The man who might be king (well, deputy king)

When Computer Weekly interviewed Cabinet Office permanent secretary Ian Watmore recently, he cited three names as the key people driving change in IT across the public sector.

Two were to be expected – digital director Mike Bracken, who is leading the move to “digital by default” public services; and open data czar Tim Kelsey, who is opening up government data and enabling the transparency agenda.

For some, the third name might be less well-known: Liam Maxwell, director of ICT futures at the Cabinet Office, most recently a local authority politician and head of IT at David Cameron’s old school, Eton College, who is currently serving on a short-term advisory contract.

So, who is the person identified by the second most senior civil servant in Whitehall as the key to change in government IT?

Maxwell seems set to be the fulcrum of that process of change. Numerous well-placed Whitehall IT insiders have strongly implied to Computer Weekly that Maxwell is the clear favourite to be appointed as the new deputy government CIO.

With Andy Nelson taking over as government CIO while continuing in his day job as CIO at the Ministry of Justice, it’s clear that the top role is primarily that of a figurehead and spiritual leader for government CIOs – in a similar manner to current incumbent Joe Harley, who combines the role with being CIO of the Department for Work And Pensions until he retires next month.

It’s increasingly apparent that the deputy role is where the real day-to-day power will lie, responsible for the dirty work in forcing recalcitrant Whitehall IT departments to adopt the government IT strategy that encourages the use of cloud computing, open source, agile development, short-term contracts and SME suppliers – all areas that previous governments have tried to force onto the laggards in public sector IT only to be thwarted by inertia and by those who feel more comfortable with the expensive status quo.

Maxwell is already fulfilling much of that role – setting the standards and processes for IT procurement and projects to force through change – to the extent that some suppliers even identify him as a bottleneck in IT because he has so many projects to approve.

The new deputy CIO needs to be someone willing to bash heads together, and not take “no” for an answer. Is Maxwell that man?

He has been a central figure in Tory IT policy since before the General Election that brought the coalition to power. He helped draft the Conservative technology policy for Francis Maude – now his boss at the Cabinet Office. He was closely involved in a tech think-tank, the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, which in September 2010 proposed dismantling the IT systems and business ecosystem established by Labour, with the promise of saving £8bn a year in IT costs.

The influence of the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age could be seen from the fact that David Cameron himself helped to launch it.

Before taking on his current 12-month contract at the Cabinet Office, Maxwell was a Tory councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. His political connections were clearly a factor in his appointment to the Cabinet Office, but he is a long-term IT guy too. He was head of computing at Eton College for seven years; head of IT at Capita Resourcing for three years before that; and IT chief for a variety of recruitment firms further back.

Not insignificantly, he was also at Accenture for two years – the IT services firm that also once employed Ian Watmore and Andy Nelson.

Maxwell is a vocal supporter of open source and cloud. He is close to Simon Wardley, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on using cloud to commoditise IT provision, and open source as a competitive weapon. There seems little doubt that Maxwell’s views will be similar.

The Cabinet Office seems to be laying the ground for Maxwell’s promotion – he has recently been a speaker at some high-profile IT conferences, raising his own profile accordingly, spreading the word on open standards and promoting the use of SME suppliers.

If there is one potential drawback, it could be Maxwell’s political ambitions. Insiders suggest he wants to be an MP, a role that would surely present an unacceptable conflict of interest with a Civil Service IT job – although who’s to say we shouldn’t have a capable minister for IT?

Even if the rumours are wrong and someone else turns up as deputy government CIO, there’s no doubt that Maxwell will have a significant influence on the future of public sector IT – and in particular on its relationship with the IT industry.

If you’re an IT supplier, and you don’t yet know who Liam Maxwell is, you’d better find out.

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