British Government's CDDO leader is back in health and backing modern digital methods

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth February 22, 2024
Mike Potter explains how the UK’s Central Digital and Data Office plans to increase collaboration and community across the UK government

An image of Mike Potter, Government CDDO Leader on stage with a red microphone
(Image sourced via CDDO)

Mike Potter has a second start at leading the digital agenda of the UK government, which he joined in September 2022. The reason being that Potter is now in remission from throat cancer and, as he tells diginomica, the enforced break from business technology leadership has given him renewed ambition for the role technology can play. 

Potter has a broad remit; he is head of the Central Digital and Data Office and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of the entire UK government. Within four weeks of joining the government, he began to feel ill and was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in his throat, he says of the ensuing 15 months: 

It was a long period of diagnosis, treatment and recuperation, but at every stage, the level of care I had from the NHS was brilliant; I couldn't fault it. There are hundreds of people that come together and collaborate to make you better. It is incredible, and they did a wonderful job.

Potter was treated at the Churchill Hospital, part of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, which is an integrated care center, a newish model used by the NHS that Potter says works really well for patients: 

The model gives much better outcomes in terms of survival rates, and they ensure you have the best possible quality of life afterwards because it does leave problems. The Churchill hospital was an exemplar of how I wanted to be treated. 

What I saw was a well-designed and integrated care model that is clearly the result of a high level of investment and specialism. It renewed my passion for what we can do as technologists and the value we bring.

The UK civil service also showed it has a strong ethos of care towards employees, which Potter appreciates: 

The Cabinet Office was incredibly supportive, and that meant I could focus on my recovery and have a graceful return to work now that I am in remission.

Speeding up government

The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) was set up in April 2021 to be responsible for delivering digital transformation across the UK government, with Potter joining in September 2022. CDDO creates and directs the digital strategy through standards and leadership. Potter says: 

We can accelerate and provide greater impact by working with departments to help them achieve their outcomes. To do that, I want CDDO to be working with departments up-front and not be asked to come in later and challenge them when perhaps it is too late to make a material difference.

To do this, the CDDO is looking to identify barriers that departments face and deal with them. Potter says funding systems are too focused on large-scale transformation, but he wants to "evolve" these methods to suit small and regular change programmes; he says: 

This will improve our chances of success by providing three things: we will help departments go faster, get rid of obstacles and ensure that the system-wide incentives support the departments.

CDDO's strategic direction document Transforming for a Digital Future: Government's 2022-25 Roadmap for Digital and Data, sets out how it will increase shared best practice and work across the government on what it terms 'whole of government problems'. 

Potter's aim is that the smaller departments of government should have the same opportunities for technological change as the behemoths of HMRC and DWP. He says: 

The smaller departments are not as well resourced, so the scope to experiment in how you do delivery in different ways just isn't there. At CDDO, we can bring in the best practices to make the cost of transition much easier and less risky by sharing platforms and capabilities. The government will then do things once and well.

This has the potential to create a more unified technology environment within the UK government, he says: 

I think there will be a convergence so that programmes are done once and across the government, and we make sure there is good integration.

If successful, this could resolve the issues that the National Audit Office recently highlighted  of expensive temporary contracts with misaligned commercial incentives, with its head, Gareth Davies, stating: 

Government's spend on IT services is an excellent example of where further efficiencies lie. Maximizing government's buying power in that market dominated by global giants is essential.

Potter says the move to a cloud-first technology model is underpinning this change in methods and culture: 

With the adoption of cloud, it is important to ensure that we use technology as it was designed and not customize things to death. So it is a shift in the delivery, sourcing and use of technology models, and if we do this, our velocity will increase, as will our capability to be more agile and deliver more benefits, and as a consequence, our cost base will decrease. 

Also, our technology risk will decrease, and I saw the evidence for that at Thames Water. We removed over 200 legacy applications and converged around six major cloud platforms, moving to 250 people working for us developing software that delivered value and benefits.

As with a growing number of peers across various sectors, Potter is moving CDDO and the government to a product management focus: 

With product delivery, you have real users in the room, so programmes are built and designed by the users. This means you jump the chasm of lost confidence, and you move straight to the user, saying: 'This is great; can we do more'. The challenge is how do you do that in the environment we are in, which still has legacy vendors and legacy skills.

Potter says dealing with that legacy will be a major focus for him: 

When I say legacy vendors, it is a case that we don't need firms to manage our infrastructure because that will be managed by the cloud providers, and our focus will be on what we can do with these cloud applications and our data. So we need to have a good goodbye with some of our historical vendors, and we need to help our own people with that.

A CDDO-supported legacy replacement programme is in place using a framework to identify and respond to 'red-rated' systems that pose the greatest risk to the departments. The departments have agreed to remedial plans being in place by 2025, which can include upgrades, replacement or moving to the public cloud. Potter says much of the legacy technology is being retired but says the retirement and modernization programme will not be completed within the current government spending review period. He says: 

The legacy replacement will be part of the next spending review, and we will make sure it is completed within that period.

Government spending reviews are five-year periods, and with the UK expected to go to the polls in 2024, a new government will be in place during the year, which will lead to another spending review. Potter is balancing the legacy replacement but is consciously avoiding a lift and shift of old methods to new technology; he says the programme must deliver new ways of working as well as reducing the risk: 

What we are doing is like rivers and lakes. Legacy remediation is cleaning up the lake, with the move to product management ensuring that we don't pollute the lake again, so we don't end up in the same place again.

Community cabinet

As the UK government becomes increasingly digital, it will need to retain skilled technologists and data expertise. Potter, himself a returnee to the public sector, believes a community approach will unlock and secure the skills the government needs. He has a history here; as Digital Transformation Director for HMRC in 2014, Potter led the rebranding of tech recruitment at the department. 

We need to build a compelling brand to get people to work and stay here. Brands have equity and reach, and the reach is how we get out there to tell our story, whilst the equity is what we stand for. At HMRC, we created the narrative around the impact you have on people's lives.

Work has already begun. In November 2023 the new brand Government Digital and Data profession was launched with the mission to recruit technology talent into the UK government and develop a community. He says: 

Technologists are the most inclined people to join a community, whether that be Stack Overflow or GitHub. Yet, we have never really worked across government to build a community that will provide growth and support to our people. I think there is massive value in that.

Challenged on whether the government should be spending money on tech communities when there are many other pressing demands on the public purse, Potter says:

The return on investment will come from our ability to hire and retain the best people. Every single person who joins and replaces a consultant or contractor saves the government money and you quickly get to some big numbers.

We live in a world of constrained headcount, so we need to be able to flow people across the system to meet demand that will go up and down across the departments.

Potter hopes the community will ensure that public sector technologists can see career pathways, find ways to increase their skills, discover roles in locations that fit their needs and ensure the government has the skills it requires. He believes this will enable the government to grow its own talent base in much the same way as major vendors have. 

My take 

Potter's return to the public sector mirrors the appointment of Rich Corbridge as CDIO of DWP; both are public sector technology leaders that were recruited into the private sector, Thames Water for Potter and retailer Boots for Corbridge. Their return to the public sector is indicative of the new technology models being adopted by the government, but also the recognition by industry that public sector CIOs are ideally suited to their transformation programmes. As Potter says: 

Commercial organizations recognize they are not that different in terms of getting stuff done. As a result, we are seeing a flow of talent coming in and out of the public sector, and that is healthy.

His community approach is well-timed and will be an interesting development to watch. 

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