In this podcast Meg speaks with Robbie McNeil, Service Owner of Get Company Information. They discuss how we maximise the value of the register to the UK economy. This is the fourth podcast in a six part series, each one discussing our strategic goals.
MH: Hello and welcome to another episode from Companies House. We have recently launched our new five-year strategy and one of our strategic goals is about how we maximise the value of the register to the UK economy. So, I'm here today with Robbie McNeil who is the service owner for ‘Get Company Information’ at Companies House, and today Robbie is going to give us a bit of an insight into his work and how that runs through who we are and what we do. Hi Robbie. How are you?
RM: I am fine, thanks.
MH: Good. Excited to record this podcast today?
RM: Obviously, we all look forward to being on camera so much.
MH: Of course, of course. So, my first question to you is, can you tell me a little bit about your role and what it means to us as an organisation?
RM: Yeah, of course. So, as the service owner for ‘Get Company Information’, probably the easiest way to explain it is if you think about the core duties of Companies House, so creating and dissolving companies by adding or removing them from the company register, collecting and maintaining information about those companies, and then that third strand of what we do is making that information available to the public and it's that third duty that the ‘Get Company Information’ service exists to satisfy.
MH: Yeah. A pretty important job, then.
RM: It is, you know, especially in terms of our move to a service-based model. You know that's key to our transformation as an organisation. Moving from that sort of a functional silo based approach where people focused on just their part of the service to a wider service team that encompasses everybody from policy advisors who shape what it is we're here to do through the digital teams that design and build our services and to the operational teams that make those services work for our customers, all with a shared sense of purpose. Brilliant people building brilliant systems to deliver a brilliant service to our customers. So, it's really great to be a service owner and being brought back to the heart of that.
MH: Thank you. That's really good. And my next question is can you tell me a bit about the value of the data on our register?
RM: Yeah. One of the reasons why this particular service is so close to my heart, I think, when I first joined Companies House, which was a long time ago, and I'm not going to tell you the year; the then CEO used to meet every new recruit and his explanation of the deal that underpins Companies House has always stuck with me throughout my career and that that deal being that in exchange for the protection of limited liability, information about a company is made public so that people can make informed decisions about dealing with it. So, I've always remembered that. That making that information public has always been a key part of my understanding about what we're here to do. But that data itself is worth nothing, if it's not out there being used and so back in the day, when I first joined it was a relatively specialist thing to deal with company information. You had your search agents and they had actually set up offices in Crown Way or near our other offices just so they could come in and get the microfiche and read the microfiche and print bits out and so on. So, you know things have moved on hugely since then. As we've made our data available online and more recently available for free on our CHS service, we've really opened it up for people to use and seen a huge increase, you know orders of magnitude increase in terms of the people accessing the data. So, I think is over 9 billion searches last year, which is when you think the size of Companies House as an organisation to be satisfying that many searches for data in a year is just phenomenal. Punch well above our weight in terms of being a relatively small part of government. In terms of that value to the UK economy and the business activity that information informs as part of that transparency deal, an independent report recently valued it at between one to three billion pounds annually, which again is just when you think of the size of the organisation that we're making that big an impact, now I find that really exciting and you can be really proud of that as well.
MH: Yeah, definitely is. I can’t believe we've actually how far we've come on when you said about the companies on Crown Way and come in and I'm interested to know what year you started in Companies House now.
RM: So, it was late 1980s. So, 88.
MH: Before I was born.
RM: Oh well you had to add that one in. Thank you. Before I was born people were working at Companies House now, I think.
MH: Yeah, so going forward, how will we be maximising the value of our registers?
