Another Whitehall digital chief leaves public sector for AWS

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 12, 2019
Holly Ellis has worked for a number of government departments in senior digital roles. She has now taken a public sector position at AWS.

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In a move that is likely to raise a few eyebrows, particularly amongst UK-based SME vendors, the Department for International Trade’s Director of Digital, Data and Technology has taken up a public sector position at Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

Holly Ellis, who has served a number of other digital roles across government, including Director of Capability at the Government Digital Service, and Deputy Director of Digital Delivery at the Home Office, has now taken up a role as Senior Manager Solution Architects at US cloud giant AWS. 

The news follows a number of other high profile moves between the Civil Service and AWS in recent years. Most notably, these include the UK’s former National Technology Advisor, Liam Maxwell, and the Home Office’s former Chief Digital Officer, Norman Driskell. 

A number of senior AWS UK leaders also hold numerous positions on government Boards. 

There is increasing frustration within the UK SME community, particularly by those that have previously seen success in selling into government, that AWS and other US cloud giants are becoming too dominant. 

One source commenting on Ellis’ move told diginomica/government that “nobody in government would criticise AWS as AWS is their passport out of government”. 

We asked the Department for International Trade to confirm the appointment and also queried whether or not there were limitations placed on Ellis, in terms of civil servants going to work for technology vendors so soon after leaving Whitehall. As expected, the response was: 

There is clear advice on business appointment rules that individuals are required to comply with. We don’t comment on individual cases, but we do publish the advice given on GOV.UK on a quarterly basis.

The guidance on GOV.UK states that a civil servant’s employing department or agency may approve an application unconditionally, or the application could be subject to conditions which may last for up to 2 years. 

It adds: 

Conditions or restrictions could include a waiting period before the appointment can be taken up, or a requirement that you should stand aside from certain activities for your new employer for a period.

Your employing organisation is also required to inform the new employers of any conditions that have been imposed on you.

We reached out to AWS for comment, but had not heard back at the time of publication. This story will be updated as soon as any comment is received. 

AWS dominance in Whitehall

As noted above, there is a growing perception amongst Whitehall observers that the likes of AWS, Microsoft and Google Cloud Platform are becoming more dominant amongst government buyers. And the data on cloud sales tends to suggest that’s true. 

However, this is particularly frustrating for UK SMEs, which a decade ago were promised support by government digital chiefs. The phrase ‘Oligopoly’ was attached to the traditional outsourcing providers, which were seen to be failing government and had a stranglehold on contracts. 

New mechanisms were introduced to change this, including procurement tools such as G-Cloud, and a wave of new suppliers has been seen in Whitehall. However, the concern now is that an Oligopoly 2.0 is being created amongst the US cloud providers and little is being done to address it - which is what makes these moves between the civil service and AWS hard to swallow for some. 

Some would argue that this is all overstated and that the trends in government are largely reflected in the private sector. However, we at diginomica/government recently outlined both sides of the debate in our analysis piece - ‘Did the government kill off the Oligopoly or just send it back to the (US) cloud? - which may be of interest and worth a read. 

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