Liam Maxwell’s departure for AWS raises the question - who are the new faces of digital government in Whitehall?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 9, 2018
Liam Maxwell was one of the last standing ‘old guard’ of digital transformation in Whitehall. He and a few other profile people have all left for pastures new. Where is the next generation coming from?

Westminster Government
Mike Bracken. Tom Loosemore. Francis Maude. Stephen Foreshew-Cain. Olivia Neal. Andy Beale. Denise McDonough. Chris Chant. All names that will be familiar to those that observed the early digital transformation agenda in Whitehall. All of the above (and that’s not a comprehensive list - sorry to those I missed off!) played a critical leadership role in shaping the transformation agenda - and were strong and vocal in their approach. All of the above have either stepped back from that agenda, or have moved on to pastures new, which is the nature of work and what people do.

Liam Maxwell, the government’s chief technology adviser, is the latest name to be added to that list. It was revealed this week that Maxwell will soon be leaving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for a new role at Amazon Web Services. Maxwell, whilst being a controversial figure, was one of those that ‘got it’ and has dedicated much of his career to driving change from within the beast (Whitehall).

As noted above, people move on and they have to do what they have to do. That being said, this growing list of alumni, of people that made it their job to be loud and vocal about necessary change in Whitehall - some more collaboratively than others - is starting to feel like it’s maxed out. In other words, who is left in government to pick up where these innovators left off? There’s a couple of names that spring to mind, particularly those involved with OneTeamGov, but there aren’t many left…

You could argue that Kevin Cunnington has been somewhat of a prominent figure. And has done some good work - most notably at DWP, rather than at GDS. But he’s problematic for a number of reasons, which we have documented thoroughly on diginomica/government (e.g. lack of strong leadership). Then there was Matt Hancock - who whilst I thought was more PR than action as Secretary of State at DCMS - at least made a point of talking about digital, publicly, whilst holding a senior position in office. He’s now gone to the Department for Health and Social Care, and although he still is talking about technology, it’s not his core brief.

So, I ask again - who are the new faces of digital government and transformation in Whitehall? Who are the pioneers and who will lead the way through the maze of politics, complex institutions, cultural inertia and provide answers to difficult questions?

Just a few short years ago, people within GDS and other departments were encouraged to talk openly about the problems facing transformation and change in government. They were encouraged to talk openly about interesting ideas and there were so many exciting conversations taking place. Where is that happening now? I’m sure they are, I’m not saying it’s died, but what I can tell you is that I’m running out of people I can look to for insights, guidance, thoughtful discussions and leadership on the changes that *need* to take place. There is a feeling of digital in government becoming walled off and closed, which isn’t a good thing.

Britain is facing one of its most challenging and defining moments in modern history with Brexit. Take the politics out of it, and if Brexit goes ahead, it requires a huge amount of effort and resource to change the way we operate. But with disruption comes opportunity. New systems and business models are needed - where are the leaders driving this discussion forward? I don’t mean political discussions, I mean innovative ideas around the way Britain could change its institutions and trade as a result of exiting the European Union.

What we don’t want or need is status quo to resume, for outsourcing once again to reign supreme and for the UK to simply become a tax haven…

I’m consistently told that there are amazing people still working on digital transformation in Whitehall - not just in GDS, but across the departments. But how can their voices and ideas be heard if not through new leaders that are brave and forthright about what needs to be done? We need a new generation of Maxwells and Brackens and Maudes to be given the backing to reignite the digital spark, which currently feels like it is going out or being drowned by Brexit chaos.

And the key word here is backing. We need savvy, political, loud, collaborative, leaders that have the backing to go forward and be innovative in the public domain. Where that backing comes from has to be right at the top, unfortunately. And that’s where I believe the problem lies. Number 10 has been silent on digital (mostly silent, anyway) for a long time now. It needs to recognise the significance of this agenda and realise how critical it is to the success of its Industrial Strategy. I know Brexit is dominating, but the two agendas should go hand in hand.

I have no doubt that there are people in Whitehall that would be more than happy, and capable, of filling these large shoes. But they need the support and the space to do it - and to also be allowed to make mistakes and learn from others. If this doesn’t happen, I genuinely worry that the foundations that have been put in place over the past few years will become more and more fragile.

We are looked to from around the world as the pioneers in digital government - let’s not become known as the ones that started it, but couldn’t follow through.

Image credit - Via Pixabay

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