Andy Nelson is a busy man. The Ministry of Justice’s chief information officer, he’s also now replaced Joe Harley as the government’s overall head of IT. Becky Slack meets him to learn about his plans for two rather hefty jobs
The Ministry of Justice building is tall, forbidding and fortress-like, its intimidating turret looming up towards the sky like a stern judge presiding over their courtroom. Led inside and deposited in an interview room, I find myself in a grey, bland cell without plants or pictures. As I await the government’s new head of information technology – a profession not best known for its humour and gregariousness – I wonder with some trepidation how our interview will go.
I needn’t have worried. Andy Nelson is friendly, open and dynamic, with a tendency to throw his arms around to emphasise his points. A relatively recent import into the civil service, Nelson has worked in the private and charity sectors, and spent a spell running his own consultancy. He wasn’t really looking for a role in the public sector, he says – but when he was approached about the CIO role at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2009, it ticked all the right boxes.
“I wanted a fresh challenge and this job met a number of the things I was looking for,” he says. “It was a different sector to the ones I’d worked in previously, it was big and challenging, and it was an [organisation] which wanted to drive real change.”
So has the role delivered for him? And does he share the views of others who can find the processes and power structures of government frustrating? “I think people make a bigger deal out of the differences [between the public and private sector] than what is the reality,” he says – although he admits that the scale of the job and the complexities around the large numbers of stakeholders can slow things down.
In fact, the public sector has one big benefit for him: the social mission. “What we are working to deliver isn’t about profit and the bottom line,” he says. “My role at the MoJ contributes to better justice. I get motivation out of making a difference.”
The long road ahead
It’s a good job Nelson is motivated by getting “stuff done” as there’s a lot to do. The government is in the midst of the largest programme of efficiency reforms for decades, and IT sits squarely in the middle. From the new IT agendas such as the Public Service Network and G-Cloud to the implementation of the Universal Credit system, technology is critical to the success of many of the government’s plans. Since 1 April, Nelson has been the man responsible for overseeing delivery of the IT strategy – and all in addition to his MoJ job.
When asked whether he’s fazed by the scale of the task ahead of him, though, he gives a determinedly measured response. “The key to any role is the people behind you. I’ve built a really strong, capable team here at the MoJ. They have also been hugely supportive of the government CIO position,” he says, adding that the new deputy government CIO will also play a critical part in supporting him. Vacant since the beginning of the year when Bill McCluggage left for a new post at US cloud computing specialists EMC, this post was filled last week by ICT Futures chief Liam Maxwell.
Yet even given the backing of his team, Nelson is facing a big task. Nelson tells me that “in theory” he will be sharing his time between the two roles. For three days a week, he’ll concentrate on his MoJ role: he wants to increase the use of digital technology in the courts, and to address the secure data management challenges that prevent effective partnership working with other public agencies. “In 100 fields of data on an offender, only 10 might be really sensitive but they get locked in with the others, meaning we can’t easily exchange [data]. We need to re-architect the data,” he explains.
This leaves just two days a week for his new position. During those days, says Nelson, he’ll concentrate on four main areas of work: delivering the strategy; ensuring that the strategy remains aligned with other digital projects; his role as head of the IT profession; and acting as the voice of government in its relationship with the IT industry.
Not everything will receive as much attention as previous incumbents could manage. “I am thinking carefully about where I should focus my efforts,” he says. “For example, how many interviews do I do like this one? How many suppliers do I talk to? How many trade events do I attend? Clearly John [Suffolk] will have done more than what I will have time to do.”
John Suffolk was the last government CIO to hold the role full-time. He left in 2011 to become head of cyber security for the Chinese firm Huawei. His replacement, Joe Harley, split his time between the government job and his position as CIO for the Department of Work and Pensions – something he did for just one year before announcing his retirement.
So, given that Nelson’s two predecessors led the production of the government’s IT strategy, how easy will it be for him to pick up where they left off? “I see no problem with it,” he replies. “The strategy wasn’t put together by a central team who dreamed it up without any engagement [with other teams]. All the CIOs were involved in putting it together. In fact, one of the good things about the strategy is that ownership is shared; everyone feels the need to deliver their piece.”
Indeed, as CIO for the MoJ, Nelson has already had input into the strategy, including those elements which focus on the IT profession, data consolidation and one recent major initiative: the G-Cloud.
The G-Cloud is the nascent internet ‘space’ where government applications, data and services can be hosted. It is also the portal to the CloudStore: an online ‘app’ catalogue, where departments, councils and other public bodies can buy over 1,700 information and communications products and services. Nelson led on this cross-government project, the first of its kind and one which he describes as “a voyage of discovery”.
“It is not that many months ago that someone said: ‘What are we going to do about creating an app store?’ So we got some ideas together, and the government procurement service came up with a different way of procuring,” he explains excitedly. “We then went to market and had 300 companies showing interest [in offering services], which is more than we expected. This then presented us with a new challenge of how to check them before putting them on the Store.”
So far, so good
It’s still early days, but Nelson says he’s thrilled with the results so far. However, he acknowledges that not everything about the app store has worked perfectly first time around; errors are to be rectified and changes made over time. For example, new pricing and product ratings structures are to be introduced.
