Ben Welby – Faith in Technology
Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant and This is Faith in Action, a new podcast to discuss how faith affects the way we live and work today.
Digital Technology surrounds us, and infuses many of our daily lives as consumers, creators and citizens. But is it a force for connection, or alienation? Will technology enable communities of faith to come closer together, or just separate us from our physical neighbours? To discuss this I’ve come face to face with Ben Welby, who is a product manager in the Government Digital Service.
Ben what do you do for the Government Digital Service?
I am a product manager on the team that is part of GOV.UK, the single government domain. I lead a team at the moment that’s looking at something called the Performance Platform, which is a space where data about government services is brought together so that the public are able to see transparently what the government is getting up to with its money.
And what do you actually do? What’s involved in being a product manager?
Well, the first thing, the most important thing that the product manager does is that they are the voice of the user of the product. So that’s making sure what we build is appropriate and useful and meets the needs that people have.
And, is this something that you’ve always done?
No! I kind of accidentally ended up doing this. It was never really a plan. Originally I thought I was going to be a barrister when I was a young man. And I set off to do a history degree, with every intention of then going on to do law. But I did a gap year, and during that gap year I became very convicted that the motivations for doing law were not necessarily based on justice, they were based on ‘I think that probably pays quite well’.
And I came back [from my gap year] and thought, what else will I do instead – I’m quite interested in international development, so I did a masters in post-war recovery studies. Through the course of that year there was a really interesting coming together of theology, and academia, and experience that said actually I’m really interested in local community and governance around that.
So I ended up working in local government, where I was in Hull for a few years, and then I arrived at the Government Digital Service in 2012 just before the launch of GOV.UK.
Did you find many people influenced by the connection between theology and local government in Hull?
Only one or two. It’s not the most mainstream of routes into working for Government I don’t think. But there was something very interesting to me in the course of my studies, and the way in which that works alongside what I was learning in Church and what I was learning about Jesus that is all about that very deep relational experience and expression of people with needs being met in the place where they have those needs and trying to find a way to do something about the problems that people face. So there’s a real natural coming together of the two things I think.
The frustration for me though is that you end up doing less of that than you ever thought you might. In a government context you actually spend a lot of time removed from the public that you’re trying to serve – even in a local government context. Whereas in a church there is far more proximity to people and the need is much clearer. And I think you can get a sense that you’re achieving something because, primarily, churches exist to meet individuals and to build relationships with them, and then to work through the problems. Whereas with Government you’re trying to solve systemic problems.
One of the challenges that I think the church often faces is that we can professionalise things, to a point where communities of believers can become a bit service consuming rather than community building, and that you lose a bit more of the action in your church community. You’re relegated to sitting in a pew. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus called the church to be. Personally. Our faith calls us to be in the world. Christians being in the world and doing normal jobs, but doing normal jobs and not holding back on who Jesus is in conversations they might have are really important.
How do you find that influence of faith at work? How do you find that bubbles over into work, either through your words or your actions?
I’d like to say that it would be clear from the way that I behave that I follow Jesus. But I think that’s actually something that I’d like to do better at. I think that sometimes there is not enough to separate me from a non-Christian when it comes to things that are frustrating or things that annoying. But I do trust that I have a fairly optimistic and hope-filled sense that even when things are challenging – working in Government is not easy always – and being able to see the hope that exists and the opportunity that exists I think is really important.
Certainly for me, having the space and the capacity to spend time with God, to spend time in fellowship and to take things to him in prayer allows for the resetting of any points that are not full of hope. You can go away from that period where you’re frustrated or you’re feeling particularly challenged, and the wonderful thing about prayer is that God does answer prayer, and that things change. So you have both a hope that things will change and a knowledge that they do change.
And then when it comes to just having normal conversations – we go to church in a number of different places, but one of the churches we go to meets in Soho on a Wednesday night in a nightclub. So that’s always an interesting point of conversation when we went to that church. I was commuting down from York and working at the Government Digital Service, so Soho is really convenient. So it was great when I was away from home to be able to plug into a community of Christians in a city like London where I wasn’t living at that point. So it’s great expression of the wonderful mixed economy that we know the church to be, just down the road. So that’s always a good stimulator to having a conversation with some people sometimes.