RM: So, we've got a number of really exciting initiatives planned. I probably haven't got time to go through them all, but I'll try and give you a flavour of some of them. Some of them are happening right now really. So, we've recently developed enhancements to our award-winning streaming API service. So, streaming API service, which is first of its kind in government and that service allows our customers to some busy tapping to the stream of data and they can consume updates to the register in real time. So, as soon as we get it, it’s streamed up there and they're getting those updates as well. So, we already had streams for changes to information on filing history of a company, company profile. So, basic company details. Insolvency information, and charges information. But we've developed two additional streams that they're in demand from our customers. So, officer and PSC (person of significant control) information. They’re there. Ready to go. We're just finishing off some of the documentation around it to tell our customers how to interface with those streams and we hope to release those in the next few weeks. And that's not the end as far as that service goes either. So, over the next year, we're going to be developing data that takes snapshots for that streaming API service. So, at the moment if you tap into a stream, you can consume any changes from that point on. You can actually go back upstream a little way for about seven days and get the changes from the last seven days. But obviously what a lot of customers want is well, I want the whole data set and then be able to keep it updated. So, we will be adding data snapshots on to those streams. So, you can join the stream, go back upstream for the last snapshot, get that snapshot, so full dataset and then consume the changes from that point on and keep your own records of the data. So, that that's one exciting thing we're doing on that.
We're also looking at unlocking the value of the data stored in the images of filings on CHS. So, at the moment these are static pictures when you go into CHS and you see a PDF next to the transaction and say, oh I'll have a look at the actual filing. That's fine when we see it comes up because we're used to looking at pictures. We don't need necessarily think of it because it looks like text but is actually a static picture so included in just dots. Dots on a white background. So, people who rely on screen readers, blind people who rely on screen readers to read information, it's useless to them. So, their screen reader will say, “oh yeah you have got this transaction on file history or this there's an associated PDF. Would you like to read it? Yes, please. Yeah then says that contains a picture called image.” That’s all they get.
MH: So trying to make it more accessible.
RM: Make them fully accessible. It's also even for people who want to do analysis of the data on there as well. So, at the moment say it's a picture. It's dots, if you like, what we call a raster image. But by making it fully accessible data within a PDF, you can search for particular bits of text in the field, you can process the data automatically, you can analyse the data and so on. So, it really unlocks the potential of that information. So, we have a project currently ongoing, ‘the accessible filing data’ project. Appropriately named. That's already, we've got a fully accessible versions of appointments and we're just finishing off incorporations. When we're happy with those, will release both those. We will probably have a pause then and then we look at future project phases to tackle all the other types of files we have and make those accessible as well. So, that's really exciting.
MH: Yeah, that’s so exciting.
RM: We are adding more data all the time. So, we've recently added 1.9 million dissolved company records onto CHS. So now you got complete record all the way back to January 2010 and we're currently working on a dissolved company search tell by users identify older dissolve can be so pre-January 2010. And then we're we be taking in some of the plans we've got for that search functionality. We can then take some of that functionality and use that to improve our alphabet exert service. And we also have plans, and this is the bit that the really excites me because this is something I've been wanting to do on CHS as we first put it in years, like part of my original “wouldn't be great if we can do this” and that's to build and enhanced search and reporting service. So that will allow much more flexible search criteria. At the moment, our search isn’t designed to allow people to identify a particular company. And you're limited in what you can search on, you can obviously search on the name and there's a few other things you can sort of tweak to try and get it, it’s basically name search and number search. What will be having with enhanced search and reporting service is that you can, yes you can search on name, you can include and exclude parts of the name, so it's more flexible name searching. You can search on date ranges. Incorporated between these dates or dissolved between these dates. Location information, like you know, I'm interested in all the companies incorporated in 2015 in the Birmingham area or with this SIC code. So that they deal with education or industrial machinery or whatever. And you get sets of results that can then be exported. So, that to me this really opens up being able to get not just a particular company you may be searching for if you don't know for definite what its proper name is but also gain a set of companies that match criteria that you've put in. So, I'm really excited for that. We have got a working prototype and I love showing it off to people because I think that's what search should be. Yeah. Being able to put in your own criteria and say what I wanted to match these criteria and it gives you the answers.
MH: Yeah, definitely. It's more of an in-depth. It’s just not what we've got at the moment and what would be great to have and it is, you know, maximising the value of our data, like we say.
