John says he is proudest of three things:
“One, was finding ways to make outsourcing work on the basis that you still need to manage, and manage hard, the supply that you’re outsourced your IT to.
Two, demonstrating against the odds, and what everybody thought, that you could change your supplier provided that you made enough effort to find ways in which it could be done.
And thirdly, driving the electronic filing system, which was introduced in the early 2000s and was probably the first of its type in Public Sector Government.”
Early Life and Education
John lived with his two sisters and parents in Ruislip. His father was a postal clerk and his mother worked in a factory making chocolates. When his grandfather was made redundant, his grandparents moved in with the family. Money was tight and living conditions were cramped. When John was just ten years old, his father had a stroke which left disabled and unable to work. His father died when John was 21 and his mother died just six months later.
Against all these pressures at home, John passed the Eleven Plus and went to a Grammar school in Marylebone where he enjoyed his time immensely, earning A levels in history, English and Geography. While John was eligible to go to University, he decided against it because of his family situation.
John says that the trauma of his father’s stroke and then the death of both of his parents ten years later, had a big impact on him, he says: “I suppose it made me determined to get things done and sort things out. It made me organised and it certainly gave me a sense that life is for living and grabbing, and you’ve got to go out there and take it. You know you can die; people did. So, I think that was really what I took from that. Now whether that then deep down is the spur that’s brought on this (his success), I don’t know.”
HMRC (Inland Revenue)
In 1962, at the age of eighteen and having left school, John started working in restaurants including Joe Lyons. He then moved to a temporary job as a filing clerk with the Ministry of Labour in Ealing, where he was advised to try for a job in the Civil Service. He says: “I thought, I don’t know really. I’m not that bothered by it. But I did go for an interview, and got offered a job at the Inland Revenue. It was a job, and, they were going to pay me, and it was in London and seemed fine, so I just drifted into that.”
John joined the Inland Revenue as it was then called, as an executive officer responsible for assessing Stamp Duty based in Bush House, Aldwych. He says: “I was a working in London. I was young and fancy free. It seemed fine, without, if I’m honest, any particular interest in the job. It was OK, they were quite decent people there. I could do it. But it wasn’t really stretching me very much.”
After three years working on stamp duty, John took an opportunity to move to a different role which involved travelling around the South East, carrying out audits of Employer’s PAYE records to check that were operating Pay as You Earn correctly. He says: “I was quite keen to do something that involved meeting people, and travelling. I was green and young but was effectively the face of the Inland Revenue, to the surprise of all the people I saw. But I found quite quickly that people, once they realised you knew what you were talking about, forgot you were young. … It was a real education, because you saw all sorts, from Billingsgate fish market at five in the morning, where I was threatened with a knife, to posh solicitors and firms in the City.”
During his time in Audit, John found a case of fraud where the employer was collecting money from its employees but not passing it on to the Inland Revenue, he adds: “That was a serious case which resulted in a criminal prosecution which was where I earned my spurs. Meeting people, who initially were not that pleased to see you, probably gave me the confidence to realise that I would be able to tackle most things that would be thrown at me.”
John particularly enjoyed the freedom of the role on the road. He says: “You were pretty much left to it. I loved that. … What you were judged on was whether you were getting results amnd recovering the money when employers were not applying PAYE correctly.”
At the age of 23, John was promoted and became the youngest Higher Executive Officer in the country, running an audit centre with a team of around ten people working for him. By this point he had become an expert on PAYE which made his new management position easier. He says of management at such a young age: “It was helped by the fact that I knew the job the staff were doing as I had done it myself. This enabled me to talk with some authority when problems arose and also to empathize and help them when they ran into particularly difficult cases. Some of them had done the job for much longer than I had, but I found way to deal with that was to listen to what they were saying, and then enter into a discussion about the various options for taking things forward so they were seeing different ways of solving problems. … That experience helped me start to develop ways in I could get other people to do the job in the right way. None of this was through training courses; it was all seat of the pants really.”
