Chris Chant, the government's interim director of digital and director of the G-Cloud programme, speaks exclusively to Computer Weekly's Kathleen Hall about the future of the cloud in the public sector.
Despite Chris Chant's underwhelming description of himself - "I'm a career civil servant, I've been doing this for about 36 years" - a pen-pusher is one thing he is not.
In addition to his current position as interim director of digital, Chant is responsible for setting the strategy for the use of cloud computing and data centre consolidation across the public sector. He is also executive director of DirectGov and digital engagement in the Cabinet Office.
Prior to this Chant was CIO at the Government Olympic Executive and CIO for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He also worked at the former Inland Revenue where he led delivery of what is now HM Revenue & Customs' online systems for self-assessment - "the proudest part of my CV," he says - and worked as programme director at the Cabinet Office on multi-agency IT services, such as the Government Gateway. It's a fairly exhaustive résumé by anyone's standards.
Recently there's been a lot to keep him busy as interim director of digital since his appointment in January. Moves to shake up government web services, as recommended by Martha Lane Fox, are steaming ahead. A prototype Alpha.gov.uk website to centralise all government sites is being trialled and plans are on course to make more public-sector services to be online-only. Chant has laid much of the groundwork for Mike Bracken, former director of digital at The Guardian, who will take up the permanent position of the government's director of digital in July. But was he ever tempted to go for the role himself?
"No, this was always an interim post. I didn't apply for this position," Chant said. "I think the skill set around that job is fundamentally about having a background in digital services. It really needed someone with the expertise of Mike Bracken who has huge, exciting experience in this space and is exactly what's needed. Mike knows this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. He's the right guy to do it."
Taking government IT into the cloud
Chant will soon be back in the cloud game: "That's really important for me. I'm passionate that we can deliver better IT services for a massive reduction in end cost to government and I think we can make a huge contribution in doing that through cloud services."
But what about rumours that the G-Cloud is being quietly dropped, following its noted absence from the government's recent ICT strategy?
"There are no plans to change the G-Cloud name. If people want to obsess over that, then fine. We're working on strategy that will be put out around government that describes our approach, but fundamentally it hasn't changed from a cloud perspective from what we were doing last year. We are accelerating the use of that and development through the CIO delivery board."
Work on the cloud project has slowed down in recent months, he says, but this is partly due to his attention having been temporarily diverted with his interim role.
"We've also been involved in working out our new ICT strategy and the implementation of the methodology behind it, which Joe Harley [the government CIO] has put in place. But now that has been worked out, we are back motoring on."
One change in strategy is a move to multiple app stores instead of a single government service. "I see no reason why we shouldn't have that and then have a bunch of aggregator sites. I know of at least three private sector organisations that are keen to get their own app store out there. I think in due course there will be a government-provided procurement portal worked out. I have no timetable for that yet, but clearly there have to be products to put on it first," he said.
Focus on quality and price
Chant's work with the G-Cloud is about trying to break the conventional approach to buying IT services through large systems integrators, he says.
"There are 101 definitions of the cloud, but for me it is about not providing capital upfront for a service and not having long-term contracts - so typically contracts might be as small as being monthly - and not guaranteeing volumes," said Chant.
"The focus is on the quality and price for service, that's something that has not entered government contracts we've had in the last 10 or 15 years. And long-term contracts do not encourage that focus on quality and service," he said.
"A number of organisations are offering their services, way below the prices we are currently paying - particularly in the commodities space. We know some people are paying £20-£30 per person, per month, effectively for e-mail services. But we know we can get impact level 3 secure e-mail services for less than £3 per person, per month."
Around 80% of the costs of building an internal IT solution for the government's 100-person strong digital services have been cut by using a cloud-based approach, he says. This involved using Google Apps, Salesforce.com and LibreOffice, rather than using services from existing government suppliers.
But in a recent interview, former government CIO John Suffolk complained that the UK public sector's migration to the cloud was too slow. It's a frustration Chant shares.
"At the heart of this for central government is a whole load of existing contracts that are not easy to get around. As those contracts come up for renewal, we will see an increased emphasis on the move toward the cloud. We also need to be clear about how organisations procure cloud services, the security around them, and how they are managed. Would I do it quicker? Absolutely, yes. I'd have wanted to do it two years ago," he said.
Learning from the past
Having worked in government IT for more than three decades, Chant agrees some of the systemic failures in public sector IT can be attributed to an over-reliance on outsourcing. "I've even seen cases where we have outsourced our strategy. And that is just unforgiveable," he said.
"We've got to recognise that some of the organisations we outsource to are as big as the civil service, so why would we expect agility with something that big? Skunkworks are a great example of dealing with some of those issues. For Government Digital Service, a clear part of our organisational re-structure is building that in-house capability."
Budget constraints shouldn't be a barrier to bulking up in-house expertise, he adds: "We declare an annual spend of £16.9bn in IT every year. If we can't find savings from that then we really ought to go off and do something else. There's enough flexibility in that to do what we need. And we have clear targets about reducing spend on IT from a cloud and data consolidation approach."
However, Chant says it's important to recognise the talent already in government. "I really believe we've got some great people on board like Andy Nelson, CIO at the Ministry of Justice, Tom Loosemore [leader of Alpha.gov.uk], Denise McDonagh [director of IT at the Home Office], Tonino Ciuffini, [head of ICT at Warwickshire County Council] and Felicity Shaw, spearheading the move to assisted digital. Those people really get what's required."
So despite all the well-documented failures of the past, does he feel positive the government will fulfil its IT aims? "I'm not naturally an optimistic person, but I am hugely optimistic about the future. I expect great things over the next 18 months about the way services are provided to citizens of this country."
Chris Chant was speaking at the Guardian's Smart Healthcare Live exhibition and conference at Excel in London's Docklands.