What should we make of the U.K. government's decision to axe the role of Government CIO?
The Cabinet Office, a part of the British state that acts as a kind of office of the COO for government, announced it had eliminated the part-time role at the end of last week. Its logic: ICT (Information and Communications Technology) reform has been going to so well that there's no longer a need for one executive to police all 27 British Ministries' ICT policies. (The Cabinet Office has been tasked with reforming the way British public services are delivered to use more of a 'digital-first' program; it has also been very active in paring down the costs of IT procurement.
The position of a Government CIO with visibility across all of U.K. central government activity is a relatively recent one, introduced under Tony Blair in 2004. The first to hold the job was Ian Watmore, who joined government from a very senior position in Accenture. Watmore was followed by John Suffolk, who left in 2011 to work for Chinese IT giant Huawei; he was replaced by Joe Hartley, who retired at the end of 2011 and was replaced by senior British civil servant and ICT expert Andy Nelson.
Both Suffolk and Hartley also had full-time Government CIO roles, with Suffolk serving as chief information security officer (CISO) for Her Majesty's Government. Nelson simultaneously served as CIO for the Ministry of Justice; in January he was tapped to become CIO of the huge Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), by far the biggest part of Whitehall as it dispenses state benefits and welfare.
[ U.K. was one bright spot in an otherwise dismal IT services year, says analyst group Ovum. Read European IT Services Market Bumps Along Bottom. ]
Now that the Government CIO job has again become vacant, the Cabinet Office said the post has become superfluous to requirements and "the cross-government role is no longer central to delivery." The Office also said the role had shifted during Nelson's tenure to that of a procurement and supplier manager.
The logic behind the decision was explained in a blog post by Mike Bracken, executive director of the GDS (Government Digital Service), part of the Cabinet Office that does core central government ICT work like porting all of the many existing British Ministerial websites on to one single master domain. GDS is also leading the charge on trying to make Whitehall's information services "digital by default."
"We won't have a cross-government Chief Information Officer (CIO) anymore, nor a Head of Profession for Information and Communications Technology (ICT)," Bracken wrote. That's because the government is moving responsibility for these capabilities to Bracken's team. He also said it is closing some cross-government ICT management and purchasing boards in various technology areas, plus reviewing the rest "in order to make sure we are set up as efficiently as possible."
You don't need a CIO if, as Bracken holds, you are moving away from a large procurement approach to technology and are becoming "become adept at commissioning and co-delivering digital public services" instead. As a result, he said, the British government's ICT capability profile needs to change both "technically" and "culturally."
Bracken also acknowledged that it was always a pretty tough job, anyway. "It is tough to be a CIO in government with so much [of its] information and data residing in outsourced services and proprietary software," he said. "This means that many [U.K. government] CIOs are performing as quasi-procurement and contract managers rather than really driving business performance based on meeting user needs."
The result, according to Bracken, is "an uneven playing field," with the CIO role in [British] government "varying hugely by department and agency."
A better way forward than trying to copy enterprise models of IT governance, Bracken said, is to locate digital leaders and Chief Operating Officers (COOs) in individual parts of government instead.
It'll be interesting to see if this more localized approach works.
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