Ministry of Defence CIO Mike Stone interview - Delivering 'Defence as a Platform'

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.

'Cultural torpor'

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.

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