by Graham Jarvis

Government CTO Liam Maxwell on C-level change

Apr 16, 20138 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

The government is scrapping the cross-government CIO role. Since the coalition took office in 2010 there has been a significant level of CIO churn in Whitehall. Liam Maxwell, currently the Government CTO, has risen through the ranks and is considered to be a major reformer. CIO UK met with Maxwell recently to discuss a wide range of issues, including the politics of his role, the Government Digital Service, G-Cloud, SME vendors and – of course – cuts.

Not long after the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took power, John Suffolk, the Government CIO since 2006, stepped down in the first of a series of CIO changes. CIO for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Joe Harley replaced Suffolk, and subsequently took on a dual role of Government CIO and remained DWP CIO, but Harley stepped down from both roles in March 2012 to be replaced by Andy Nelson, CIO of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in another dual responsibility post.

Last month the government announced it was ditching the Government CIO role as Andy Nelson moved to DWP to replace Philip Langsdale, who died in December 2012. Nelson will be tasked with delivering the Universal Credit scheme at DWP, which is already being described as a major government IT disaster in waiting.

So it’s been a turbulent airspace for the role of Government CIO, and the same is almost true of the CTO role. In December 2012 Maxwell became government CTO replacing Bill McCluggage who moved vendor side to join EMC. Maxwell’s move up to CTO was from inside the Cabinet Office, where he had been director of ICT futures until June 2012.

Concerning his responsibilities Maxwell says: “As CTO, my role is to help government – and particularly the digital leaders – get the cheaper, better and faster technology solutions that we all need.”

And don’t think for a minute that the disquiet is restricted to CIO and CTO roles. Chris Chant, formerly a programme director at the Cabinet Office, called for the resignation of the Cabinet Office’s chief operating officer Stephen Kelly in January after it was revealed that £750 million is to be spent on an Oracle enterprise resource planning framework.

Maxwell is not bothered by the politicised environment, and one CIO contact says he weathers bad storms daily. Maxwell says his career milestones and achievements have prepared him.

“My experience of working in location government, and being a councillor, has helped to shape our approach to technology in central government and the focus is on providing what the end-user wants.”

Maxwell was the Head of Academic Computing Department at Tory leader growing ground Eton College. He was also as a Conservative councillor in the nearby Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which led to his role as a director of the government’s IT Reform Group. In the lead up to the last general election he helped the party to develop its IT policy.

At Windsor and Maidenhead Maxwell claims the council improved public services and cut taxes by 12%. He describes this achievement as being “the most fun, as we were up for pretty much anything that changed the way we could deliver, and lots of that was based around new technology.”

Maxwell’s team introduced a scheme that paid residents to get involved in recycling. Most people had thought this was an idea that just wasn’t possible. He claims that the initiative saved the council money, improved the council’s services and helped local business.

Maxwell says in his council times taught him that you have to collaborate to help people to get to where they need to be.

The fact that he has been so close to the Conservatives implies that his appointment might have been politically motivated, but he scoffs at this suggestion.

“I was appointed Deputy Government CIO through an externally advertised, fair and open competition, and the recruitment exercise was chaired by a Civil Service Commissioner.” So as an existing Civil Servant, his appointment as Government CTO is what he calls a “managed move”.

Maxwell says his deputy CIO and ICT Futures positions prior to becoming CTO permitted him to “view from the inside how systems work inside government, and the expenditure controls that were brought in by the government in 2010 meant that we could analyse the activity and challenge the way people across the public sector and government were spending their budgets to advise them accordingly.”

Alongside his new boss Mike Bracken, the executive director of the Government Digital Service, Maxwell is working on implementing the government’s ‘digital by default’ strategy, which aims to make it easier for IT firms to bid for public sector contracts while also reducing the cost of procuring, managing and implementation.

Forming part of the backbone of the government’s IT strategy is cloud computing and G-Cloud II.

“Cloud computing is one of the strategies we’ve have employed to make government IT more cost-effective and to involve a wider range of suppliers, and we are moving to a cloud-first position.

“The government CloudStore offers a dynamic procurement system that permits companies to sell their technologies.”

Part of this strategy involves disaggregating IT expenditure away from large systems integrators.

“We are increasing the business we do with SMEs quarter on quarter, and this is direct expenditure,  but there are a number of larger suppliers that have SMEs within their supply chain and so it is more difficult to ascertain the value of business with SMEs by this route.” In his view a key outcome of this strategy is more choice and better value for the taxpayer.

“The latest figures show that G-Cloud sales continue to grow steadily and there has been over £7.4 million in sales through the CloudStore, of which £5.1 million or 70% has been with SMEs.”

Analysts have raised concerns though. They say that the G-Cloud has proven to be hard to sell to the public sector. Ernst & Young’s IT advisory partner, Graeme Swan, said in February 2013 that there are some deep-rooted procurement attitudes within the public sector, and so he believes that the government’s G-Cloud project team will need outside help in order to move public sector organisations away from the more traditional on-premise vendors.

Although Maxwell hopes to attract more SMEs to the G-Cloud, Oracle and Microsoft have been able to secure government contracts of late.

Microsoft Office 365 has secured G-Cloud accreditation, which poses questions about how serious the government and Maxwell is about disaggregating IT procurement in favour of SMEs.

Maxwell argues that the CloudStore approach makes it easier for SMEs to supply their products and services to the public sector while opening up the market. The government doesn’t want company size to remain the barrier it used to be for SME vendors wanting to sell their products.

“They [SMEs] are keen for help with what they are doing, which is opening up and levelling the playing field as previously they had to have a certain turnover before they could bid, or the frameworks were non-dynamic”, he says.

The barriers that once existed arose as a mountain of paperwork and before bidding for government contracts many companies felt that they had to spend £100,000 just to get on the tender list. Yet there was no guarantee that they would gain any work from this investment.

“We’ve been removing barriers such as the pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) for example – and making the process of bidding simpler, faster and cheaper”, Maxwell says. His team is also increasing its pre-market engagement with SMEs to allow them to know about any forthcoming developments.

“We are also getting SMEs to come in and work with us before procurement on real projects, to see if they suit them.”

Workshops enable SMEs to find out what’s coming up, helping them to find out how they can bid for NHS projects. There’s a whistle-blowing service too, which enables vendors to register any complaints that arise due to poor procurement practice.

“To date the service has handled over 300 cases, around 80% of which had a positive outcome, where a current or planned procurement was changed or the supplier was given a better understanding of the procurement process”, Maxwell says.

Maxwell claims that the government’s digital strategy amounts to a radical change to the market because the “whole campaign is about getting the best bidders bidding”.

“That’s why the CloudStore is a great advance and the feedback from companies is that it takes much less time and effort on nugatory administration and it gets to the point, which is about making it easier to become registered for selling and quick.”

IT and security consultant Jane Fae agrees.

“The broad direction of government strategy is probably about right with regards to cloud services, portability, short-term contracts that allow government and suppliers to switch in and out of services seamlessly and painlessly.”