The end of the CIO in government - what's in a job title?

The days of the CIO role in central government are over.

Computer Weekly has followed the steady demise of the Whitehall CIO for some time, since it became clear that the key IT reformers at the Cabinet Office – namely, Government Digital Service (GDS) chief Mike Bracken, CTO Liam Maxwell, and COO Stephen Kelly – saw the CIO as a hangover from a past characterised by costly and inflexible outsourcing deals, cosy relationships with big suppliers, and inertia to change.

Eliminating the over-arching government CIO role was the first task, delivered when its final incumbent Andy Nelson moved to be CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

There have certainly been tensions as a result, between the centre and the departmental CIOs who valued their autonomy and authority and resented being told what to do by the Cabinet Office.

But the decision not to appoint Mark Hall as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) CIO sends the message that departments will have to change their leadership structure for the new environment.

Hall was popular among his team, had served as deputy CIO to Phil Pavitt, and was personally recommended by Pavitt when he left for the private sector at the start of this year. Hall had stepped up as interim CIO pending the formal selection process, and it came as a surprise to many when he was told he would not get the job.

Hall’s reaction was to resign, and I’m told he will leave HMRC on 30 September – at the time of writing, HMRC still say he has not resigned but is considering his options.

An external candidate was chosen instead at HMRC, and it remains to be seen if that individual will come in with the CIO job title.

The government IT bible

The new bible for Whitehall IT is the Government Service Design Manual – the evolving document that defines how GDS expects departmental IT teams to go about strategy, development and even recruitment. GDS is firmly established as the owner of Whitehall IT strategy and delivery – no matter how much the departments might resent it.

That manual even goes to the extent of defining typical job titles and organisation structure for Whitehall IT teams. There is no mention of the CIO at all.

In the eyes of GDS, technology leadership is divided into two functions – chief digital officer (CDO) and chief technology officer (CTO).

In simple terms, CDO is the “front-end” role, responsible for digital strategy and citizen engagement, delivering digital-by-default public services.

The CTO is the “back-end” role, responsible for the IT infrastructure, supplier relations, and the bits and bytes of technology.

In the largest departments, the manual suggests that the CDO and CTO should report to a chief operating officer (COO), “with responsibility for driving business change through technology”.

None of this is a bad thing. What the GDS mandate does is put IT and digital thinking at the forefront of Whitehall delivery, with strategic input into public service delivery, and direct involvement in policy making. That is as it should be.

What’s in a name?

I get rather bored with the debates about the CIO role and the job title – titles don’t matter, it’s the person and their responsibility and accountability that are important. There are plenty of CIOs inside and outside government perfectly capable of leading digital transformation and combining those CTO and CDO roles.

But equally, this relatively new job of CDO is becoming increasingly popular in a digital world – Marks & Spencer, for example, recently appointed its first CDO, despite having a long-standing CIO in Darrell Stein.

As technology becomes ever more critical to the marketing function, and as chief marketing officers (CMOs) increasingly become owners of large chunks of the IT budget for digital customer engagement, the CDO role is emerging as the link between marketing and back-end IT in companies.

But back to Whitehall.

The power plays around IT in government have been fascinating to watch in recent years, and it’s been clear for some time that GDS executive director Mike Bracken is now the most influential technology leader in the public sector. He fulfils the role that, when the government CIO post was first created in 2004, everyone hoped the government CIO would become but somehow never did.

The difference now has been the backing of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, in giving political strength to enforcing the cross-Whitehall controls over IT and digital strategy enjoyed by Bracken, Maxwell and GDS.

I’m told Bracken was heavily involved in the HMRC CIO selection that led to Mark Hall’s snub, and I’ve heard rumours also that he has blocked the appointment of potential candidates for the CTO role at the DWP.

That’s not to criticise Bracken – when you meet him, he’s an impressive guy, with a clear vision, and has proved his ability to deliver. But you can bet there will be resentment among some departmental IT leaders about his influence.

Digital ironies

When the central and departmental government CIOs were recruited during Tony Blair’s years as prime minister, the rationale for their appointment was to bring private sector IT disciplines to the public sector. The opinion, with hindsight, is that too many of those recruited “went native” and perpetuated the overspending and over-reliance on big systems integrators that has been blamed for so many Whitehall IT problems in the past.

Bracken too came from the private sector, but not as a traditional IT leader / CIO – he was previously digital chief at the Guardian. He is more typical of the cross-over skills you find in many startups, combining experience in both technology and creative sectors.

On his personal blog, he gives himself the tag line “Digital transformation”. There’s an irony there – in that the first ever government IT strategy, from that first ever government CIO, was called “Transformational government“.

There’s even greater irony when you consider that first government CIO was Ian Watmore, who – interrupted in Whitehall by a brief spell as chairman of the FA – was initially Bracken’s boss when he was first rec ruited in 2011.

How these wheels turn.

The further irony is that Bracken is seen by many commentators as introducing changes that businesses will be forced to do as the digital revolution transforms the way they work and their interaction with customers. The distinction between “digital” and “IT” that is embodied in the Government Service Design Manual is one that is only now starting to be made in corporate boardrooms as well.

So should we lament the demise of the CIO in government. Not really – it is just a job title after all, albeit in Whitehall one that has come to be associated with a lot of unwanted baggage.

If calling technology leaders something different – regardless of what that title may be – is what it takes to claim strategic involvement in public service delivery, then it’s something all the IT profession should welcome.

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