by Mark Chillingworth

CIO Profile: Gwyn Thomas of the Welsh Assembly is building a united nation

Nov 23, 201111 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

In difficult times or times of great change a nation needs strong leadership. As the pages of CIO demonstrate every month, leadership comes from strong ideas and an ability to galvanise support and lead people towards a common goal.

Since the 1980s Wales has undergone radical change as a nation, back then coal mining and steel production dominated.

Today’s Wales is very different. Financial services, IT, tourism, and action sports are on the ascendancy, while mining and manufacturing are still vital to the economy.

Devolution in 1999 has also changed the political and societal view Wales has of itself.

Dr Gwyn Thomas is CIO for the Welsh Government and Director of Informatics Health and Social Care.

“The role I occupy is unique as I am effectively CIO for Wales, which embraces the whole of the public sector,” he says.

“We are taking a federated IT approach of councils, health boards and academia. They have all agreed to work together because it is about IT, and IT touches all organisations and citizens.”

Thomas’s complex stakeholder map also includes local authority chief executives and politicians.

He reports to the Permanent Secretary — the Assembly’s senior civil servant — and the directors general for health, for social care and children, and for business, economy, technology and science, as well as through to the respective ministers.

But the advantage for him is that the Welsh government has a unified and efficient approach to IT that is not blighted by the problems and overspending seen elsewhere in the public sector.

Thomas’s role is to deliver a digital Wales that can respond to the nation’s changing economic landscape and increasing sense of independence. Thomas says he and his team look at Wales as a corporate entity.

“It will be business-led above all,” he says, by which he sees the government CIO role being central to economic stimulation for prime industries such as the growing television and creative sector, construction, IT and green technologies.

“We are trying to explore new ways of working with organisations. SMEs have a lot of good ideas, but the globals bring stability,” Thomas says of the plans to stimulate both ends of the business spectrum.

A benefit in the IT world is that major vendors find the size of Wales convenient, as it provides a useful test bed for developments.

A strong spine To allow the Welsh dragon to prosper, Thomas’ strategy is to deliver a technological spine for public services that fosters innovation, drives down costs and creates a public sector that is rapid, efficient and attractive to the business world as a partner.

This spine relies on the Public Service Broadband Network (PSBN), a high-speed network for information services.

The federation of councils, health boards and academia have all agreed to adopt this as the de facto network for their IT provision, creating efficiency and bringing a degree of standardisation that puts Wales ahead of many other regions in Europe.

“The most important public sector lesson is that if you want control, the first thing you have to do is to give control away,” Thomas says. “Broadband is strategically so important. It is the same sort of approach as the Public Sector Network being developed in England.”

In Wales the NHS is on the PSBN and 80 per cent of government is connected.

“When we started we agreed a set of principles and came to the mindset to do something once for Wales,” he says of the single infrastructure that benefits all the areas of the public sector that come under his remit.

“That is then the starting point. We agreed on the broadband network. You don’t have different types of plumbing in the house.”

This is his analogy for ending public sector waste by agreeing a single standard for one of the most important principles of technology, a strong network from which all public sector agencies can tap into.

“Aggregation is the key. People are now coming together on the network to produce local networks for local requirements. Do things locally, but by agreement. It must fit our design and if a development works then we can adopt it elsewhere,” he says.

Increasingly, regional authorities are developing services which are then taken up by other regions when they see the benefits.

Thomas does not liken the PSBN to the trend of shared services seen elsewhere in the public sector.

“It is a shared service if it brings people together to work together, but the two get conflated together. We tend not to use the word because it has outsourcing connotations.”

Thomas also dislikes the term ‘system’, preferring ‘service’ as the CIO wants to encourage the public sector to think of browser- and network-based information services for its constituents.

One nation But technology was never a threat to the Welsh CIO strategy. His greatest task has been to create a collaborative environment across the whole nation.

“Strong leadership makes sure that everyone buys into it. Most of my task is interpretation and integration. We have to recognise that every organisation has a different starting point. Some parts of Wales are ahead of the game and others are behind.”

This doesn’t mean that Thomas lays down a strategy and bends every arm across the public sector to follow him. Instead his policy is to be collaborative in both ideas and motivation.

“It’s a critical mass strategy. Not everyone has to agree. There is a critical mass of people interested in datacentre rationalisation, for example. You reach a point where it is adopt, or justify for not adopting.

“There is no merit for organisations to be slower and lose out. This approach works well in Wales because of the size, culture and devolution of the country. But that doesn’t make it easy,” he says.

“The social architecture is just as important as the technology. People have to trust and work together, there are no short circuits. The nature of technology, with the internet and cloud computing, is towards collaboration.”

That collaboration is already having a knock-on effect as Wales finds itself requiring a boost of IT skills to meet growing demand and Thomas is developing a programme of skills development for the Welsh public sector.

