Stepping between the tourists and pigeons we arrive at the south entrance to Admiralty Arch – one of London’s most famous landmarks – which leads to government CIO John Suffolk’s office.

We enter the building passing an enormous pile of dumped carpet, rubble and old office furniture on the road outside. Some security guards stand listlessly looking at it. Government’s continuous improvement programme is obviously continuing apace.

In contrast to the mess below Suffolk arrives looking relaxed. He says he hasn’t been briefed for the interview because he doesn’t want to sound unnatural and over prepared. He’s personable, supremely confident and has an academic air about him. He listens to the questions put to him and one senses a tinge of bemused frustration running through all his responses. “Why do suppliers not see that you can’t switch off a hospital? If you want to upgrade the IT you have to keep the place running as you do it,” is a typical response.

There are clearly some things he just doesn’t get. Why, for example, 30 years after being invented, are PCs still so expensive? And why do they have to be refreshed so often? Why do suppliers often bid what they can sell and not what is required? And why do big projects have to be so risky? Why can’t the IT industry give a clear indication of where it is going to be in three years time?

“The greatest strength of the IT industry is also its greatest weakness,” he says. By this Suffolk means that the relentless march of technology is clearly good. But the problem is that those selling it get to the top of one hill and start a dash for the next one before sorting out the mess they made when they arrived.

Curriculum Vitae

John Suffolk began the job of government CIO in summer 2006. Prior to this he was the director general of criminal justice IT (CJIT) from February 2004. He comes from the engineering and financial service industries and has been CIO twice in different organisations, as well as customer services director, operations director and a managing director of a multi-channel £20bn business.

In the latest efficiency review the Cabinet Office was reported to have found £20 million in savings against a target of £25 million for 2007/08.

Suffolk clearly thinks that continuous improvement doesn’t mean continuous added complexity. “If I’ve got a process that works, why can’t I repeat it? I’ve got one, I don’t need 40,” he says. This need for speed doesn’t do anyone any good and Suffolk believes it is time to pause for breath.

So what has he achieved since taking over the role in June 2006? Suffolk works for the Cabinet Office, the smallest department dedicated to keeping another 16 or so central government departments on their toes. He doesn’t run an enormous operation like the Department for Work and Pensions or the Ministry of Defence so his role is really that of a facilitator. “I can’t tell people (other CIOs) what to do.” Suffolk’s role is to transform through technology this “loosely federated world” of independent departments which if combined would make “the biggest company in the world.”

Suffolk leads the public sector IT professionalism efforts. Behind all this talk of building a professionalism within the public sector IT function is the tacit admission that the IT procurers have not done a particularly good job of deriving value for taxpayers’ money.

“We outsource a lot. Suppliers think that the public sector should outsource everything.” Often in the past, it has.

He also runs the CIO Council, see boxes, page 50. This, as the name suggests, is where government CIOs get to talk about themselves.

The inner workings of the CIO Council are, says Suffolk, about opening communication between departments and collaborating over shared services and best practice.

All in all, Suffolk tends towards going for the sympathy vote while accepting that the suppliers’ profit motive may not best serve the public interest but that it is his role to attempt to square the circle. This less is more and more for less approach could almost be his mantra. But then Suffolk is the customer and his biggest task appears to be getting the disparate departments to agree a common set of terms of engagement. Though not said in as many words, the underlying theme can be interpreted as that technology companies have for too long got away with getting their snouts into the trough of the public purse. That they have sold the latest version of the same thing over and over again to different government departments with the departments taking all the risk and the suppliers simply waiting for the next spending round.

“Desktop is an example. Thirty years after its invention what is the total cost of ownership of a desktop PC? It is, in essence, a commodity product. Why hasn’t the price come down? It’s time to stop all this nonsense in terms of performance. Let’s say there’s four million desktop devices for use by five million people. At least three million of these can be sub-optimal, for doing a specific job. I can probably save £100 per machine.”

