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Government CTO Liam Maxwell to leave GDS for new job as digital czar

Liam Maxwell's new role as national technology advisor will help to develop the UK's digital economy

Government chief technology officer (CTO) Liam Maxwell is leaving the Government Digital Service (GDS) to become a cross-Whitehall digital czar.

 Maxwell's new role is national technology advisor, reporting into the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with a "dotted line" to UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). Staff at GDS were informed of his departure in an email today (18 April 2016).

"Liam’s considerable experience and expertise will be put to the important task of developing the UK’s growing digital economy. His new remit will include consolidating and expanding the government’s relationships with the digital and technology industry, convening the new National Technology Council and working closely with industry to boost investment in the UK," said the email, sent by GDS executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

Maxwell is moving to the new job "over the coming weeks". Deputy CTO Andy Beale will become acting CTO, but Maxwell's old job will be opened up for a formal recruitment process.

Speaking to Computer Weekly today, Maxwell said the new role of national technology advisor is an important component of the government's plans for job creation and skills development.

"This is government recognising the digital economy is really important," he said. "We want to turbo-charge things – it’s about making the UK the best place in Europe to do business for digital and technology firms."

Maxwell said the job will involve engaging industry leaders, looking at issues around the digital single market in Europe, and helping to develop the UK's role in emerging technologies and markets, such as blockchain, the sharing economy and mass simulation technolgoies such as Improbable.

"It's about helping industry work more effectively to get the most out of their investment in the UK," he said.

Maxwell will chair the National Technology Council, whose membership is currently being defined but will involve technology industry associations, tech companies making big investments in the UK, as well as "people who can help change the weather in industry," he said. He expects the membership of the council to be confirmed "in the next couple of months".

Ed Vaizey, digital economy minister at DCMS, told MPs during a recent select committee meeting that digital activies across government were "not coordinated enough", citing the various departments and agencies involved in the digital agenda. It seems that Maxwell's new job is to bring that coordination to Whitehall, and he will be part of the team working on Vaizey's digital economy strategy, which is due to be published later this year.

Maxwell joined GDS as CTO in December 2012, reporting to then-executive director Mike Bracken. He has been part of the government IT team since June 2011, when he joined the Cabinet Office as an IT advisor. He was subsequently made deputy government CIO in April 2012.

Maxwell’s role as CTO involves setting out the technology standards and governance principles across government, and he heads the technology leadership function across Whitehall. His team has overseen projects such as the Public Services Network and Common Technology Services (CTS), aimed at improving the IT infrastructure across government.

Liam Maxwell

"We haven’t achieved everything, but we've done a pretty good job of getting a lot of the way there"

Outgoing government CTO Liam Maxwell

At GDS, Maxwell overhauled the governance of technology, shutting down the 20-plus boards previously responsible for aspects of IT strategy. Under his watch, the Cabinet Office has also introduced new mandates for the use of open standards – including a controversial feud with Microsoft over document formats.

He was responsible for introducing the spending controls mechanism for IT, designed to prevent huge contracts with suppliers by breaking projects down into smaller parts, and avoiding the need for the sort of long-term outsourcing mega-deals that have often led to costly IT failures.

He was widely credited as one of the main architects of government IT reform in the early years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, he helped draft the Tory technology policy, having been involved in a technology think tank, the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, that proposed dismantling the IT systems and business ecosystem established by Labour. He co-authored a report, titled Better for Less, that set out many of the tech policies he has since introduced to government.

Prior to joining the civil service, Maxwell was a local authority councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. In 2013 he was voted the most influential person in UK IT in Computer Weekly’s annual UKtech50 list.

In a recent interview with Computer Weekly, Maxwell said he was pleased with what he had achieved as CTO, but acknowledged there is still more for the government to do.

“If I went under a bus tomorrow and you said what was the thing was that changed, there were three things - the ability to convene things across Whitehall so that people take collective decisions in technology; getting CTS together so things work; and making sure that Microsoft and Amazon landed. Their UK datacentres will be a fundamental change to the way everybody looks at how they do business across the whole of the public sector,” he said.

“If you look back on the last four years, we've achieved a lot. A lot of the stuff we set out in Better for Less is either done or on the way and I feel that it's a good time to reflect on that. I’m really proud of the fact that we've got a great team of people now working on things we wanted to achieve. We haven’t achieved everything, but we've done a pretty good job of getting a lot of the way there.”

Read more about Liam Maxwell and government IT

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