Ian Watmore’s career is diverse, spanning private, public, sports, university, church and third sectors. After studying mathematics and management at Trinity College Cambridge, Ian spent 24 years in the private sector culminating as Accenture UK CEO from 2000 to 2004. He then worked for 7 years in the Civil Service, holding three different Permanent Secretary posts under three Prime Ministers, first at the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in No 10, then at the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, and latterly at the Cabinet Office. Today he took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Richard Sharpe at the BCS office in London about his life and career.
The three achievements that Ian Watmore is proudest of in chronological order are:
“the work I did in the 80’s and 90’s on the department of social security and in the revenue systems of NI and Tax”
“helping democracy take route in South Africa by implementing the new independent electoral commissions system to allow general elections to occur that involved all of the population voting”
” launching the transformational gov strategy that set the direction of travel toward the user centred systems in gov, through the first direct.gov which got 25M people using it and progressing that to create the gov.co.uk website that is used today. This achievement was validated by my personal award of the ‘Outstanding Contribution to IT’ by the Computer Institute Awards in 2005″
Early Life and Education
Ian Watmore was born in 1958 in Farnborough, Kent. His father was a GP in Bromley and his mother was a shorthand typist. Ian credits his parents for giving him stability, calmness under pressure and ambition that allowed him to succeed in life.
Ian attended Trinity school in Croydon where he studied pure and applied maths and physics for A level. It was at here that he had his first experience of learning to write computer programs when his school linked with a London university to run their programs in a batch in the early hours of the morning. He says: “I can remember doing a program on punched cards. The first the punch card stuff was all in FORTRAN, and then when they upgraded to an online terminal which was in BASIC.” Ian says that because the programs were only run once a week, it made him and his fellow students very careful about punch card entry and doing rigorous desk checking of the program which stood him in good stead in his career.
After gaining his A levels, Ian went to Trinity College, Cambridge to study maths and management. He started out on a maths degree but added in management in the third year. Ian says this gave him a very broad and practical experience, including real-life operational research projects such as one with British Rail to simulate traffic on the railway system. It was during one of these projects that Ian met Paul Klemperer who worked for Andersen Consulting. Ian realised that this was the company he wanted to work for.
Andersen Consulting (today known as Accenture)
Having graduated in 1980, Ian applied for and was accepted for a role as a Consultant at Andersen Consulting; a company he would remain with for 24 years. Ian says: “We didn’t sit there and advise; we wrote computer programs and tested them, installed them, rolled them out, and then handed them back to the customer. So, I did a lot of programming in my early years at Andersen.”
Ian found himself working on a mix of projects involving both operational research management consulting and computing. He was involved with projects such as looking at resources for the Department of Health, through to computerising leasing systems for Lloyds Bank. He worked in various languages including APL, COBOL and Assembler among others. He was also given the opportunity to train in Geneva and in the USA. He explains: “I think the methodology (of the training), in that era, gave, not just a structure, but a common language, to people working on very large projects. It enabled people in different parts of the globe on very different aspects of a huge project or program to still work together and share a common language and a common way of doing things.”
In 1985/6, Ian was involved in a major project to connect pharmacies across the UK in what he describes as “the forerunner to the modern-day Internet”. The project started when pharmacies were introducing microcomputers to do stock control, and stock labelling. The realisation came that if they could capture that data and automatically transmit it to the reporting centre in Newcastle, they could eliminate the need for data entry. Andersen’s won the contract for the pilot project. Ian says: “So, in 1986, I ended up with a BBC Micro, an IBM micro, an ICL value-added network, and God knows what sort of software on it, and a Honeywell Bull thing in the middle, and that was as fragile as hell, but we made it work. We got it to the point where it worked, as in, you could get data from one end of the country to the other accurately and pay. But the fragility of the technology was such that it would never have robustly lasted for millions of prescriptions.”
While the project was declared a success technically, it was not cost-effective, and the business case was not strong enough. Ian adds: “We said it may take another decade before the technology improves, and it was almost exactly a decade later that the Internet started to emerge. So, it feels to me like I kind of did what I think of as an early Internet project without the Internet, even though I know the Internet existed at that time, but it wasn’t in ubiquitous use.”
Ian also worked on the computerisation of the pensions and unemployment benefits when the DHSS was split into the DSS and the DWP. At that time, this was largest project Andersen Consulting had ever been involved with and saw Ian draw on his experience of both operational research management and computing. In 1987, against a backdrop of numerous changes in technology and the vendor market and with IBM struggling, Ian was seconded the DSS for a year to be their director in charge of the computerisation programme. He says of the developments in technology: “The whole open computing environment got a significant new shift. DSS became another power player in that, so they were one of the world leaders in that. They were one of the first people to take Unix systems on an industrial scale and make them right throughout.”
