And it’s not just data that can be stuck in silos, it’s people too. “Many in government have become too comfortable with their way of doing things. It’s the solution architect’s job to look at the big picture and identify how current operational processes stifle or transformation progress in the long term.” Organisational silos entrench mindsets to only think in the range of the sub-departmental or quarterly deliverable. 

Disrupting the tactical in favour of the strategic can be met with resistance but such thinking can mount technical debt, workarounds and evade unified organisational strategy, Holroyd explained. One example of how this occurs is where customers dictate how products are delivered. Instead of taking a platform-first approach, organisations become reactionary to the unique demands of customers, resulting in data duplication, reducing senior leadership’s operational visibility and mounting the tech debt.

“What we’ve seen is an explosion of smaller services. Quite often you can bring up to 20 services together and put them into a collective and productise them under a singular management. Otherwise, the connectivity structure in place to meet customer requirements is not in place and it relies on who you know in the organisation”. Having a front door for a customer supplier relationship is crucial, allowing an entry point into the product roadmap and for leadership to identify inefficiencies and realign processes. 

Balancing interoperability with security

The inordinate resources consumed by patrolling data accessibility is the largest barrier to productivity across government, Holroyd argued. By tackling that barrier, vast amounts of energy expended on collating data across organisational silos would evaporate. He said, “While security is simple in data ponds, the risks far outweigh the benefits. The inefficiency and barrier to interoperability mean that operational decisions have to be made with limited data input, which can bring emotion into the conversation where data and evidence should reign.”

Holroyd advocates for a data lake approach with a digital management plane over the top and shifting from central access control to democratised data management. Combining this with a focus on data maturity through an outcomes-based approach, and a principle of cloud native services first will provide for secure access to data within the organisation, and across government whilst enhancing the measurability of policies. “Once the transition has been made, the benefits are impossible to ignore, with significant efficiency gains to be had, in the order of x10 the output for 10% of the resource”. 

The Covid Effect

Major transformation can emerge under the harshest of conditions. Holroyd reflects on the resilience of the ONS in the lead up to the 2021 census. “We were put into lockdown 12 months before the census. Within two weeks of the announcement, we were doing a major redesign with the whole field force operational process under scrutiny with our backs to the wall.” With no choice but to simplify processes, cut swathes through the technical debt and simplify businesses processes, the redesign reshaped how the field force interacted with people within challenging lock down rules. “In 2011, online uptake was just 16%, in 2021, that climbed to 90% and so much of that was driven by the Covid effect. You also never forget those projects and the lasting friendship that was built during those challenging times”.

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