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IT professionals must counter fear and ignorance of technology

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We all know the good that technology can do, and the benefits it brings for the way we work, live and play. The future growth of the UK economy will be built on IT. Consumers are embracing technology in their everyday lives like never before.

Yet residual fear and ignorance is still driving much of government policy when it comes to the impact of technology.

That can be the only explanation for the continuous desire of government after government to want to store and monitor the daily electronic interactions of its citizens. The Data Communications Bill - the government's "snooper's charter" to store all our web, telephone and social media activity - is based entirely on fear - and its justification tries little more than to instil that same fear in us.

Yes, the threats we face have changed. Of course bad people are going to look to exploit the internet, every bit as much as good people do. But casually throwing around the "terrorists and paedophiles" line to convince us that an institutionalised attack on our individual privacy is in any way warranted by the new Bill is nothing more than ignorance and technophobia in action.

David Cameron promised to "roll back the surveillance state" when he was Leader of the Opposition. To now resurrect the Labour snooping plans in all but name is an act of gross hypocrisy.

The government will tell us that the Data Communications Bill is different - that Labour wanted a giant database with all our interactions stored within, and the Tories still don't want that. It's nothing more than a technicality. The same information will be stored, just in distributed databases managed by the private sector - the telecoms and internet providers who want nothing to do with it but have no choice to comply.

In the coming years, we face perhaps the most important turning point in the development of the digital revolution. Governments and other institutions will try to control and monitor the internet, to hang on to 20th century thinking and practices as citizens embrace the possibilities of 21st century technologies. IT professionals will find themselves in the centre of a storm.

As a profession and a community, it will be increasingly incumbent on all of us in IT to champion the benefits of technology, to overcome fear and distil ignorance. There will be few more crucial times to do what we do, than now.

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Your last chance to influence government open standards

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After the controversy of the early meetings in the government's consultation on open standards, we're now down to the last few weeks of what is a hugely important process.

After a slow start, the open source lobby has engaged more fully with the process, so let's hope this will lead to a more balanced outcome.

There are three more public meetings due to take place, and it's critical that everyone with an opinion on every side of the debate gets their voice heard - this will define the standards for government IT for years to come.

Four meetings have taken place, and there are three to go, as follows:

Roundtable 5: Levelling the Playing Field in the North West  29 May - Manchester
Aimed at SMEs in the North West.

Roundtable 6: Competition and European Interaction 31 May - London and by phone.
A rerun of Roundtable 1.

Roundtable 7: Open opportunities with community and voluntary services 1 June - phone
This is a teleconference-only session to avoid the need to travel. It is aimed at community and voluntary organisations.

Click here for more details.

Get involved now - this may be your last chance.

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Dear open standards lobby: SHOUT LOUDER!!

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There is a hugely important debate taking place in the UK IT community at the moment, one that will have equally huge significance for almost everyone who buys IT in this country.

It's about open standards - and in particular, what definition the UK government will use for the open standards policy that will determine much of the future of public sector IT procurement. But this isn't just an issue for IT chiefs in government - the longer term implications will affect every IT leader in every sector. With government being such a major influence on IT suppliers, the policy it adopts will have a big input into the product development of any vendor that wants to sell to the public sector, and hence to the products they sell to the private sector too.

It's a complex and often emotional debate.

For the layman, when software types start talking about patents and intellectual property and throwing around jargon and acronyms such as RF (royalty free) and FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory), there's a natural tendency to switch off.

Don't worry - I'm not going to get into that sort of detail here, although if you read on I will point you to other articles on Computer Weekly and elsewhere that will help to explain some of those finer points.

Instead, I want to point a finger at the supporters of open standards and open source - simply because they need to make their opinions heard more widely and loudly in this critical debate.

Let me explain.

There is a consultation underway, led by the Cabinet Office, to invite views on the proposed definition of open standards that the government wants to embed into its IT strategy.