Ian progressed through the ranks at Andersen, moving to be a senior manager and eventually Partner and Managing Director. He says: “Becoming a manager was a grade name that meant you were more likely to be managing a big team of people, but it also meant you were starting to get into the commercial aspects of a project, from an Andersen point of view, in other words, you were part of the sales force and, managing the money, the fees and the client relationship, as well as managing people.”
He says of his management style that he is a manager “that motivates and inspires people, and if they show the right attitude and do well, I’ll defend them through thick and thin. If they’re not, I’ll give them the chance to improve. Ultimately, if the attitude is just not right, then we have to move people on. But when I’m dealing with people above or around me, and opinion-formers and so on, with whom I disagree, then I can be more robust.”
In 1990 Ian was made a partner in the company; he was one of the youngest. As well as his role in the UK, Ian was also given responsibility for a number of other countries, one of which included the Government practice in South Africa. Ian explains: “It was shortly after President Mandela had been elected. People may remember when he was elected that the South African population, particularly the black population, had never voted before, and the voting systems were rudimentary to put it mildly, people queued for half a day. Mandela said something like, ‘This is a great day for democracy, but never again will we have an administrative system that’s quite so poor. So, in 1999 I want a modern electoral system for people to vote in.’” Andersen’s won a tender to implement the new electoral system for the Independent Electoral Commission in South Africa (IEC). Ian continues: “It was a very exciting project, lots of very interesting technology at the heart, particularly based on things like geographical information systems, which in the mid-Nineties was quite advanced stuff; today it would be all done on Google Maps, but at the time was new and innovative technologies. But much more importantly, when they ran the election in ’99 it went very smoothly and there were no repeats of the long queues.” Andersen’s was presented with a global award by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington for its contribution to public service and democracy.
Chief Information Officer of the Government
In September 2004 Ian became CIO of the Government. The move came after what Ian describes as “a most dramatic four years in my time”. He continues: “We split with Arthur Andersen, renamed and rebranded to Accenture, had two mini recessions, a crisis from the Twin Towers deaths, a public flotation of the company, a rebuild of the market; it was all going on. In parallel with that, the Government, initially under the latter days of Major but really driven by Blair, had given the Internet a big shove. …It started off well, and then it got a bit stuck in the early 2000s, and so they decided to make a slight change of direction but bring somebody new in from the outside to lead on that eGovernment charge, but also, become more broadly based on the CIO. The two things came into collision. My career point, I had kind of reached a point where, what else was there for me left to do in Accenture? I didn’t want to go on with global travel, I had young kids and all the rest of it. Secondly, they needed somebody from the outside, and I was a known quantity. I interviewed for it, didn’t think I’d actually get it and then suddenly found myself in Number 10 talking technology to Tony Blair, which was quite weird.”
Ian says there are three things of which he is most proud of having achieved during his time in the role. These include bringing together the heads of IT from Government to create “the CIO Council”. As a group they produced a Transformational Government Strategy, which focused broadly on user-centred design of systems, enterprise systems and building the profession of IT professionals inside Government. Asked if it was a success, Ian says: “Well, the strategy was right, and I think, each of them had positives. I think probably the middle one (enterprise systems) had less success, although, it improved, but I still think when push came to shove departments tended to customise rather than go vanilla. We built a lot of capability, and a lot of the leaders today inside Government started from acorns in those days, they’re now the oak trees. So, there’s a lot of good people come through. But undoubtedly, the first was the big success.”
Ian also pooled budgets to focus on Directgov which at that time had around 100,000 members of the general public using it. By the end of his tenure, it had 25 million individual users. Ian adds: “You and I have all used Directgov without probably realising it, doing things like registering car tax online and things of that ilk. That was the big tangible achievement in that period.”
In 2010 when a new coalition government took over, Ian met Martha Lane Fox who had been invited to review Government’s approach to technology and produce a report. Together; they created the Government Digital Service (GDS) and then appointed Mike Bracken to lead it. Ian says: “That suddenly created a new surge. He (Mike) took the platform that was Directgov and completely Web 2.0’d it and put it onto the current platform which is GOV.UK. He produced the next wave of success.”
During the five years that Ian worked in Government he became the Permanent Secretary inside the Cabinet Office and had responsibility for a number of roles. He moved to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills where the Secretary of State was John Denham.
Ian says of John: “The reason John was particularly good was because he was actually, first class. He was good in the media, he had very good judgement, but he had an absolutely superb policy nous. Miles better than me. He wasn’t really a manager of an organisation, he kind of outsourced that both to me and one of his ministers, Lord Triesman, who was his House of Lords minister. David and I used to concentrate on the management of the department, but John was just brilliant on the policy side, and I was in awe of him. We got on really well.”
