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Interview: Gwyn Thomas, CIO of the Welsh Government

Kathleen Hall

In many respects Wales has a far better track record than England for public sector IT. Not only has the nation avoided any major project disasters but it already has a Public Services Network running – a feat England has yet to achieve.

Gwyn Thomas, CIO of the Welsh Government and director of Informatics Health and Social Care, puts this down to the size of the country and a pragmatic leadership approach when it comes to getting the nation’s various public sector organisations on board.

Research suggests that countries of under 5 million citizens are about the right size to roll out IT projects, he says.

Wales has a population of 3 million, with a public sector IT budget of around £500m, roughly 3% of the total public sector budget. This means the nation spends roughly half of what England does on public sector IT per citizen.

But Gwyn Thomas points out this is the total budget for Wales and so not under his sole control. His task is to encourage a comprehensive approach to IT among the nation’s various public sector bodies, while ensuring strategic decisions happen on a national level to benefit from economies of scale.

Innovation, consensus and anarchy in Welsh IT

“We do things locally but by agreement because that’s where you get innovation. And we don’t want to stifle that. An unintended consequence of the centralised-devolved cycle is that when you centralise you standardise and kill innovation, but when you go local you encourage innovation at the expense of anarchy,” Gwyn Thomas says.

“We don’t need everyone to agree, but we do need a coalition of the willing. You are never going to get full consensus.”

It doesn’t always make sense for bodies to move in the same direction at once, as sometimes they will have differing contractual obligations.

“We allow justified diversity. But you need critical mass, it gives you the momentum to get things done at pace,” says Thomas.

Unlike England, Wales has not opted for a market approach to healthcare IT. 

“We have just reorganised to create half a dozen large health boards and they have now got primary and second all under one management,” says Thomas.  

“It makes sense because we are small – we are not big enough to foster a market environment. And so co-operation and collaboration will offer us economies of scale.”

Wales as a networked nation

"We didn’t need everyone to agree to make the business case – just health, education and a certain number of local authorities"

Gwyn Thomas, CIO of the Welsh Assembly

Wales’ Public Sector Broadband Aggregation (PSBA) has been in place since 2008, run by Logicalis. Wales currently has around 2,500 sites on the PSBA, over 100 major organisations that have connected and more sites to come online in the next 12 months, he says.

“Why would you have more than one broadband network?” he asks. “We did PSBA because it was right to do even before we had a strategy.”

The plan went ahead as some big network contracts were expiring. 

“Because it wasn’t a greenfield site it was easier, we had a burning platform. We didn’t need everyone to agree to make the business case – just health, education and a certain number of local authorities,” says Thomas. 

“That gave more people incentive to join in. Initially the contract was for something like 1,000 connections, it’s currently up to 5,000 and will hit 9,000 before it ends. So we have every sector now on PSBA. 

"And if we had waited to get everybody, we’d still be here getting everyone to join in.”

But there is still much to do in broadband deployments for Wales, having just tendered a next generation broadband contract.

“That is going to give us 30Mbps for 96% of Wales by 2013,” says Thomas. 

But he is confident of the direction of travel: “I think by 2015 Wales will be a broadband country,” he adds.

Welsh datacentre rationalisation programme

The other big programme underway is rationalising the datacentre estate. 

“We’ve got something like 80 datacentres, it’s not huge but we only need two so we’re in the middle of a rationalisation,” says Thomas. 

“That will save money, it will give us the basis for cloud services and improve disaster recovery.”

Cost estimates for the programme haven’t been made, as some datacentres are effectively cupboards in buildings and it would be difficult to disaggregate rent.

“It is exactly what we are doing with PSBA, which was always a strategic decision. A sound technical strategy involves having one network and two datacentres, and you can’t justify not doing that as it’s easier to manage,” says Thomas. 

“The challenge is then migration. We know people are going out to procure on their own for additional storage capacity, but coming in on ours provides cost savings because it’s bigger, so the business case makes sense.”

But bodies that have invested significantly in datacentres will not be expected to immediately close them.  

“That would be a centralist approach. All we want to do is improve the landscape we’ve got now. We are not purists,” he says.

Aligning technology to the needs of Wales

“Yes we can use cloud services, but let’s decide what for”

Gwyn Thomas, CIO of the Welsh Assembly

Datacentre rationalisation will also be important to the Welsh cloud, but Thomas admits this area is still early days, as the country focuses on its broadband plans.

A definition of what needs to be done must always come before the technology for its own sake: “Yes we can use cloud services, but let’s decide what for,” says Thomas. 

Thomas’s background is not mainstream IT – he holds a PhD in metallurgy – but he says this has helped him in his career as CIO.

“I don’t obsess about the technology. Really all we are trying to do is make life better for people. That is the ethos of the public sector,” says Thomas. 

"Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that – as long as you can unite people around that vision. That is the job of the ICT professional.”

Absence of strategy has never been the problem, it’s all around the implementation, he says.

“Currently your standard ICT department does things locally, with different back-office systems doing things to people. We are moving into a world of apps on the iPhone, where ICT is a function to support the person not he organisation,” says Thomas. 

Balancing Wales's IT books

There are some big questions around the sustainability of public sector services IT.

“Because we’ve got financial pressure, we’ve got technological change and an increasing realisation that the delivery of public services going forward can’t happen without ICT,” says Thomas. 

“Budgets are being squeezed, expectations are growing and there is a global shortage of the skills we need to do all this.”

But he has much confidence in what the Welsh Assembly can do for the economy through technology.

“I think we are the cusp of a shift from the old-style ICT department to a new one,” he says.

“We have to start looking at the public sector as an asset to drive the economy not a drain. And the answer in rural areas will be technological.”

 

 


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