Senior IT people in government want to free themselves from the perceived lock-in associated with proprietary software - to cut costs, increase choice, and open up the public sector market to a wider range of products and suppliers; to ensure a "level playing field" between large and small, proprietary and open source; to allow taxpayers' money to be spent on the best outcomes, not the only product that is compatible. Few could argue that is not a good thing.

It's no secret either that there are people in senior government IT positions who have long been proponents of open source and open standards - not least the new deputy government CIO, Liam Maxwell.

It's equally no secret that there are those in government IT who feel the big suppliers that dominate Whitehall IT spending have not delivered value for money and their stranglehold needs to be reduced.

Understandably, open standards is seen as a way to achieve that.

That consultation process includes a number of public meetings, open to anyone with an interest in the topic to air and share their opinions and feed into the debate. There is also an online questionnaire inviting anyone to give their views. The Cabinet Office is being rigorous in ensuring it is open to, and seen to be open to, every side of the issue.

Earlier this week, Computer Weekly contributor Mark Ballard, who writes for our Public Sector IT blog, wrote a report based on his sources, which suggested that the first of these public meetings was dominated by the proprietary software lobby.

Mark has previously written about the extent to which major software firms such as Microsoft are lobbying government to ensure the open standards policy does not go down a path that might make it less likely or more difficult for buyers in its biggest UK customer to procure their proprietary products. You would expect them to do little else.

I leave it to you to decide whether this is "vested interests" or simply standard commercial practice.

Mark's blog post has stirred up something of a hornet's nest, with some participants refuting his reported version of events - and we have offered those participants a platform to air their views in response. We will be publishing their articles on very soon.

Nonetheless, there is a polarisation forming around what you might simplistically call the "open" lobby and the "proprietary" lobby. And there is a feeling that the proprietary lobby, with its greater resources, lobbying experience, and its business models at stake, is dominating the argument.

This has been the case for many years. I hate to say it, but in 12 years of reporting on IT, and many years before that working in the industry, I've seen the open lobby - open source developers, open standards proponents, free software fans, etc - spend too much time in the corner, huddled together saying to each other, "This is awful, dreadful, don't they understand?"

That's a personal observation - which I expect many in that lobby will disagree with, some quite strongly.

But the open lobby is facing something of an Agincourt here, its Waterloo, or Custer's last stand, depending on your preferred historical analogy.

There are some great people in the open lobby, with relevant and important opinions, whom I have a lot of respect for.

But too many - not all, but a lot - are simply not vocal enough in this debate. They can say they are right until they are blue in the face, but "right" does not mean they will win. They have to play the game the way their opponents have set the rules - unless and until they start winning some battles, they will never get the chance to set the rules themselves.

Mark's blog post reported that many in the open lobby felt the consultation meeting had not been publicised widely enough; there are some taking to Twitter to complain that they were not told about it or invited. Sorry, but that's no excuse. You can't complain you weren't invited next time Microsoft (or whoever) signs a multimillion-pound deal with the government for "proprietary" software.

Get used to the fact that the game is not being played by your rules. You don't win a hand of poker by betting with a five-card trick; you learn how to play a Royal Flush.

Now I'm not trying to say that one side is wrong or one side is right. It is a complex and highly nuanced topic. I have strong sympathies with many of the arguments of the open lobby, I'll admit. But I can see the perspective of the proprietary suppliers too.

I will, however, urge the open lobby to mobilise itself, to organise itself as well as its perceived opponents. Don't moan about not being at the meeting - go to the next one, and the next. Respond to the online consultation now. Comment on this blog post. Comment on Mark Ballard's blog post. Comment on articles from people on both sides of the debate when they're published here and elsewhere. Comment on any of the blogs or articles I've listed below.

Shout louder, walk taller, talk to your opponents and not just your supporters. Engage in the debate - actively, loudly, and with all the passion you have for the subject. Do it now. Whoever comes out on top of this critical debate, we need every voice on every side to participate.

There is only one community I want to win - and that's IT buyers (and ultimately taxpayers, that means you and I). But we need every part of the supply-side to be equally involved if that is going to happen.

