by Martin Veitch

Foreign and Commonwealth Office CIO Tony Mather on modernising Whitehall

Jan 19, 2010
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

Tony Mather is sitting in his large office near Horse Guards Parade amid the sorts of trappings you might expect for the CIO of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There are pictures, including one of the Queen; there are green-shaded desk lamps that look like they might have come from a film set; there is a leather sofa; and there is a gilt-framed mirror that must be seven feet high. All present and correct. So it comes as something of a surprise when he says that he’d rather be in a serviced office or even in Milton Keynes. The FCO has offices in the famously unlovely Buckinghamshire new town and Mather says he would gladly “move to a Regus tomorrow”. “It’s the team dynamic,” he explains. “Heritage equals legacy and I want somewhere that locally engaged UK staff can sit together. We’re trying to build the ‘one-team’ approach.” And no matter how attractive and evocative of the British Empire’s one-time pink-hued re-painting of the atlas, the warren of offices and corridors of power doesn’t help build that dynamic. “The day I joined the FCO my productivity halved,” says Mather, who took on the role at the FCO from gases group BOC to make his bow in the public sector two years ago. “Here, if you were not at your desk, you weren’t working.”

Global refresh The FCO employs about 16,000 people, 6000 of whom are UK-based and 10,000 locally engaged in over 160 countries with the mission to promote the UK’s interests around the globe. Mather sees his task as breathing new life into the worldwide operation to enable new ways of working. “I’m trying to leapfrog,” he says. “Improve work/life balance and leverage the workforce with the help of a technology refresh.” That refresh will also meet another ambition – that of dramatically reducing operational expense, he insists.

“When you want operational costs down 40 per cent you get people to think radically. Twenty per cent is one thing but the next 20 per cent… You’re starting to see through the functional stuff. You never waste a good crisis.” An ancient UK infrastructure based on Windows NT, Office 97 and Compaq hardware has been overhauled. “The asset had been sweated a bit too much,” Mather laughs. The FCO is currently halfway through its overseas upgrade wave. Although Vista has hardly been a roaring success for Microsoft, its appeal to believers lay partly in simpler provisioning and Mather says he used it to revamp desktop deployment and “took out £30m of cost we didn’t need”. Laptops and BlackBerries were distributed to mobile staff. However, he knows that the CIO role is about more than chucking out old stuff and in with the new. “If all I’ve done is to replace a load of kit, I’ve failed,” he says, adding that he uses Oracle’s Enterprise Performance Management and the same vendor’s business intelligence tools to gauge data. After modernising the estate, he still has ambitions, for example in digitising the contents of the traditional diplomatic bag and “reducing what we send in physical form”. The FCO is also making more extensive use of videoconferencing to reduce unnecessary travel and speed up communications. “We have to work in a much different way than before: we have to become more ‘foreign’, less ‘office’. [Current Foreign Secretary] David Milliband followed the [previous incumbent] Margaret Beckett focus on what we can do where the work can be done, rather than just having someone in each country.” Mather admits he equated the government sector with a slower pace than private enterprise but he was surprised by what he found at the FCO. “I had a very quick wake-up call,” he says. “I found out there are some fantastic people who choose to work here for their own reasons [such as belief in the FCO mission]. In the private sector you move fast because if you didn’t you’d be dead. The public sector has never had that but there have been changes and that’s great.” Also, he says, the reporting structure is not so very different to a private outfit. “I sit on the board and the permanent undersecretary is the equivalent of a CEO. I get great support from my boss. It’s a journey of change to enable technology in the right way so we are getting to our information and using it in a much better way,” he says. But he laments the lack of a superstar change agent in Whitehall worthy of being bracketed alongside a big-name CEO. “What would be good is if the public sector would be able to create role models,” he says. “Bloody hell, that would be good for my career! Instead we see everything that goes wrong. It’s never going to be in the place the private sector is but it can be more competitive.” He concedes that he has occasionally found the service sharing process “frustrating” and characterises the job as providing “50 per cent joy, 50 per cent frustration”, for example when it comes to buying in goods and services. “The procurement process we have to go through doesn’t help anybody but the OGC is starting to help us and the Strategic Supply Board will start to help and we will draw insights from sharing that good practice.” His ambition is to make the FCO best in class and he is placing a focus on IT professionalism, shared risk/reward schemes with outsourcers such as HP and Capgemini, and taking on secondments from leading suppliers. “We have to look at how we can run ourselves and to be the best administered in Whitehall is the target. If we don’t have good practices, the opportunity for waste is high. If we have clear insight into where our money goes, that will help us as we get to the broader elements.” Using the same term Bismarck employed for politics, Mather sees his task as “the art of the possible” but he has further simplified it, viewing each office as having “mostly knowledge workers and few transactional workers, with a man on the move” in the shape of the ambassador. He says that two decades in IT have given him perspective, and life at the FCO is nothing if not interesting. Mather talks about the emotional experience of visiting the Kabul office and his faith in the overall mission of creating a “better world and a better Britain”. “Over 20 years in the game I’ve become less worried about running the box and more about where we’re going to go. Motivation is going to work with a smile.”

About the FCO The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is more often referred to as the Foreign Office or FCO. It is the department of government responsible for promoting British interests, whether citizens or businesses, abroad, and it operates via a network of embassies and consulates. With roots dating back to 1782, the FCO employs about 14,900 staff in over 160 countries; about a third of the workers are British civil servants. Since June 2007 the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has been David Milliband. He has overall responsibility for the FCO and its financing.