Liam Maxwell: ‘Transformation is nothing to do with tech – it is about a change of business model’

Government's national technology adviser discusses why getting digital reforms through the machinery of government may require some help from Jason Bourne

Credit: Cabinet Office

By Sam Trendall

19 Jun 2018

According to some, overcoming the operational barriers that prevent the transformation of government’s technology procurement is so tough a task it requires a near-indestructible elite military-intelligence officer.

Liam Maxwell says: “I saw a tweet where someone said that the Jason Bourne film they wanted to see was where he was working with the accounts department of the CIA, and trying to convince them to spend revenue rather than CapEx.”

Maxwell (pictured above) was appointed by the government as it first national technology adviser in April 2016. Having joined the civil service in 2011, he previously served as the government’s chief technology officer, and was a key figure in the early years of the Government Digital Service.


Addressing delegates at an event hosted in London last week by think tank the Institute for Government, he says that the GDS-led drive to reform the way in which government designs digital services and acquires new technology has been hampered by the structures that still apply to much of the rest of the Whitehall machine.

“Government has always been structured to build in this way [where] you get a business case to spend to build this particular thing,” Maxwell says. “To try and bring in a new approach for just technology spend is very difficult – because the whole of the rest of machine works in a particular way.”

Maxwell picks out the conundrum of “how to fund the new” as one of three key challenges facing government technology reformers. A procurement and development model that starts with problems, rather than products, can seem anathema to finance professionals, he says.

“[Saying] ‘there is a service, but we do not know what it is going look like yet’ – that is a very difficult position for someone who works in public finance,” Maxwell adds.

Another challenge facing government is the difficulty in leaving legacy systems behind.

But, according to Maxwell, Crown Hosting Data Centres – the joint venture between Ark and the Cabinet Office designed to offer a ‘pivot’ to the cloud – offers “a stepping stone” for departments to migrate away from legacy in stages.

Moving into a public cloud is the other major challenge Maxwell cites.

“We have to move – and the technology and business are driving us towards – public cloud,” he says. “It will be very difficult to do any form of AI without doing public cloud.”

Working with the likes of Amazon, Google, or Microsoft is not simply another form of big-ticket outsourcing, Maxwell says. Server space should not be seen as a function in itself, but as a utility that underpins all of government’s other functions, he adds.

“We do not go and design our own electricity. There are various levels of commodity services you get across government – or any business… [things] that you can buy on a credit card.  Compute is a commodity,” Maxwell says. “These things are useful when you are building other services. You leverage those commodity services and focus on how you deliver your particular service. Your particular service is at the top end of the value chain, and what you outsource is at the bottom end of the value chain.”

Maxwell says that the use of spend controls is a valuable tool – not only to stamp out poor-value engagements, but to understand where duplicate demand exists, and then drive efficiencies and collaboration.

“[At GDS] we always found spend controls very successful,” he says. “The spend control process can really help, because it can map out what you are doing.”

Agile working

But the programme of reform should not be confused with an agile-at-all-costs agenda. Infrastructure projects should be far more tightly specced, according to the national technology adviser.

“Everything thinks agile is this great thing – and parts of tech, and parts of a digital programme, should be built in an agile way. But the stuff you build on infrastructure, you should not build in an agile way,” he says. “If agile is not used in a disciplined way, then it is a free-for-all.”

The IFG event saw the Amazon Web Services Institute launch a policy paper offering the government four recommendations for how it could “spend smarter and deliver better”.

    We do not go and design our own electricity... compute is a commodity

The first of these is to “empower accounting officers to reallocate capital expenditure for digital technology to operating spend”. The government should also launch a programme of “safe pilots” to trial new ways of spending on technology, and should embed a smart-spending centre of excellence within the Treasury, the report says.

The final recommendation of the paper, which was written by former GDS senior executive James Stewart and public-finance specialist Manj Kalar, is that GDS should “should update the forecast of savings from digital transformation [to] account for the cost of legacy IT systems and contracts”.

But Maxwell says that transformation is, ultimately, not really about the technology at all – but the people and processes behind it.

“Transformation is nothing to do with tech – is about the change of the business model,” he adds. “Maybe you [invest in] commodity tech to do it, but it is the business model that needs changing. The tech itself comes after that.”

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