November 2011 Archives

Who will be the next government CIO?

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There's suddenly a big gap at the top of government IT. In less than two weeks, government CIO Joe Harley and his deputy Bill McCluggage have both announced their impending departures from Whitehall.

Harley, who doubles up as CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is to retire in March, while McCluggage is to join IT supplier EMC.

Such changes at the top present a huge opportunity for a successor to drive fundamental and widespread reform of government IT - but are also a threat to the progress of that much-needed reform.

Harley and McCluggage were leading lights in producing the latest government IT strategy - an ambitious attempt to overhaul the culture and practices of Whitehall IT, and its relationship with the IT industry.

Being government CIO could be seen by some as a poisoned chalice - the challenges are huge, the barriers to success enormous. Frankly, if that's how it's seen, best you don't apply.

There may never be a better opportunity for the right individual to lead transformational change in public service IT, and to take a huge chunk out of the £16bn of taxpayers' cash that goes from Whitehall to IT suppliers every year. That's even before the £25.9bn that is forecast to be spent in new contracts over the next five years.

McCluggage is a big loss to delivery of the IT strategy. He has been the public face of the changes in IT policy that are being driven from the Cabinet Office. Open, friendly and personable, McCluggage was keen to engage with the press, and to speak regularly at conferences to push the message that government IT has to change - and is changing. He was a key player in the government IT strategy and was responsible for important elements of its delivery, such as Identity Assurance. But he lives in Northern Ireland, and a commute to Whitehall was going to become untenable eventually.

Harley, so I've heard, is a different breed. Quieter, less press-friendly, less keen on public speaking, he's a solid and experienced IT leader, who has proved his credentials in managing Whitehall's biggest IT operation at the DWP. But according to some insiders, despite his excellent track record, he's not the type to lead the sort of transformation that is needed.

So what are the attributes that will be required of the next government CIO?

He or she will need to be an agent of change, assertive enough to take on a reluctant Civil Service and some old-school Whitehall CIOs who don't appreciate the central control over IT purchasing that the Cabinet Office has imposed. Whitehall spends too much on IT, has failed on big projects too often, and lacks the skills it needs to truly embrace the cloud and the internet revolution. It's going to take a strong character to overcome those obstacles. And that's before you talk about taking on the oligopoly of big IT suppliers who have so much control over day-to-day government IT operations.

It's a big job - arguably, one of the biggest in all of Whitehall. Who else will have the opportunity to fundamentally reform a key part of the Civil Service, and potentially save billions of pounds a year for the Exchequer?

Here's my highly speculative take on the possible candidates for the job, in no particular order:

Phil Pavitt, CIO and director general of change, HM Revenue & Customs

If you wanted a government CIO who would never be short of confidence, then Pavitt could be your man.

He is already driving and delivering a programme of considerable IT change across HMRC, aiming to cut spending by more than £160m per year. He's not afraid of a challenge, and not afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. As he said in an interview with Computer Weekly earlier this year:

"I'm not known to be particularly shy or retiring, or even immodest, or not unwilling to take on a challenge. If you say no, that's where I want to start, because everything is deliverable...I like being an IT leader when there's no money to spend because people want to listen to you."

The downside? Would such a strong personality command the support of his CIO peers across Whitehall? But would that matter?

Liam Maxwell, ICT Futures programme director, Cabinet Office

Maxwell is a politician, not an IT guy. He was previously the councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, where he helped draft Conservative technology policy in the run-up to the last general election. He was also closely involved in a tech thinktank, the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, that in September 2010 proposed dismantling the IT systems and business ecosystem established by Labour.

He was brought in to shake-up government IT by setting standards and targets for policies that have previously been hard to deliver, such as the use of open source, for which he is a strong advocate.

Maxwell is only in the Cabinet Office on a year's contract at the moment, but that also gives him the flexibility to accept a new role. He might not be the choice of traditionalist CIOs, but he would have the backing of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the politician responsible for IT reform.

Ian Watmore, chief operating officer, Efficiency and Reform Group and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office.

Watmore is Joe Harley's boss, so clearly not a candidate for the role in its conventional sense. But he appointed Harley into a dual role, combining government CIO with DWP CIO, which suggests he doesn't see the job as necessarily a full-time commitment.

Watmore was the first ever government CIO, and wrote the first Whitehall-wide IT strategy, so he has the background and knowledge. It's feasible he could assume overall control for IT, but with a strong set of lieutenants running the central CIO Council.

Jos Creese, chairman of the Local Government CIO Council

There is less overlap between local and central government IT than there should be, and Whitehall too often overlooks the fact that most public services are delivered through councils - a situation often pointed out by one of local government's most vocal champions, Jos Creese. As chairman of the Local Government CIO Council, and a leading voice in public sector IT user group Socitm - not to mention his day job as Hampshire County Council CIO - Creese might have the profile, experience and popularity to take on the top job in public sector IT. But would those Whitehall types accept a council man from the Shires?