How did people react?
They’re very interested, because a lot of people’s pre-conceptions about church is that it’s pews and hymn books and incense and robes. And so we don’t have any of that. It’s a very relaxed, comfortable space where people can bring the questions that they have. There’s no didactic leading from the front; dogmatic ‘this is the answer and you must all take it away and mull over it’. There’s a conversation. It fills a really important gap on the edge of church. So people can come to our church community and end up going into more mainstream church. But equally people who are drifting out of more mainstream church come along.
You spoke about sharing your faith at work. Have you found it easy to find other Christians at work?
Actually I have no idea how I came upon – I have no idea, Richard, how I met other Christians in the workplace – I can’t really remember how that happened, other than, that it did. I think I put on my profile in the people finder thing something about my faith, possibly, which maybe acted as a spark for some conversations. And then you sort of accidentally bump into other people. It’s never particularly well planned.
And I’m sure there are people, not just in my office in the Government Digital Service, but in other organisations who share our building who are Christians as well who I’ve never interacted with, who I’ve never sought out. And I think that’s a shame. I think as Christians I think we can often as Christians be quite isolated within our church communities rather than having nice easy access to genuine Christian community in the places that we occupy.
There is an organisation called Kingdom Code which is a meetup for Christians who work in digital and technology. And that partnered with an American organisation which arranged a global hackathon in thirteen different cities. So a couple of weekends ago, 800 people around the world employed in the digital and technology professions, got together in their different cities – from Jakarta to Bangalore to Nairobi, to Albuquerque to Guatemala City and a number of other American places – to hack, to build stuff for the Church, for Christians, for the community around us.
I pitched an idea which was to try and solve this problem of – how as Christians who are in proximity to one another – how do we find ways of meeting with one another. How do we turn those anonymous relationships that we might otherwise have into things that are a space for fellowship, or for prayer, or for joining up our passions. So that all of the bits of the body that are passionate about homelessness can find one another more easily.
Homelessness is probably not a great example because it is quite an obvious thing, and a need that people are quite often engaged by. I think the challenge is actually often for the two or three people out of a church of 100 who have a passion that is very niche. How do those people meet up with the two or three people from the neighbouring church, and from the neighbouring church and the neighbouring church. So that ten or twelve can actually start to minister into that particularly niche space that might otherwise get missed.
Technology is sometimes thought to be an alienating factor. Is there a risk that you’re putting barriers between people and the state through your work?
I think that’s a definite fear, because the more we make things digital, the less scope there is for people to have interaction with one another. However I think there’s beauty in the work that we do. Because what we’re doing is making things easier. So that people can access what they need to do first time. We are making sure that people who don’t necessarily use the internet can still access the services that they need and that they rely on. And if government is able to deliver people better quality services that save people time; that are delivered more cheaply; that work first time. That provides more time for people to do the things that are important. But it also provides Government with greater capacity to invest in those things which might be at risk of being cut otherwise. You can protect more frontline services because you can deal with all the excess that is being wasted in the back-end, in the databases, and the hidden places where human interaction isn’t a feature anyway.
What do you think the future is for the church to make better use of technology?
That’s a massive question. I don’t think the church is really, as a whole, is taking hold of technology as well as it might. Given that today we are more connected than we have ever been – in our social lives, in our professional lives – I don’t feel like I’m necessarily more connected than I ever was in my church life, or to other Christians around me. So I think we can do more in that area.
Funnily enough actually I think some of the best applications of technology that speak of the Kingdom are not necessarily owned or deliberately delivered by the church. The bringing together of some people for the Techfugees response to the refugee crisis is an example of that, where you’ve got people who are just brought together by a need, not simply because some Christians have come together to respond. And they are using technology to meet the needs that people have in a crisis. That’s amazing. Also, at a smaller level, the social enterprise that puts casserole together, which is an idea of connecting people in a community – those people who are cooking lots of food, and those people who are lonely and might benefit from someone cooking them a dinner – taking it round and sharing community with them. That’s not a Christian activity, but it is absolutely the heart of community. So I don’t think I can say I know of one specific church technology thing, but there are a couple of expressions of the Kingdom.
Ben Welby, thank-you very much.
Thank you Richard.