Interview: Ian Watmore, Cabinet Office permanent secretary

Ian Watmore was the first ever government CIO in 2004. Now he oversees government IT policy as the top Cabinet Office civil servant.

Ian Watmore is closely acquainted with public sector IT  - he was appointed the first ever government CIO in 2004, after working as UK managing director at Accenture. Since then he has held various IT and managerial roles in the Civil Service – as well as a brief stint as chief executive of the Football Association. Today, he retains a huge influence over government IT policy.

Watmore now occupies one of the highest operational roles in Whitehall, following his promotion in October 2011 from chief operating officer of the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) to permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office - a role whose previous incumbent, Jeremy Heywood, stepped up to succeed Sir Gus O'Donnell as Cabinet secretary.  

Watmore's position in transforming government IT is to help direct change rather than work at the coalface, he says. 

“I can create space for the people who really know what they are talking about to do the right things. I am not that person today, I am not the sort of person who is 100% up to date with the skillsets we need to work in this environment. I was once but I’m not anymore and I recognise that,” he says.

But IT is very much at the heart of the government’s agenda. “If you look at the overall government priority set - to make savings, increase growth and to reach more people to enable social mobility - then IT can contribute to all three of those areas and give us a chance to succeed," says Watmore.

He cites Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service; Tim Kelsey, government adviser on transparencyand Open Data; and Liam Maxwell, director of ICT futures, as the people who are leading those changes today. 

“I also think you can’t understate the contribution of [Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude, he really gets this stuff. He’s a bit like me – of an era where we will never be the hands-on experts any more but he understands it and is giving ministerial space and clout.”

Having a UK economy that has at its heart a thriving digital and IT economy is key to growth,  says Watmore. Part of that will come from changing the way IT contracts are let: “Government is just one player in the marketplace, but if it lets larger number of contracts for a smaller time that tends to lend itself to the SME market, and by definition that tends to help domestic businesses without having a bias in competitive terms. British businesses benefit most from that."

Over the last 10 years IT has gone through a significant change, which will help the government in the implementation of its strategy. 

“It is quite clear there is a new and emerging way of doing IT in 2012 that wasn’t available in 2002. Agile, digital – the internet now is a hugely stable, massively pervasive thing which even 10 years ago it wasn’t. It’s remarkable how much has changed in that decade with the web and people forget that. Now we have a web-based environment where we can do things that reach people at scale" says Watmore. 

There is also a realisation that commercial regimes of the past haven’t worked well: “I don’t think people look upon the big IT outsourcing contracts as a success, so there is a desire to change.”

The new leadership team

Watmore recently appointed Andy Nelson, CIO at the Ministry of Justice, as the new government CIO, with a new deputy CIO also due to be announced, following the departures of former government CIO Joe Harley and deputy Bill McCluggage.

He believes Nelson’s part-time role of government CIO combined with his position as CIO at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will not detract from the work he has to do. 

“Joe Harley managed it and he had a much bigger job [sharing his role with that of CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions]. It’s probably harder for someone to do if they are new to a government CIO role. But Andy has done the MoJ position for four years, so it will be much easier for him to bridge.”

As the government moves into the implementation stage of its IT strategy, Watmore says the new leadership will need to achieve continuity by building cross-departmental buy-in on the strategy, as well as driving change by moving to more digital ways of working and breaking contracts into smaller parts.  

“[The focus will also be] on opening our interfaces and data up and relying on third-parties to take what we have and turn into first-class services,” he says.

One challenge will be getting the pace right in moving from old to new within the subset of newer technologies, especially in areas such as the cloud and the Public Services Network (PSN)

“You have to move quickly so people believe you are not being sluggish and dinosaur-like, but if you move too quickly you run the risk of bringing down national services," says Watmore.

“We have to provide very high-quality, demanding services everyday around the clock while developing these newer transformative IT models. Getting departments to move there quickly and effectively is a challenge when we have such a big legacy base because they need to keep supplying those services," he says.

“My general thesis in government computing and most big organisations is that it’s best to try new ways on a relatively small scale then accelerate through to the so-called S-curve of implementation – where you start slow and get it right before going steeply into the roll-out mode. And that’s the kind of model we’ve adopted with universal credit, for example.”

"Digital by default" public services is the necessary first step on the journey, he says: “I think that is right because at the end of the day cloud computing is another form of service provision that is kind of invisible to the user. Bureau computing existed in the 1970s and it’s a modern version of that. These things go in an ebb and flow. I’m a great supporter of cloud computing, but it’s not primarily what the user notices. “

Once the digital interface part has been achieved, technologies such as the cloud and PSN can be used for support and scale, he says. “We’re putting the user in mind and working backwards - which is not the usual way of doing IT in government.”

Streamlining the public sector

Research by Computer Weekly revealed that central government has 8,000 IT staff – but Watmore says it’s not true IT numbers have never been measured before. “When I held the [CIO] role in 2004 we estimated there were about 50,000 IT people across the public sector, with more people outside than in as a consequence of outsourcing.”

Going forward the focus will be on skills rather than the number of staff in government, he says.

"That’s partly about technology, but as much about the methods, such as agile development, and the commercial ways of operating - rather than letting in very large multi-year system integrator contracts we want to go to a more flexible, short-term multisourced contracting model that by definition attracts SMEs. It’s a completely different way of contracting that people have to learn.”

Benchmarking has been a key part of the agenda to date, with the government having taken out £800m in costs by dealing with suppliers centrally as the Crown and not through individual departments, says Watmore - a big part of his previous role at ERG.

However, inconsistencies in software pricing are more difficult for departments to extricate themselves from. Computer Weekly found that some departments are paying nearly three times more than others for near-identical software

“When we get to software companies like the Oracles of this world, it is harder because we are starting from a weaker position. Everyone knows that companies like that have serious supplier power and relationships. So we are looking to change the way we do computing so we don’t get locked into individual company relationships, and therefore we’ve always got a plural supplier base to work the marketplace," says Watmore.

“With ERP it was always a case of Oracle or SAP, but that’s the past and there are now many more players in the market and cloud-based ERP.  If we move to multi-departmental shared services, which is the plan, we will be able to move those services in a more flexible way and that will get big price breaks out of the system.”

Departments are more willing to collaborate because of budgetary pressures, while all contracts above £5m are subject to central approval: “Having that controlling power means people are coming to the table much earlier for discussion, and that means you can change what they are going to do much earlier.”

But for Watmore the biggest challenge is the same regardless of the era in which IT is being implemented. 

“I can’t say it enough: there is no such thing as an IT project," he says.

“Very little is really a fault of the IT, it’s nearly always been a problem of ill-thought-through policy or a poorly constructed business change agenda. The problem remains whether you are on the web or on some big old-fashioned mainframe, it still requires you to have policy, the business owners and staff management to be joined up with the technology.”

Watmore believes the government has got that balance right with universal credit. “From the beginning the policy makers have engaged the IT folk. That has been part of dialogue right from the beginning. We don’t have enough projects where that has been true in the past, so we need to keep forcing it.”

Clearly there is a growing appetite in government to transform the way it does IT, with Watmore's role playing a key part in that process.  As such, does he see any irony in the change agenda he is leading when he comes from a background at Accenture, where perhaps he helped create those old outsourcing-oriented, large-supplier models of doing business?

“No. Not at all. Accenture is and was one of the great companies of the world. Working at Accenture was very much about moving with where that market is going. And I am convinced that it will be transforming itself to where the market is today,” he says.

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