by Julian Goldsmith

CIO Profile – Isle of Man Government CTO Peter Clarke

Oct 17, 201111 mins
CareersFinancial Services IndustryGovernment

If anyone asked you to spend 10 years on the Isle of Man, you might be forgiven for assuming it would be a quiet decade on what the rest of the UK regards as a bit of a backwater, with little to do and not much expectation to achieve. For Peter Clarke, CTO of the Isle of Man Government, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

True, he didn’t expect to spend that long on the island, initially landing on its shores for a three-day stint a dozen years ago. What began as a contracting job for Ericsson soon became a more long-term position working directly for the Isle of Man Government.

The attraction for Clarke was in the scope of projects and the potential to achieve real change in working processes not usually open to roles of a similar level in other national governments. The scale of operations meant that he could attempt projects like joined-up government and make them work when authorities on ‘the mainland’ were still struggling to embrace the concepts.

Manx folk are fiercely independent and proud of the society they have built over the millennia on the island. They scorn terms such as ‘mainland’ because of the comparisons it invites. It’s that independence of spirit that Clarke was able to tap into to get the buy-in he needed for his change strategy to work.

The Island has around 80,000 citizens and is supported by a government with a staff of 9000 who run all the public services on the island. Clarke points out that where many services are part-privatised in the UK, the same services on the Isle of Man are wholly run by the government. However this is on a proportionally smaller budget, driving the need for more effective, less costly IT to support them.

Self-sufficient society

These services, such as health, education, policing, transport systems, tax and VAT all have to be funded from the island’s economy which depends a great deal on the high-tech and financial companies who have operations there. The level of autonomy compared to other corporate or public sector organisations is something that Clarke enjoys.

“To me that’s a huge challenge and a great job opportunity,” he says.

Clarke originally arrived on the Isle of Man to create a universal and secure email and internet system for the government. Right from the start, the thinking behind the project was to create a system the whole government would use, enabling departments to work more closely together to improve services for the citizens. At the time Clarke was a subcontractor for Ericsson, but for the next project, he was hired directly by the island’s government to upgrade the desktop environment.

In 2001, upgrading the desktop systems was a very manual and labour-intensive task: there was no automation and no distributed systems so desktops were fixed one at a time.

There was a collection of core applications sitting in the datacentre but quite a lot of other government applications were being developed in an organic way at a speed dictated by the various departments. Clarke recalls that some departments had better resources in terms of IT knowledge than others, so it was difficult to establish a service benchmark.

The saving grace for Clarke was that the government already had one data network supporting all the departments. Supplied by Manx Telecom, the telecoms supplier that runs public voice services across the island, this landline operated at 2Mbps. “The main driver was to reduce operating costs, to increase the uptime of the equipment and to set the infrastructure to cope with a more strategic applications deployment,” Clarke explains.

It was a radical plan that was inevitably going to concern government department heads, but in 2004, a new IS director joined the team. Alan Patterson was to form a valuable partnership with Clarke in pushing through the changes they proposed. Like Clarke, Patterson had come from an industrial and logistics background, and they soon established a rapport that has lasted a decade. The keystones to their combined strategy were to rationalise IT down to a common denominator and to concentrate on the value the systems brought to the citizens the Isle of Man government served. “The IT itself is only the DNA, not the end product,” says Clarke.

Together, Clarke and Patterson started to gather the support of each of the departmental chief executives and the ministers they reported to. They needed to sell the business case of what we now call ‘shared services’ to them as a worthwhile venture. “In any government it’s important to collaborate and get a consensus. I don’t think you’ll get 100 per cent agreement but you need to get the majority agreeing with the general direction and strategy,” says Clarke.

With Clarke and Patterson coming from big corporate organisations like Sony and Amey respectively, they approached the project from a commercial viewpoint. They drove the message that the Isle of Man Government needed to make decisions at the same speed as the commercial organisations they had previously worked for. This could only help it differentiate itself from other corporate havens planning to attract new businesses to set up their headquarters there.

Out of joint

“It’s hard to look for a blueprint for joined-up government,” says Clarke.

“If you are looking across the world, finding joined-up government at the cabinet level is difficult and as you walk through the organisation, there are so many people who wish to participate in the decision-making process that by the time it takes to make a decision you’ve lost the impetus. A business wouldn’t take three years to make a decision over strategy and direction: you would make that decision very quickly and then implement it.”

Clarke and Patterson were fortunate that they could get access to the highest levels of government more easily than their UK central government counterparts might expect.

Once the rationalisation project was signed off, the IT team audited the hardware and software estate, finding a considerable variety of platforms. “We had one of everything,” says Clarke.

