Government is at a crossroads, former CIO John Suffolk warns

Former government CIO John Suffolk has responded to the retirement of influential civil servant Ian Watmore by claiming that the current government is "at a crossroads".

Suffolk held his post as government CIO from 2006 to November 2010 and helped develop the government’s current ICT Strategy. He has since taken up a position with Huawei in China.

However, Suffolk wrote to analyst firm TechMarketView this week to highlight that conflict in government is restraining Ministers from taking radical action.

Here is Suffolk’s response to Watmore’s retirement in full:

“I think Government is now at a crossroads. I am not sure why Ian has left but there are substantial rumours that the civil service (not necessarily Ian) are beginning to conflict with Ministers – Ministers want to be more radical – and the natural defences of the Civil Service are giving the impression they do not.

The reality is the Civil Service and the Public Sector must change dramatically – the ICT strategy is just a microcosm of the challenge. There is nothing in the ICT strategy that I developed that is not common sense, is not eminently sensible or achievable – but let us be honest it is a small tip of the change agenda and if we cannot deliver this then one must question the delivery of the overall government economic agenda.

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It is right for Ministers to think radical and bold – should the civil service be cut by 70%; should policy development be outsourced?; should the current departmental structure be swept away? Should Permanent Secretaries be put on fixed term contracts? And the list goes on.

My view is all these are valid options and whilst we should not jump to solutions until we know what we are trying to achieve it is a bad sign when the civil service gives the impression that they do not want to at least discuss radical transformation options – where the ICT strategy is just one element.

We should not forget that Permanent Secretaries are quick to say that “Ministers run the department” when things go wrong, so Permanent Secretaries must also accept that Ministers can make decision on what departments, exist, what they do and how they do it.

But one word of caution – we do not wish to see the civil service more politicised than it is today – there has to be a balance and Ministers must protect the pseudo independence of the Civil Service in whatever changes it implements but Ministers must not shy away from dramatically changing Whitehall.”

Ian Watmore will leave the civil service next month to focus on “non-executive” and “spousal” roles in charity, sports, academic and church activities. Watmore, who was government CIO from 2004 to 2005, is responsible for the government’s CIO function.