Further reading:

If you want an easy-to-read explanation of the jargon of FRAND and RF and so forth, I recommend this article: Ignore the extremists in the software standards wars - by Leading Edge Forum researcher Simon Wardley published on

Cabinet Office open standards consultation

Report from the first public meeting by its host, Cabinet Office policy lead on open standards, Linda Humphries

Details of future public meetings

Blog post by Peter Brown, a participant at the first public meeting

Blog post by IT architect Dr Jeni Tennison on her response to the consultation

Report on the first public meeting of the open standards consultation by its chairman Andy Hopkirk

By Mark Ballard on Computer Weekly's Public Sector IT blog:

Proprietary lobby triumphs in first open standards showdown

Microsoft redeploys OOXML in open standards battle

Questions over open standards lobbyists

Microsoft hustled UK retreat on open standards, says leaked report

Open standards rift tears UK policy to shreds

Open standards: UK dithers over royalty question

Hope shines through crack in lid of open standards coffin


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Protocols not products: Why identity assurance is central to the new government IT thinking

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I recently had a fascinating and wide-ranging chat with government digital director Mike Bracken, looking back at his first six months in the job and the challenges he has faced. You can read the interview here.

Bracken is one of the most senior and vocal supporters of the need to do things differently in Whitehall IT, and at the heart of that is a new approach to the IT market that avoids big supplier contracts and big technology projects.

Perhaps the greatest test of this approach will come in the plans for Identity Assurance (IDA) - the scheme by which citizens accessing digital public services will authenticate that they are who they say they are online.

Identity has a chequered history in government - identity cards, national identity databases and so on - and even as recently as last December was almost blighted by the internally-focused, big-project mentality that is still all too prevalent in the major Whitehall departments.

When Bracken volunteered to take responsibility for IDA, one of his first tasks was to withdraw a £200m tender issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for IDA to support the universal credits scheme, and replace it with a £25m project to achieve the same end.

In the four months between those two tender notifications, the focus for IDA changed dramatically. It moved from a product-focused initiative - the sort encouraged by IT suppliers with a product to sell - to be protocol-focused.

That's a major cultural shift - from the idea that government builds a huge identity system around its universal credit welfare scheme that everyone else will have to conform to; to a market-oriented, collaborative approach that everyone buys into and the private sector sets up and runs.

"What we have to do, and what we've been reasonably successful in doing, is moving away from a [project where we ask] how do we build an IT model, to how do we get a market protocol in place that everyone can sign up to," said Bracken.

"It isn't about building a product, it's about supporting a protocol and a set of discreet services that people can play a part in, and create value from."

That old product-focused approach demonstrates to extent to which Whitehall IT thinking has historically been influenced and infiltrated by IT supplier thinking - that the solution is to buy a product.

Bracken is not the only one decrying the "buy a product" approach of the IT industry.

HM Revenue & Customs CIO Phil Pavitt told IT leaders at a CW500 Club event recently of his rejection of the product-led pitch. He cited as an example thin-client technology, describing it as "the lie the supplier industry gave us." The IT industry seems incapable of understanding this principle, obsessed as they are with the idea that IT leaders want to buy products. That's what they sell, it's not what people want to buy.

For IDA, Bracken has talked to companies that understand identity, not IT suppliers that sell identity products. He and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude even visited PayPal in Silicon Valley to learn from its approach, ignoring the conventional software firms desperate to sell their products.

"We're saying [to people like PayPal], how did you do that, because actually there's some great lessons in that for us, maybe you can help us do that - rather than saying, well let's go and buy products and let's go and spend hundreds of millions in implementation. The question isn't framed in IT, therefore the answer doesn't come back as an IT answer," said Bracken. 

The big risk to this approach, and for IDA itself, is universal credits - probably the highest profile IT project in the public sector at the moment, required to support the Coalition's overhaul of the welfare system. It's one of those projects that simply cannot fail, but to critics it's a perfect example of the old approach that has failed so often.

Universal credits is anathema to Bracken's approach of start small, trial, iterate and build.