Chris Chant, G-Cloud programme director

Chant has recently become one of the most vocal supporters of IT reform in Whitehall. He is the voice of discontent about the status quo - the sort of maverick role that Whitehall press officers would never have countenanced in the past. He has said that government IT is "outrageously expensive", and his blog post on the "unacceptable" state of public sector IT has become required reading for anyone who wants to understand the winds of change that the Cabinet Office hopes to drive through IT. He has the IT pedigree too, having introduced the online tax self-assessment service.

Chant's day job involves introducing cloud computing to Whitehall - a task he sees as being as much about cultural change as technological change. He is passionate about public service. His appointment would send a strong message that reform is really going to happen - but he has so far ruled himself out of the running.

Mike Bracken, executive director, Government Digital Service

Bracken was brought in from The Guardian to be the man who makes public service "digital by default" - a key plank of David Cameron's plans to cut the cost of running government.

He has a unique remit - basically, do things differently. He is seen as the likely exemplar of the way that government IT will work in the future. He is recruiting a team from outside the traditional Whitehall IT types, looking for young web developers, championing agile development, and trying to introduce working practices you would more commonly find in a web start-up.

His team has recently moved to new offices away from Whitehall, hoping to create a dot-com style atmosphere at odds with the crusty Civil Service image. He is tasked with bringing public services into the internet age - perhaps enough of a challenge already.

Katie Davis, interim head of IT, Department of Health and executive director of the Efficiency and Reform Group

Davis is currently sorting out the mess left by the NHS National Programme for IT, and trying to pilot the NHS Information Strategy through the controversy of the wider organisational changes that the government is forcing through the health service. But she has made it clear that hers is an interim role, and she might be looking for something new to do at about the time Harley retires.

As senior responsible owner for information strategy and open data within the IT Strategic Implementation Plan, she is at the heart of some of the fundamental changes in the role of technology in public service delivery. As a former head of the government IT profession, she understands the skills gaps that need to be filled in Whitehall IT departments.

Lesley Hume, director of the government IT profession, Cabinet Office CIO

Hume is currently overseeing the changes needed to the IT skills across Whitehall, both in IT professionals and IT leadership. That understanding of the capability change needed in government IT departments is central to overcoming the inertia of the status quo. As former group IS director of engineering giant Atkins, she also has the IT experience and a private sector background to question the Whitehall way of doing things.

Andy Nelson, CIO, Ministry of Justice

Nelson is senior responsible owner (SRO) for "ICT capability" and the G-Cloud, and an interesting outsider to consider - after all, justice was the previous home of former government CIO John Suffolk (see below). A lot of people around Whitehall IT are quietly saying good things about Nelson, and he's seen as one of the CIOs who "gets" what needs to be done - hence his key role in the G-Cloud.

Denise McDonagh, IT director, Home Office

Another longshot perhaps, but like Nelson, McDonagh is attracting some positive whispers as an IT leader who understands the changes that will be needed.

Robin Pape, CIO, Home Office

As SRO for open source, Pape has taken on a policy that has been talked about for many years but has delivered little by way of results. If he's the right man to change government software purchasing, he has the skills for delivering broader change.

John Taylor, CIO, Ministry of Defence

Taylor is the long-term CIO for the MoD, and as such knows what it takes to deliver large-scale IT projects and manage enormous budgets. He is SRO for the Public Services Network and for green IT. A capable and highly experienced IT leader, but the MoD as a department has hardly shone as an exemplar of reform in its procurement policies. Widely respected, perhaps he's ready for a new job after many years in the defence ministry.

John Suffolk, former government CIO, now global head of cyber security at Chinese telecoms firm Huawei

Undoubtedly the longest and unlikeliest shot of all. Suffolk was seen by many as a reformer in his time as government CIO, but since his departure last year insiders say he alienated too many of his peers and it was inevitable he would hand the reins over to someone else. His example demonstrates the delicate balance that his successors must strike between the entrenched traditionalist views among government CIOs, and the reformers who see that change is inevitable.

AN Other

Is it time to look outside Whitehall? During the early 2000s, the Labour government deliberately recruited new CIOs from the ranks of the private sector to bring in the fresh ideas and new thinking that was needed, to shake up the Whitehall IT conventions, and to stop the IT disasters that plagued the public sector. It wouldn't be difficult to argue that those goals have not entirely been achieved. Many of those former corporate CIOs remain in place, with whispers abounding that job security and pension pots have overcome the reforming zeal they were brought in to spread.

But any senior and experienced CIO worth their salt must surely look at the government CIO role as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly demonstrate the central role of IT in public services and reforming the public sector.

We await the appointment of a new government CIO with great anticipation. The wrong decision now would set back Whitehall IT reform for years.

What do you think? Any names I've missed (it's quite possible...)

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Cloud is not revolutionary - but it's causing a revolution

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It is becoming clear why so many technology vendors say the cloud is a revolution for IT. It's because it's threatening to be a revolution for them.

Take a look at two very different illustrations of this point this week.

