Joining The Co-op

It’s been a little over 6 weeks now since I officially stepped down as Executive Director of the UK Government Digital Service. Next month, I’m joining the Co-op as Chief Operating Officer - Digital, working to the Group Chief Digital Officer (and my predecessor at GDS), Mike Bracken.

The privilege of the leading the talented GDS team was always going to be a hard act to follow. Its purpose, during my time, was nothing less than leading the digital transformation of government and making services so good people want to use them. We took the “service” part of our jobs very seriously, because everyone at GDS recognised the civic responsibility we had to help make government better for everyone in the UK.

GDS was an extraordinary place to work. It has achieved incredible things over the last five years. The thing I’m most proud of, and the thing I’m going to miss most, was the purpose and culture of the organisation. Less the specific “what” we did, and more about the “why” and the “how” we did it.

So far in my career, I’ve been incredibly lucky to work for organisations that shared my values. They all believed in openness, representation and participation; in making a contribution to a socially and economically just world, and making a positive contribution to the lives of citizens/customers and their communities. These beliefs were core to their organisational thinking. When I left GDS, I thought it would be hard to find another organisation that thinks that way. I was wrong: the Co-op does.

Mike wrote about the parallels between Government and The Co-op when he explained why he joined the team as CDO at the end of last year. I agree with pretty much everything he wrote back then — it echoes my experience of meeting the team over the past few weeks.

I have found an organisation that:

  • is made up of passionate, smart, community-minded people
  • is putting members’ (not shareholders) needs first
  • is renewing itself to find better ways to deliver value for those members
  • has a rich history of innovation (including ‘firsts’ such as being the first major retailer to champion Fairtrade, and launching the UK’s first full internet bank)
  • is committed to developing and supporting local communities through their membership proposition
  • is using digital to develop relationships that build community engagement and collaboration

There’s a reason that I’m not the first (nor probably the last) public-sector employee to find that the values and the purpose of The Co-op resonate. As a ‘career consultant’ prior to joining government, I can say that it has a different DNA to other large commercial organisations I’ve worked with. And I think that’s important.

Technology is changing how we live our lives: how we bank, how we shop, how we travel. It’s changing how we listen to music, read books and watch films. And yes, how we interact with our governments — checking our driver’s license, paying our taxes and checking our state pensions.

Now, for tasks where there are digital services nearly a decade old, we’re seeing a second wave of disruption; services of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ which allow us to book a car-share cab, or a rent short-term holiday flat.

The ethics of the business models that underpin these new businesses continue to be debated. We’ve seen the headlines… are drivers in a car-sharing service employees who enjoy the rights that come with being an employee? Or are they self-employed, and don’t? To what extent are short-stay rentals driving up prices for long-term rental accommodation, making affordable accommodation scarcer (such as is speculated in some areas of San Francisco).

Technical innovation can create opportunity for some, but without ethical business leadership (supported by, dare I say it, responsive and responsible government regulation) they can create inequality, restricting opportunity for others. A business that makes it harder for residents to find affordable housing by focussing on profits for its shareholders at the expense of local communities can hardly be said to be making a contribution to a socially and economically just world.

I’m excited about technical innovation. But I’m equally excited about how technical innovation can make all our lives better, not just some of them.

My job offer letter from the Co-op said its purpose is: “Championing a better way of doing business for you and your communities”. That’s the sort of innovation I mean.

I didn’t think I’d find as exciting and inspirational a challenge as the one GDS had presented, but I was wrong. Hello Co-op. I can’t wait to get stuck in.