Liam Maxwell’s move to AWS is problematic - and not just because he’s the government’s chief tech advisor

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 7, 2018
Liam Maxwell has played a fundamental role in the transformation of technology procurement and design of services in Whitehall. He ‘got it’, but he’s also a divisive figure that doesn’t always see the need to play by the rules.

Liam Maxwell
Here’s one that we didn’t see coming. Whatever you think of Liam Maxwell, and people have plenty to say about him, he’s been a steady and prominent figure on the Whitehall technology scene. Which is why his decision to jump ship to take up a senior role at Amazon Web Services (AWS) - as first revealed by the Register - is somewhat surprising.

Besides the obviously terrible optics - some sources are calling this decision ‘perilously close to corrupt’ - the move also raises questions about the future stewardship of the data governance and policy functions at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which were recently moved out of GDS into the department.

Maxwell and then-Minister Matt Hancock spearheaded the move, with observers describing the decision as being driven by egos and empire building in Whitehall.

However, most notably, Maxwell’s move will spark criticism, given that he advocated such policies in Whitehall as the “cloud first” strategy, which is now the “public cloud first” strategy - and appears to favour hyper-scale vendors. The document released by GDS, states:

Major cloud infrastructure or platform providers understand security concerns are important to their customers.

There are some legal requirements you need to consider when adopting cloud services, like the Data Protection Act and the EU Data Protection Directive. In general, large cloud service providers have experience with these requirements, and have standard contractual terms that can help you meet your responsibilities.

In other words, US cloud vendors are fine…

Maxwell obviously has worked closely with a number of government departments over the years and has relationships with senior technology buyers and influencers across Whitehall, which will raise a few eyebrows given that AWS is driving hard into the UK public sector.

Furthermore, the Home Office’s former chief digital officer, Norman Driskell, recently took at job at AWS without gaining the necessary approvals first. So the cloud vendor has form here. Driskell’s move was particularly controversial given that whilst he was at the Home Office he oversaw multi million pound contracts being handed to AWS. He also set up one of Europe’s largest AWS user groups in his spare time.

Commenting on Maxwell’s appointment, one G-Cloud supplier told diginomica/government:

For me, this is all too cosy. In December 2016 AWS declared its UK Region open for business, and this was actively promoted by Liam Maxwell at the time. In January 2017 GDS declared that its Cloud First policy was in fact “Public Cloud” (and the attendant blog made overt references to “large” and “major” cloud providers) – and since then almost all of central government’s cloud spend has been steadily moving to AWS.

Questions need to be asked about whether the new job is a reward for the Public Cloud policy, and indeed whether Norman Driskell’s role with AWS was in fact a reward for landing AWS with a £4.8m contract with the Home Office.

A quick look at the G-Cloud spend data and it’s clear that the government is already spending millions of pounds with AWS - particularly in departments such as the Home Office, DWP and at agencies such as the DVLA.

Maxwell will be governed by business appointment rules in Whitehall and will be expected to apply for approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is required when senior civil servants take up “any new appointment” during the first couple of years after leaving office.

The rules also state:

You must not misuse your official position, for example by using information acquired in the course of your official duties, to further your private interests or those of others.

You must not be influenced by improper pressures from others or the prospect of personal gain.

However, another source did point out that Maxwell isn’t much liked across Whitehall, as he has spent years forcing people to change to adapt to internet-driven delivery models. And doesn’t mind making enemies. So, in that respect, he may not be as useful to AWS as some expect. Although he does still have a friend in Matt Hancock, who was at DCMS, but is now the new Minister for Health and Social Care.

But Maxwell is also a well known Tory lobbyist with friends in high places. That shouldn’t be underestimated.

The future of data at DCMS

As an aside to the perception of Maxwell going to work for the largest public cloud provider in the world, having served as a technology influencer in Whitehall for years, my immediate concern was regarding the stewardship of data policy and governance at the DCMS.

As noted above, the decision to pull data out of GDS and place it within DCMS was a controversial one. And was perceived as Maxwell and Hancock playing empire building in Whitehall. That being said, others saw it as a chance to get two savvy people, Hancock and Maxwell, in charge of a function that has been flagging for years.

What now? Who is going to spearhead it? We are yet to hear much from the new Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, having just been appointed - although his digital track record doesn’t leave us with much hope.

As one source said to me today about the data move to GDS, “this is why the decision was such a bad one, driven by egos”.

Data is critical - both in terms of policy and the underpinning infrastructure - to Whitehall driving forward effective change and its Government-as-a-Platform strategy.

My take

Although Liam can be difficult at times, there’s no denying he’s been fundamental in driving through necessary change in Whitehall. From the early days of spend controls, to being a strong advocate of user-centred design and cloud-focused design strategies, Maxwell was certainly one of the people that ‘got it’. I didn’t agree with him on everything, but I admired his approach and he was certainly able to get things done - often for the better. He’s served longer than most of the civil servants that started in the early days at GDS, and he should be applauded for some of the work he’s done.

That being said, this doesn’t look particularly good. The rules that govern business appointments of civil servants are there for a reason. I haven’t been able to get any official comment on whether or not approval has been sought or gained, but we do know that those rules are legally binding. But as noted above, my main concern is for the data function now sitting within DCMS without a clear leader to drive it forward. That is unfortunate.

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