In the private sector, the business services giant Rentokil Initial has opted for a cloud-based HR system from software-as-a-service provider Workday for its 66,000-strong workforce. The firm is already a big supporter of cloud, using Google Apps for 35,000 users globally. Clearly the firm's first experience of the cloud has not put them off.

Take another look at those suppliers, by the way. Workday for HR - not Oracle, or SAP. Google for productivity tools - not Microsoft. Revolutionary?

In the public sector, the Cabinet Office recently released the first invitation to tender for the G-Cloud. It emerged this week that so far more than 380 companies have expressed an interest in the project.

When was the last time 380 IT suppliers wanted to bid for a major government IT project? Most small IT suppliers won't go near Whitehall procurements because of the cost and bureaucracy involved, leaving it to the usual big players to bid against each other.

The Cabinet Office G-Cloud team has gone out of its way to make it as easy as possible for these non-traditional IT suppliers to be involved. Of course, nobody has been awarded a contract yet - but can you at least imagine how much of a shake-up such a broad competitive set is going to cause among the cosy oligopoly of major systems integrators? Especially if those smaller suppliers win.

Ask most IT leaders, and they say that cloud is part of their plans, but is an evolutionary technology. Ask them what they think is revolutionary about it, and they say they hope it sticks a rocket up the rear of their vendors.

The cloud is not a revolution in technology - at least as far as its users are concerned. But it is a revolution in the relationship with their suppliers. And that's why cloud is going to be so important to the public sector, in particular.

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Eating our own dog food for the new-look

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There's a popular phrase in the software industry - "eating your own dog food" - that aptly describes what Computer Weekly has been through over the past six months.

Today, we launched our new-look website, the result of a major six-month IT migration project, to move off all our old content management systems and publishing platforms, to totally different systems at our new owner. This followed our acquisition by US tech publisher Techtarget in April.

Since then, we have written a lot of stories about the benefits of agile development, particularly as it applies to government. We've written extensively about the benefits of using cloud-based services. And we've published a series of articles about why IT projects go wrong and the importance of good project management.

So we you hope you will forgive us a little smug pride, when we say that our new website was created using agile development methodologies, makes extensive use of cloud technologies, and came in exactly on time. Well, three hours late, to be precise.

It's been a fascinating experience to be on the user side of such a project, and we've learned a lot. Agile is a bit like watching Rolf Harris paint - can you see what it is yet? - building up piece by piece, in iterative fashion, until finally everything comes together. We now know, from personal experience, that agile works.

Some of the functionality on our site would have cost huge amounts for us to write from scratch - but when there are low-cost, or often free cloud services to provide at least 80% of what we need, that's what we did. And it worked.

But if there's one lesson we learned above all else - and it's a lesson that, to be honest, we knew anyway - it's the importance of great IT professionals on the project, with the right skills, and a mutually productive relationship with "the business".

Good luck to all our readers going through such experiences every day at work. We've always tried to understand your needs and provide great content to meet those needs. Now we understand even more.

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London cybersecurity conference: a missed opportunity?

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World leaders gathered in London this week. Our prime minister and foreign secretary hosted all the luminaries and dignitaries. Senior politicians and diplomats from around the world were there, even presidents. Global business leaders were in attendance. Hillary Clinton would have been there, were it not for the sad death of her mother - but US vice president Joe Biden stood in for her by video link.

With a guest list like that, such an event would be bound to be big. BBC 10 O'Clock News? Newsnight maybe? Front page of The Times?

Probably, yes - unless the topic of the conference is cyber security, or so it seems.

Congratulations are due to the UK government for understanding the gravity of the cyber threat that the UK and other countries are facing. Kudos too to all those countries which sent representatives to the debate.

But has it actually made any difference? On first impression, it appears not. One IT security expert, a leading light in the field, went so far as to describe the event as a "shambles" and "an embarrassment to this country".

Where was the national press coverage? It was practically non-existent. An opportunity missed - but also an example of the big problem around tackling cyber threats: too much time is spent preaching to the converted.

Put a bunch of IT security experts in a room and they all agree the problem is growing fast - GCHQ director Ian Lobban recently said that cyber attacks on the UK have reached a "disturbing" level, an inflammatory phrase from a senior spook used to playing down threats in public. Politicians have now joined the ranks of those who get the scale of the challenge.

The problem is that nobody else does. And all those who don't get it, are in themselves the root of the problem.

According to a recent Microsoft report, only 1% of all cyber attacks are from previously unknown threats - the other 99% are from things we already know about. Well, things the IT security community know about, at least.

Educating the masses is our biggest challenge, and the biggest source of opportunity for cyber attackers until we do.

Would a CEO move his or her business into a new office that didn't have security passes, locked doors and CCTV? Of course not. Would they approve an IT system that is open to cyber criminals? Most executives wouldn't even think to ask the question.

It's great to see governments getting together to agree there is a problem. But until we open the eyes of those who cannot see a problem, there will be no solution.

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