British government CTO surprises by committing to role until 2018

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 28, 2014
Liam Maxwell, the self-proclaimed 'competition nut', will continue to help transform government technology services in Whitehall for at least the next four years.

There has been some concern of late surrounding the loss of some of the British government's best technology leaders, following the news that people such

Liam Maxwell
as COO Stephen Kelly and former head of the G-Cloud Denise McDonagh would be leaving Whitehall for pastures new.

Many have suggested (myself included) that the uncertainty of a general election in May next year, and the prospect of a change in government, would likely spark further resignations from those that have been involved in the technology transformation across government.

For the past few years those working in the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service have been ruthless in cutting out waste, pushing back against some of the world's largest suppliers, transforming services into agile online digital products and introducing initiatives to drive the growth of cloud computing in the public sector.

And although there is still lots to do and certain areas could do with some improvement, few could deny that for once it feels like progress has been made and things are beginning to change.

However, a lot of what has been achieved to date has been greatly helped by the determined leadership of a select few, which have managed to motivate dedicated teams and spark a different way of thinking across government departments - hence why some of the departures in recent months got us a little bit worried.

But to the surprise of many, one person that won't be leaving anytime soon, is government CTO Liam Maxwell - who has now committed to remaining in his post until at least 2018. Maxwell is a self-proclaimed 'competition nut' and has been one of the main spokespeople for the government's digital agenda since the early days of change.

He is known for walking around Whitehall departments and technology events, showing everyone his smartphone case, which has the words 'What is the user need?' written on the back. Having met Maxwell a fair few times now, it is safe to say that he has been relentless in pursuing the goals of the Government Digital Service and isn't one to pander to traditionalists in either government or the supplier community.

Maxwell's commitment to the job will be welcome news to those that were concerned about the stability of the digital agenda and the momentum behind driving change across government after the next election. However, the news is also a bit of a surprise given Maxwell's previous political preferences (having previously been involved with the Conservative party in a number of roles).

Georgina O'Toole, director at analyst house TechMarketView, summed it up nicely by describing the move as “heartening”. She said:

We must admit that we had previously considered it unlikely that Maxwell would remain onboard after the next General Election if there were a change in Government. We’d always viewed him as something of a political animal, having previously been the Tory Councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and involved in drafting the Conservative’s technology policy in the run-up to the last General Election.

With this latest move, Maxwell has committed to his role regardless of the outcome in May 2015. That will surprise many. There is no doubt that Maxwell and his cohorts have been doggedly resolute in sticking to their ICT agenda over the last few years. And, regardless of whether you agree on their route to getting there, they have achieved a great deal, not least by contributing to billions of pounds of Efficiency Savings.

But they are only part way along the journey to a ‘Government as a Platform’ model – 'government made from platforms: reusable, interconnected, easily replaceable components that can be used and shared by everyone'. And, particularly following the departure of COO Stephen Kelly, it is heartening to see Maxwell commit to sticking around to make that a reality. Moving away from monolithic legacy systems at the heart of Government is not going to happen overnight; and too often in Government difficult, long-running, programmes never make headway because the people driving the programme move on. Maxwell should be praised for wanting to see things through.

And praise he is getting – most notably from Mike Bracken, head of the Government Digital Service, who said that Maxwell staying on was “good news for all sorts of reasons”. Bracken was particularly keen to highlight the role Maxwell has played in recruiting strong technology players out of the private sector. He said:

Since he joined GDS, Liam has been an important force for change. His team has achieved a great deal in a short time.  Liam, supported now by Magnus Falk as deputy CTO (former Credit Suisse CIO), has attracted the type of talent we need in Government.

Outside of the central group, Liam is pivotal in recruiting experienced technology talent and the quality of the Technology Leaders group is evidence that we are at last bringing in top-tier technology skills.

We need to keep up that momentum, and we need more time to make bigger, more ambitious changes happen, then let them settle down and become the new normal. With Liam as CTO for at least the next three years, I’m confident that’s going to happen.

Government as a platform

Government as a platform seems to be the phrase du jour, with a new post from the head of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, outlining why the

government wants to move away disjointed silos to a more unified, efficient service. Although this is all stuff we have heard before from those directly involved with technology in government, it's good to see it being addressed by someone who is not only outside the tech world, but also at the top of the chain.

Heywood outlined how departments shouldn't all have to pay for services separately if they all have a common need – and instead digital products should be built internally for them to use. As was done with GOV.UK, which is a common domain and publishing platform for all departments.

A huge amount of work has been done already, but we have just scratched the surface of what’s possible. Government collects huge quantities of data – if we open up that data via platforms and Application Programming Interfaces, external developers in the public and private sectors will be able to make imaginative use of it. New services will emerge – bespoke, personalised services government couldn’t normally justify spending money on, especially in a tight budgetary environment or services no-one else has even thought of before.

At the heart of all this change are the users: people who need to use government services, from the trivial to the life-changing. All these services, all the platforms, everything we build from now on should be focused onmeeting user needs.

I believe that thanks to the excellent work of the Government Digital Service and the increasing digital capability within each individual department, the British Civil Service is already at the cutting edge of applying digital technology to public service delivery. But we now need to take this to the next level, and apply the same principles and techniques in policy design. All of which explains why I am so pleased to have taken up the role of Head of the Civil Service. Change is good, change is exciting, and change is happening right now. I cannot wait to see what’s next.

My Take

Personally, I am very pleased to see that Maxwell is staying on in his post. Consistency in the CTO job, especially with having someone like Maxwell in that role, will give the government a fighting chance in achieving the aims of the digital agenda.

We can expect to see some other familiar faces leaving, I'm sure - but if Maxwell and Bracken stay on, that's good news. We may also start to see some of the new hires from the private sector begin to play a more predominant role going forward, as they get used to their new jobs.

As for government as a platform – it's a new phrase that neatly sums up a bunch of goals that have been in action for the past four years. It will be repeated to death, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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