I first met Liam Maxwell in February 2010. It was at a Tory-dominated event called “The Network for the Post Bureaucratic Age”.
Not one of my usual stamping grounds.
William Heath and Tom Steinberg had urged me to go, but it was only the chance to hear a keynote by my hero Heather Brooke that persuaded me to go.
I found myself standing at the back next to a man who joined me in nodding fiercely as William Heath launched into his familiar IdealGov rant about the abject failure of the civil service to embrace the opportunities of the internet age.
We got chatting. Once I’d got over the shock of his being the Head of IT at Eton, I was impressed.
Here was someone with a well-informed, and very healthy anger about the waste and inefficiency of government IT. He knew the scale of self-harm and wasn’t afraid to shout about it.
In 2016, the kind of ill-fated multi-year, single supplier IT-led programmes which were the norm in 2010 are no longer acceptable within HMG.
Liam changed the weather.
That didn’t always involve making friends. Such change rarely does.
Liam and his IT spend approvals team coming to work for GDS in April 2013 was a crucial moment.
The joining up of those demonstrating new ways to transform services with those able to stop ‘bad’ IT spending provided a powerful carrot and stick with which to challenge and change behaviours across central government.
Liam does good stick.
And boy, from 2010 – 2015 did the government IT crowd need his stick.
Which is probably why now is good moment for him to move on from the role of CTO for government.
Digital government has entered a new phase.
Hundreds of teams all across government are learning to work in new ways: agile, iterative, user-centrered service design, supported by new platforms like GOV.UK Pay, properly managed data via registers, and using the 1000s of suppliers and cloud services available on a pay as you go basis through the Digital Marketplace (itself a legacy of Chris Chant & Denise McDonaugh’s stick and carrot double act) –
Those teams want to work this new way. They include some amazing people. But they need support from the centre. It’s a more collaborative time. As Stephen Foreshew-Cain (GDS’s new boss) says, GDS has got their back. Less stick needed.
Liam’s moving to a more political, special advisor-like role, to which he’s admirably suited – and I don’t say that with any sense of snark. Political savvy is vital to changing government.
Bringing someone with his knowledge into this more political court is long-overdue. The technology rhetoric coming from senior politicians is often embarrassingly ill-informed.
So I look forward to hearing Number 10 et al taking more practical and enlightened technology policy positions;
Less of the damaging ill-informed knee-jerking about encryption. (As any teacher knows, you can’t ban maths.)
More about the need to stop smooth-lobbying incumbents messing up the level playing field for disruptive tech innovation.
And much more about the importance of a level playing field to let *everyone* in UK gain full benefit from this digital revolution.
And I’m sure he’ll continue to support GDS from his new perch.
Good luck, Liam. And thank you.
The UK owes you one.