A model public sector CIO? Josh Ellis at the Serious Fraud Office

Josh Ellis, the CIO at the Serious Fraud Office, is a breath of fresh air.

He doesn’t believe in mega projects, and would rather take on the risks of a sizeable programme than pay a premium to transfer risk to a systems integrator.

josh ellis.jpgIn an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, Ellis explained that he is senior responsible owner for a case management system that is due to be delivered by the end of this year.
“If I get it wrong they can fire me. I have no problem with that. I have come from a pedigree where you are only as good as your last project, or last job. I have a firm belief I can make this work.”

It’s rare for any CIO in government to declare themselves personally and publicly accountable for the success or failure of IT-based projects and programme.

Josh Ellis became the Serious Fraud Office’s first CIO in May last year. He spoke to me in the wake of media reports that his organisation has written off £1.2m on a failed IT project.

It turns out that the money written off was on a feasibility study for a tender that was cancelled.

Tender bids were “unaffordable”

Almost as soon as Ellis started at the SFO, he became involved in cancelling a tender for a suite of case management systems. The price submitted by bidders was tens of millions of pounds and was therefore unaffordable.

The tender cancelled, the Serious Fraud Office had to write off £1.2m on a feasibility study which had set out the specifications for the tender.

Ellis and his colleagues then discovered that they could buy the same solution that had been proposed by bidders for 75% less than the bid prices. This was because mergers and acquisitions meant that the systems available from different companies could now be bought from one supplier.

And Ellis decided to take on the risks in-house rather than transfer them to an expensive systems integrator.

One key to success – think small

The key, he said, was to use a “small, highly-skilled team and get on and do it, as opposed to going for an extremely large and potentially cumbersome Systems Integration-led project”.

Ellis is the SFO’s first CIO; and it’s the first time the SFO has had anyone representing technology on the board.

“A far more strategic view has been taken of how we take technology forward in the fight against serious crime,” he said. Ellis joined the SFO from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he was Director of fraud investigations. He has worked in Moscow and Prague, and with US authorities.

He has an intricate knowledge of the of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which provides a legal framework for prosecuting officials and those doing business with governments for bribery. 

Anti-fraud inquiries are looking for needle in ever-growing digital haystack

The biggest technical challenge for the SFO is finding a needle in an ever-expanding digital haystack.

In its 2007/8 annual report, the SFO said that the “explosion in the corporate use of email now means that the number of files that may be of potential relevance to an investigation can run to many millions”.

But searching through them remains an onerous and largely manual task. New tools will allow investigators to quickly carry out highly detailed searches of digital files, creating a comprehensive view of relevant associations between specific individuals and the information they have exchanged.

Ellis said: “We have already gone live with a number of modules. For example we have online our digital review system which is live and is a key step forward. Before we had very little capability to properly interrogate the volumes of information we were looking at.

The new tools, he said, are cutting edge stuff. “Search engines are not based on linguistic models … [but] Bayesian mathematics theory, the probability theory … [and] will pull out what [the system] thinks you need as well as what you specifically searched for.”


Ellis made it clear in his interview that he is a proponent of “small is beautiful”.

To me it’s clear he is going about delivering what his organisation needs without the PR fanfare, high costs, and overly-enthusiastic internal rah-rah that goes with mega projects. 

True, he and his organisation have written off £1.2m on a feasibility study. The reason was that the study informed a tender that was cancelled because it was unaffordable.

That’s more sensible than labouring on with an unaffordable project because £1.2m has already been invested in a feasibility study.

The Government needs more CIOs like Josh Ellis who don’t worry about saving face, and just want to do the right thing by their organisation and the taxpayer.

There are some in Government, and particularly the civil service, whose professional kicks come from a love of perpetuating, or even deepening, complexity. Thank goodness Josh Ellis is not among them.  


Fire me if I’m wrong says Serious Fraud Office CIO – ComputerWeekly.com

SFO forced to write off £1.2m after failed IT plan [?] – The Times

Serious Fraud Office appoints CIO to lead technology charge against serious fraud – SFO website