What skills will the new government CIO leadership team need?

Computer Weekly asks what qualities the next CIO leadership team will need if they are to succeed with the government’s ICT strategy.

As Ministry of Justice CIO Andy Nelson takes the position as government CIO and a new deputy is about to be appointed, Computer Weekly asks what qualities the next CIO leadership will need if they are to succeed in the implementation phase of the government’s ICT strategy.

The ICT implementation plan was an ambitious document with a detailed list of targets and milestones. But the new government CIO leadership will need more than a mission statement if it is to break old models of IT and bring in new ways of working such as the cloud, open source, the public services network, agile methodologies and widening its supplier base beyond a handful of system integrators to include more SMEs – all of which stand to save the public sector billions of pounds in IT costs.

Whitehall insiders have already pointed out that around half of government CIOs lack the skills to do transformative IT, with many preoccupied with the task of trying to keep the lights on against a background of unprecedented public sector spending cuts rather than pushing through change.

Bill McCluggage, former deputy CIO, has been praised for his work in championing the new models of working. He believes the appointment of Nelson signals a positive move. “He is someone who has intimate knowledge of the agenda as well as the experience of putting in place change within his own department," says McCluggage.

“He gets the stuff going on and will be a good driver of the strategy.” 

But the main task ahead will involve gaining traction across government, he says.

“Some of this will occur through the CIO delivery board but will also require building bridges into the wider CIO community, health environment, and policing and local government environment. We should not underestimate the size of the change agenda in those environments,” he says.

The deputy will shoulder the burden of implementing that task and drive forward the mechanisms which need to be put in place.

“Most important will be looking at IT through a different lens, as the new economics of IT will require a new approach to implementation. It’s not just about understanding how large enterprises work but how to reduce costs and use rapid implementation tools provided by the cloud,” says McCluggage.

Determining the role of enterprise architects in this new model will also be a key challenge: "Enterprise architects classically looked at very stable mechanisms and approaches that took a fairly long time [to deploy]. Now with modern cloud services SMEs can deliver solutions in days rather than weeks or months. The question is how enterprise architects will handle that as businesses will expect them to have [services available] in weeks rather than months.”

Good cop bad cop

Alan Mather, former chief executive of the e-delivery team at the Cabinet Office and partner at government consultancy Rainmaker Solutions, has extensive experience of driving through change in government, including the introduction of the Government Gateway.

He believes Nelson will take a statesman-like role as CIO, while he continues his day job heading IT at the Ministry of Justice, while the deputy’s job will be that of enforcer.

“Andy Nelson will provide the vision, medium-term action plans, set up key areas of policy, and bring together those inside and outside of government so it knows what can be done and what can't,” he says.

The deputy needs to drive the real changes in and ensure the active co-operation of the CIOs around government, he says. “They need a set of controls to allow some people to go off and do clever things at the edges of what is possible, as well as stopping people from regressing to what they know best. They need to support CIOs with a slick process for showing them how to do things differently,” he says,

Steve Tuppen, director at management consultancy Compass, says Nelson’s part-time position alongside being CIO at the Ministry of Justice will put him in good stead to drive through change, as it means strategy is happening at a departmental level rather than simply being dictated by the centre.

“Nelson being in part-time role is helpful, as it means he is not in an ivory tower and has responsibility for the delivery of IT services within an important department. His role [as CIO] will be much more around governance and structure," he says.

“[The process of driving through change] doesn’t need to be totally consensual – but something based on strong governance and well defined standards."

Changing departmental culture

Most of the CIOs in place today have grown up with big system integrator-led IT projects, as such not all of those able to make the switch to transformation IT, says Mather.

“A model I've wondered about in the past is if there are two CIOs in a department. You need one to run down the legacy and another to put in place all of the new stuff.  The one with the legacy protects it and makes sure it doesn't break, the one with the new tries out lots of things and eventually replaces everything in legacy,” he says.

Joe Dignan, public sector analyst at Ovum, also believes a change in culture is key. “The technical part is not that difficult, what’s required is a sort of universal intelligence, where people can really see across departmental barriers. That requires a cultural transformation and an understanding of psychology to get technology to work in the way it needs to.”

One solution could be to realign the gender balance, he says. “They need to bring in more women as CIOs – the situation at the moment is in no way representative. If you’re doing something as important as information management you need more women in IT and in high positions in order to create a better balance.”

This could help departments move away from a "boys toys" mentality, where the technology is treated as being more important than the thing it is enabling. “Bringing in more emotional intelligence so the technology is understood in how it is used as opposed to what it is, is a necessary step,” says Dignan.

The small business view

Key to the new model is an intention to open up the market place to include more SMEs. Ian Watmore, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, told Computer Weekly the new strategy has the potential to stimulate economic growth by creating smaller IT contacts tendered by SMEs. “If [government] 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,” he said.

But Mark Taylor, CEO of small open source company Sirius, who was appointed by the Cabinet Office to lead its New Suppliers to Government working group  says the next CIO leadership must do more to open up the marketplace and work with other areas of government such as the procurement team to bring about change.

“Some two years into the government’s term and so far not an enormous amount of progress has been made in terms of improving the number of SMEs doing business with government,” he says.  

The government still has little concept of how to deal with SMEs, he says. His company was recently contacted by a public sector organisation requiring a Linux refresh, which asked it to complete a 200-plus page booklet – a prohibitive procedure for time and cash poor small businesses.

The uptake of open source has also lagged, says Taylor: “In open source the progress has been disappointing, and that’s not for lack of good ideas. For example, the CloudStore launch was a terrific move, but the implementation was done using proprietary technology. 

“The government has good ideas and policy – but an enforcer is called for to be an authority to bring some of these programmes home,” he says.

Kate Craig Wood, CEO of SME hosting company Memset, was recently awarded a place on the government’s G-Cloud framework. From her experience of dealing with government she believes most CIOs still have a long way to go in understanding cloud technologies.

“The government should be going out to market and getting people with industry experience for new breed of CIOs. So it is backed up by a small core of people understanding technology," she says.

“To be perfectly frank, I don’t think we can train people up, as few understand the technology deeply. I don’t think you can take an old school CIO and train them, so they should perhaps inject life by bringing in skills from outside.”

There is undoubtedly a group of IT heads in government leading the charge for change, such as Liam Maxwell, director of ICT Futures at the Cabinet Office, reported to be a major force in disrupting the traditional models of IT and preventing CIOs from regressing back to large outsourced contracts. Chris Chant, programme director of the G-Cloud, is also doing much to demonstrate new ways of working with the recent release of the CloudStore. While Mike Bracken, director of digital, is operating outside of the traditional structures, in a relatively small team of talent to transform services to digital models.

However, if the strategy is to succeed the Cabinet Office will need to see greater buy-in from CIOs across government at large. Part of this will come from the work of early adopters spearheading change, such as Denise McDonagh, head of IT at the Home Office, which will help demonstrate the benefits of new IT models to other departments.

But if change is to happen at a reasonable pace, then it will be up to the CIO leadership to crack the whip to get departments moving in the right direction. This may come from bringing in more external CIOs who get what needs to happen, or a more supportive model such as the one described by Mather, where departments have dedicated IT innovation heads championing the new technologies. Whatever form this takes it will be of benefit to the entire public sector and tax payer to have a strong CIO leadership team pushing through the change programme, which has the potential to save billions of pounds.

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A new Government CIO appointment is always interesting but judging from the article above  the role remains poorly conceived and understood. I still hope for the day when we may see real evidence of joined-up-management and a strategy properly focused on effective information systems, rather than persistently chasing innovation and exploring techno-centric models while the big picture remains fractured and out of focus.

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