Interview - Govt CTO Liam Maxwell talks relationship with Microsoft, Government-as-a-Platform and GDS

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 9, 2015
The Government Digital Service and government-as-a-platform have been called in to question in recent months. Government CTO Liam Maxwell clears things up.

Liam Maxwell
This morning at Microsoft’s Decoded event in London, CEO Satya Nadella announced plans to offer commercial cloud services from the UK, as well as the completion of the expansion of the company’s data centre facilities in Ireland and the Netherlands.

Nadella used the event to highlight the benefits to organisations in the UK and Europe. He said:

At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more.

By expanding our data centre regions in the UK, Netherlands and Ireland we aim to give local businesses and organisations of all sizes the transformative technology they need to seize new global growth.

Effectively the announcement means that UK customers will now be allowed to host their data in the UK - something that the UK government has been calling on Microsoft to introduce for a long time, given the data residency issues that plague public sector organisations. Amazon announced a similar programme just last week.

Given the relevance to the public sector, we got a chance to sit down with government CTO Liam Maxwell at the event to discuss the government’s changing relationship with Microsoft. Not too long ago there were reports of battle between the two organisations, following Microsoft’s insistence to stick to its XML format for documents - rather than allowing support for ODF.

This has now changed and Microsoft has said that it will support ODF going forward and it seems that much of the change has been brought about by Satya Nadella himself. But where does this leave the government’s relationship with Microsoft? Maxwell seemed very positive. He said:

We have [had our ups and downs] in the past, but a lot of it is in the past. When we first met Satya last year, we sat down and had a long conversation, we had a meeting with him. It was a really interesting time when we sat down with him, because we are talking about openness. We’ve always said that we are in favour of open standards, open markets, open data and open source.

And we’ve done that, we’ve always had those positions, because of our legacy. Microsoft were very open about the way they wanted to deal with that, their commitment towards this was very strong. You would have seen with the use of the open document format, they’ve now taken that under their wing.

We are back to normal. That’s a really good position. I think a lot of the work to make this happen has been done by sitting down and talking.

UK hosting

As long as I’ve known Maxwell he’s been trying to convince the likes of Microsoft and Amazon that UK hosting would be beneficial not only for UK organisations, and the public sector, but also their businesses - given the data protection laws facing organisations this side of the Atlantic.

As a result, it’s unsurprising that he sees today’s announcement as a good thing for UK government. He said:

It’s been fairly well known that we have been trying for about three years to get both those companies to invest in the UK. We’ve had a long series of discussions to encourage them to do so because we see the UK as a really good market. Principally, if you think about it, if you think about it in terms of cyber hygiene and cyber health, we are better than most countries.

It’s the best place to do business online. It’s one of the best places to land investment from the US and from other places like China and Korea. We’ve always wanted to have an effective region-scale data centre structure from the major players. We are very happy we have got it.

It’s got great implications for business. But if you think about it for local government and for lots of people who have always found the issue data sovereignty and data location to be troubling. Those days are gone, so it should mean that we heave a much more effective competition for people service our cloud first policy, which has been really helpful.

It’s going to be massively liberating for IT folk in the public sector, so not just central government, but all the way across government. It opens up an enormous market for them.

Maxwell also added that given the latest Safe Harbour ruling, which is causing a bit of a headache for

Satya Nadella
organisations in the UK and cloud companies based out of the US, the prospect of data hosting in the UK from the likes of Microsoft and Amazon is “helpful”.


Following the announcement that Mike Bracken and a number of his senior staff would be leaving the Government Digital Service over the summer, which brought into question the future of things like Government-as-a-Platform (something we have been particularly supportive of), I was keen to get Maxwell’s take on the state of play.

Maxwell was keen to downplay the level of disruption brought about by Bracken’s departure and insisted that things are pretty much still full steam ahead. He said:

It was change. Mike went in the summer, four of his team went. And we’ve been helping our Australian friends, we’ve worked a lot with the people there. It’s been seen as disruptive, but it wasn’t actually. It’s been really positive. It didn’t really change very much. We have a very strong focus on delivering common tech, the core kernel services that form Government-as-a-Platform.

The restructure that Stephen [Foreshew] and I started off in January has now come through, GDS is much easier to talk to, you know where people are, you know which team they’re working in. Having 11 different function within an organisation is too confusing on the outside.

I asked Maxwell directly: Is Government-as-a-Platform still an important focus? His response: “Yeah, oh yeah”. Maxwell said that GDS has put in four main bids to the Treasury as part of the spending review, all of which support the ambition to create a Government-as-a-Platform. He said:

We have four main bids - because part of it is that we are going to fund GDS properly. GDS was always funded on the basis of savings we had made to a website. And that was where Francis Maude was so strong, he got it. But it is part of government now. But in order to service the other parts of department, we have to get the core funding sorted out.

Then we get these three extra programme bits on top, which are Common Technology Services, the platform play and Verify. Those are three bids. They’re like any other bids. There is no point in us pitching, you never pitch to the Treasury. They’re in, they’re really good cases. We feel comfortable about it. We’ve got departments signed up and really want to run those services, they save so much money that we know there is a strong business case to make those work.

The big issue with the spending review is going to be timing, about when we can do stuff. It’s all about timing and priorities. That’s where we sit. But we feel good.

He added that the agenda going forward is very much focused on common technology services. He said:

Where we are now going to push is that we have got some really great talent in and we spent a long time making sure we hired really great people. We are all on the same common agenda, common mission. I sit on the table with my tech leaders and in many ways I can look at that and say we fixed the roof. I came in to fix the roof. Now we can ask, what’s next?

Common tech is going to be a huge part of what the next cost savings will be because we all know we can operate in the same offices, we can operate in the same environments and we are going to be using similar technology and working across departmental teams. We just need the tech to support that. The great thing is that the tech to support that is much, much cheaper if we do it this way, than it was if we did it by heavily specified outsourced contracts and sending them out to a market. It’s much more about being in control of what you’re doing.


Finally, Maxwell wanted to highlight that the media storm that kicked off following Bracken’s exit from GDS has been somewhat overblown. He was keen to point out that actually the turnover of staff in GDS has been pretty low and the organisation as a whole has been protected. He said:

This line that we had all the way through the summer about ‘exits, exits, exits’ - GDS had less turnover than any other part. So that’s a bit manufactured, sorry. I know there is hype, but the fact is that in the summer we got £42 million from the Treasury and didn’t get cut. We’ve got a better turnover ratio and engagement ratios than before

My take

Bit of a whirlwind of an interview given the time constraints, but as ever, Maxwell is straight talking and to the point. It’s reassuring to hear that things are still on track.

I’d personally like some more clarity around how the four bids to the Treasury are distinct from each other in terms of the Government-as-a-Platform agenda. But I’m sure as we hear the results of the spending review, that will become clearer…

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