"You are not going to get much more visible than universal credit," Bracken acknowledged. "To be honest, no, we probably wouldn't [have wanted to] start with something that big. Remember it's a phasing issue, so it's [only] phase one of universal credit."

The protocol-not-product approach will be central to the wider roll-out of IDA beyond universal credit, recognising as it does that a protocol allows for much better scaling, and to make the solution appropriate for user need.

"The idea there is one-size-fits-all service [for identity] is wrong. The idea there is a one-size-fits-all protocol which allows us to choose along the spectrum is exactly where we want to go," said Bracken.

"We recognise the attributes needed and the validation level needed are not the same for all government services. So, to exaggerate for effect, the submission of multimillion-pound corporate tax and the application to renew a fishing licence should not and probably would not require the same level of identity, validation and attribution. Therefore, we have to scale across services, and that's why we need lots of examples and pilots to learn how that scaling works."

The Post Office, banks, perhaps even supermarkets or social media firms, are the intended targets for IDA - they will provide identity services conforming to the IDA protocol (likely to be an open protocol, not a government-owned one) and public services will piggyback off that infrastructure. So, you choose which identity provider will assure, authenticate and validate your transaction, all the government service has to do is ensure it conforms to the protocol.

IDA - in approach, in thinking, in technology - is critical to the new government IT. To deliver the radical reform that government IT needs, it needs IDA to be a success. It would be a terrible irony if an old-school big project like universal credit were to scupper its chances.

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Government to IT suppliers: Does it hurt yet?

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When I was a schoolboy, there was a popular if rather sado-masochistic playground game called Chinese burns. This involved grasping your opponent's wrist with both hands, and twisting their skin in opposite directions. They then did the same to you. The loser was the first to yelp in pain or admit that it hurts. For added psychological pressure, if you felt you were gaining the upper hand, you would shout "Does it hurt yet? Does it hurt yet?" loudly in the face of your rival.

Boys, eh?

I have an image of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and others in government IT procurement doing something similar to their biggest IT suppliers. The difference being that nowadays, the IT suppliers are no longer allowed to take a turn at applying the Chinese burn after years of watching their public sector clients grimacing and trying not to confess how much they were suffering.

Take Oracle, as the latest example.

It was revealed last year that 70% of all software licences used by government are from Oracle - data collated from 18 central government bodies showed that of 17.2 million software licences purchased, 10 million were for Oracle software.

In January, the Cabinet Office cited Oracle as one of two worst culprits, alongside SAP, in response to exclusive Computer Weekly research that revealed some Whitehall departments are paying up to three times more than others in ERP licence costs.

This week, the government finally revealed that its annual spend with Oracle has been in excess of £200m - and that figure is to be reduced by £75m annually thanks to a newly-agreed licensing deal with the supplier.

One of the clauses of the new contract is that Oracle will treat the government as a single customer and apply the same levels of discount to all IT buyers. That's another way of saying that Oracle has been ripping off Whitehall for years by offering lower discounts to some government users than others, based presumably on nothing more than each department's skill as a negotiator.

"The relationship with the UK government has always been very special to Oracle. We are honoured to support its initiatives and to stand together in meeting the changing IT needs of the 21st Century," said Oracle CFO Safra Catz in the carefully phrased statement accompanying the new deal. That's £200m per year of "special".

Minister Maude added: "The days of the government paying different prices for the same goods or services are over."

Does it hurt yet?

Take Capgemini, as another example.

The IT services firm leads the Aspire consortium that holds one of the biggest multibillion-pound outsourcing deals in the public sector, with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

It's a fairly typical, old-school outsourcing contract, where the supplier charges hundreds of pounds every time a light bulb needs to be changed.

Earlier this month, Maude announced a £200m cut in the price of the Aspire contract.

Furthermore, HMRC CIO Phil Pavitt told a Computer Weekly CW500 Club meeting this week that the renegotiated contract also involves bringing certain services back in house, and ending Capgemini's exclusivity for new projects. From now on, the supplier will have to compete for everything - Pavitt cited one example already where a small Silicon Valley supplier bid several hundred thousand pounds for a project, against a quote of many millions from the incumbent. Guess who won the business?

