As the IT leader of one of the busiest, most high profile London boroughs David Wilde accepts it’s important to have soft skills such as people who understand the Westminster area and specific local issues. Despite these caveats, Wilde is running Westminster IT with an operations team of just 17. Could he drive it down even further by using public cloud infrastructure?
Wilde says Westminster “will never go completely public cloud but is more likely to move more deeply into private cloud” in part because of the nature of the apps.
However, another way to alter the IT picture might be to make the workforce even more flexible through virtualised desktops that would let staff access their desktop environments over the web from any device. Westminster’s client computing devices are already 80 per cent laptop and a partially desk-less working strategy means there are seven desktops per 10 staff.
As for open source, another classic way to save cost, Wilde is neutral. “I don’t look at it as a conscious decision but show me the business case and I’ll use it,” he says, adding that Westminster’s content management system is based on the Symphony open source system.
Also, he recognises that running Westminster has to be more than just automating and cheese-paring to the nth degree.
“That can be difficult to reconcile with demand-led services when you’re dealing with vulnerable children and the police,” he points out. “There are a number of sensitive areas where we can’t do things over the phone or the internet. It’s [more important to get] the cost down to do more [in areas such as these].”
Face-to-face interaction will always be necessary in such areas but in others IT at Westminster is being driven by staff, for example in environmental protection or environmental health where staff make it clear that they “don’t want to be nailed to their desks”. Generally, Wilde says, “Some people need to be convinced technology will work. The legal function is more difficult. We don’t push home working; we encourage flexible working.”
Looking at the capital, Wilde believes a lot more can be done across the 33 boroughs, an area that is the size of Holland and contains 11 million people. He talks about plans for shared next-generation network purchasing with Transport for London and the boroughs of Merton, Waltham Forest and Croydon, but concedes that complexity means “it’s never going to be all 33”.
Wilde is a public-sector IT veteran, having previously been across London as Waltham Forest CIO, following 20 years in the Cabinet Office and at other posts in central government. He says he has never been particularly tempted by the private sector and believes that the challenges are common across the two sides and, more broadly, across all endeavours.
“IT is so integrated into the fabric of an organisation and... ... in our lives but because people don’t know much about it they take it for granted. There have been some stunning examples of disaster in public-sector IT but there have been in construction too – and everyone forgets about British Leyland,” he says.
He notes that the NHS is often cited for IT mismanagement but says that many areas of state healthcare continue to improve. Generally, he believes that paying attention to ready-made solutions tried and tested across projects is a smart idea rather than having everybody relying on consultants and unique solutions.
“If the marketplace is already doing it, don’t reinvent it,” he recommends. “There is a tendency to overcomplicate things. There’s a danger in risk-averse behaviour; there has to be room for risk because when projects with risk work they really pay off.”
He’s also a believer in the need to break up projects to avoid the mega-project failures. “The construction industry learned that years ago,” he says. “The London Olympics is on target and on budget because it’s not viewed as a single project but as a series with a common goal.”
But what about the G-cloud project for online shared services that former shadow technology minister Adam Afriyie characterised as another mega-project?
“I don’t view it as a product or a project,” Wilde says. “It’s a brand name for local regional networks with a set of standards, a set of frameworks.”
We’ll see. But what of Wilde himself? Well respected by peers and a seasoned operator, could he be next in line to run state IT after John Suffolk? He bats off the question but suggests a plausible elevation: running IT for several boroughs. “London could operate perfectly well with 10 to 12 CIOs rather than 33,” he suggests, masking this rather radical idea with his usual phlegmatic delivery.
Could he go private? He says that private-sector CIOs crossing over to the public sector have had mixed reviews with some “flourishing” and others who just “don’t get it” and predicts that “we’ll see a lot more public-to-private and IT service providers running big projects as commercial businesses”. He doesn’t rule out a switch but he’s dogmatic about the importance of IT work in the public sector and has little time for those who complain about annoyances such as close media scrutiny.
“If you don’t like it, leave,” he says. “You’re operating in a political world.” In fact, there’s only one thing that this cricket fan would like to have: “A WAN connecting me from here to Lord’s.”
For more of CIO's interview with David Wilde, click on the links below: