What to do when a Microsoft executive takes over as IT chief at HMRC

HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) new chief digital and information officer (CDIO), Jacky Wright, appears  to be an excellent appointment.

She’s spent six years in senior roles at Microsoft, most recently at its Redmond head office near Seattle. Previously she was a CIO at BP for three years, and a CIO at GE for eight years. She is a role model for women in technology, and an industry influencer beyond her day job, recognised in independent lists of top tech leaders.

I’ve talked to people who have met her, and they speak highly of her. HMRC is said to be very excited at her appointment to such a critical role, while the department is part-way through one of the biggest digital transformation programmes in the public sector in Europe.

“Jacky Wright brings the skills we need to deliver on our commitment to transform HMRC into a world-class tax service,” HMRC told Computer Weekly. There seem to be few arguments against that statement.

However – as revealed by The Register – there’s potentially a big question mark over Wright’s tenure. She’s not actually leaving Microsoft. The software giant says she will be “on leave” while employed by HMRC – she is not leaving Microsoft employment permanently, like most of us would expect to do if we moved to a new job.

Not surprisingly, this has led to concerns over a potential conflict of interest for someone who will be only temporarily absent from one of HMRC’s and the UK government’s biggest and most important IT suppliers.

HMRC says she is employed on a two-year contract – nothing unusual there, her predecessor Mark Dearnley was on a three-year deal.

The department also says that when she leaves at the end of that contract, normal civil service rules will apply to any subsequent jobs she takes up. HMRC would not comment on whether it expects Wright to return to Microsoft at that time – but a Microsoft spokesman confirmed that the intention is she will return to the supplier at the end of her two years at HMRC.

Senior civil servants can require approval for any jobs they are offered for up to two years after leaving Whitehall. One of the reasons for doing this is “the risk that an employer might gain an improper advantage by appointing a former official who holds information about its competitors, or about impending government policy”, according to Cabinet Office guidelines. HMRC must surely be aware of Wright and Microsoft’s intentions.

HMRC told The Register that Wright “must recuse herself from any discussion and decisions relating to Microsoft, both within HMRC and across government and we will put in place the necessary governance to manage.”

Again, nothing new there – Dearnley was similarly recused from decisions related to his former employer, Vodafone, although the mobile operator is hardly as ubiquitous as Microsoft across government.

“When Jacky begins work for HMRC she will sever all financial, strategic and business connections with Microsoft,” said HMRC.

Computer Weekly put a series of question to HMRC over the governance of Wright’s recusal from Microsoft-related decisions:

  • HMRC has said Jacky Wright will be “recused” from any decisions relating to Microsoft – can you provide more details of the terms of that recusal and how it will be governed? For example, what is the definition of the subjects for which she will be recused?
  • What independent monitoring / oversight will exist to govern which decisions she will have to be recused from?
  • What, if any, agreements have been put in place between Microsoft and HMRC relating to Jacky Wright’s appointment?
  • What stipulations has HMRC made to Microsoft over any sensitive, commercial or confidential information that Jacky Wright may be party to as HMRC CDIO, which would otherwise be of commercial or other interest to Microsoft in its relations with government?

Again, HMRC declined to provide specific answers to those questions.

There are precedents – but they come from years ago, during an era that has largely been discredited when the government’s biggest technology suppliers dominated decision-making in Whitehall. At one stage, for example, an IBM executive sat on the board of the DVLA, so close was the relationship between the agency and its strategic outsourcing partner.

The Francis Maude / Mike Bracken / Liam Maxwell era ushered in after 2010 swept away such incestuous relationships.

Several IT industry influencers have stated their concerns on social media.

“It stinks of corruption. And arrogance that such conflict of interest would blow over”, said Tariq Rashid, author, Python guru, and occasional government advisor.

Phil Dawson, formerly a board director of tech sector trade body TechUK, and co-founder and former CEO of Skyscape Cloud Services – since renamed UKCloud – said: “Speechless. In what alternate universe is this good governance?”

There is no suggestion here that anyone is impugning or doubting Jacky Wright, her ability or her integrity. But inevitable concerns over the potential for conflict of interest put her and HMRC in a difficult position – one that surely could have been avoided. Why not simply quit Microsoft, for example – or for HMRC to stipulate that she does? That wouldn’t prevent her rejoining the company subsequently – subject to civil service rules.

What effect will her recusal from Microsoft-related decisions have on her daily work? HMRC is moving to the cloud, for example – given Microsoft is one of the leading cloud suppliers, will she have to remove herself from any cloud-related purchasing decisions? Will she get access to confidential pricing information from Microsoft competitors such as Amazon Web Services or Google, which may be commercially sensitive when her “leave” from Microsoft is over?

HMRC’s vitally important Government Gateway identity management system – familiar to anyone who files tax returns online – is built on Microsoft software. Will Wright be able to decide on issues relating to the replacement for Gateway, which is currently under development? And what influence might that have on Gov.uk Verify, the Cabinet Office identity assurance system that HMRC has pointedly tried to avoid adopting?

What about Windows or Office 365 – you can imagine the outcry from open source advocates if HMRC makes new commitments to using such Microsoft products during Wright’s tenure.

But these are important decisions you want a top IT leader to be involved with.

HMRC has made what appears to be a fine appointment for a massively important job – one of the highest profile IT leadership roles in the UK, let alone the public sector. Wright brings with her an impressive track record and the skills to make a real difference.

It can only be a disappointment that the terms of her appointment raise so many extraneous question marks that could easily have been avoided. HMRC should provide more details of how its new CDIO’s work will be governed and the oversight put in place to avoid any conflict of interest or any impediment to Wright’s ability to do her job.

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