Oh, and by the way, that Silicon Valley firm had approached Capgemini twice to offer its services and been rebuffed both times.

Does it hurt yet?

One of the IT leaders in the CW500 audience asked Pavitt, "What was it like beating up Capgemini, and did you enjoy it?"

Pavitt gave a politician's answer, citing the fact it was a win-win situation, that Capgemini is still HMRC's main IT supplier, and that everyone was happy with the outcome.

If I was a betting man, I would lay plenty of money that privately he loved every minute, and that Capgemini's wrists are red raw.

Does it hurt yet?

Let's come back to SAP, cited alongside Oracle as the worst culprit for over-pricing ERP. HMRC is rationalising its seven different versions and installations of SAP into a single common platform. As a result, the department has handed back thousands of SAP software licences that were being paid for, but not used.

Does it hurt yet?

Meanwhile, the G-Cloud framework and the CloudStore services catalogue are forcing suppliers to be open and transparent about pricing, and it's already shown huge discrepancies between the fees charged by many of the existing suppliers to government and the new challengers breaking into the market.

That's got to hurt.

It is a shame, of course, that it has taken this long; that it's taken the worst economic crisis in living memory for Whitehall to reform its relationship with the IT industry.

For years, private sector CIOs will no doubt have scoffed at their public sector colleagues, convinced that they were the best negotiators, that they had their suppliers where they wanted them, that they were getting the best price and the best service. Those crusty old Whitehall mandarins, all bogged down by bureaucracy and purchasing laws, what do they know, eh?

Every private sector CIO should look at the scale of the price cuts and the contractual changes now being forced by government on those suppliers- who certainly didn't offer a penny voluntarily - and question whether they really do get the best deal, and ask whose hands are wrapped around whose wrist in that relationship. And they should look at their raw skin and ask themselves, "Does it hurt yet?"

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Budget 2012: Promising, but not yet enough for UK IT

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Every year we assess what the Budget means for the UK IT community. Most years we conclude: Nothing much. This year, we'd have to acknowledge progress, by concluding: Well, a bit, probably.

The headline statement was George Osborne's promise to make Britain "the technology hub of Europe". Sadly there seemed little concrete policy or action to reveal how he intends to make that happen. If you use the broadest possible definition of "technology", which the chancellor seems to have done, and include creative industries such as film and TV, plus scientific research such as pharmaceuticals, then you can start to build a case.

But for what we know as technology - information technology and communications - not so much.

There are some positive moves to improve tax breaks on research and development and for start-ups. There was the re-announcement of £100m promised in last year's Autumn statement to fund 10 "super-connected" cities, plus £50m extra for 10 smaller cities. And there were some minor promises to improve rural mobile coverage and to boost signals around key roads and on the railways.

But there was nothing that you could hold up and show as proof of a clear action plan and commitment to that ambitious "technology hub" objective.

If anything, the Budget just goes to prove business secretary Vince Cable's leaked comments to David Cameron, that the strategy is "piecemeal", and there is an urgent need for "more leadership in identifying and supporting key technologies".

Clearly it is better that Osborne said what he said than if he had said nothing, but we need more visible action and a more co-ordinated plan. Research last week from Boston Consulting Group showed that the internet plays a bigger role in the UK economy than in any G20 country - worth 8.3% of GDP - so we urgently need a vision and policies that build on that lead and use technology to pull us out of the downturn.

If ministers need educating about the role that technology can play, then at least they can expect some IT training - the most entertaining announcement in the Budget being that, "From 2014 new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they themselves can use the service successfully."

So there is hope. By 2014, every minister will at least have to know how to use the web.

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"Technology leadership must drive economic activity" - the other bit of Vince Cable's letter to the PM

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There was plenty of national coverage of business secretary Vince Cable's leaked letter to the prime minister, in which he lamented the lack of a "compelling vision" for UK economic growth, and called for the break-up Royal Bank of Scotland.

