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CIO Analysis: Sarah Wilkinson moves from CIO to CEO at NHS Digital

Picture by Matt Gore iconphotomedia CIO Summit 2015
Sarah Wilkinson moves to become CEO of NHS Digital: Picture by Matt Gore iconphotomedia 

NHS Digital announced its new CEO yesterday, business technology leader of the Home Office Sarah Wilkinson, a former financial services CIO.  Much has been written in the past about CIOs becoming CEOs, so what does Wilkinson’s new role mean for the CIO community? And what does the appointment mean for NHS Digital?

No start date was in the announcement for the Chief Digital, Data and Technology Officer to become the CEO, but it is expected that Wilkinson will move from Whitehall to Elephant and Castle later this year.

“Sarah brings vast experience of implementing complex technology projects, alongside a deep insight into bringing about positive change to a broad range of communities through digital delivery,” chair of NHS Digital Noel Gordon said in a statement.

Wilkinson is a direct and honest business technology leader. Unlike many who have held senior Whitehall CIO roles, I have always been able to deal with Wilkinson one-to-one and not have to fight through hordes of press handlers. That authenticity was something many of her peers saw and told me they respected in her following a presentation she made at a major conference for the CIO community Wilkinson and I worked together at.

Home Front

Wilkinson joined the Home Office in February 2015 just before a General Election and once again she finds herself joining a major public institution as the nation heads to the polls to choose another government. Prior to joining the public sector Wilkinson had been with Credit Suisse for two years as Head of Corporate Systems Technology and before that had held CIO roles at bankers UBS, Deutsche Bank and Lehman Brothers.

At the Home Office Wilkinson brought in an expert team to help the organisation re-skill and develop platforms that drove efficiency and reduced complexity. Fellow former banking CIO and then CIO of the Metropolitan Police Richard Thwaite and government IT expert Jerry Fishenden joined Wilkinson’s team. Thwaite helped develop the police technology strategy and author of the Public Administration Committee report Government and IT A recipe for rip-offs, Jerry Fishenden carried out wide ranging reviews and advisory work for the Home Office. Last year Wilkinson hired Pete Rose to shore up the operational management of technology at the Home Office.

On joining the Home Office Wilkinson found the department was in need of these experienced minds to get itself back to fitness, that will not be the case at NHS Digital which already has strong leaders in Beverley Bryant as Director of Digital Transformation (former CIO of the Department of Health) and Rachel Murphy Digital Delivery Director.

With two well known and respected technology leaders in place and now Wilkinson heading over as CEO, this appointment will be eagerly watched by those who want to see CIOs become CEOs.  NHS Digital though is a technology business, its role is to be the source of information, data and IT systems for Care Commissioning Groups (CCG) and clinicians through the operations and management of the NHS Spine infrastructure, the E-Referral Service for appointments, NHS Mail and NHS.UK, which was formerly known as NHS Choices.

The UK has produced CIOs that have become CEOs, Anthony Watson and Clive Selley are two from these shores, both though lead technology firms, Watson went from CIO of Barclays Bank to CEO of Uphold Bank, a technology challenger bank and Clive Selley traded a long career at telecoms giant BT to be CEO of Openreach, a BT owned infrastructure services provider.

There are those who point to Philip Clarke who moved from CIO of retailer Tesco to become ts CEO. Clarke’s appointment as both CIO and CEO owed everything to him being a Tesco career man and nothing to do with his tenure as CIO. Clarke was given the CIO role at Tesco as part of his development as a senior leader in the business out of recognition that technology would play a key role in the future of Tesco. Clarke would go on to become one of the shortest lived CEOs of the leading supermarket and is often cited for poor business performance that has followed.

Driving change

“There are projects that are too much a continuation of service, rather than new ways of working,” Wilkinson told me in an interview and it is this approach that makes Wilkinson a good fit for NHS Digital. Since joining NHS Digital last year Digital Delivery Director Rachel Murphy has been enabling new ways of working within NHS Digital. The interim CIO with recent experience at the National Archives and the Department for Education has introduced the Firebreak concept used by the Government Digital Service and as an observer at a Firebreak standup event where new concepts were presented it was clear to me that within NHS Digital there is a wealth of good ideas and desire to move beyond “continuation of service”.

At the Home Office Wilkinson understood, but aimed to challenge a culture she described as having a “desire to be considered and cautious, which creates slowness”. At NHS Digital much of that work is underway, as CEO, Wilkinson has the opportunity to galvanise the entire organisation and in many ways the entire NHS into a culture of enablement, pace and digital leadership. As this title’s columnist Ian Cohen says, CEOs define and lead an organisation’s culture, something CIOs do not really get the opportunity to do outside of the technology department.

Picture by Roger Moody Icon Business Media

Everything well at Home?

Wilkinson leaves the Home Office after just two and bit years. During that time the organisation has not had any of the headline grabbing problems her predecessors lived through, which in a sprawling and complex organisation with 20 different functions from police complaints, migration and even oversight of the security agencies is a significant achievement.

Arguably this is a good time to be leaving the Home Office, a snap election will in all likelihood lead to even greater uncertainty surrounding Brexit. The Home Office is responsible for our national borders and its many different agencies, all of which suffered chronic underfunding by the previous Home Secretary and at present Prime Minister.

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About Mark Chillingworth 217 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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