What will Liam Maxwell’s departure from government mean for digital?

Will Liam Maxwell’s departure be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to government’s progress on digital?

Earlier this week, news broke that Liam Maxwell, the government’s digital czar, is leaving Whitehall to take up a job in the private sector.

Maxwell, who has been pivotal to the government’s progress on digital over the last six or seven years, is now going to be working for Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he will be the taking on the role of director of international government transformation.

The “international” part, and the fact that government rules state Maxwell won’t be allowed to lobby  or communicate with the government in relation to the company’s or his own interests, for up to two years, means we won’t be seeing Maxwell influencing Whitehall any time soon.

Whitehall sources told Computer Weekly earlier this week that the man has been considering the move for a while, but what will his departure mean for digital government?

Maxwell first came to Whitehall in 2011 as an IT advisor, before joining the Government Digital Service (GDS) as its chief technology officer (CTO) and GDS boss Mike Bracken’s right-hand man in 2012.

Since then, Maxwell’s influence in digital government has continued to grow. It was Maxwell who overhauled the technology governance process, introduced spend controls, and was often credited as one of the main architects of government IT reform during the coalition government.

He was also the man behind the government’s “cloud first” principle, and backed both Microsoft and AWS’s plans to open UK datacentres, so perhaps it’s not surprising he’s now joining the latter.

In 2016, Maxwell left GDS and became the UK’s national technology adviser- a role which involved engaging industry leaders, looking at issues around the digital single market in Europe, and helping to develop the UK’s role in emerging technologies and markets, and created specifically for him.

DCMS and Cabinet Office

As national adviser, Maxwell reports to Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), both of which have seen big changes in technology leadership recently.

At Cabinet Office, there has been a revolving door of digital chiefs and ministers responsible for digital over the last few years, with junior minister Oliver Dowden, becoming the latest minister to be put in charge of digital government. The constant changes means it can’t be easy to deliver on the government’s ambitious transformation strategy, and MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently launched an inquiry to assess progress on the strategy.

Cabinet Office has also lost both data and identity policy to DCMS in the last few months, which has been seen as a diminishing of GDS’s role in digital government.

However, DCMS has had its own struggles. The department has a huge number of projects it’s responsible for, including the government’s data strategy and its work on the digital economy. Championed by the first Cabinet minister with a digital background, Matt Hancock, DCMS was well supported up until recently.

However, the prime minister’s latest Cabinet reshuffle saw Hancock moving on to become health secretary, leaving DCMS to Jeremy Wright, the former attorney general, who seems to be quite new to the whole digital agenda, not even having  much of a Twitter presence.

Who will fly the flag?

On top of this, add Brexit. The UK’s departure from the EU has meant many technology projects have been put on the back-burner and budgets are being re-allocated to cover Brexit costs. Delivering on the government’s digital strategy suddenly becomes a little less important when we have a whole EU departure to deal with first.

None of this, of course, is Maxwell’s fault. He is simply moving on to pastures new, like most people do during their career. However, if there is already a sense of inertia, and staff being busy working on other things, digital is likely to take a back seat once again. Especially when there’s no national tech adviser to proudly fly the flag.

Estonia’s former CIO Taavi Kotka told Computer Weekly earlier this year that when it comes to actually doing digital, the UK needs to get off its arse and simply go to the gym. But if there’s no one around to go to the gym, there won’t be anyone to spot you when you’re lifting those weights. It’s not looking good, is it?

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