After four or five years running the audit centre, John was invited to apply to be a tax inspector, he says: “I went onto what was effectively the graduate training scheme to become a fully trained tax inspector, five years later than most people who had just left university.” John spent the next three years training, plus a further two years doing the postgraduate training in a tax office before being posted to head office at Woburn Place, London, in 1975.
During his time at Head Office, John was looking at the procedures operated in tax districts undertake some of the administrative processes which would free up staff time to concentrate on more meaningful casework and investigations.
In the late 1970s, early 1980s, John became aware of Steve Matheson who had been Denis Healey’s Private Secretary. John describes him as an entrepreneurial guy who saw the opportunity to use computers in the Inland Revenue. John explains: “He basically set up, towards the end of the Seventies, early Eighties, the computerisation of Pay As You Earn project. Now at the time, this was a huge undertaking. But it was very much seen as something that was on one side and outside of the mainstream. A separate division was set up to run the project. I was vaguely aware it was there, without much knowledge of what they were doing. But I began to see that this was the future, in terms of harnessing the power of computers to do things better and more efficiently. But I was on the outside at that stage.”
The computerisation of Pay As You Earn was one of the biggest computer projects in Europe at that time and included suppliers such as ICL and CSC with software developed by a mix of in-house employees and contractors. The roll-out of the system was staged to ensure that there was no loss of revenue. John says: “The revenue and the flow of money, was never seriously in danger. What was in danger was the savings that were expected from it.” However, the system was both a financial and procedural success, laying the ground not only for Inland Revenue’s approach to computerisation, but also for the rest of Government including; DWP, the Home Office etc. John adds: “A lot of the other big departments developed their major computerisation projects building on the PAYE project.”
Schedule D; the self-employed tax
Having seen the success of the Pay As You Earn project, John was asked to take over a project to computerise Schedule D; the tax system supporting the self-employed. The process was very complex with payments on account, an appeal process, and estimated assessments. There was the added complexity of people who were both on PAYE and on Schedule D to consider. John explains: “So all of that had to be thought through with a clear understanding of the linkage and integration between the various processes and the need to ensure that the data was always up to date. ”
John set about finding ways to work with Steve Matheson who was solely focused on the Pay As You Earn project. He also set up a team to think differently about the way things were being done so that it could be driven forward as a proper project. He explains: “I appointed a team leader, Ron Skelley, who had recently moved to Telford, where the PAYE project was being developed and asked him, ‘To work closely with them so they understood we were not a threat to them and to ensure that we could apply the lessons learned from their project onto the Schedule D project.’”
He says: “My role was to drive the project but at the same time to make sure the new system would work from the user viewpoint. It was important for the team to realise they were not driving a computer system for the sake of just putting in a new system. The point was to develop a system that would make it easier for people to do their job, by enabling the boring bits to be done automatically, freeing up time to focus on the aspects of the job that required some intellectual thought. Getting the user interface right was a key factor in the success of the programme.”
John used ICL as the main supplier and worked directly with a number of freelance contractors working in Telford.
