SMEs have given HS2 access to "ground breaking" technology and allowed the project to move "at breakneck speed", according to the CIO of the high-speed rail service James Findlay.

Since he took over the programme's IT in October 2012, Findlay said he has ensured that HS2 uses almost exclusively small to medium enterprises (SMEs) for its technology.

"I have worked very hard to ensure that SMEs are at the centre of our thinking around the delivery of IT and services," he said.

This experience, Findlay explained, shows Whitehall's aim for 'at least' 50% of spending on new government IT to go to SMEs is "realistic".

Rainbow of suppliers

Findlay said: "We're moving at breakneck speed and have to be agile. We've found SMEs are fantastic at innovation and being flexible around our needs. Some of what we're doing, including in the tech space, is ground breaking. No one else is doing it.

"We had an external review for BIM [building information modelling] on maturity and we are way ahead of anybody else from what we can tell. I believe that's due to our use of SMEs.

"SMEs have been fantastic with us and crucially able to work with ambiguity. It's not to say Fujitsu [the Department for Transport's incumbent supplier] and other large suppliers aren't. They're in a better position for some heavy lifting. But we need a rainbow of suppliers," he added.

As an example Findlay pointed to SME Inovem's cloud collaboration software Kahootz, which he bought via G-Cloud earlier this year at a price of £2 per user per month.

He said: "It's a very good, secure method of providing significant collaboration, document and data exchanges between the organisation and the supply chain.

"We have a huge number of companies in construction, IT and professional services, and they all need to work together to make sure we get efficiency in construction, operations, maintenance and so forth. This software helps us do that. "

Findlay was the first person to buy services through G-Cloud after it launched in 2012 and has been a strong supporter of the project ever since.

HS2 'in a lucky position'

However, he conceded other Whitehall IT chiefs may struggle to replicate HS2's success in contracting with SMEs.

"With large departments you get great inertia as they have huge commercial contracts that last many years and the cost of change is quite large," he said. "They also have to deliver public-facing services so have to be more careful sometimes.

"We're new in relative terms and therefore haven't got the same legacy challenges as other departments. HS2 is in a lucky position. We can be quick on implementation and move quickly, so we need people who can cope with rapid changes, ambiguity and innovation.

"Maybe we're in a position to 'live the dream' where many others aren't in the same place. That said, I do not see anywhere in government where people think the 50% target isn't possible."

Reacting to change

According to Findlay, using a "rainbow" of suppliers and services and "spread betting" infrastructure is the best defence against your technology becoming obsolete.

He said: "We don't want to have our whole tech stack within one platform. We want to diversify a bit more. It's a better way to go. It gives us more opportunity to react to technological change which is occurring at an incredible rate. It means we're able to adapt our technology without having a huge impact on the business."

Findlay explained the importance of cloud to ensuring he has maximum flexibility over his IT estate.

He said: "As we move forward we're working very closely with colleagues in HS2 to ensure the system can be ramped up or down as needed. Cloud is a very big part of that, be it Kahootz or other software as a service. We're looking to put more business applications into the cloud."

'Spread bet' infrastructure

"We really want to 'spread bet' our infrastructure, using infrastructure as a service and different cloud providers for different sorts of things. We want cost effective storage solutions as opposed to more expensive, less flexible traditional ones. We also need to ensure systems can cope with 24/7 access globally and ensure security is maintained at all times."

Findlay added: "We're very focused on delivery at the moment across government, and trying to build up an ecosystem of systems that will talk to each other and actually help people to do their jobs. I think the UK is really leading the way.

"And from a personal perspective, we're in a very good place at the moment. We've created an environment where we could cope with most developments."

Focus on user need

Having worked as a technology leader in some capacity for a decade, Findlay has some insight into what makes a good CIO.

He said: "Focusing on what the user need is. It's a key principle GDS [the Government Digital Service] has posed and absolutely right. Keep it as simple as that. Look at the value from the business and end user perspective, then all the tech falls into place.

"You need to engage with the business and have close relations with them. Our job as CIOs is to support organisations in terms of continuous improvement and through open, competitive markets, encouraging SMEs, cultivating that innovation and agility, and then helping them to use new tech and tools and techniques. You can only do that when you fully understand the business vision and direction."