The continuous flow of execs between AWS, Microsoft, IBM and government

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez October 29, 2017
A report out today suggests that the Home Office’s former chief digital officer took a job with AWS before seeking the necessary approvals first.

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According to a report in the Times today, the Home Office’s former chief digital officer, Norman Driskell, took a job with Amazon Web Services (AWS) without gaining the necessary approvals first - a trend that has been highlighted by the National Audit Office in recent months as a concern.

Driskell oversaw multimillion pound contracts with AWS during his time at the Home Office and has also set up one of Europe’s largest AWS user groups in his spare time, before taking up the job as a public sector lead with the cloud hosting giant.

Diginomica is also aware that the Home Office funded a “delegation” of technology leaders to attend a number of workshops on the west coast of the US during Driskell’s time at the department, including a visit to AWS.

According to Whitehall rules, civil servants taking jobs in the private sector are expected to uphold civil service values for a period of two years after leaving Whitehall and should not take up positions that would give "cause for justified public concern, criticism or misinterpretation".

It’s obvious why these rules are in place, given the potential for future employers to gain from insider knowledge by hiring certain government officials, or from grooming officials during their tenure in Whitehall.

Clearance is expected to be sought before taking up a post, but the National Audit Office recently highlighted how little this is actually happening.

According to the Times report, the Home Office paid AWS £1.2 million in the 18 months prior to Driskell’s departure in November 2016. Just three months later in February 2017, the Home Office went on to award AWS a 24 month contract worth £4.8 million.

Diginomica has also seen a freedom of information request, which states: “Home Office
officials were part of a delegation of HM Government technology leaders attending a number of
workshops in the US in February 2016. Workshops were held with a number of suppliers located in
the Seattle area, including Amazon Web Services.”

The Home Office also told The Times that “the department can only act on applications that individuals bring to our attention”.

The report follows a week of scrutiny over the government’s relationship with certain technology suppliers, including AWS and Microsoft, which seem to be winning favour with departments, ahead of British SMEs that have done well on the G-Cloud framework in recent years.

The criticism was prompted by a story broken by The Register, which explains how a British SME, DataCentred, was put out of business because its contract was handed over to AWS. There is growing concern that by relying on AWS and Microsoft, the government is locking itself into proprietary software and is not doing what it can to foster a digital economy in the wake of Brexit.

A continued trend

Driskell’s appointment isn’t unique within the context of Whitehall appointments - for example, the NAO highlighted in its report that of 271 senior civil servants leaving for new jobs in 2015-16, only 67 decisions relating to the new jobs had been published. However, in recent months we have seen a number of appointments also going the other way, where Whitehall departments have been hiring from large technology vendors.

For example, HMRC raised a few eyebrows recently when it announced that it was hiring Microsoft corporate VP, Jacky Wright, as its new Chief Digital Information Officer. Not only because of the appointment from Microsoft, but because it was revealed by The Register that she was taking the post under a two year sabbatical from the company.

The job pays £180,000 per year and Wright was due to start in the post this month. HMRC said Wright must recuse herself from any discussion and decisions relating to Microsoft, both within HMRC an across government.

However, despite the tax department’s assurances, the reaction from observers was not a positive one.

Shortly after Wright’s appointment, the Home Office announced that it would be appointing Joanna Davinson as its new Chief Digital, Data, Technology Officer. Davinson currently leads IBM’s cognitive consulting, process consulting and business process outsourcing businesses in Europe.

Davinson has been an IBM exec since 2007 and vice president since 2012. Although her appointment didn’t raise as many eyebrows as Wright’s, it still points towards a growing trend of departments looking to technology vendor talent to fill their gaps in capability.

The Home Office in recent years has signed multi-million pound technology deals with IBM.

My take

The problem here is bigger than Driskell or any official getting hired in government or leaving government for a technology vendor. The problem is the lack of central control and insight into the appointments. The rules are there, clear as day, but it seems that it doesn’t matter if anyone is following them or not - because no one seems to have the authority to take action if they are broken. As a result, it seems to be a case of turn a blind eye until a national paper finds out. This is taxpayers money and it’s important that we know technology decisions are being made because they are deemed to be the right decisions at the time, not just because of a relationship or a contact.