John believes that the success of both the PAYE and Schedule D projects was largely because they were driven by people who knew and understood the processes and business. He adds: “That, I think, is why the CIO role should really be held by somebody who understands and knows how the business operates, what it needs to achieve, and how it goes about doing that, as well as some of the pitfalls, if it wants to do things completely differently. You need enough knowledge to be able to have a dialogue with the technicians, but the detail of how to actually programme something is for the technical experts, in my view. So, you need a chief technical officer, who I think should be subordinate to a chief information officer, who should be identifying the business changes needed and then ensuring through the IT team that they can be developed and implemented. ”
Director of IT
By the mid-Eighties the Inland Revenue was heavily into computerisation with Schedule D, Pay As You Earn, Corporation Tax and a number of other smaller systems
With all of this happening, the Revenue began to consider the possibility of outsourcing its IT division, which was not regarded as part of the core business activity of tax collection and evasion. At the same time, the Conservative Government was interested in whether the private sector could handle many of the public sector’s administrative functions more efficiently and cheaper. With these two elements coming together, John and some of his colleagues began to look at the options. He explains: “There was the opportunity for a marriage of convenience. … It required a huge amount of work to look at the feasibility of an outsource, and whether it would then be worth going to the market , a) to see if they were interested. , and b), to consider how a competition could be set up in a way which would enable us to check whether IT could be provided at a lower cost whilst still operating effectively”
He adds: “My view was, there were opportunities to get more involved with the private sector, but the important thing was to realise that whilst outsourcing might bring benefits it would not solve all of the problems with IT –All it does is change the way in which IT is managed and it still requires active management by the client side. The reason why, in my view, outsourcing has got such a bad name is that people see the procurement process as very exciting and sexy as they go through the competitive process but once the deal is done the people who have been involved disappear, and go on to the next thing. In my view the hard bit is not the competition, even though that’s where the focus is, and it is important to do that properly, but making sure the deal works in the way envisaged. The problem is that neither sides properly understands all of the issues. Inevitably suppliers are selling, and they will tend to gloss over issues and in any event cannot understand all of the intricacies affecting a client before they start to actually run the IT. The problem is made worse by the fact that none of the suppliers, have enough high calibre resource to deal with and cope with all of their clients. As a result, once you have outsourced, you are going to be in competition with all of that supplier’s other clients. It is therefore necessary to consider how you will manage the supplier to make sure you are top of the tree, and get the pick of the resource, because that’s really why you’ve gone to the market, to get the skilled resource that you can’t get yourself.”
In 1994 the process was put out to tender and Dallas based EDS won the contract. John was invited to be Director of IT. John says: “I was asked to come in and take the role as Director of IT, on the basis that after the outsource had happened, I would then run it. I was told by most of my friends and colleagues that this was a complete hospital pass, and I must be bonkers to do it. But it was a great challenge.”
The contract with EDS was worth around half a billion pounds and saved a significant number of clerical staff. Many of the Revenue’s IT staff ended up working for EDS, thus making the eventual transition smoother.
Director of Business Services
In 1996 John was appointed Director of Business Services, responsible for all the administrative processes, district procedures, procurement including commercial procurement, running the car fleet, and all the commercial elements, with a budget of around two billion pounds.
Around 1997/8 John inherited the National Insurance project, which had been run by DWP, and was passed across to the Revenue. John explains: “This was a major system, dealing with the whole country’s National Insurance, run by Accenture, which was in all sorts of trouble. There had been parliamentary hearings about it. Accenture and the DWP were not talking to each other, or were talking very aggressively to each other, and threatening each other, with the result that the project was going nowhere.”
A deal had been made whereby the Contributions Agency and their staff came to join the Revenue. John continues: “I had to try and find a way that I could resolve the problem with Accenture and get that onto an even keel, and then get EDS and Accenture to start to working with each other despite the fact they were normally in competition with each other.” John was successful in bringing all the parties together and making the project a success by by generating a culture of trust between all of the parties.
From EDS to Capgemini
John’s next project was the forthcoming end of the EDS contract. He says: “It wasn’t so much that we necessarily needed to change, but certainly we needed to avoid complacency, which was the danger of carrying on without considering change. We were 10 years on in a world which was moving very fast on the technical front. The Internet wasn’t really around, certainly not in terms of our organisation in ’94; by, halfway through the contract, it was, but the big IT companies were still struggling to acquire the skills to exploit it and relied on a number of niche suppliers. So, there were things that needed to be thought about in terms of, where do we go from here?”
As well as talking directly with EDS to review the situation and invite them to bid for the next stage, John also needed to get other companies to bid; a potential hard task, as he explains: “The world at large knew that we had a good relationship with them (EDS), that the deal was seen as a successful deal, and working well. Indeed, it was seen as a model, for a number of other deals.”
John went out to present to the CEOs of fourteen companies, he adds: “People let me in and I went through why it was that we would consider changing, some of the challenges that we were facing, and persuaded people that this was a very real competition, and that it was not a shoe-in for EDS.” He also persuaded the Treasury to be prepared to pay a part of the transition cost for the non-incumbents. He says: “They hated that, and I can see that it shouldn’t be done generally, but I think to break the mould, it was necessary.”
