by Mark Chillingworth

Jon Wrennall is a government CIO keen to challenge the existing methods

May 17, 2010
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

Jon Wrennall is unashamedly techie. He loves technology and all it can offer organisations, and it troubles him that some of his peers in IT departments appear to be devaluing technical knowledge. Wrennall is CIO at the Valuation Office Agency, a rarely heard of government department, but although his department makes little noise, Wrennall enjoys challenging current government IT thinking.

The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) describes itself as: “The VOA is an executive agency of HMRC and is responsible for business rates, council tax, and Housing Allowance,” So it’s pretty important to all of us individuals and business people.

“VOA has core functions; we maintain council tax lists of bandings, and also the non-domestic rates lists, which covers all commercial property such as the coffee shop we are sitting in to advertising billboards and dark fibre cabling and transmitters.

“We have also taken over the Rent Service from the Department of Work and Pensions, which provides valuations for assessing housing benefit claims and we have commercial services. The VOA provides surveying services to the rest of the public sector such as the Forestry Commission, the NHS and the Department for Transport, this creates £20 million worth of revenue to the department,” Wrennall explains of the varied set of services encapsulated by the dull sounding civil service moniker, VOA.

Wrennall goes on to explain that the most difficult task the VOA has to complete is the management of non-domestic rates. He and I are sitting in the Costa Coffee outlet a stone’s throw from his Shaftsbury Avenue office in London. The property has a set of rates imposed on it, made up of a different rate for each square meter of space, which is based on the footfall of traffic on that street. “Every five years this has to be redone and the next list will be out on April 1st,” he explains as that deadline nears.

Jon Wrennall, CIO of the Valuation Office Agency on how IT can do more for less

Wrennall clearly has a deep understanding of the business of the VOA, whom he joined from its parent Whitehall body HMRC, but what really interests him is technology, managing it and the opportunities it offers. But for technology to achieve its promises, it requires good technical people to deliver it, and this is a topic Wrennall feels has not been discussed properly in IT for some time.

“The lack of breadth and depth of technical skills means projects cannot be done properly. Too many people focus on the business, forgetting what they are there for. There are not enough people focussing on the technology they are employed to understand.

“I know technology skills are not in vogue at the moment, you are branded as a geek. But I don’t think that if you understand technology you are unable to communicate.” Wrennall is speaking from experience, upon joining VOA in May 2008 he had to “supplement my team with some IT professional skill sets.”

“If you don’t have the skills you end up outsourcing the technology skills required, yes you retain the business skills, but you are unable to challenge the outsource supplier. You cannot effectively manage the Capgems without the skills. Conversations need to be peer based. Vendors can do a sales pitch and blind with science if you don’t have technology skills, I’ve seen it.”

Wrennall is passionate about ensuring IT departments are suitably skilled as he believes the government IT agenda has a long way to go. Looking ahead, despite the need to cut public spending he says: “We need to optimise processes across the government. There are too many ERM, CRM and billing systems. You could spend your life integrating between them.”

Valuation Office CIO joins up customer experience

Controversially Wrennall believes there needs to be more mergers of government departments, citing Customs joining the tax collectors to form HMRC. Forcing them together he says has helped reduce duplication.

He is also a believer in the G-cloud that is being developed, but warns that it must not follow the same pattern as shared services. “If everyone wants to be a supplier there needs to be a market. Government shared services has failed so far because some of the frame works I need are not available. There is a lot of good press about the services, but the reality is short of that.” Wrennall has found many of the services do not scale upwards enough. Although backing the G-cloud, he is also realistic and points out that the military, health service, taxation and valuation surveying have very specific function requirements.

“The biggest impediment though is our existing relationships. Our suppliers want continuity of revenue, we’ve pushed them with constraining margins, so they cannot risk losing the deals as they are so hard won,” he says with empathy. Wrennall switched to the public sector from an 11 year stint at Accenture.

He describes the current scenario between vendors and the government as unwinnable for either side. “As a CIO you are challenging them to reduce their market share,” he says of the tightness of the deals. “We should be encouraging them to build a platform that is easy for them to share. It is up to us as customers to mandate open standards that can be consumed.” We will see more of Wrennall’s open attitudes to technology development later.

Wrennall’s empathy for the vendors may be from his Accenture days, he certainly thanks them for installing in him a professionalism he uses daily as a CIO.

“Accenture gave me a strong grounding in delivery, giving me an ethos of ‘if you say you are going to do something, you do it'”. He also thanks Accenture for an aptitude towards problem solving, “If you have to find a way to do something, you find it,” he says. His public sector career began as CTO at HMRC for three years before what he describes as a “sideways” move to become CIO of VOA. His current role requires a head to fit four hats: CIO, Director of Business Services (accommodation etc; Director of Agency Transformation Programme and Senior Information Risk Officer (SIRO).

“The CIO IT hat is the least challenging of these roles as it’s a more traditional day job, but IT is pervasive across the others.” Not that his time as CIO has been dull. Since joining two-years ago he has spearheaded a major technology upgrade throughout the organisation, replacing all the networking cabling and switchgear, upgrading the desktops to Windows XP, replacing and virtualising all the servers so that the datacentres could be consolidated and replacing the printing estate. For next year he plans to optimise the wide area network and introduce geographical information systems (GIS) technology.

“Every piece of IT has been changed in the last two years.” Wrennall’s budget is £12m capex, dropping to £6m next year and an opex of £11m. He says the £6m drop is a return to the capex of two years ago now that he has modernised the infrastructure of VOA.

“IT was not run by people steeped in IT knowledge,” he says of the situation he faced on arrival. “There was not a strategic IT leadership, they took the order from the business and gave them to the suppliers.” His supplier list includes Capgemini, Fujitsu and BT.

“Empowering end users is something I am passionate about. At VOA 1300 of the staff are surveyors, they are technical and innovative people with ideas about solutions. To that end they have created an Excel based application that has around 13,000 lines of code themselves.

“I’m of the view that the IT departmental strategy is to sponsor and support this. That is like an outsourced approach to development.” The main contribution his team offers is to review the code to encourage development professionalism. He says this ensures that the code is developed in a sustainable way from the outset. “This should be done across the government, we have shared our code. But HMRC forbid this type of work. I take the opposite view, but equally, what is right for HMRC is not right for VOA,” he adds that VOA staff are predominantly professionals, while HMRC has a large number of process workers.

Wrennall’s technical side, developed as a computer sciences graduate at the University of Manchester, carries through to his free time, where he runs a small company that custom installs high audio and video equipment. “I do enjoy the technical side, like solving problems.” His musical interest came from being a guitarist in a band that did release a 12 inch vinyl. Fame didn’t happen and the computer side of his studies that included stints with aircraft and weapons manufacturer BAE captured his attention.

His attention away from music is now also being channelled into studying for a Chartered Institute of Management Accountants qualification. “I think it’s important to have a good foundation in finance as a CIO,” he says of the study.

He has a young family, which dominates his precious free time. “Family brings both a bundle of joy, frustrations, concerns and emotions that a father enjoys,” he says philosophically.