CIO interview: Denise McDonagh, director of Home Office IT

Denise McDonagh has countless real-life examples of why the traditional approach to government IT is not working.

As director of IT at the Home Office, Denise McDonagh has countless real-life examples of why the traditional approach to government IT is not working. 

She is one of the public sector IT leaders with a growing appetite for change and is closely involved with the department's contribution to the government’s IT transformation strategy.

“We’ve got to the point where things have to change," she says. 

"We can’t continue to deliver IT in the way we do. I have many examples of frustrated customers, as they can’t get IT quickly enough and at a price they can afford.”

McDonagh has worked in government IT for 31 years, beginning her career at one of the most junior levels to eventually take one of the top Whitehall IT roles. During the last 10 years she has been focused on dealing with big suppliers - one of her key roles was director of outsourcing at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, before moving to the Home Office.

McDonagh implemented an "extend and blend programme" in 2009 for the Home Office, which broke up supplier duplication on a number of systems management contracts within the department, including desktops, hosting, and networks. That activity rationalised and improved hosting capabilities and took out more than £100m in costs over the life of the contracts.

The experience positioned the department to become one of the government’s Foundation Delivery Partners (FDP) for its G-Cloud strategy, which aims to break-up the traditional IT supplier base and move IT procurement to a commodity-based approach. McDonagh is tasked with working on infrastructure, platform and software as-a-service, as well as electronic data reference management and the Public Service Network. 

Breaking up the big contracts

After 2016 most of the department's big contracts will end for good, she says. 

“I can never see big contracts with system integrators, where they deliver a whole host of services, happening again.  If I looked at how I host all my data, I could put some of it in the public cloud. But for other areas where data does have to be secure, I could look at the government’s hosting capabilities. Government hosting should have that capability that allows me to go there. We want to be in a position to migrate to those systems after 2016,” she says.

McDonagh’s involvement in cross-government strategy comes from a real frustration of about the way IT is currently delivered. 

“We wanted to influence how they did that,” she says. 

“The reason I’m here is because I’ve spent so long in the old world and it hasn’t worked. I get beaten up a lot by customers as I don’t have the option to give them what they need. And by the time we are in a position to deliver it to them, they don’t need it anymore. The people in the communications department are on my head because I can’t give them access to social media, Facebook, Twitter – all the tools they need to do the job. And the scientists in the department are frustrated because I can’t give them the IT they need to do things quickly. So things have to change,” she says.

“One of the things we want to do is look at how we can bring in innovation from a vast pool of IT sources out there, sitting outside the system integrators. But also do it at a price and pace that we can afford.”

In the past the approach has been to sit on projects and try to think of everything that is going to happen and put in requirements for every event. “Then six months down the line everything inevitably changes, which renders it out of date. We need to do things differently, whereby we start off even if we don’t know what the final outcome will be,” she says.

Moving to the cloud

As an FDP, the Home Office has been tasked with testing the principles of the cloud. For every argument recently made by government IT leaders such as G-Cloud director Chris Chant as to what is wrong with public sector IT, McDonagh says the department has a real-life example.

“We had an issue the other day with our audit colleagues who were looking for a hosting platform to sit some software on. That was something we should have been able to deliver to them within weeks, at a price that they could afford and that they could turn off whenever they wanted. Instead it took nine months, working with a number of system integrators at a cost which is not acceptable,” she says.

One of McDonagh’s biggest challenges is to decide what business applications would be appropriate to move into the cloud. The Cabinet Office is revising its security levels on the Government Protective Marking System, which determines the level of sensitivity of  information, and will publish a paper in April. Once this is complete she will have a clearer picture of security implications.

“I’m hoping to use that to determine what needs to sit in the restricted space. I would suspect at least 50%, and that’s a cautious estimate, doesn’t need to be a restricted desktop . When we get e-mails sent to say cakes are on the cabinet over there, that doesn’t need to be sent from a restricted desktop,” she says.

“But things such as our case working system, I wouldn’t put that in the cloud at this point in time, not even a private cloud because the technology and the process and capability isn’t mature enough yet for a line-of-business application of that size.”

The government is currently inviting applications from cloud providers to join the trial run of its G-Cloud framework agreement. So far the interest from the market has been very positive, says McDonagh: “In the last three to six months we’ve met some really interesting SMEs with really interesting products to sell.”

The government recently extended its G-Cloud tender deadline due to the amount of applications received. This level of interest has kept the small team approving suppliers very busy.

“One of the challenges has been that this isn’t our day job," says McDonagh. "We have lots of people working on the Cabinet Office while still delivering for the Home Office as well. But my view is that because we want to see something happen, it would be silly not to get involved. “

Opening the market

Open source and open standards are also at the heart of the new way of working.Liam Maxwell, an advisor to the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group, wants to open up all routes to government IT procurement, says McDonagh.

Consequently the Home Office has to consider all  routes to market when it comes to new IT procurements. But when the department was looking at procuring an electronic document and records management system (EDRMS), McDonagh says she was initially unsure there would be a secure open source option.

“But we had another look at the market again and are now reviewing an SME who could offer security up to Impact Level 4 [for restricted data]. There are a lot of solutions out there that we don’t even know about,” she says.

Part of the battle is getting the message across that things can be done differently. 

“There are those who say that we are all doomed, and we do have people who aren’t supportive of the approach we are taking with the cloud. But you are never going to convince these people until you can create something tangible that people can see,” she says.

The next milestone for McDonagh is to get to a point in January where she is in a position to buy off the cloud framework.

“I’m looking forward to having something to buy that will work within the Home Office, particularly around hosting capabilities and collaboration software such as Huddle and Dropbox. Then I’ll know I’ve completed my work for the Cabinet Office, but also helped the Home Office get the capabilities it needs,” she says.

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