An Evening with the United Kingdom’s CTO

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending an event that included a short speech by the UK Government CTO.  I didn’t really know what to expect, and like most who attended, I wasn’t even really sure what a government CTO is supposed to do.  It was being held at the TechCube and as the topic was related to government procurement of small business services, I thought it might be worth an evening to attend and see if we could drum up any business.


Just prior to the session I was intrigued to learn that this was the team behind Gov.UK, which is a highly regarded foray into centralising, opening, and publicising government processes and guidelines via open APIs.

The talk opened in very English fashion, as quite a bit was made of the universities (Oxford) that the CTO and his companion had attended, and I felt cynicism brewing.  What followed was an almost surreal experience.  Liam Maxwell spoke for roughly thirty minutes on what his goals were for the UK government from a technology perspective, which distilled to:

  • Cut wasteful government procurement processes and government IT spending
  • Commit to sourcing at least 25% of government spending from Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) provides APIs and other data for transparency and consumption. provides APIs and other data for transparency and consumption.

Maxwell shared a fact which I found to be utterly staggering: in 2010 the UK government spent 1% of the entire country’s GDP on IT.  Much of this could be categorised as waste.  As an American, government waste isn’t surprising, but the scale of it can be unbelievable in the literal sense when presented with facts like these.  Liam had dozens of anecdotes which he casually referred to throughout the presentation:

  • UK Government data centers are currently utilised at 7% efficiency.
  • After a presentation from Amazon Web Services CTO Werner Vogels discuss the power of cloud based architectures employed at the world’s largest cloud service provider, Maxwell overheard a departing departmental government CIO remark, “We should build one of those!”
  • During an apples to apples comparison of services, a government contract was orders of magnitude more expensive than the same contract from the open market.

Maxwell and his team, who are very new in their roles, are aggressively combatting waste and wasteful procurement processes in four ways:

  • on online government store which is easy to sign up for and which provides market rate services to government entities: the GCloud
  • an anonymous “Bad Request for Proposal” reporting website where ridiculous government RFPs can be brought to light, and shut down.
  • a review board of seven people that must review and approve all government IT projects above a certain level
  • making sure that SMEs are allowed and encouraged to bid for government work

While the presentation was interesting, the ensuing question and answer session, to put it bluntly, blew my mind.  Maxwell answered questions in a blunt, often humorous way.  Stupid questions were rejected and his answers explained why the question was lacking.  He was self deprecating, sharp, and utterly committed to making sure his vision was communicated to the entire room which numbered about 75 attendees.  He relentlessly talked about culture change, asked for direct feedback, took notes of ideas proffered by the audience, and asked some to stay behind for more information.

During the Q&A session, I figured out why the experience felt so strange – Liam Maxwell was solving problems with an openness and bluntness that was commonplace in a well functioning, healthy business.  Or maybe more accurately, a startup.  Not government.  Were there cameras or recording devices?  He didn’t care.  Was he being political?  Only in that he was fulfilling his mission.  He was spending time soliciting opinions from companies across the UK, and he was pitching his idea just like we would to investors.  It was like I was watching a living episode of the West Wing where all of a sudden Hollywood transforms government staffers into extremely competent, hardworking, humorous, and admirable people who work as a team to battle against their problems.

As a UK taxpayer, (even if I am an American!), I was so impressed by Maxwell and my only thought is I hope he lasts.  Administrate is currently signing up for the GCloud if only to support the idea that small companies can sell to government.  I truly hope the Government Digital Services team continues their approach and manages to change the culture over their tenure.

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