As government’s chief technology officer, Liam Maxwell is responsible for shaking up Whitehall’s IT operations in the pursuit of cost and time savings. Joshua Chambers meets the radical reformer in conservative cloth
I had expected a black turtleneck sweater. After all, the civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake recently claimed in a newspaper article that “no one at the Government Digital Service (GDS) wears a suit” and that the “civil servants of the future [will] look like Steve Jobs” – eschewing traditional dress codes and career paths to act like risk-taking entrepreneurs in small start-ups.
However, as Liam Maxwell strolls across the open-plan GDS office to greet me, the government’s chief technology officer is rather smartly dressed. He’s wearing a formal jacket and matching trousers, the only sartorial reference to his high-tech job the silicon chip cufflinks peeking out of his herringbone shirt.
Maxwell’s dress represents his character, for he’s a modernising force made in a traditional mould. After studying at Oxford University, he became a management consultant for Accenture. Then he worked in various IT management roles, before joining Eton College in 2004 to set up its computing department.
“I loved teaching, I loved education, and we’d just had a baby so it was a really good opportunity to think about what I wanted to do,” he says. Maxwell decided to become a Tory councillor in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, and also advised the Conservative Party on IT policy in the run-up to the 2010 general election. From this vantage point, he became a radical voice of reform, attacking public sector IT for being expensive, badly-designed, and too in-thrall to big suppliers.
Following the formation of the coalition government, Maxwell was brought into the Cabinet Office to bring about the change he’d been calling for. And since then he’s enjoyed a rapid rise to the top of civil service IT, shaking up relations with suppliers and the whole nature of government computing in the process. But as he tells CSW, there’s more to come.
Out with the old
First, though, we quickly cover what’s happened so far. After all, Maxwell’s been an integral part of government’s drive to squeeze better value out of its IT suppliers.
Back in 2010, “95 per cent of our spending was with large system integrators – which we refer to as ‘The Oligopoly’. The Oligopoly really would run these contracts, and we had no control over the architecture, the design and how they ran,” he explains. Departments specified precisely what they needed, and whenever they needed to make changes to systems – due to changes in technology, policy or user behaviour – departments were hit by suppliers with additional charges.
This meant that the UK was spending 1 per cent of its GDP purely on government IT systems: “Only Switzerland spent more per-head than the UK, and that’s because they’ve got CERN,” Maxwell says, referring to the home of the large hadron collider. “We had been spending very large amounts of money on large IT contracts that we were locked into for multiple years” – so while the unit costs of IT rapidly declined due to technological developments, government was unable to take advantage of falling prices. In 2011, the Public Administration Select Committee published a highly-critical report calling this set-up “a recipe for rip-offs”; this, Maxwell says, “summed up quite clearly the way everybody felt about this”.
Given the irritation felt with these big suppliers, will government continue to work with them? “Umm, yeah,” Maxwell says. “The thing is: we have an open market and we have free and fair trade in this country. If someone would provide the services that we specify that we would like to buy, it’s open to everybody to supply that – and that’s a very important point.”
However, Maxwell adds that government previously penalised smaller suppliers through onerous and restrictive procurement procedures, explaining that the coalition swept these away to ensure more businesses can compete. In many cases, these companies are much cheaper than bigger suppliers, he says.
Does it worry Maxwell that some of the bigger suppliers might become annoyed by the push to boost SMEs at their expense, and simply leave the market altogether? No, he says: “It’s a really competitive market with lots of people wanting to play in it. We don’t see people wandering away from it. Government’s a great customer to have: we’ve got quite a good credit rating, we’re going to be here for a long time, and we pay our bills on time.”
In with the new
Many of government’s bigger contracts will come to an end around 2014-15, Maxwell says. Then departments will be expected to eschew expensive contracts with just one supplier, and instead to buy each component for its IT services separately. So one supplier might be contracted to supply a department’s telephone line, while another could be hosting its website. These services must meet ‘open standards’ criteria so that they are compatible with one another, and be ‘open source’ so that it’s possible to change computer code without needing permission from the rights owner.
Departments are now expected to look for services on the ‘G-Cloud’, where big and small suppliers compete on equal terms to deliver IT services. Just last month, the Cabinet Office announced that all departments must follow a ‘cloud-first’ approach.
Further, all procurements worth more than £5m need to go through the Cabinet Office’s Government Procurement Service. “Some of this is centralising, but it’s rather like – in your [CSW] offices – you don’t all go out and buy your own pens and stationery,” he says. And departments are very happy with the new system, he believes: “They’ve come to us and said: ‘Look, I’m in a dreadful position with this supplier and need to get in a better position with them.’ That’s where we have helped and we continue to help.”
Becoming the boss
This new approach has seen a change of personnel. The government’s former chief information officer (CIO), Andy Nelson, lost his cross-government remit when he moved from the justice department to the DWP – and Maxwell, the government’s CTO, is now the government’s top IT official. The shift of power from CIO to CTO reflects changes in the government’s approach to IT, says Maxwell: “The CIO’s role – lots of CIOs’ roles – were about negotiating with suppliers.” That’s not what government needs now from IT people, he believes: instead, “the key thing we need to get hold of is the ability to manage our own technical destiny”. So in the CTO job, Maxwell designs the technical architecture underpinning an IT system, while the work required is broken down into small tenders handled by procurement staff. After all, now that government is buying services from multiple suppliers, there needs to be someone who plans for how all of these pieces fit together.
There are still a large number of CIOs in departments, however. Should they still be in post: shouldn’t they be CTOs instead? In an effort to be diplomatic, Maxwell becomes a little tricky to follow here. So first he dismisses the difference between CIOs and CTOs as “a bit of semantics” – despite it being the given reason for the changes in governance that effectively saw him replace Nelson. The answer also “depends on the department,” he says. “Our approach to departments is that we’re from the centre, we’re here to help and we’ll identify what they need to do. There are CIOs in departments, and some of those CIOs do a cracking job at really understanding the technology”.