CEO of the Football Association
Ian left Government to take on the opportunity of a lifetime and become CEO of the Football Association (the FA). He explains: “Six months after Lord Triesman went off to be Chair of the Football Association, I got a head-hunter call saying they were recruiting a chief exec, and he wondered if I was interested. Being a football fanatic, with a son who’s a professional footballer now, but wasn’t at the time, and he’s played for England and so on, I thought, well I’m never going to get it, but I’ll interview. Anyway, I got offered the job.” Ian did the role for nine-months before returning to take up the role of CEO of the Cabinet Office.
CEO, Cabinet Office
Ian returned to Government to take up the role of CEO of the Cabinet Office under the coalition Government. He describes the role as a “souped-up version of the role I had last time in the Cabinet Office. I had responsibility overall for the corporate functions of Government, it wasn’t just IT and some of the delivery things; it was all, HR, comms, property, procurement, commercial. I was running the Cabinet Office as a department.” He did the role for two years.
Life after Government
Ian left the role to spend more time with his family and support and work with his wife who had become a vicar in Manchester. He says: “Being a vicar is quite the most stressful personal job. Six days a week; if you’re lucky you get a day off. You’re only legislated to have one day off a week, and quite often that doesn’t happen. …I went to support her. She became the number two to the person who became the first woman bishop, which was also very interesting. We still had children at school and so, we flipped.”
Ian was also was on the board of the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and when that ended decided that he would like to work part-time work; two days a week. He was invited to apply for the role of Civil Service Commissioner. Ian explains: “I put myself forward. Cameron offered me the job, but then he said it’ll have to be after the (Brexit) referendum.” After Cameron’s resignation, Ian was then invited to meet Theresa May. He continues: “I went and re-interviewed for this job. I’ve seen two prime ministers for the same two-day-a-week job, and she offered me the job in August. I then had to be cleared through Parliament, the Queen, the Opposition, Nigel Farage, anybody that moved.”
Ian started in October 2016 and has a five-year term to oversee the systems of recruitment and the systems of Civil Service code according to the statute.” He adds: “What I do personally, apart from all that, I appoint, or I chair the panels that appoint the heads of each of the Whitehall departments.” Ian is anticipating retirement when he reaches the end of the remaining two years of his five-year term.
On the subject of Government IT projects Ian says: “Any history of government computing is not going to paint it in a positive light, because, there have been far too many projects that have gone wrong and become public scandals. I would say, three things positively and one thing negatively. The first is, I think Government has been an amazing; I don’t just mean the UK Government, governments around the world. Sticking with the UK Government, it has been a major force for good in breaking monopolies of IT. For example, without Government, we wouldn’t have had an ICL industry that lasted, it would have all been IBM. Without Government, we would never have got into the Unix revolution, which I think fundamentally changed the dynamic again in the Nineties, and brought all sorts of companies, like Oracle and so on, to the table.
The second thing is, there is no doubt that government projects are miles more difficult than private sector equivalents. They’re miles more difficult for two reasons. One is, they have to serve the entire public …. The second thing you’ve got is that the underlying products are more complex, because they’re complex for political reasons. If something gets too complex, in the financial services world they, they tend to simplify it, to make it implementable. In Government, they do the opposite. They add complexity to make it politically saleable. You end up with a broader range of customers than anywhere in the private sector, and you’ve got more complicated products. Particularly in things like health and social security and those sorts of things, you are serving databases of 60 million people, in those days a big company might have a customer base of five million or something, and suddenly you’re trying to do it 20, 30 times, ten times as big, and so you’ve got complexity scale and breadth, which makes it much harder.
A third thing I would say in defence of Government computing is, you very, very, rarely hear about the many, many, many projects that go well. And a light is then shone, not just once but about 25 times, on the one that didn’t go well. … I think Government’s a force for good, has a much harder job than the private sector, and actually, 95 per cent of the time really achieves its aims, but the five per cent get magnified out of all proportion.”
In talking about his management, Ian believes he has three weaknesses. He says: “One is, there are times when I should have just sucked it up from people around me and not pushed back. I should have just sucked it up and said, it doesn’t matter that much, you don’t have to fight. They’re wrong, but you don’t have to fight about it.
Secondly, I tried to do too much too quickly, definitely in certain eras of my life. So, when I was at the Football Association, for example, there was so much wrong that I tried to fix it all in a year and ended up doing none of it, well not none of it, but too much of it got blocked, because the organisation wasn’t ready for that sort of change.
The third thing is I’m much better as a starter than I am a finisher. I have done some roles way beyond a time when I probably, from my own benefit, should have done it, because I wanted to see it through. So, I’m not saying I run away from things when it gets difficult, but I’m much better at when it’s all messed up, it’s a problem, it’s difficult; then lob me in. I’ll unearth how horrendous it really is, try and sort it out, get some coherence and structure to it, move it forward, get some progress, and then it’s probably time for somebody else to take it to the next level. That’s probably my sort of management style.”
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 4th June 2019 at the London Offices of BCS
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley