Andrew is an international thought leader in open data.
Most recently, between 2004 and 2010, as Deputy Chief Information Officer and then Director of Digital Engagement at the Cabinet Office, he delivered the globally leading data.gov.uk, in which a large number of government datasets were made available online for the first time.
He has led UK Digital Engagement programmes, and is now an expert adviser, speaker and consultant on open data and e-government, both in the UK and worldwide.
Andrew Stott was born in 1955 in London. His father was a civil engineer, mother was a housewife. His father travelled a lot before moving from consultancy to a series of senior public sector roles, ending up as a Professor at King’s College. His grandfather was a gas engineer who also held very senior roles. Home life was quiet but structured, he remembers model making and walking, which his father was keen on.
He started at state primary in Kent until the family moved to London and then went to Dulwich Prep School where he flourished, particularly in maths. He won a scholarship to Westminster College and in the process skipped two years, ending up at university two years early. While he was waiting to go to Westminster his teacher gave him a book on computers which taught him the importance of learning binary. Once at Westminster he benefited from the Imperial College Schools Project, which gave pupils access to the University’s IBM 7094 Computer. He bypassed the official system of punching cards by hand and posting them; instead he learned to use a mechanical card punch, do them on site and then have time to correct his programs before the next run. His account was the most heavily used on the project.
After Westminster, Andrew went to Clare College, Cambridge to read maths, but after two years he became concerned that his degree was too specialised to prepare him for a career, so after considering a number of options including computer science, he changed to law, where he enjoyed the logic and argument but struggled to remember the less interesting facts. He graduated with 2:1 in law. During vacations he did mathematical analysis for transport firms.
Early Career: Civil Service Fast Track
After Cambridge Andrew applied for several things, including a grant for a Master’s Degree in computer science (then called a Diploma) and the Civil Service. He was offered both but chose the Civil service because it would be more interesting than computing. His first post was in the Central Computing Agency. On reflection he feels that his law degree has been more useful than maths, especially constitutional and contract law which were particularly helpful when he was involved in Government IT. He studied during the time of the Richard Crossman Diaries Trial, where Government was trying to prevent the publication of details of political and civil service processes. He found this fascinating and it stimulated his interest in how government worked.
Andrew joined the department now known as Cabinet Office, via the Civil Service Administration Trainee Scheme. He was on the fast track programme which moved him around in different posts and roles in his first few years. One of these was at the Central Computer Agency which was primarily concerned with government use of computers for administration. It had six sections, C1 for projects, C2 for policy, C3 which was technical and C4 for contracting (In those days the CCA did all the purchasing of government computers). C5 was telecoms and C6 was advisory.
ADR: Automatic Data Processing
Andrew was involved in the Watson Review on the Longer-Term Issues of Automatic Data Processing in Government. There was a lot of government scrutiny of computing at the time and departmental IT projects did not always go well. He made the first microcomputer purchase in an attempt develop an early system of automatic records management. This was unsuccessful: although this was a common task across the Civil Service each Ministry had its own processes that were too difficult to standardise. The same mixture of change management and technical problems continue to trouble projects. In this case the core problem has still not been fully solved.
The fast track programme was designed to familiarise participants with policy implications rather than teach technical skills. As well as the CCA he spent time in HR and at Number 10 in the Efficiency Unit with Sir Derek Rayner, who was parodied in Yes Minister as Sir Mark Spencer. Each year on the scheme, assignments were separated by ten weeks of training in economics, manpower, law and parliament. There was also a section on computers which, unhelpfully, did not involve any actual computers, something he found hilarious. However, he was inspired by the senior civil servants: Reay Atkinson’s unflappability and Gerald Watson’s drive were important influences.
Operational IT for the Prison Service
After four years in the Rayner Unit he took up an offer from Eric Caines to be the first Director of IT at the Prison Service, which until this point relied on the Home Office for data processing. When he arrived there were statistical records but nothing operational. Eric was prevented from implementing a centralised system with terminals in each prison by the Home Office, so they circumvented this restriction by using microcomputers to build a simple system that did not need central Home Office support. It was hugely successful, simple enough for all grades to use, and supported operations like transfers and special food requirements. Even the notoriously conservative Prison Officers Association supported it.
Social Security Operational Strategy
After two years, Eric Caines was recalled to the Department of Social Security (from where he’d been on loan) and Andrew followed him, subsequently staying there for 17 years, through its change to DWP. The Department had suffered a catalogue of failed IT projects, and the new Operational Strategy had delivered nothing in its first four years. Salvaging that was their first job: dealing with vendors, systems integration, infrastructure roll-out and establishing the service delivery organisation. It was done at rapid pace; things were simplified and barriers were removed.
