CIO interview: Andy Nelson, UK government chief information officer

In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly government CIO Andy Nelson talks about the challenges ahead.

Newly appointed government CIO Andy Nelson has his work cut out, tasked with transforming an ambitious 19-point ICT agenda from strategy to reality across Whitehall along with his day job working as Ministry of Justice CIO. In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly he talks about the challenges ahead.

Under his respective roles Nelson will spend two days a week as government CIO and three as MoJ CIO, which will see him move between various Whitehall buildings. But despite the physical separation of those positions, he says there is much commonality between them.

“If the government IT strategy didn’t exist and you just looked at the MoJ strategy you would find phrases like single network, rationalised datacentres and standardised desktop environments.”

The MoJ is in the process of disaggregating its large IT projects by moving to a service tower model through its Future ICT Sourcing (Fits) strategy. “If you looked at our procurement approach with Fits, it aligns with central ICT strategy. There’s a lot of good synergy there, so it’s not as if I’m fighting different agenda.”

Key strategic priorities for cross-government IT will be the implementation of a set of core infrastructure strands. These are the cloud, Public Services Network (PSN), data centre consolidation and end user device piece. Nelson believes the core infrastructure strands will drive the cost benefits.

But that doesn’t mean the strategy will remain a static document. “These things don’t stay still forever. So I would be looking to refresh it as necessary. A good example of that would be our integration work with that and the digital strategy. As Mike Bracken [director of digital at the Government Digital Service] and his team put more transactions through the single domain GOV.UK, we need to ensure the IT strategy is aligned and supporting that,” he says.

Strong governance will also be crucial. “We can’t ignore all the standards related areas. We have to avoid producing nice pretty standards and then letting them gather dust on the shelf.” Areas such as open standards are something that can partially be mandated through central control mechanisms, he says.

The same approach will be applied to cloud uptake, particularly as all IT spend above £5m requires Cabinet Office approval. “It’s still early day with the CloudStore, but  as it gets refreshed and more services become available on the cloud, when departments are spending money we’ll be able to say ‘why are you putting in something unique here when there’s a perfectly sensible provision on the cloud over there?”

Leadership strategy

His predecessor,  Joe Harley was praised for his collaborative style of leadership – in moving IT strategy from being centrally led to having pan-government ownership through the CIO delivery board. But as a public champion of change he remained a largely absent voice. Nelson says his position will involve more public-facing engagements.

“My role is to continue the work Joe has already done, in that shift to implementation I will need drive that more, and you might see a bit more external engagement from me than Joe, but a lot less than John Suffolk [former government CIO before Harley] because he was doing the job five days a week.”

Social media will play a part in that, he says. “I will set up a blog as an engagement mechanism and write one [post] perhaps once a month, although I’m not a natural blogger. Having never written one I’m going to take some advice from people as to how to do it.” Other engagement activities will include reaching out to more SMEs through targeted roundtable events.

But he says in order for implementation to work the CIO council, which represents the wider government IT community, needs to be brought on board. “There’s been a real strength around the CIO delivery board [comprising key IT heads in Whitehall], that has helped drive the strategy forward and create traction. But you’ve got to be careful to take the broader CIO community with you. I want to engage them in that conversation, it’s not for me to stand there and say I need you to do this.”

Although Whitehall CIOs have come under fire from some quarters as being unwilling to push through transformational IT, Nelson does not believe there is a strong resistance to change.

Matching IT transformation with departments’ individual legislative agendas is not always easy, he says. “Also many of us, and I would be an example, still have a tonne of legacy out there. We are still spending a lot of our time managing that legacy and putting enhancements through and the reality is that still takes a lot of our attention.”

Routes to some IT procurement have also not been available until recently. “Think how long PSN has been running, I’m not sure of the exact time but I think it’s something like four to five years, and only now have we started to get a procurement vehicle.”

He says a pragmatic approach is required to getting government buy-in, with members of the CIO community needing to develop their own route maps that take into account contract renewals and align with the ICT strategy.

Breaking the stranglehold

Government is currently operating under an IT supplier oligopoly, which has created an anti-competitive and expensive technology market in Whitehall, according to the National Audit Office. It’s an issue Nelson says he will tackle by working directly with the top three suppliers to government.

“I intend to spend time personally with those suppliers – they are the biggest suppliers to government and will be for some time. The government isn’t suddenly going to stop using BT overnight. The obvious example is HP is still a major supplier to government departments.”

But the IT supplier landscape is set to change, he says. “We will definitely see a significant shift in a decade but we will also see shifts before then. Already the PSN frameworks have more suppliers than we would have expected in the past. And although the cloud is still early says, we are already seeing some credible medium-sized players which can provide good infrastructure services to government, which would have traditionally only been provided by big players.”

The MoJ’s own prison services contract is an example of a top to bottom services approach which is already changing, he says. “We’ve had that deal with HP for 12 years and it includes service integration, application delivery and maintenance and hosting. If you shift to a model where you break that out, then you can get a broader ecosystem of suppliers, which plays to the cloud space," he says.

“But do I still think some of those key players will be playing a role for some time? Yes I do.” This is partly due to government having a number of large contracts running for several more years, he says. “What we are trying to do within those time frames is drive cost savings with existing suppliers. It’s the contracts we had, it is what it is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t challenge that.”

Taking on existing IT suppliers is an area new deputy CIO, Liam Maxwell, has already proved active in doing. Nelson says these skills will complement his own role. “One phrase you hear Liam use is describing things as ‘a campaign’, whether that’s challenging industry to work with us in different ways, or looking at government internally to make it more joined. It’s about getting people to buy in and take them on a journey. I think those skills translate well to his new role and if you look at what he did during his time in local authority he’s got real experience of pushing the digital agenda forward.”

One of the key challenges the public sector faces is its tendency to overcomplicate IT, says Nelson. Standardised desktop, network and cloud services – although cheaper than bespoke solutions – are not typically seen as an attractive alternatives: “government is not good, I would say, at embracing that.”

Another big issue is information security, particularly as data becomes more transparent and systems are being joined up. The third obstacle he outlines is achieving cross-government working. “And gee, that’s not a new challenge. How do you join up government when it’s so big?”

Given the scale of his task and range of obstacles facing him, how will he measure the success of his tenure?  “Through the strategic implementation plan. We’ve set out some targets there financially and otherwise and delivering against them will be the key measure of success as the government CIO.”

As such Nelson will be looking for tangible outcomes within the next 12 months. “If the CloudStore just ends up being an interesting web site that the odd person buys something from, then we’ll have failed. If PSN has a single modest adoption, then I’ll have failed.”



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