In the end, John got bids from BT in conjunction with CSC, Capgemini, and EDS. Capgemini succeeded in winning the contract. John explains: “I think the main factor was that, again, rather like EDS the first-time round, they were paying more attention to what was needed, and what was required going forward.”
Tax Credit System
In 2003, the Tax Credit system with EDS was introduced but it did not go well. However, John believes that EDS were wrongly blamed for the problems to computerise a very complex system. He explains: “There were lots of changes to the requirements as it went through, and EDS were working hard to meet those changes, and introduce the new system. They were asked a few months before it went live, can this system still be delivered? Their response was, it is possible that it could be delivered, but it is very risky. It requires a fair wind and everything going right. The project on EDS’ red amber green scale was red. But nonetheless, they were asked to go ahead and do it. There was a software glitch, that caused all the problems, and they got the blame.”
Electronic filing system
In the early 2000s, the Inland Revenue started to look at a way for self-employed people to submit their returns electronically and a project was introduced with EDS and a few smaller companies. It was a front-runner for the Government to start to offer its services digitally. John says: “It fundamentally changed the way that the Revenue operated. … And whilst it’s commonplace now, it wasn’t then, and was a forerunner of the way, not only the public sector but lots of the private sector organisations now operate their systems.”
John says of the Inland Revenue’s attitudes to IT: “I think it’s always been, pretty much, leading edge, particularly in terms of the way in which it’s driven largescale IT.”
John then became CIO. He adds: “It was a bit odd, because, I really was the CIO all the way along, but I think it became a more of a fashionable term. I was the CIO with all these other bits and pieces as well.
Retirement and consultancy
At the age of sixty, John took retirement and became a freelance consultant. His work saw him join projects, often solving disputes between suppliers and organisations. These included working with the NHS Southern Cluster between 2005 and 2007 to help manage the relationship with Fujitsu and working with Defra to renegotiate their failing IT contract with IBM.
On the subject of the NHS Connecting for Health IT project; one of the largest public sector IT projects ever seen, John says there were a number of issues that led to its failure; “One I think was that the procurement was, too fast, too simplistic, and left the suppliers with something that they couldn’t achieve. Now, they should have said no and walked away, but they didn’t. Secondly, it was driven by an organisation at the centre, rather than by the users themselves which meant that the NHS staff felt at arm’s length from the project and never felt really committed to it. For any IT project to be successful it has to be driven by the Business – if the Business feels it is being done to them, it won’t work. Thirdly the basic structure of the NHS makes the implementation of a national system difficult. Whilst it is called the national health service, it’s actually a series of health services, based on local areas, which are fairly autonomous, and that issue has never been cracked.”
John has worked with a number of government departments and suppliers and has often acted as a mediator in helping solve disputes between clients and suppliers. His approach has always been to ensure the problem is understood from both points of view. It is very easy for each side to blame each other when things go wrong despite the fact there are usually a number of problems on both sides. He says he would make it clear before getting involved that he was there to find solutions ‘If you want to go to war, I’ll go now. But if you want to settle it, there are a number of ways in which you can find things that would not be detrimental to either side, and we just need to work through to find out what those are.’ It was never easy but on many occasions a rational look at what the real issues were could lead to the development of a different and more successful approach ”
As a consultant, John has also been involved with Gate reviews for the Government, looking at project documents, interviewing people involved and making an assessment as to whether the project is on track or not, and making recommendations about what should be done. He has also played a role in advising Queen Mary and Exeter Universities on their IT strategies.
Looking back on his career, John says that his biggest mistake was a tendency to trust people too early on. He explains: “ When I first worked on a proper project, I realised that to get people with you, you couldn’t just take what they said at face value; you had to do much more to understand what their real motivations were. My mistake in the early days was to assume that they’d heard what I had said and that the appropriate actions would be taken. It’s made me much more conscious of the importance of understanding what is motivating people, what they are worried about, the relationships between the various people working on projects and where the tensions are.
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 21st January 2019 at the London Offices of BCS
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley