Government occupies a unique place in the IT industry, as one of its biggest users, with a unique scale of systems and ability to influence through policy. At AIT we have interviewed a wide range of people working in IT and tech, from local government to special advisors. Below are some highlights.
Many people working in IT and government have worked for consultancy firms on significant modernisation programmes. Ian Watmore worked on the computerisation of the pensions and unemployment benefits when the DHSS was split into the DSS and the DWP in 1987. It was one of the largest projects Andersen Consulting had at the time, and made the DSS a world leader in taking Unix systems on an industrial scale. The millennium, or ‘Y2K’ became a significant modernisation driver also; Ian explains more in this clip from his interview:
In 2004, Ian became the UK government’s CIO and launched the digital transformation strategy that led to user centred systems in government known as Directgov. In 2010, with Martha Lane-Fox he founded the Government Digital Service and recruited head Mike Bracken, who developed it into the Gov.uk web service.
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.
Liam Maxwell was another person who started with Andersen, but found the culture wasn’t for him. He worked in business and education after this, becoming an elected Conservative councillor in local government. He was invited by Ian Watmore to work for the Government Digital Service, became the UK’s first Chief Technology Officer, then from 2016-2018 the first National Technology Adviser. His brief was to get value for money from the UK government’s massive IT investments and he succeeded in breaking the monopoly of large vendors and embedding open standards. In this clip from his interview, Liam talks about what its like to work in government:
I was crucially involved in the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984, a major step for the city of London because that privatisation was easily the biggest flotation that city has ever seen. And the privatisation was an essential contributor to all the liberalisation of telecommunications in this country an example which was later followed by many countries all around the world.
Alastair Macdonald CB spent 32 years as a civil servant working on advice to ministers and executing policy for the IT industry. He was the civil servant in charge of the IT82 awareness campaign initiated by Lord Ken Baker the UK’s first ever Minister for IT. Macdonald was in charge of the privatisation of BT, a world first.
Although IT was still in its infancy the 1980s saw a lot of change with the launch of the personal computer, the building of the System X digital exchange for British Telecom by Plessey, STC and GEC which would see telephony move from analogue to digital, the launch of the BBC Micro, Acorn and the Sinclair ZX range. In his long career, Alastair worked on many interesting initiatives to further the development of IT in the UK, including the Alvey project, developing software engineering, intelligence and knowledge-based systems, man-machine interfaces, Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) and academics which would be co-funded and developed by the Government, academia and industry.
Looking back on it, I think there was a cultural gain from Alvey. For the first time in many disciplines, and certainly in IT, the three partners of government, industry and academe, working together as teams, was a very powerful and positive output from Alvey. … In terms of the individual areas, like MMI and similar, I’m not sure whether tangible commercial products developed from that pre-commercial research, but I think the cultural change has become permanent in our industry.
In the early 2000s, local government to some extent was still ahead of central in terms of IT maturity. Jos Creese, CIO at Hampshire County Council, was invited by Ian Watmore to set up the the Local Public Services CIO Council. The aim of the council still is to encourage consistency across the delivery of all local government IT projects and to support (and challenge) national initiatives. In his career, Jos has overseen large-scale digitisation projects at Hampshire, including developing a world class technology services offering and an IT tourism business from within the council, which was eventually sold.
A diverse personal background helps to be successful in IT projects, because you have to envisage the different ways that people approach and use IT, accommodate different business and social cultures and perceptions. IT developed without empathy is likely to create white elephants.
Rebecca George CBE leads UK Public Sector Practice at Deloitte, was previously at IBM, and became involved in local government work via the Deputy Prime Ministers’ Office, especially in the John Egan review of sustainable community skills in 2004. This called for investment in local communities, including with skills, to start to close cultural gaps in attainment, future predicted skills gaps in industry and improve lives in local communities. This work saw her being awarded an OBE in 2006 and a CBE in 2023. On a national level, Rebecca worked with Sir Peter Gershon on the Gershon review of government procurement, helped set up e-government and the Crown Commercial Service Organisation. Find out more in her interview.
I realised that public sector was what I’d been waiting for all my life. I was, and remain, hugely passionate about doing work with the public sector, I find their problems most intellectually challenging, difficult, complex and, ultimately, affect the way people live their lives which, for me, is hugely important.