Interview: Government CTO Liam Maxwell

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Interview: Government CTO Liam Maxwell

Kathleen Hall

Liam Maxwell, the government’s first chief technology officer (CTO), has driven Whitehall’s IT transformation agenda for several years, previously holding posts as deputy government CIO and director of ICT futures at the Cabinet Office.

During his time at the Cabinet Office Maxwell has earned a bulldog-like reputation and famed for responding to requests for expensive IT projects by holding up a sign on his phone reading, "What is the user need?"

But providing departments have seen the light and agree that large-scale system integrator-led projects are a thing of the past, he is keen for Whitehall to realise the Cabinet Office is there to help it save money.

To this end, the Cabinet Office has released a set of documents aimed at providing a blueprint for CTOs redesigning Whitehall digital services in its Government Service Design Manual.

Does he see this as an aid to departments that have large IT contracts coming up for renewal?

“No. A lot of departments are having contracts finished in the next couple of years. If you look at the chart it goes like this after 2014,” he says, drawing a steep downward curve. “And you have to ask yourself, do we want to continue spending £2,000 per employee to run things like hosting? Probably not.”

Some contracts may be renewed, he says, but the point is the models for doing IT have changed. “This has been a really moving field. If you think just three to four years ago, people were going out and buying a lot of tin, running it and hooking it up with massively high-speed fibre links. And in some places the relative cost per user is extremely high. Yet now it’s available as a commodity."

If you think just three to four years ago, people were going out and buying a lot of tin, running it and hooking it up with massively high-speed fibre links. And in some places the relative cost per user is extremely high. Yet now it’s available as a commodity

Liam Maxwell, government CTO

The cloud has transformed everything, he says. “And that is a really big cultural change. This is our way of making sure people are aware of that transition,” he says.

In the future, shared services centres will provide much of the back office functionality across departments, with desktop infrastructure connectivity now a commodity. Large mainframes running VME (virtual machine environment) may remain in a few big departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC  – “but once you move away from that the infrastructure can become commoditised,” he says.

A user-need approach to technology applies internally to civil servants as much as to the public-facing piece. “That means we can start implementing some of the same reforms that we have started to put into digital public services into the technology we have,” Maxwell says.

Cultural changes

He believes some departments have already built sufficient capability to take some of their previously outsourced technology back in-house. “That is another key part of it, the ability to get the skills back. We spent years outsourcing our IT. And we gave all our IT people away to the private sector, so we are now getting some people back in.” The Government Digital Service is additionally building a recruitment hub to help departments re-skill. 

He points to Estonia as an example of a government doing successful digital government, due to its high in-house technical expertise. “The whole point of this is to help people take charge of their own destiny and be able to be in control of their own IT,” Maxwell says.

“Part of our time also is what we call colloquially ‘the bench’ so it’s about co-delivery, which is where we have a department saying ‘actually we need some help’. That is a more positive and collaborative way of working.”

ICT is redolent of the aggregation of IT. But over the last 18 months we’ve been disaggregating and doing exactly the opposite, which is why we have moved away from the phrase

Liam Maxwell, government CTO

The term ‘ICT’ has been dropped from the government’s lexicon, with ‘IT’ also a fast disappearing acronym, he says. The preferred language is to talk about technology as an enabler for digital change, he says.

“ICT is redolent of the aggregation of IT. But over the last 18 months we’ve been disaggregating and doing exactly the opposite, which is why we have moved away from the phrase,” Maxwell says.

“Increasingly we are talking about technology because we are focusing on the users’ needs.” As technology such as hosting becomes commoditised, they are turning into "technologies" rather than "IT functions", that require layers of management to run.  

“'Government as a platform’ is the approach we are using in the digital space, but it is also the approach we are using in the technology space,” Maxwell says. This involves identifying common areas that can be shared and then redesigned.

“There is a lot of confusion in some quarters about what is digital and what is IT. When you state what the nomenclature is and what things actually mean, which is what the manual does,” Maxwell says.

“Digital is a transformation play, it is about transforming the business, it just happens to involve quite a lot of technology.”

Moving to digital

Breaking silos and moving to a platform approach will also be important in enabling digital transactions, the most challenging aspect of the goal to move to a digital government.

Maxwell says this is progressing at speed. “Transactions are going like gang busters at the moment,” he says. 

“Digital transactions for the government are the future. The technology piece is to support that. But the big priority at the moment is the transactions.”

He says the manual will support the move to put 25 big transactions across government in the next two years. “This is a key component of preparing the ground for that and it ties in with that.”

Maxwell estimates there are around 50 individuals in government in CTO roles. But is there a danger that by appealing to this group, he is preaching to the converted?

“The manual is not just for the CTO community. Our whole approach is we want to publish and be open with everyone. So this is also for senior leaders in the civil service because it’s not specifically technical – although there are some technical aspects."

He acknowledges that change can't be driven from the centre with stick alone.

“We are looking for feedback as well, we are very keen on peer review and the and being very open to people. We don’t have a monopoly on the best way of doing things,” he says.


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