Are government CIOs being pushed to the sidelines?

The latest step in the government’s IT leadership shake-up was announced last night, with former deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell appointed as the first government chief technology officer (CTO). As revealed by Computer Weekly, Maxwell now reports to Government Digital Service director Mike Bracken.

What’s in a job title, you might ask? In this case, potentially quite a lot.

Computer Weekly has seen a copy of the internal Cabinet Office announcement of Maxwell’s new role, sent out by Bracken’s boss, government chief operating officer Stephen Kelly.

His memo is significant for what it does not say, perhaps more than what it does.

Here is what Kelly said:

“I am delighted to announce that Liam Maxwell has been appointed Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for HM Government. Liam will lead the CTO council and executive in government, leading the design and definition of future technology platforms. He will play a lead role in defining the future technologies required for digitally delivered public services, and the successful IT Reform group will become part of our digital team.

Through the Government Digital Service, we have created a network of digital leaders who are senior operational leaders in their departments, able to identify and drive through the creation of new digital services. The CTO will support these operational leaders to appreciate the technologies required to achieve the change we need across the government’s digital estate and synchronise business process improvement.

Each department already has its own CTO or someone very close to that role. Together with the CIO and Digital Leaders, they form a powerful combination to achieve our transition to Digital by Default. This combination of technical and business vision to support operational leaders driving change. Liam will report to Mike Bracken who is leading the Government’s digital transformation agenda.”

The memo has all the key phrases you would expect of any organisation looking to transform its approach to IT: “…leading the design and definition of future technology platforms”; “…a network of digital leaders who are senior operational leaders in their departments”; “This combination of technical and business vision”.

Can you see what’s missing from this statement of reforming intent? The phrase “chief information officer.” You know, the highly paid CIOs who sit in every government department, leading the delivery of IT to support public services. Yes, them. Barely mentioned, just once, in passing.

Insiders say Stephen Kelly sees no need for the role of CIO. He has already reduced the responsibilities of government CIO Andy Nelson – and the obvious implication of his latest pronouncement is that he intends to do the same to the other departmental CIOs too.

The vision that is emerging is one where Mike Bracken and his team lead the transformation of digitally delivered public services, while Maxwell and his network of digital leaders / CTOs change the way the supporting technology is delivered.

That means lots of cloud, lots of external hosting, plenty of open source, more standardisation, fewer big multi-year development projects like the floundering Universal Credit.

The IT team at the Cabinet Office looks like it increasingly wants to centralise IT decision-making across Whitehall, with departmental CTOs in place to manage the actual technology and the relationship with their suppliers.

Such centralisation eliminates the traditional CIO role completely – at least in the way it has been implemented across government.

One senior source told me recently they expect there will be no such thing as a government CIO in future, nor will there be the need for one. Kelly’s announcement can be seen as a first step down that road.

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