RM: Things might be worth mentioning. So, certain copies. So, looking. That's a manual product at the moment. You know, we physically print out certificates and certified copies and we sign them, and we send them off in the post. So, we want to digitize that service and we're liaising with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office because they currently they “upper steel”. Which was a new term to me when I started looking at this. They basically ratify. Yes. This is definitely, this one is definitely a genuine copy or genuine certificate. They upper steel our certs and copies. They're currently working on digitizing their upper steeling service. So, it's a really good time for us to be looking at digitising the certs and copy service at the same time and work with them on that. And we're always looking at ways to more effectively share our data and work more closely with other government departments. So, that's great. Let's say, that's the flavour. There are other things we're looking at as well. But it you know, it's all really excited. You know we punch so above our weight and there's even more we can do with the service, which is great.
MH: Yeah. It's so exciting and it's actually obviously it's interesting for all the people who are going to be listening but it's interesting for me because it's almost like I don't know all the stuff that's going on and all the cogs that are turn in that people don't see. So, it's really interesting to hear all that. Thank you. So, my next question and my last question is what have you learned about yourself this year or I should probably say last year. Well, let’s say in the past year in a personal or professional capacity or both.
RM: I think probably the painful lessons being, you know, I can't do it all. There has been been so much to do and so many things I want to do. It's been hard not to get overwhelmed and frustrated when you can't take things forward as quickly as you'd like. But I've got a great team around me and yeah, I'm learning to try and let them run with things and not be such a control freak. So, in get stuff done, you know trying to empower the team. You know, they know what our vision is, to empower them to run with it as well. So, things aren't held up waiting for me to look at it or read when I'm busy doing other things as well. So that's one: letting go. And then that's like, I love my team and trust my team; I'm just so interested in the stuff that I find it really hard to let it go. So that's been, I can’t say that I’ve learned that, I've learned the necessity of that and I'm trying to learn to do it.
MH: I think what a lovely position to be in though. Like, you love your job, you want to be involved and you've also got a team that you trust and are doing a great job as well.
RM: Yeah. Oh, no, it is it's great. And I'm really enjoying the work so and loving being a service owner. Really enjoying it. With that frustration of there is so much we want to do, and you sort of want to do a straight away, you can’t do it all.
MH: Can I ask how long have you been in the role that you are in now?
RM: So just over a year.
MH: Okay, cool.
RM: So, and I guess so, you asked about personal capacity as well. So, what I have learned since working from home actually over the last almost year is, I don't have the willpower to train when I haven’t got a fully equipped gym on site. Yeah, it's tough to walk past the gym on the way home. So, it was like kind of hard not to go in and walking past it. I really should go in and do something. I haven't had the mental will power to exercise since lockdown until recently. So, I have finally found an exercise. I hated training as well. So, that didn't help/
MH: Yeah, I hate exercising.
RM: But I found skipping or jump rope as our American colleagues call us. Mainly attracts me because you can do it indoors, which is great, especially with the weather we have been having. And B, 10 minutes is equivalent to a 5K run which is what I used to do in the gym. So, now I can get my training done in 10 minutes which is and get all my stuff. I actually enjoy and find more interesting. So, if you're looking for something to do between meetings, you know, I got my skipping ropes just for there. So, you know grab a skipping rope.
MH: You know what, I think I'm going to come off here, go on Amazon and order one. Because I have actually been thinking about it, but now I've heard you say that. I think I'll be sold.
RM: I’m a rubbish skipper mind because it started not being able to skip at all. So uncoordinated and I still get myself into a tangle, but you can get yourself puffed out very quickly. And you know, that's my thing is that they raise the heartbeat. So, yeah. No, I do recommend it but I don't recommend watching me do it.
MH: Sorry. If you can hear my dog barking there. She's being naughty at the postman. Thank you so much, Robbie. You've given great answers. I've learned a lot. So good to have an insight into you know areas and things that I just wouldn’t know about without having conversations like this. So, thank you so much and thank you to everybody who's listened. If you haven't already then please have a look back on our podcast channel where I discuss some of our other goals with other team members and also keep an eye out for next month's podcast discussing our next goal and thank you, Robbie. You've been such a great guest. Take care.
RM: Any time. Take care, Megan. Cheers.