Liam Maxwell: The man who checks the homework

Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude used to call Liam Maxwell “the man who checks the homework”.

First as an advisor to Maude, then as government CTO, Maxwell was responsible for making sure Whitehall IT buyers did what they were told and writing their report card when they didn’t. He was never afraid to tell them there was room for improvement.

Given the power to veto IT purchases by approving departmental technology spending, Maxwell rooted out the knee-jerk practice of giving huge, mega-outsourcing deals to a small number of large and inefficient system integrators. His mobile phone became famous for the “What is the user need?” sticker on its back, which he would brandish at errant IT buyers during meetings.

It was an essential task, and Maxwell was very good at it. Thanks largely to him, we can hope we have broken once and for all the oligopoly of IT suppliers that dominated government technology and sucked out billions of taxpayer pounds every year for little return.

He is moving to become the UK’s first national technology advisor, responsible for co-ordinating policy and plans across Whitehall to grow the digital economy and attract tech companies and investment into the country. It’s a huge and important role – one that Computer Weekly and others have called for on many occasions to give a high-level focus to the growth of a digital Britain.

With his move, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has now completed almost a clean sweep of departures among many of its key pre-election leaders.

Maxwell follows GDS chief Mike Bracken, deputy director Tom Loosemore, director of strategy Russell Davies, design director Ben Terrett, transformation director Mike Beaven, deputy CTO Magnus Falk and G-Cloud head Tony Singleton out of the door of Aviation House, the GDS HQ opposite Holborn tube station in London.

When Bracken announced his departure last summer – closely followed by a co-ordinated mass resignation involving Loosemore, Davies and Terrett that left a bad feeling among some of those that remained – it raised inevitable questions about the direction of digital government and the future of GDS.

Bracken effectively secured GDS’s immediate future before he left at the end of September – his business case for the government as a platform (GaaP) strategy helping to secure a £450m budget from chancellor George Osborne.

But Maxwell’s departure comes at a time when questions still linger around GDS, prompted in part by the continued absence of a business plan for spending that £450m pot, which was originally meant to be published in December last year.

Maxwell leaving GDS is not as seismic a shock as when Bracken quit, however. Insiders suggest that Maxwell had been operating increasingly at arm’s length from the rest of GDS for some time, with key lieutenants like deputy CTO Andy Beale and director of common technology services Iain Patterson fronting the work.

In recent months it has seemed at times that there are two camps around GDS. There are those who support Maxwell and point to his achievements in enforcing spending controls, open standards, and technology governance as key to the £599m savings attributed to GDS by government auditors.

Then there is the digital camp – the proponents of Bracken’s legacy who point out how digital has become central to the transformation of Whitehall departments and is at the heart of public sector and civil service reform in the years to come.

In truth, both have of course played a huge part – and in many respects, both probably moved on at the right time, having put their own strengths to the best use.

Bracken was the visionary who sold the concept of digital government and helped embed digital and agile thinking and skills into Whitehall.

Maxwell was the bulldog who bashed heads together and stopped the plainly stupid and destructive technology purchasing habits of the past.

GDS now is becoming a more collaborative partner – a supporter of departments rather than the agent of change; a setter of standards and governance rather than an enforcer to stop bad practices. It could be argued (and both camps have) that Bracken and Maxwell’s strengths are not so well suited to this next phase of GDS’s development.

Maxwell will be looked back on as the right man for the right time in government technology. He came into Whitehall initially as an advisor to Francis Maude, who in turn provided the political muscle that allowed Maxwell to become the destroyer of old ways.

Inevitably though, being the person who says “no” means you fall out with people along the way. Many are the tales from government insiders citing arguments and breakdowns in relationships.

Maxwell was forced to bear the brunt of the highest-profile example of such a breakdown as senior responsible owner for the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) digital service when it collapsed in March 2015. He was later labelled “Mr Fancypants” by MP Richard Bacon during a Public Accounts Committee hearing that revealed “personal rifts” and “counter-productive behaviours” between RPA and GDS staff.

Maxwell admitted to the committee that he is not a “conciliatory person when there are issues to be resolved”.

For all his achievements, there will be people happy to see Maxwell’s back as he leaves GDS – a fact that Maxwell himself would probably acknowledge in private. But he is respected by ministers – he was close to Maude even before the Tories came to power as part of the Coalition government, and he is close t o Maude’s successor, Matt Hancock, too. As a former Tory local councillor – and ex-IT manager of Eton College – Maxwell understands the political classes.

In an interview with Computer Weekly soon after he quit last year, Bracken made a prescient observation about Maxwell’s strengths: “Liam is a brilliant figurehead for technology policy. I can’t think of anyone better to advise ministers on encryption, the digital single market, or to accompany ministers on international visits. Liam is brilliant at those.”

Bracken was unwittingly writing the job description for Maxwell’s new role as national technology advisor in that one statement nine months ago.

So now Maxwell goes from checking the homework of government IT buyers to checking the homework of government digital economy policy. If he shakes up a few people along the way, good for him. If he brings positive changes in policy and planning as a result, then good for us.

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