It’s hard to avoid the word ‘platform’ in the world of Whitehall IT these days, particularly in the pseudo-trendy circles around the Government Digital Service.
Where you might not expect to hear it so much is in defence, a sector that is rightly or wrongly seen as clunky, locked-down and, understandably, obsessed with security.
The Ministry of Defence’s Chief Digital and Information Officer Mike Stone wants to change that image.
Since joining in May 2014 he has swept through the department, trying to change the role of IT, pushing for faster progress and ‘horizon scanning’ to try to understand how cutting-edge tech could be deployed in defence.
Stone calls his new plan ‘Defence as a Platform’. To him that means getting the MoD to use more common IT but also ensuring it exploits technology platforms better.
One of Stone’s first announcements was to identify 30 specific improvements to the department’s IT, due to be delivered by March 2015.
They were not major infrastructure problems, but irritating everyday niggles that were annoying users, like poor internet access, slow logon times, and a lack of browser choice or file sharing tools.
“I said ‘judge me on what I do – I will resign if I don’t deliver at least 80% of it’. I put accountability on the line. I delivered 29 out of the 30. None of them were easy, but actually the biggest challenge was not technical; it was cultural,” he says.
The one he did not deliver, he admits, was making laptops WiFi accessible. He says he realised there were WiFi-enabled laptops due to be delivered shortly after the deadline anyway.
“Rather than trying to spin that as a success from a failure, I decided the best thing to do was just put my hand up and say ‘sorry, we’ve cocked up on one’. I think there are often more brownie points to be gained in being honest than trying to spin it,” Stone says.
Given his practical, direct, ‘can-do’ approach, it’s understandable Stone feels impatient with ‘cultural torpor’ within the MoD, which he says is one of the greatest barriers to change (he also identifies a lack of skills, but more on that later).
“Lots of people have reasons why we shouldn’t do things as opposed to people with reasons why we should the biggest issue I have is that of received wisdoms.
“When people say ‘no’ to me, I want to know why it’s no rather than just accepting that it’s no. Generally, it’s only a small part of what’s being proposed that has got an issue, and if you identify that you can tackle it,” he says.
However Stone thinks he can overcome the inert culture by building up a strong delivery record, and also through the backing he has from ministers and top civil servants.
“There is a growing belief in the organisation that the IT department can make a difference,” he says.
Defence Information Infrastructure
Stone says he has set up a two-year plan to improve department’s core IT platform, the Defence Information Infrastructure, the contract for which was awarded to a consortium of suppliers dubbed ‘ATLAS’ in 2005.
“The Defence Information Infrastructure is outdated. It’s expensive; it’s inflexible. People judge the world through the lens of that 17-inch screen, and to most people it’s cracked,” he says.
Although it brought together 80 different infrastructures and helped make the MoD a global enterprise, it is now far behind the tech capabilities people have at home, according to Stone.
“My intent is that within two years we won’t be the laggards, we will be right on the leading edge. So, we will have a mobile base, cloud capability, Windows 10, Office 365 in a private cloud so that we will be able to provide our staff with the level of tooling that they need to do their job in a collaborative way,” he says.
By April 2016 Stone says the department will start migrating people onto these ‘new capabilities’ at a rate of 15,000 a month.
The new IT will be available to all staff in any location, he says, a necessity now (like many Whitehall organisations) the department has moved to a ‘hot-desking’ environment with 10 people to every six desks.
“There will be a degree of social in there as well, enterprise social media, and much more emphasis on analytics,” he adds.
Defence as a Platform
Part of Stone’s plan is to bring in a more sensible, proportionate attitude to security, he says, moving from a very tightly controlled system for all to a more flexible case-by-case approach, where security does not hold people back from working collaboratively, but sensitive information is protected.
Stone has dubbed his programme ‘Defence as a Platform’.
He says this means ensuring the department does its own design and integration, buys tech components that can be used across the MoD, chooses off-the-shelf over bespoke systems and removes vendor lock-in as far as possible.
It shares some similarities with its namesake: the Government Digital Service’s cross-Whitehall ‘Government as a Platform’ concept.
“Defence as a Platform encompasses the approaches of both government as a platform and common technology services,” Stone says.
“Government as a Platform tends to look at how we can do things in a common way across multiple departments and agencies…what I am looking at here is how we exploit technology platforms better, which is more about common technology across the MoD.”
Traditionally, individual business units within the MoD have decided to “go off and do their own things” rather than rely on the IT department, which has a reputation for not being particularly innovative, Stone admits.
“Some of these small-scale IT projects within MOD departments “are very good, so I’m now seeking to swipe them and give them to everybody else. Because it makes sense if you develop something that’s valuable to pass it across,” he says.
His aim is for one central IT department to provide infrastructure and connectivity platforms, compute power and storage to business units rather than allowing them to go off and individually buy applications with their own associated infrastructure.
“Then much easier to be able to translate that across to other areas,” he explains.
“There is very little unique about us there should be absolutely no reason why we can’t use standard, big industry capabilities. We should change our processes to meet the systems rather than customise the systems,” he adds.
Stone admits GDS “can be an irritant” for departments but says he thinks it has “been a huge force for good” and acts as a “critical friend”.
“I am a great believer in challenging received wisdoms, so I think it’s absolutely right that they should challenge my received wisdoms. Equally, I will challenge theirs, but they tend to be coming at things from a fresher perspective than organisations which have got a long history to them,” he adds.
To support these new technologies, and the associated cultural change, Stone will inevitably have to recruit for new skills.
“Data scientists are like hen’s teeth, and getting them to work on a public sector salary – but data scientists are very important for us in the analytical space and there’s a big shortfall,” he says.
The department plans to recruit more DevOps, test, integration and management skills, according to Stone.
But he warns business, enterprise and technical architects are also “increasingly rare and difficult to get hold of”.
Although there is a shortage of technical skills across the UK economy, Stone believes decades of outsourcing have made the issue particularly acute within the public sector.
“Essentially, the information professions have been hollowed out over the years by the fact that they’ve been TUPE’d across to outsourcers. I’ve got nothing against outsourcing, but what I think is critical is we don’t just hand over responsibility and say “right, now go do it,” he says.
So far our interview has touched on conventional, enterprise-level defence IT. However Stone’s responsibilities cover the battlefield as well as the corporate space.
Given the news is full of stories about drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, much of it with potential military implications, surely Stone must dedicate some of his time to looking at this sort of tech?
“I have got my eyes on things that are going on everywhere. When quantum computing gets to the point where I think that there is going to be value to it. I am horizon scanning the whole time and have gone on a few study tours,” he says.
“I need to understand what the weapons platforms are providing, and you need to think that a tank is a whole series of embedded software with a gun, and a helicopter the same with a rotor with all sorts of capabilities over the horizon, high capacity data radios, and so on,” Stone adds
He identifies changes within the security field and to database IT as further areas of current interest.
Intriguingly, he also says he is looking at a technology that is similar to Google Glass, but using just the eye’s movements.
“There was a company I saw recently that I was very interested in. They have managed, with two or three cameras, to be able to not only identify not only the direction that the eye is looking but focal length it is able to, just using the focus of the eye, select menus and things like that,” he says.
I would imagine that makes a nice change from the complex enterprise-level IT he has to grapple?
Yes, he says, “but that stuff is really important. Information is the lifeblood of operations, whether in the corporate space or the battle space…we have got to be masters of our own destiny”.