They set about implementing a common platform architecture across the whole of the government, based on off-the shelf systems such as Microsoft XP, now being upgraded to Windows 7. Not all the systems have been migrated to off-the-shelf platforms: core applications supporting VAT and Treasury processes are still bespoke, for instance.

Binding these departmental applications together in a secure way is the dedicated government network which has been beefed up to 40Gbps in the wide area and a minimum 1Gbps connection at the local area, including mobile devices. The network incorporates IP telephony to every desk, and Clarke says the Isle of Man’s government was the first in the world to do this.

Although the Isle of Man Government does use some consultancy providers, Clarke likes to deal with the OEMs directly, so that he can control contract negotiations. It means he can drive down costs from network suppliers Cisco and Manx Telecom significantly. All of the phone calls are at a fixed charge, every mobile and every landline is co-joined and all calls within the island are free. Calls to the UK are free and there is a discount applied to calls beyond the UK.

Isle of Man moves public services to hybrid cloud

Eight out of 10 of fixed and mobile desktops are now served by the centralised support system, meaning upgrades and fix times can be significantly shortened. This includes the above-average IT penetration in education and healthcare at the end-user level. Every primary school classroom has IT equipment installed and this rises to almost one desktop per student at A-level.

Centralising desktop support may not sound like a particularly strategic move, but Clarke maintains this has allowed him to reduce desktop costs by 60 per cent year on year. Gross spend on IT is £13.2m, reduced to £9.2m after some services are internally recharged to specific government agencies. The IT spend is less than one per cent of the Isle of Man Government’s revenue, where some UK government departments’ technology budgets are nearer to 10 per cent of revenue, according to reports.

“Today I can go anywhere in the world and I can connect into the datacentres and access any service, including police and education, in a safe and secure manner,” says Clarke.

Security is a prime concern when the level of connectivity between departments is so high. Some departments require higher levels of security than others and the whole system is subject to an unusual level of external auditing. Because of the close links with UK services, police and healthcare systems on the island are audited regularly by their counterparts across the water.

Taxing tests

The island’s status as a data haven attractive to financial services organisations means the UK banking community also tests the durability of Clarke’s systems four times a year. This is on top of his own penetration testing in which he uses professional hackers.

“The more you automate the less you have the ability to cope with unforeseen things,” Clarke says. “You had to raise your game and your quality. You had to insure your services are in an optimal state at all times so the accreditations are vital for us to maintain not only our reputation but to show ourselves that we are actually delivering quality services.”

The Windows 7 desktop upgrade has improved the level of support while reducing cost. Enterprise software upgrades have been reduced from eight weeks to a few days. Broken desktops can be repaired within a working day.

It also allows Clarke to switch on default levels of encryption on all devices fitted with a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip. He explains that this is a simple, cost-effective way of ensuring that government data is safeguarded.

“In quite a lot of departments it’s not that they don’t understand the value of data but they are unable to classify all the strands of data. For the Isle of Man to deliver all grades of service at the desktop it actually increases costs at the desktop of delivery of service,” he says.

“It is far cheaper for us to pick one level of service and to do that very well. That reduces our costs because we are in effect reducing the complexity of service and support.”

Clarke is justifiably proud of what he has achieved for the Isle of Man Government. IT leaders in similar roles might point to the advantage he has in scale, but that would dismiss the part his approach to change management plays in creating a joined-up government: never stop improving and don’t wait until changes have to be made to do them.

“It’s a virtuous circle: if you keep improving at a steady pace, you gradually look around at the competitors and find that you are way in front. Some departments who have come to visit us from the UK are still on XP and are actually worried about how to make the migration that we did three years ago.”

Clarke says his approach to proactively improving the IT Infrastructure meant he had the time to make critical decisions and negotiate with stakeholders and suppliers without stress. He avoided the burden of incurring the additional expense of resources to make the necessary changes on deadline.

Perhaps the best example of what Clarke has achieved in joined-up government and the benefits it has brought to the Manx citizenry is the state-of-the-art reporting systems within ambulance and hospital systems.

“We have an ambulance, which before it gets to the hospital, will have delivered patient data to the accident and emergency ward so A&E is aware of what triage has taken place in the ambulance, prior to the patient arriving,” he explains.

“That’s a first in the world and it’s all about making the use of the convergence in the network to enable that to happen and the ability to work with the different relevant departments and collaborate in pushing back what is a very difficult boundary.”

CV: Peter Clarke

2005-present: CTO, Isle of Man Government 2001-2005: Director, Catalyst (IoM) Ltd 1998-2005: Director, CEC UK 1997-1999: Assignment (WAN, datacentre and desktop automation deployment), Ericsson 1997-1998: Consultant, Catalyst UK 1978-1997: Assistant General Manager IT & Logistics, Sony Manufacturing UK