He’s now on a roll: “Now it is all social networking and at the top end it’s all SOA, but there’s a gap between what is needed and is being bid. Maybe we are not putting our requirements well but suppliers like to bid what they are comfortable with. The rate of change in technology, in the last five years, is accelerating. The problem is that the skills base is not keeping up with the rate of change. But for most commercial businesses if I go down the enterprise architecture route, is it a risk? No. The benefit has to be substantially better than the investment. The supplier will say ‘I’ve got technology A’. I say ‘Do you know or have the skills associated with that technology?’ And the answer is, not really. There is just as much risk, more probably, in chasing the holy grail of technology as with not keeping pace. And when you are running at the scale and complexity of our operations you need to know that it can be integrated and can be made secure.

A great example is social networking. How does it play in terms of protocols. Don’t know. It looks fantastic but where can it be applied? It might for example be used to help people communicate with hospitals or with their GP and it might look great but we couldn’t have predicted three years ago how rapidly it would evolve and to implement it nationally would take three years.

The need for speed is not there in the public sector. And the CIO’s fundamental pivotal role is not to be a Luddite but to blend the requirements of the operation with what’s available in the market.”

The framework under which this is happening is that of shared services – finding repeatable processes that can be used across different sectors. The goal is to make dealing with the government simpler. The oft quoted figure of having to contact 42 different government departments after suffering a bereavement is rolled out as an example of where IT can help make a difference to citizen’s lives.

There is always something changing. Suffolk cites the summer floods as a case in point; which highlighted the importance of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Or the ongoing issues associated with mass population migration and number of languages that the average London borough must now accommodate. How about real-time language translation taking into account what happens if people can’t read? he suggests. Or the 16 to 24-year-olds who only want to use their mobile for everything from claiming benefits to applying for a driving test. “The public sector is always innovating,” he says. And that’s the paradox. Clearly there are always efficiencies to be driven from the £589 billion that the government spends on our behalf each year. But if you are a CIO, where do you go once you’ve squeezed the suppliers, shared all the services and streamlined how citizens interact with government by closing all those Web sites you don’t need? Is it possible to continually deliver higher quality services at lower cost? That’s the legacy that a government CIO would like. And that is the greatest challenge facing Suffolk’s CIO council. Suppliers like to make profits, the higher the better.

Citizens like continually better service levels. If there is ever to be a bounce in public sector technology spending for the suppliers we’re still a long way from it. And perhaps by then Suffolk will have retired to his farm to enjoy the slower pace of life rearing rare sheep and pig breeds. Though that might bring some frustrations of its own.

A shared mindset

The CIO council meets a minimum of three times per year to share experiences and to drive the sharing of assets. According to Suffolk it is run on a champion and challenger model. Someone champions an approach and waits to be challenged on it. The council is collegiate not prescriptive. “No decent CIO will do something if it is not right for their business. The harder you push to put something in, the harder they will push back.” It has an annual churn rate of around 30 per cent so “it is not stagnant” and Suffolk says that there is a lot ribbing between members. Joe Harley at DWP is working on a common supplier assessment framework, Steve Lamey at Customs and Excise is driving forward architectures. Some come to the council meetings to listen and learn. Not everything works, says Suffolk. It is not about group thinking, the CIOs on the council are accountable to their departments and their ministers. The important thing is that people say “I’m not sure I can do it yet”.

CIO council members

John Suffolk – CIO, HM Government
Martin Bellamy – The Pension Service
Jeremy Boss – Audit Commission
Beverley Bryant – Department of Health (DH)
Chris Chant – Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
Jos Creese – Hampshire County Council
Richard Earland – National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA)
Michael Eaton – Welsh Assembly
Glyn Evans – Birmingham City Council
Yvonne Gallagher – Ministry of Justice
Richard Granger – National Health Service (NHS)
Claire Hamon – Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
Joe Harley – Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
Gordon Hextall – National Health Service (NHS)
Stephen Hickey – Department for Transport (DfT)
Simon Jones – Department for International Development (DfID)
Steve Lamey – HM Revenue and Customs
Peter Lowe – Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
Bill McCluggage – Department of Finance and Personnel, Northern Ireland
Roy Marshall – Communities and Local Government
Tony Mather – Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
Mark O’Neill – Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
Huw Rees – Communications – Electronics Security Group (CESG)
Craig Russell – Scottish Executive
John Taylor – Ministry of Defence (MoD)
Annette Vernon – Identity and Passport Service
Tim Wright – Department for Children, Schools and Families