Who will be the next government CIO?

There’s suddenly a big gap at the top of government IT. In less than two weeks, government CIO Joe Harley and his deputy Bill McCluggage have both announced their impending departures from Whitehall.

Harley, who doubles up as CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is to retire in March, while McCluggage is to join IT supplier EMC.

Such changes at the top present a huge opportunity for a successor to drive fundamental and widespread reform of government IT – but are also a threat to the progress of that much-needed reform.

Harley and McCluggage were leading lights in producing the latest government IT strategy – an ambitious attempt to overhaul the culture and practices of Whitehall IT, and its relationship with the IT industry.

Being government CIO could be seen by some as a poisoned chalice – the challenges are huge, the barriers to success enormous. Frankly, if that’s how it’s seen, best you don’t apply.

There may never be a better opportunity for the right individual to lead transformational change in public service IT, and to take a huge chunk out of the £16bn of taxpayers’ cash that goes from Whitehall to IT suppliers every year. That’s even before the £25.9bn that is forecast to be spent in new contracts over the next five years.

McCluggage is a big loss to delivery of the IT strategy. He has been the public face of the changes in IT policy that are being driven from the Cabinet Office. Open, friendly and personable, McCluggage was keen to engage with the press, and to speak regularly at conferences to push the message that government IT has to change – and is changing. He was a key player in the government IT strategy and was responsible for important elements of its delivery, such as Identity Assurance. But he lives in Northern Ireland, and a commute to Whitehall was going to become untenable eventually.

Harley, so I’ve heard, is a different breed. Quieter, less press-friendly, less keen on public speaking, he’s a solid and experienced IT leader, who has proved his credentials in managing Whitehall’s biggest IT operation at the DWP. But according to some insiders, despite his excellent track record, he’s not the type to lead the sort of transformation that is needed.

So what are the attributes that will be required of the next government CIO?

He or she will need to be an agent of change, assertive enough to take on a reluctant Civil Service and some old-school Whitehall CIOs who don’t appreciate the central control over IT purchasing that the Cabinet Office has imposed. Whitehall spends too much on IT, has failed on big projects too often, and lacks the skills it needs to truly embrace the cloud and the internet revolution. It’s going to take a strong character to overcome those obstacles. And that’s before you talk about taking on the oligopoly of big IT suppliers who have so much control over day-to-day government IT operations.

It’s a big job – arguably, one of the biggest in all of Whitehall. Who else will have the opportunity to fundamentally reform a key part of the Civil Service, and potentially save billions of pounds a year for the Exchequer?

Here’s my highly speculative take on the possible candidates for the job, in no particular order:

Phil Pavitt, CIO and director general of change, HM Revenue & Customs

If you wanted a government CIO who would never be short of confidence, then Pavitt could be your man.

He is already driving and delivering a programme of considerable IT change across HMRC, aiming to cut spending by more than £160m per year. He’s not afraid of a challenge, and not afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. As he said in an interview with Computer Weekly earlier this year:

“I’m not known to be particularly shy or retiring, or even immodest, or not unwilling to take on a challenge. If you say no, that’s where I want to start, because everything is deliverable…I like being an IT leader when there’s no money to spend because people want to listen to you.”

The downside? Would such a strong personality command the support of his CIO peers across Whitehall? But would that matter?

Liam Maxwell, ICT Futures programme director, Cabinet Office

Maxwell is a politician, not an IT guy. He was previously the councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, where he helped draft Conservative technology policy in the run-up to the last general election. He was also closely involved in a tech thinktank, the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, that in September 2010 proposed dismantling the IT systems and business ecosystem established by Labour.

He was brought in to shake-up government IT by setting standards and targets for policies that have previously been hard to deliver, such as the use of open source, for which he is a strong advocate.

Maxwell is only in the Cabinet Office on a year’s contract at the moment, but that also gives him the flexibility to accept a new role. He might not be the choice of traditionalist CIOs, but he would have the backing of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the politician responsible for IT reform.

Ian Watmore, chief operating officer, Efficiency and Reform Group and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office.

Watmore is Joe Harley’s boss, so clearly not a candidate for the role in its conventional sense. But he appointed Harley into a dual role, combining government CIO with DWP CIO, which suggests he doesn’t see the job as necessarily a full-time commitment.

Watmore was the first ever government CIO, and wrote the first Whitehall-wide IT strategy, so he has the background and knowledge. It’s feasible he could assume overall control for IT, but with a strong set of lieutenants running the central CIO Council.

Jos Creese, chairman of the Local Government CIO Council

There is less overlap between local and central government IT than there should be, and Whitehall too often overlooks the fact that most public services are delivered through councils – a situation often pointed out by one of local government’s most vocal champions, Jos Creese. As chairman of the Local Government CIO Council, and a leading voice in public sector IT user group Socitm – not to mention his day job as Hampshire County Council CIO – Creese might have the profile, experience and popularity to take on the top job in public sector IT. But would those Whitehall types accept a council man from the Shires?