The increased opportunities for SMEs are another positive development to come out of the CloudStore, he says. “The government is often accused of working with a small pool of big suppliers, but we have a much broader market engagement than we’ve seen before – not just for the Cloud, but for PSN and other areas”.
Not everyone would agree. Sureyya Cansoy, director of public sector at IT industry trade body Intellect, told CSW last month that the government’s talk about buying from SMEs has not thus far been matched by much in the way of action (p19, 7 March). When I raise this with Nelson, he crosses his arms and takes a decidedly more defensive stance.
“The Cloud Store is a tangible example for the SME market place. I think they are finding more work coming their way now. There is such a push on it,” he says, making his point with an example from the MoJ, which has employed a small company to deliver the IT architecture needed for an advisory service. However, he caveats his remarks with the admission that we have yet to see how the large, multi-national companies will respond to the government’s push towards SMEs.
“Many [of the bigger players] are saying: ‘We’ll bring communities of SMEs to you’. We can look at this as a positive step or we can be cynical. Are they going to add margin? Are they going to buy them all? Many SMEs which have developed great technology may find that they are going to be a target.”
Delivering the goods
Given the dependence on IT for the success of so much of the government’s plans and the consequent pressure Nelson must be under, I ask him to name his key concerns. First, he replies, there’s the need to drive adoption of new services across government. Using the example of the PSN, he says: “How do we make sure it is designed in a way that ensures people can use it? We need to know if all the different strands of the strategy work together.” For example, if one aspect of the PSN strategy experiences problems, what impact will this have on the usability of other areas of the service?
Coupled with this is the challenge to ensure his plans fit with what is happening elsewhere in government, particularly in relation to the digital strategy and the ICT Futures Agenda, headed up by Mike Bracken and Liam Maxwell respectfully. Both individuals sit with Nelson on the ICT council board and there is constant dialogue between them about how to ensure all the IT components from all plans and strategies are “glued better together”. Newly appointed as deputy CIO, Maxwell will retain his ICT Futures role.
Finally, Nelson emphasises the importance of engaging with all the CIOs across government. He hints that the voices of the larger departments have dominated the conversation thus far, and suggests he’ll work to engage with the smaller teams. Indeed, at April’s ICT council meeting, a key part of the agenda is to define the role of the council and how it should work with small and medium-sized departments.
I’m surprised there hasn’t yet been any mention of the Universal Credit IT system, which – according to some reports in the broadsheets – is way behind schedule, giving rise to the potential of yet another public sector major IT project failure. When I raise this point, Nelson shifts a little uncomfortably in his seat.
“Do I know where the Universal Credit programme is at? No I don’t. Where are we on the health service? What about the MoD? Ask me the same questions in two to three months’ time and I’ll have a better grasp,” he says, telling me that one of his first jobs is to embark on a tour of Whitehall to “find out what is going on”.
While he’s understandably reluctant to answer questions on the specifics of particular departmental projects in his first days in his new role, he does share his thoughts on managing big IT projects overall. He begins by defending the government, saying that private sector organisations “also have big blips”. And he notes that hindsight is a wonderful thing. “Sometimes you have to weigh up the risks and make a decision,” he says, throwing his hands up in the air. “When things have gone wrong in the past, did someone say: ‘We have to hit that date,’ or should they have waited until everything was right?” Either way,
it’s not an easy call.
The current focus on ‘agile’ methodology – developing new systems incrementally, rather than building vast, monolithic systems – should help avert disaster, he adds. “Big government projects can take many years to implement, so it’s no surprise that the world moves on. The danger is that when you specify requirements in the beginning, by the time you’ve got there it’s no longer what you need.”
The learning game
The DWP has taken an agile approach to the IT required for Universal Credit, according to a case study sent to CSW by the Cabinet Office. It hoped to speed up the implementation process, keep costs to a minimum and ensure effective partnership work between all the government departments, partners and service providers. “The DWP has been training staff, including directors, in agile methods,” reads the case study. However, it adds that the government will have to change not just the way it runs IT programmes, but the wider culture within the civil service.
This is a point not missed by Nelson, who also emphasises how the success of IT projects is not defined solely by the technology. “There is a cultural challenge for the government, in that it needs to be prepared to get some things wrong,” he says, folding his arms and sighing as he speaks. “To do this it needs to set the expectations of citizens [that sometimes it may fail], and that is not a natural culture for government.” Civil servants must also learn to “focus on the critical requirements rather than insisting on a system being capable of doing everything,” he adds.
Nelson is keen to introduce stronger metrics into both the MoJ’s and his wider CIO projects, improving management data and enabling him to benchmark the government’s use of IT against that of private businesses. This may prove a double-edged sword, he notes: “We shouldn’t hide failures and we should demonstrate how we could do better, but we should also highlight when we perform well.”
Producing better data could go some way towards achieving the culture change that Nelson wants to see: perhaps people will be more accepting of failure if they can see more clearly where success has been achieved. But equally importantly for someone so driven by making a difference, the generation of hard evidence on performance should be an effective way of proving value; of demonstrating, in short, that Andy Nelson is indeed getting “stuff done”. ?