If anyone asked you to spend 10 years on the Isle of Man, you might be forgiven for assuming it would be a quiet decade on what the rest of the UK regards as a bit of a backwater, with little to do and not much expectation to achieve. For Peter Clarke, CTO of the Isle of Man Government, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
True, he didn’t expect to spend that long on the island, initially landing on its shores for a three-day stint a dozen years ago. What began as a contracting job for Ericsson soon became a more long-term position working directly for the Isle of Man Government.
The attraction for Clarke was in the scope of projects and the potential to achieve real change in working processes not usually open to roles of a similar level in other national governments. The scale of operations meant that he could attempt projects like joined-up government and make them work when authorities on ‘the mainland’ were still struggling to embrace the concepts.
Manx folk are fiercely independent and proud of the society they have built over the millennia on the island. They scorn terms such as ‘mainland’ because of the comparisons it invites. It’s that independence of spirit that Clarke was able to tap into to get the buy-in he needed for his change strategy to work.
The Island has around 80,000 citizens and is supported by a government with a staff of 9000 who run all the public services on the island. Clarke points out that where many services are part-privatised in the UK, the same services on the Isle of Man are wholly run by the government. However this is on a proportionally smaller budget, driving the need for more effective, less costly IT to support them.
These services, such as health, education, policing, transport systems, tax and VAT all have to be funded from the island’s economy which depends a great deal on the high-tech and financial companies who have operations there. The level of autonomy compared to other corporate or public sector organisations is something that Clarke enjoys.
“To me that’s a huge challenge and a great job opportunity,” he says.
Clarke originally arrived on the Isle of Man to create a universal and secure email and internet system for the government. Right from the start, the thinking behind the project was to create a system the whole government would use, enabling departments to work more closely together to improve services for the citizens. At the time Clarke was a subcontractor for Ericsson, but for the next project, he was hired directly by the island’s government to upgrade the desktop environment.
In 2001, upgrading the desktop systems was a very manual and labour-intensive task: there was no automation and no distributed systems so desktops were fixed one at a time.
There was a collection of core applications sitting in the datacentre but quite a lot of other government applications were being developed in an organic way at a speed dictated by the various departments. Clarke recalls that some departments had better resources in terms of IT knowledge than others, so it was difficult to establish a service benchmark.
The saving grace for Clarke was that the government already had one data network supporting all the departments. Supplied by Manx Telecom, the telecoms supplier that runs public voice services across the island, this landline operated at 2Mbps.
“The main driver was to reduce operating costs, to increase the uptime of the equipment and to set the infrastructure to cope with a more strategic applications deployment,” Clarke explains.
It was a radical plan that was inevitably going to concern government department heads, but in 2004, a new IS director joined the team. Alan Patterson was to form a valuable partnership with Clarke in pushing through the changes they proposed. Like Clarke, Patterson had come from an industrial and logistics background, and they soon established a rapport that has lasted a decade. The keystones to their combined strategy were to rationalise IT down to a common denominator and to concentrate on the value the systems brought to the citizens the Isle of Man government served. “The IT itself is only the DNA, not the end product,” says Clarke.
Together, Clarke and Patterson started to gather the support of each of the departmental chief executives and the ministers they reported to. They needed to sell the business case of what we now call ‘shared services’ to them as a worthwhile venture.
“In any government it’s important to collaborate and get a consensus. I don’t think you’ll get 100 per cent agreement but you need to get the majority agreeing with the general direction and strategy,” says Clarke.
With Clarke and Patterson coming from big corporate organisations like Sony and Amey respectively, they approached the project from a commercial viewpoint. They drove the message that the Isle of Man Government needed to make decisions at the same speed as the commercial organisations they had previously worked for. This could only help it differentiate itself from other corporate havens planning to attract new businesses to set up their headquarters there.
Out of joint
“It’s hard to look for a blueprint for joined-up government,” says Clarke.