Chris Chant, G-Cloud programme director

Chant has recently become one of the most vocal supporters of IT reform in Whitehall. He is the voice of discontent about the status quo – the sort of maverick role that Whitehall press officers would never have countenanced in the past. He has said that government IT is “outrageously expensive”, and his blog post on the “unacceptable” state of public sector IT has become required reading for anyone who wants to understand the winds of change that the Cabinet Office hopes to drive through IT. He has the IT pedigree too, having introduced the online tax self-assessment service.

Chant’s day job involves introducing cloud computing to Whitehall – a task he sees as being as much about cultural change as technological change. He is passionate about public service. His appointment would send a strong message that reform is really going to happen – but he has so far ruled himself out of the running.

Mike Bracken, executive director, Government Digital Service

Bracken was brought in from The Guardian to be the man who makes public service “digital by default” – a key plank of David Cameron’s plans to cut the cost of running government.

He has a unique remit – basically, do things differently. He is seen as the likely exemplar of the way that government IT will work in the future. He is recruiting a team from outside the traditional Whitehall IT types, looking for young web developers, championing agile development, and trying to introduce working practices you would more commonly find in a web start-up.

His team has recently moved to new offices away from Whitehall, hoping to create a dot-com style atmosphere at odds with the crusty Civil Service image. He is tasked with bringing public services into the internet age – perhaps enough of a challenge already.

Katie Davis, interim head of IT, Department of Health and executive director of the Efficiency and Reform Group

Davis is currently sorting out the mess left by the NHS National Programme for IT, and trying to pilot the NHS Information Strategy through the controversy of the wider organisational changes that the government is forcing through the health service. But she has made it clear that hers is an interim role, and she might be looking for something new to do at about the time Harley retires.

As senior responsible owner for information strategy and open data within the IT Strategic Implementation Plan, she is at the heart of some of the fundamental changes in the role of technology in public service delivery. As a former head of the government IT profession, she understands the skills gaps that need to be filled in Whitehall IT departments.

Lesley Hume, director of the government IT profession, Cabinet Office CIO

Hume is currently overseeing the changes needed to the IT skills across Whitehall, both in IT professionals and IT leadership. That understanding of the capability change needed in government IT departments is central to overcoming the inertia of the status quo. As former group IS director of engineering giant Atkins, she also has the IT experience and a private sector background to question the Whitehall way of doing things.

Andy Nelson, CIO, Ministry of Justice

Nelson is senior responsible owner (SRO) for “ICT capability” and the G-Cloud, and an interesting outsider to consider – after all, justice was the previous home of former government CIO John Suffolk (see below). A lot of people around Whitehall IT are quietly saying good things about Nelson, and he’s seen as one of the CIOs who “gets” what needs to be done – hence his key role in the G-Cloud.

Denise McDonagh, IT director, Home Office

Another longshot perhaps, but like Nelson, McDonagh is attracting some positive whispers as an IT leader who understands the changes that will be needed.

Robin Pape, CIO, Home Office

As SRO for open source, Pape has taken on a policy that has been talked about for many years but has delivered little by way of results. If he’s the right man to change government software purchasing, he has the skills for delivering broader change.

John Taylor, CIO, Ministry of Defence

Taylor is the long-term CIO for the MoD, and as such knows what it takes to deliver large-scale IT projects and manage enormous budgets. He is SRO for the Public Services Network and for green IT. A capable and highly experienced IT leader, but the MoD as a department has hardly shone as an exemplar of reform in its procurement policies. Widely respected, perhaps he’s ready for a new job after many years in the defence ministry.

John Suffolk, former government CIO, now global head of cyber security at Chinese telecoms firm Huawei

Undoubtedly the longest and unlikeliest shot of all. Suffolk was seen by many as a reformer in his time as government CIO, but since his departure last year insiders say he alienated too many of his peers and it was inevitable he would hand the reins over to someone else. His example demonstrates the delicate balance that his successors must strike between the entrenched traditionalist views among government CIOs, and the reformers who see that change is inevitable.

AN Other

Is it time to look outside Whitehall? During the early 2000s, the Labour government deliberately recruited new CIOs from the ranks of the private sector to bring in the fresh ideas and new thinking that was needed, to shake up the Whitehall IT conventions, and to stop the IT disasters that plagued the public sector. It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that those goals have not entirely been achieved. Many of those former corporate CIOs remain in place, with whispers abounding that job security and pension pots have overcome the reforming zeal they were brought in to spread.

But any senior and experienced CIO worth their salt must surely look at the government CIO role as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly demonstrate the central role of IT in public services and reforming the public sector.

We await the appointment of a new government CIO with great anticipation. The wrong decision now would set back Whitehall IT reform for years.

What do you think? Any names I’ve missed (it’s quite possible…)

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