Interview: Cabinet Office chief operating officer Stephen Kelly

On the changing nature of IT leadership, the role of the CTO in providing future vision and why government needs 'audacious speed' in its delivery of IT.

Stephen Kelly, chief operating officer at the Cabinet Office, talks to Computer Weekly about the changing nature of IT leadership in government, the role of the CTO in providing future vision and why government needs "audacious speed" in its delivery of IT.

Formerly CEO at UK software provider Micro Focus, Stephen Kelly took the role of Cabinet Office chief operating officer (COO) four months ago, replacing former head Ian Watmore

In that time he has overseen big changes to the IT leadership team, appointing previous deputy CIO Liam Maxwell as government chief technology officer (CTO). Under the restructuring, Maxwell now reports to Government Digital Service (GDS) director Mike Bracken. Kelly says the rationale was to align everything around the future of the digital agenda.

“The ICT strategy, end-user devices, and hosting are all things we are pursuing aggressively. But we are now elevating them into the narrative of digital,” he says.

“Now the organisational structure clearly aligns with the strategy of what we are trying to deliver. I am fundamentally here to support the success of Mike and Liam."

Role of CIO

In the recent leadership changes, Kelly reduced the responsibilities of government CIO Andy Nelson, with Whitehall sources telling Computer Weekly that Nelson is due to leave the post and won’t be replaced. There has been speculation that Kelly takes a dim view of the government CIO role, seeing it as overly concerned with the management of big systems and commercial IT relationships of the past, and instead favours the role of CTO in driving change.

However, he says CIOs have an important part to play in bringing the ICT profession together across government. 

“In central government you have a massive payments factory like the DWP of 100,000 [users], down to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which has less than 1,000. So there is a range of policy imperatives and operational imperatives. But we need to continue to bring that together in a unified way and the CIO roles will be a critical factor in doing that,” he says.

“The key roles to IT delivery are chief operating officer; CTO – which is probably a newer role for government, and that is where Liam is looking to elevate the real vision about the future and the types of strategy we have in place; and CIO. I see the government CIO as head of profession elevating those elements around capability, digital skills, commercial skills, and agile skills.

“The CTO is very much about vision. We are taking the tenets around the ICT strategy and digital strategy – which is now codified at a departmental level - and using that to drive the technology vision right across government. This is a fundamental area around civil service success."

Operational management

So how does his role differ from the past? “My role is dealing with the management across the civil service to ensure we are clearly aligned with supporting the digital strategy and Civil Service Reform Plan." 

Another key area is to align the reforms with the Treasury’s cost-reduction programme.

“We spend £16bn on IT in government, and if you look at any comparable large-scale corporation that is disproportionate,” he adds.

“The other critical factor is that we can talk about this stuff – such as transforming the Rural Payments Agency’s (RPA) systems – but we have to deliver,” he says.

Over time the reality is that as legacy becomes less critical you can decommission it, but that may take years

“But there are a whole load of other areas such as shared services - which I am a keen advocate of - better commercial skills, more capability around procurement, capability around project implementation, that we need to really focus on to raise the level of delivery for the ministers, civil service and users - while also being very cognisant of the taxpayer agenda, trying to do more around enhancing user services at a lot lower cost.

“If we look at the fiscal outlook, it means we really need to be very focused on delivery - better user services, enhanced user services at a lower cost and I think there is a great opportunity there. It is a mammoth task and we are at the foothills of the climb.”

Battling legacy

Kelly believes that changes in technology are enabling government to leapfrog constrains. He cites the RPA procurement for a new agile payments system as one example.

Legacy issues can be overcome by retrieving data from back-end systems and moving it into digital front-ends, he says.

“There will be greenfield opportunities, but even in areas where there are policy initiatives and changes and a significant element of that is still legacy, we can grab the data in the legacy systems and bring that into a digital interface. And that could look at grants, payments, collections across government. And then over time the reality is that as legacy becomes less critical you can decommission it, but that may take years,” he says.

The Transactional Explorer tool developed by GDS will also be key in identifying areas of overspend: “So for example, it breaks out the cost per transaction – so we can now clearly see things like the  RPA delivering 105,000 transactions a year at £727 per transaction. I think we could do a much better service to the farmers of Britain at a fraction of the cost and part of that solution will be digital," says Kelly.

“The current system, which has taken a huge amount of investment, was a traditional model of working, with industry and procurement. Now there are changes in the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), changes we need to be prepared for. So we are thinking about an alternative system that has digital at its heart.  

“We want audacious speed. Delivering in weeks, not months or years,” he says.

So how does he see massive projects such as Universal Credit, underpinned by large multi-year contracts with a number of ‘traditional’ system integrators, fitting in with the new ways of working?

“Cabinet Office is working closely with all departments to ensure there is a good outcome for all stakeholders, end-users, and the taxpayer. But we won’t be able to just flick a switch and go digital.

“We are going to go through a significant transition where there are a lot of programmes in flight and a lot of legacy contracts, and contracts that are doing a good job, are have been extended for relevant reasons,” he says.

“This world won’t automatically switch to the new world, which is why I want to elevate the CTO role – to strengthen our core direction of travel. The new world is where we are going and we are putting a lot of resource and focus behind that.”

Stephen Kelly talked to Computer Weekly at the GDS Sprint 13 event

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