Lost among those headline-friendly soundbites was one of the major points in Cable's letter - the first of his five suggestions for a "strategic vision" for the UK's industrial future, namely the urgent need for "more leadership in identifying and supporting key technologies" - the letter even underlined "key technologies" for emphasis.

Cable used a phrase that Computer Weekly readers may be familiar with - it's something we've called for many times through many governments: " leadership must drive economic activity in the future."

Technology is the future of the UK's economy, and Cable is spot on to say this, and equally to say that the government of which he is a part continues to fail on this - "our actions are rather piecemeal", as Cable says.

He calls for greater focus and more resources to co-ordinate the government's technology priorities. He's absolutely right.

Cable goes on: "Despite fantastic SMEs, we have produced no Amazon, no Google and no Intel. Key issues are in finance and skills, including how our equity markets function that leave too few potential giants to expand organically rather than sell up."

There's a couple of obvious comments to be made on Cable's observations. First, that the technology shortfall was such a strong theme of his letter, yet it received zero coverage at a national level. Second, that Cable is of course responsible for our technology and IT skills base as the minister for business, innovation and skills, so he's not exactly without his share of the blame.

It is refreshing on one level to see this issue being raised in such a senior political environment, but depressing that it still has to be said. I know I'm biased as a technology writer, but surely it is patently obvious to anyone that technology innovation is the future for any major developed Western economy, and that the UK has a unique opportunity - and a very limited window for that opportunity - to put a strategic policy emphasis on all things digital to make us a real world leader.

We are sadly not privy to David Cameron's response, and we will have to wait for the Budget later this month to see any evidence of a policy shift or new funding available.

But it will prove to be a devastating legacy for this, and any other government, that fails to see the opportunity of technology innovation as a core economic cornerstone. Let's hope we are not to look back in 10 years' time and read another leaked ministerial letter lamenting how we missed our chance back in 2012.


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The man who might be king (well, deputy king)

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When Computer Weekly interviewed Cabinet Office permanent secretary Ian Watmore recently, he cited three names as the key people driving change in IT across the public sector.

Two were to be expected - digital director Mike Bracken, who is leading the move to "digital by default" public services; and open data czar Tim Kelsey, who is opening up government data and enabling the transparency agenda.

For some, the third name might be less well-known: Liam Maxwell, director of ICT futures at the Cabinet Office, most recently a local authority politician and head of IT at David Cameron's old school, Eton College, who is currently serving on a short-term advisory contract.

So, who is the person identified by the second most senior civil servant in Whitehall as the key to change in government IT?

Maxwell seems set to be the fulcrum of that process of change. Numerous well-placed Whitehall IT insiders have strongly implied to Computer Weekly that Maxwell is the clear favourite to be appointed as the new deputy government CIO.

With Andy Nelson taking over as government CIO while continuing in his day job as CIO at the Ministry of Justice, it's clear that the top role is primarily that of a figurehead and spiritual leader for government CIOs - in a similar manner to current incumbent Joe Harley, who combines the role with being CIO of the Department for Work And Pensions until he retires next month.

It's increasingly apparent that the deputy role is where the real day-to-day power will lie, responsible for the dirty work in forcing recalcitrant Whitehall IT departments to adopt the government IT strategy that encourages the use of cloud computing, open source, agile development, short-term contracts and SME suppliers - all areas that previous governments have tried to force onto the laggards in public sector IT only to be thwarted by inertia and by those who feel more comfortable with the expensive status quo.

Maxwell is already fulfilling much of that role - setting the standards and processes for IT procurement and projects to force through change - to the extent that some suppliers even identify him as a bottleneck in IT because he has so many projects to approve.

The new deputy CIO needs to be someone willing to bash heads together, and not take "no" for an answer. Is Maxwell that man?