To deliver a collaborative technology strategy and spine for Wales, Thomas has an Office of the CIO in Cardiff with a team of 12 delivering strategy and project programmes. However, his appointment in 2010 went largely under the radar.

“We started by creating the collaborative relationships that are appropriate for federated working, rather than announcing a new national organisation that wouldn’t necessarily fit with the way we want to work together,” he explains.

“Actions speak louder than words and the collaborative approach means that we all work together on the all-Wales IT strategy and then look outwards to the local organisations to manage projects and deliver benefits to citizens.

“This means the central team is very small and its role is to foster collective working and behaviours and be responsible for technical governance.

“And people want to be part of it and see it as the future. There is no shortage of work to be done.

“This is a leadership role, not a technical one. It is about creating followers around the country. I started life as a metallurgist, but what really interests me is what technology can do and bringing that to bear on the public sector. I’m not a techie and I’m not seen as a techie and that goes a long way. The leadership skill is more like a chief executive role.”

Inspired by innovation It is the interpretation of how technology can be used that inspires the CIO. “We can genuinely say now that technology exists no matter the business imperative. Innovation now is not in technology, it is in using existing technology in a different way,” he says.

“The crossover of security and lower costs from cloud computing, for example, is an exciting place for CIOs. There is also a great deal of interest in the opportunity to work with consumer IT suppliers like Apple, Google and Microsoft.” Thomas also takes a lot of inspiration from enterprise vendors in bridging this gap.

Thomas overflows with enthusiasm for the role technology has to play in Wales’ future, but like all those in governmental CIO roles, he is making sure that public spending falls.

“Good service delivery is saving money. As are the network, rationalising datacentres, cloud computing and online end user services,” Thomas says.

Earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron told the Welsh Assembly to reduce the dependency on the public sector for employment in Wales, and Thomas steadfastly believes his own collaborative ideology is central to enabling Wales to become a vibrant economy again.

“Financially it is not viable for an operation the size of Wales to do anything other than collectively,” he says. Thomas will not be drawn into making judgements on the state of the public sector elsewhere in the UK, but observes that “a market-driven approach just creates fragmentation”.

“The cuts focus applies equally here. As well as reducing the financial cost we are trying to reduce the social cost. Investment in IT is around three per cent so wouldn’t it make more sense to make the other 97 per cent of public sector investment more efficient?” he asks.

For example, he says that the social problems of an individual often just become a cost shift from unemployment benefit to social care. “We are trying to get a holistic view,” he says.

“This is not about hurling large amounts of money to large NHS IT projects as it doesn’t work as it doesn’t involve all the stakeholders.”

Stakeholder involvement is central to Thomas’ leadership style, and the CIO takes into account the different needs of local authorities right across Wales.

Thomas adds that regionalisation has to be scalable and must reflect local similarities. In no way criticising policy in England, Thomas reflects that Cornwall is very different to Liverpool, putting regional collaboration at odds with a national policy that forces one-size-fits-all solutions on all regions.

“Look at rugby. In the north they have Rugby League: things don’t fit together nicely all the time,” he says.

“Regionalisation seems easier, as we’ve had some success,” he admits. “But we still have the scenario of three people in a room and four opinions.”

Thomas has a strong track record in Wales as the Director of Informatics Health and Social Care, where he put his collaborative methods to good use.

The NHS in Wales is already using electronic referral and discharge, electronic individual health records, a personal site for patients to book GP appointments and prescriptions, an index of patients, a clinical portal for pathology and radiology results, a documents portal for template letters and assessments and an admin system.

Thomas is especially proud of the clinical portal and My Health citizen services.

“My Health has the potential for self management so that if you had diabetes you could monitor and record information for GPs,” he explains.

“It takes time, patience and effort,” he says of its development. “One of the big elements is predictability, so if you say to the NHS that you will do something, you do it.” Returning to the benefits of strong public sector IT leadership, Thomas adds that the NHS in Wales has gone from 30 separate boards to just six.

Keeping up with the Joneses Thomas used SOA technology to maximise the usage of legacy systems in the Welsh NHS, while freeing up information and driving efficiency. As well as the technology developments, Thomas installed a patient-centric ethos into healthcare IT.

“We invented a Jones family for assessing developments and always asked ourselves how we could make things better for the Joneses.”

Thomas is no stranger to the NHS: before returning to Wales he was at the NHS Information Authority in England and says the challenges he faced there were no more difficult than he and his team have overcome in Wales.

“I like the complex problems and I cannot think of a more complex environment. The feeling that you are making a difference to people’s lives and it’s not always measured in profitability. It is values-driven. You get a group of people together who believe in something and you can move mountains,” he says of his evident pleasure in the role.