Monday, April 23, 2012

Just 18 Months


Now that it's out that Chris Chant is retiring a common phrase in articles is that he's going after "just 18 months" running G-Cloud. It's Chris' style to leave quietly and, as I've known him, worked with him, and for him, for about a dozen years I thought I might recap some of the things he's done, both in just 18 months as well as over the period I've known him.

G-Cloud has proved to be a hot topic in the world of government IT - and a little beyond - with attention increasing dramatically after Chris' #unacceptable speech in October 2011. In this climate of openness, transparency, blogging and tweeting, I don't think anyone has (ever) managed to be quite as open, provocative and engaging - nor respond to as many comments, articles, opinions and analyst reports - on as Chris has. He will be a hard act to follow. 

Some have already claimed, or at least thought, that he was only as open as he was because he knew he was going - and those same people usually refer to his twitter handle (@cantwaitogo) as evidence of that. I know they're wrong - Chris has always been as open as he is now, it's just that he has been able to take advantage of new channels recently to ensure the message gets out more widely. His twitter handle shows only that his spelling is as questionable as ever and refers to some volunteer work that he did at Ambue Ari (hence his leopard profile picture - apparently the Mario pictures were all copyrighted).  If anything, his post-retirement twitter handle, rather than being @gone, will be @cantwaitogoback.

In the just 18 months Chris ran G-Cloud he managed to design, develop and launch an entirely new approach within government procurement, aided only by a tiny team from departments and the Government Procurement Service, most of whom had day jobs as well. G-Cloud plainly leads the world in its thinking and its action. The second iteration, due in the next couple of weeks, will further extend that lead and provide a more flexible procurement platform whilst making it simple for those on the existing framework to transition.  In a while, we will look back and see 2012 as a pivotal year in the evolution of government IT, even though the changes orchestrated now will take some time to bed in.

But before there was even a procurement vehicle, Chris had to galvanise the inevitably disparate parts of government to want such a thing - a truly open, transparent, everything published and visible to all procurement catalogue. He had to bring people together to think about how it might work, get funding, get support from permanent secretaries and ministers, convince people to become foundation delivery partners, work with suppliers to shape it, persuade lawyers and commercial people to accept a radically slimmed down approach, convince SMEs to play a major part (70% of those on the framework are SMEs), figure out how to publish all supplier information (including prices - a first time ever), persuade people that rating suppliers not only made sense but was absolutely necessary and present endlessly to audiences inside and outside of government to help get the message over. On top of that he had to fight to convince those who said it couldn't be done, that suppliers wouldn't sign up for it and that customers wouldn't buy from it. Creating change in government has never been easy and G-Cloud shows that, whilst that is still true, it can be done but that it takes enormous effort, huge commitment from a small number of individuals and relentless focus.

Alongside that Chris was breaking the mould in other areas - introducing public cloud email into the Cabinet Office (their first taste of their own dog food I am sure) and switching people away from expensive government standard devices to far cheaper off the shelf devices (showing an 80% cost saving). He also laid the groundwork for an entirely new approach to government web delivery by kicking off what became known as Alpha.gov and that will result in direct.gov being replaced a year or less from now.  Somewhere on this path he managed to become the 17th most influential person in UK IT (more to his own surprise than that of anyone else I'm sure).

When I first met Chris he was a tax man- not a career IT guy as some have said (actually Chris knows as much about IT as the average dormouse - something that has certainly counted in his favour as he sought simpler and simpler solutions). He went from there to delivering online transactions at the Inland Revenue (now HMRC) including PAYE the first time, upgrades to Self Assessment, Corporation Tax and so on. Since 2001, HMRC has had by far the largest take up of online transactions across government - they were the first to try out incentives (few will remember, perhaps, the £10 rebate for filing your Self Assessment online), the first to move to mandation (after the Carter report) and will likely be the first to get 100% take up if not already, then very soon. Chris also worked on or ran direct.gov.uk and a dozen other government websites as well as the the government gateway.  

In other roles, Chris has switched departments from 100% desktop to 100% laptop so allowing remote working and a reduction in carbon footprint, rolled out collaboration tools to support joint working, assured technology for the Olympics and many other things, not to mention loitered outside fish and chip shops counting the sacks of potatoes being delivered so that he could estimate sales and so, in turn, figure out how much tax the owner really should have been paying - them's proper metrics them is.

And, along the way, he has routinely regaled his friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers with endless tall tales, mostly crap jokes, comments about the poor quality of football at Arsenal (and the significantly better quality at Tottenham), infectious enthusiasm for the latest gadgets (from 'phones to cameras to televisions and beyond) and, until he switched to eating only carrots, was one of the finer dinner companions in the UK - certainly higher than the 17th most influential dinner companion in the UK I believe.  Not every day was a blast with Chris and he didn't get everything right, but I'm hard pressed to remember the bad ones amongst the torrent of good ones.

If only others could accomplish as much in such a period as Chris has managed to, in just 18 months.  As wiser folks than me have said, success has 1000 fathers (and failure is an utter b*stard).   Chris will be missed by many though doubtless some, particularly those who were on the receiving end of some of his more explosive blasts, will be pleased that he's gone, hoping that the cloud will become what they always thought it was, vapour.  It won't.

I'm sure the world of Government IT will be a slightly quieter place come the beginning of May, but I am confident that few of the changes Chris has kicked off will be unwound. And some will be reinforced even more strongly by the tiny team with the day jobs - they're still there and will be working just as hard to support Chris' successor, Denise McDonagh.

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