He has been a central figure in Tory IT policy since before the General Election that brought the coalition to power. He helped draft the Conservative technology policy for Francis Maude - now his boss at the Cabinet Office. He was closely involved in a tech think-tank, the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, which in September 2010 proposed dismantling the IT systems and business ecosystem established by Labour, with the promise of saving £8bn a year in IT costs.

The influence of the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age could be seen from the fact that David Cameron himself helped to launch it.

Before taking on his current 12-month contract at the Cabinet Office, Maxwell was a Tory councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. His political connections were clearly a factor in his appointment to the Cabinet Office, but he is a long-term IT guy too. He was head of computing at Eton College for seven years; head of IT at Capita Resourcing for three years before that; and IT chief for a variety of recruitment firms further back.

Not insignificantly, he was also at Accenture for two years - the IT services firm that also once employed Ian Watmore and Andy Nelson.

Maxwell is a vocal supporter of open source and cloud. He is close to Simon Wardley, one of the UK's leading thinkers on using cloud to commoditise IT provision, and open source as a competitive weapon. There seems little doubt that Maxwell's views will be similar.

The Cabinet Office seems to be laying the ground for Maxwell's promotion - he has recently been a speaker at some high-profile IT conferences, raising his own profile accordingly, spreading the word on open standards and promoting the use of SME suppliers.

If there is one potential drawback, it could be Maxwell's political ambitions. Insiders suggest he wants to be an MP, a role that would surely present an unacceptable conflict of interest with a Civil Service IT job - although who's to say we shouldn't have a capable minister for IT?

Even if the rumours are wrong and someone else turns up as deputy government CIO, there's no doubt that Maxwell will have a significant influence on the future of public sector IT - and in particular on its relationship with the IT industry.

If you're an IT supplier, and you don't yet know who Liam Maxwell is, you'd better find out.

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Government IT strategy aims to overcome three key risks - the real work starts now

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The government's IT chiefs have clearly had a busy few weeks, and have set themselves up to be sure that continues.

In less than 24 hours, the Cabinet Office has released an invitation to tender for £60m of G-Cloud contracts, and published its Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) - a detailed, milestone-packed delivery programme for large-scale change in government IT.

The SIP promises the release of four more key strategy documents by the end of this month - covering cloud, end-user devices, green IT, and IT capability. The plan sets out a long series of deadlines to which government CIOs have committed - manna for critics who expect to see "government misses deadline" stories.

The SIP moves the coalition's IT strategy from the "what" to the "how", and reflects the oft-stated desire for greater transparency and accountability. For that, it is to be welcomed and applauded.

The document also lists the key risks to achieving its objectives, and among those are three areas which, while each covered in a sentence in the plan, will present the biggest test for the ambitious changes it outlines.

It is surely no coincidence that the first risk to the overall strategy identified in the SIP states: "Supplier market is slow to adapt to the new ICT landscape." Now there's a euphemism if ever there was one. For all the supportive words you can be sure we will hear from the big systems integrators, they will be digging their heels to resist changes to their dominance, pointing out all the commercial reasons why they need long-term commitments to contracts, why bigger is better. We hope that diversity wins.

But supplier entrenchment is only one facet - equally entrenched attitudes across Whitehall make cultural change a huge challenge. Some departments already resent the centralised control over IT spending imposed by the Cabinet Office, using years of experience in Civil Service obfuscation to retain decision-making over their local IT initiatives. Open, standardised IT means open, standardised procurement - a huge change in the way many mandarins are used to working.

Finally, some of those busy government CIOs need to take a long hard look in the mirror too. For all the criticism of firms that supply IT to Whitehall, government itself has not been an intelligent buyer. Insiders already admit that some CIOs will struggle to adapt to the move the cloud - a fact recognised by the proposed creation of a CIO Academy.

The drive to outsource government IT has led to the over-outsourcing of IT skills. The public sector needs to rebuild and retain the modern IT skills needed to deliver the aims of the SIP - IT architecture, project management, supplier management, and so on - and to re-take ownership of the technology that will be central to delivering cost-effective, digital-by-default public services over the next 10 years.