When many of the big contracts come to an end in 2014-15, won’t departments need CTOs to design the new systems? “I think you’re talking about departmental job descriptions; that’s not really for me. We are looking to have people who are technically capable and commercially capable in departments. We’ve got that, and I am not really bothered about what label they bring in terms of a CIO or a CTO,” he responds.
Presumably it will be a changed role, though, because departments will be planning the technical architecture themselves? “In many cases that will be the case,” he says – though the GDS will provide support when needed.
Departments also now have ‘digital leaders,’ who are tasked with making services accessible online. This means that there will be two top IT jobs in departments: the CIO/CTO, who works on the technology underpinning a service; and the digital leader, who improves the digital service itself. However, in some cases, CIOs/CTOs are also the digital leaders in departments, and Maxwell admits that it’s not entirely clear how these roles will interact: “If you think about where a digital leader sits and what a technology person does, we need to resolve that question; that’s one of the clear things we’re doing.”
The GDS takes charge
This brings us to a bigger change in IT governance: the complete overhaul of decision-making processes and support structures. First, there’s an ongoing review of civil service IT governance, because “there were 24 boards, [but] what did they do and when did they do something? Can you imagine how long it took to get a policy done?” Maxwell says. “The main thing we’ve got to do is close some of these things, so we’ve shut the CIO Delivery Board, [and] we’ve paused the rest of them.”
Ultimately, there’s been “15 years of people building up governance and building up structures. It’s been extremely difficult to try and work through that,” he says. “The cloud-first policy, the open source policy, the open standards policy, all of those were ground-breaking changes which in any large organisation would go through like that” – Maxwell clicks his fingers – “[but they] were being held up by this treacle, so the treacle is being removed.” The review is therefore going to put a much clearer decision-making process in place.
At the top of this sits the GDS, which sets common standards for departments to follow when they’re building systems. On the 15 May, the GDS published a new manual setting out technical standards for all new systems. “That’s been the work of the last six months, working with CIOs and CTOs in departments and getting their feedback,” Maxwell says, adding that “we help people define the standards; we’re certainly not going to enforce and go around and say: ‘You must do this’.”
Lots to do
On top of these governance reforms, the GDS is embarking on an even bigger task: rebuilding all online transactional services that handle more than 100,000 transactions a year, giving the GDS 21 services to re-engineer by March 2015. This is necessary, Maxwell says, because “they are not digital at the moment and they require a certain amount of engineering to get them to a state that is”.
For example, some of them require “in the bluntest terms, the ability to be delivered by a modern browser, which is absent from very large numbers of government systems. It really is practical things like that which need to be delivered. A lot of the time, the digital service is about transforming the service to make it easier for a user, as opposed to what existed there previously, which was not necessarily easy to use.” In the past, he comments, some departments have “just put up forms online, and obviously that’s very different situation” from a genuinely digital service.
Doesn’t it seem like an awful lot to do? “Yeah, it’s an ambitious target and an ambitious goal, but that’s why it’s great fun,” he says. How is the GDS going to ensure that it gets delivered on time? “By managing it effectively. There’s a wall downstairs that shows you exactly how we prioritise everything we do”. I see this wall later, and it’s covered in annotated flash cards, each setting out a clear priority and placed in a defined part of the wall according to the nature of the task. “We’re pretty rigorous and ruthless about the priorities we take. Some priorities we take, some we don’t. We only take stuff that we can do,” Maxwell says.
The GDS works on the motto “for you, with you, by you,” Maxwell says. Its staff begin each task by asking about what needs to be done and setting out priorities. Here, the GDS is looking to delivery staff for “understanding of the programmes and what they do. Talk to the people working on the frontline of the DVLA: they’ve forgotten more about cars than any of us will ever, ever know, and they have huge amounts of expertise in their subject matter,” he says.
Once the GDS has planned for how a system should be built, it works with the departments to build it. The GDS can bring in contractors to help, he says. “Contractually, it’s a department doing it, but essentially we are able to work with the department team and a group of specialists from industry to deliver a service. [The government has] much more control over what we’re specifying, designing, building through that process than we would have had previously.” And when the system’s built, the GDS passes everything over to departments to manage and continually improve.
Digital leaders are particularly important in these redesigns, Maxwell says, so that there aren’t tensions between departments and teams from the centre. There aren’t major differences, he stresses, but he adds that “we, I, people here, think in a different way to what was an accepted business model; and certainly for the last year, for 2011-2012, there was a certain amount of departments saying: ‘I don’t really want to do that’.” He says that this was “built up by some of the suppliers in this market”, who also accused the GDS of just building the front end of systems, rather than being able to deal with the technical gubbins underneath – an accusation he strongly denies.
That said, the GDS won’t exist forever, Maxwell admits. It’s a unit for the here and now, and will fade away once the new systems and standards are embedded. Whilst I absorb this new fact, Maxwell hands me his business card: a very analogue gesture in an organisation dedicated to digital technology.
But the headquarters of the GDS are something of a shrine to paper – from the wall covered in flash cards, to amusing cartoons drawn on post-it notes and the printouts of media coverage that festoon the rest of the office. One of the few bits of the office not covered in paper is the giant, Big Brother-style picture of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in the foyer, which faces an even larger picture of Martha Lane Fox.
I’ve honestly no idea what to make of this decor, but it’s much easier to understand Maxwell’s aims. He’s determined to shake up government’s relationship with suppliers, and with itself. Some parts of the private and public sectors may not like this, but the momentum is with Maxwell and the GDS – and they’re determined to save the government time and money.