Between the prison service and DWP Andrew’s team grew from 50 to about 2000 and he learned how to delegate, how to ask the right questions, how to make contingency plans, how to ensure things would be robust and simple rather than cheap. Having authority to make decisions was key, as was learning from mistakes.
Thanks to the leadership of Eric Caines and his team, and the hard work by the civil servants and consultants working together on the projects, the first system went live within 12 months and the subsequent roll-out was successfully accelerated in order to catch up lost time.
Department of Social Security
After a spell in unemployment policy Andrew became Director of Strategy at the Benefits Agency when it was first set up. Separating front office from back office functions geographically whilst retaining integrated IT and telecoms was a key factor in his success there. At this time he worked closely with politicians like Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling on keeping track of where the £100 billion of expenditure was going. After the 2001 election he was in charge of establishing the Department for Work and Pensions – including choosing its name.
Digital Services at the Department for Transport
In 2003 Andrew moved to the Department for Transport as Modernisation Director for the Driver, Vehicle and Operator Group which included DVLA, VOSA and other units that needed joining up. They built the online car tax system which for many years was the only online government service that people actually recommended to their friends. In reality it was a demonstration of the power of the data held by the organisation. Once insurers and garages were persuaded to share data, the whole system could be joined up seamlessly at the customer end. He became conscious of the importance of data in DSS when they used data matching to identify where winter fuel payments should be allocated.
Andrew reflects that there was also plenty of money for e-government at the time: The Office of the e-Envoy had been established but most websites were informational, and this was a rare example of transactional activity.
Back to Cabinet Office as Deputy CIO
After DfT, Andrew’s next move was back to Cabinet Office as Deputy Government CIO. The e-Envoy’s office was being repurposed as the eGovernment Unit with a strategic rather than advisory remit. Ian Watmore was recruited from the private sector to lead it and needed a civil service deputy; Andrew and Ian had worked together on the Social Security Operational Strategy. At this time public sector IT failures were less about technology and more about shortcomings in organisation, planning, project management and business change, so they rolled out the new CIO role across departments to try and bridge the gap between business strategy and IT. Andrew had the opportunity to compare vendor-government relationships and helped to manage risk, especially that of over-dependence on individual vendors. He also helped government to be a better customer.
Open Data Initiative
After five years as Deputy government CIO, Andrew took on the newly created role of Director for Digital Engagement for Tom Watson. Previously they had worked together on the implications of social media for government following the Power of Information report. On his first day he received a request from Number 10 to develop a strategy for making better use of government data following a conversation between Gordon Brown and Tim Berners-Lee. In response Andrew wrote the plan for what became data.gov.uk. The Prime Minister announced it within a week.
This coincided with the expenses scandal and a fear that government itself would be up next for public scrutiny, so a transparency package was introduced which reformed the Public Records Act and introduced Freedom of Information in June 2009. So his mission was to create an open data initiative. Within seven months he delivered data.gov.uk. and reflects that the barriers were not technological but arose from the reluctance of departments to release their data.
He observes that the route to success was working with those who would cooperate rather than arguing with those who would not, and not trying to do everything at once. Companies House data for instance took five steps to move from fully closed to open data. Things got easier when agencies and departments could see their data being used productively. Discussions with agencies like Ordnance Survey, which charged for data, revolved around redefining their role as enabling a successful data ecosystem rather than just selling data. This process is still ongoing.
Government Digital Service
In 2010 the GDS (Government Digital Service) was formed by Francis Maude who cancelled most of the delegation of IT project approval to individual departments. Subsequently all major projects had to be approved by him, which would involve conforming with set standards. Maude was concerned that monolithic contracts with a few suppliers were not necessarily delivering value and moved the emphasis to cloud, open source and more agile technologies.
Andrew retired from the Civil Service at the end of 2010 although he continued in an advisory role on the Government Transparency Board. Free of pressing everyday commitments he now finds the time to accept interesting speaking engagements overseas, talking about the UK’s experience and advising on open data. The UK has much to be proud of in terms of digital government and is leading edge in many respects. He is struck that issues like the gap between IT and business are common across the board, and there is sometimes reluctance to believe that the UK’s open data exercise actually worked.
Successes and Regrets
When asked to reflect on his successes, Andrew considers that open data, and getting the social security system to work after so many failures as his major achievements. In terms of regrets he feels he could perhaps have managed people better. At project level the decision not to align all the social security records for different benefits created a lot of problems later.
In terms of challenges ahead, Andrew thinks that cyber security will continue to be a major concern and that the Internet of Things poses major challenges. He thinks that systems need to be much easier to use and he continues to be concerned that solutions do not integrate sufficiently: people should think more about how their systems and data can be part of a larger ecosystem.
Interviewed by: Ian Symonds on the 28th March 2019 at the London Offices of BCS
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Emma