Big challenges lie ahead; a good start has been made. The real work starts now.

Quietly, cautiously, carefully, government IT may just be getting it right

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Public sector IT remains - rightly - under great scrutiny in the UK. Right now, it faces a set of challenges unique to the political cycle, but they are challenges that warrant patience from the many critics of Whitehall IT policy.

Last year, a new government promised new ways of working, widespread IT reforms, an end to the headline-grabbing IT failures. Now, a little over a year has passed with any honeymoon period long-since elapsed, and critics are expecting to see tangible evidence that things are really different, not simply empty political promises.

It's easy to point fingers at government IT policy today and highlight the lack of progress on implementing open source; to point out how often contracts still go to the big oligopoly of systems integrators instead of SME suppliers; or to criticise major legacy problems such as the NHS IT contracts.

It is right, of course, to hold government to account on these and any other intentions - and Computer Weekly has been at the forefront of that.

But there is a real sense that, quietly, thoughtfully, behind the scenes, genuine change might just be taking place.

Transforming years of public sector IT culture and moving away from complex legacy systems is not so much like turning round the proverbial oil tanker, it's like taking all the oil and trying to push it back into the well too. It takes time.

Bill McCluggage, the deputy government CIO, talked to Computer Weekly readers at a recent CW500 Club meeting, and described the welcome improvements in attitude and environment within the Cabinet Office and among the Whitehall IT community over the past year.

He talked about the greater collaboration, more openness, more honesty about mutual difficulties and failings. He highlighted the desire to look beyond traditional IT providers and take advice from other voices - but also the acceptance that Whitehall has outsourced too many of its IT skills. Outsourcing service provision is one thing, but government needs to re-build its in-house IT capabilities to better hold those service providers to account.

When you talk to Bill and his IT leadership peers in government, they have the air of knowing the things they need to change, and give the impression they know how to do it. They also bear the weariness of knowing that everyone expects them to have done so yesterday.

I get the distinct feeling they are absolutely genuine in their desire to use more open source, to move away from big contracts and projects, to work with more innovative SMEs, to be more agile, and tackle the failings of the past.

But more than that, I detect the confidence that they believe they are on the right path, and that they are slowly proving it.

For example, former Guardian digital supremo Mike Bracken recently took on the role of government digital director, responsible for delivering the "digital by default" agenda for public services. He arrived to quite a fanfare having made The Guardian a leader in digital media. In his first interview since taking on the role, he told Computer Weekly that he has to do the boring things first - get the organisation structure right, get the right people in place, agree a budget - but that he knows what is possible once all that is in place.

Another example - BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones wrote a thoughtful article recently based on a Freedom of Information request to Whitehall departments asking for a breakdown of their software spending between proprietary and open source. Not surprisingly, it showed lots spent on proprietary, not much on open source. Critics jumped on this as proof that government is failing to deliver its commitment to open source.

Rory was kind enough to share the data he received with Computer Weekly in advance to get our opinion - and there was little revelatory in there. All it showed is that over the last 12 months government spent its software budgets in the same way they always used to - it's far too soon to see major shifts to open source. The figures highlighted the difficulty of introducing a policy to encourage open source - but gave no indication that it wouldn't be achieved.

And a final example: we recently talked to a number of SME IT suppliers to find out their real-life experiences of trying to win government contracts, and it wasn't pretty. Many had stories that help build a picture that government will always favour big, apparently safe, suppliers.

One of the biggest critics of the "big company" procurement policy is Mark Taylor, CEO of a small open-source specialist, Sirius, who has added plenty of personal experience to the debate. So what has the government done as a result? It asked Taylor to chair a working group on how to bring new suppliers to Whitehall. That's not yet a sign that things have changed, but it shows an openness to listen to critics in a positive way that has often been absent in the past.

We have of course been here before. It's by no means the first time we've been told government IT is changing, only to be disappointed. And such bitter experience means that every cynic is entirely justified in questioning any of the latest initiatives.

But slowly, cautiously, carefully, there are signs that this time might, actually, be different.


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