GDS changes start from the top

Last week’s highly critical National Audit Office (NAO) report highlighted the need for change at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The NAO “found widespread views across government that GDS has struggled to adapt to its changing role”. This, presumably, was a big part of the rationale that led to Kevin Cunnington being brought in as the new GDS director-general last summer.

Quietly, Cunnington has already effected major change at the top of GDS, the extent of which has been revealed by a recent Freedom of Information request.

The requester asked for the make-up of the GDS leadership team now, compared with 12 months before. This was the response from the Cabinet Office:

GDS leadership team as of 8 March 2017

  • Kevin Cunnington, director-general
  • Nic Harrison, director of service design and assurance
  • Emily Ackroyd, director of strategy and engagement (jobshare)
  • Hazel Hobbs, director of strategy and engagement (jobshare)
  • Chris Ferguson, director of national, international and research
  • Arif Harbott, director of digital, data, and technology profession (interim)
  • David Lewis, director for delivery and support (interim)
  • Alex Segrove, deputy director, head of business operations
  • Amy Longdon, head of private office

Vacant positions  

  • Director of digital, data and technology profession – A candidate has been appointed for this permanent role, announcement expected in due course
  • Director of delivery and exchange – to be recruited and filled in due course.

GDS leadership team as of 31 March 2016

  • Stephen Foreshew-Cain, executive director
  • Liam Maxwell, chief technology officer
  • Iain Patterson, director of common technology services
  • Paul Maltby, director for data
  • Chris Ferguson, director for digital
  • Felicity Singleton, deputy director, head of strategy
  • Wendy Coello, deputy director, head of communication and engagement team
  • Alex Holmes, deputy director, chief operating officer

With the departure from GDS of Alex Holmes, who recently moved to become deputy director for cyber security at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, only one of the previous top team remains in place – career civil servant Chris Ferguson.

Add to that list former CTO Andy Beale and strategy director Janet Hughes, who became part of Stephen Foreshew-Cain’s leadership group before their (and his) departures, and the overhaul is significant.

Iain Patterson, Felicity Singleton and Wendy Coello are (to the best of my knowledge) still at GDS, but apparently no longer part of Cunnington’s top team.

It’s clear GDS is becoming a very different beast.

(As an aside, it’s also interesting that the role of chief data officer, currently being recruited, was not listed as one of the GDS vacancies – does that mean the new CDO won’t report into GDS?)

Cunnington recently wrote a blog post on reporting on the recent GDS roadshow that visited government locations around the UK. He concluded by saying: “We’ve learned a lot about ourselves as an organisation – not all of it has been easy to hear – but we’re committed to iterating and improving”.

There has been no shortage of people in Whitehall criticising or undermining GDS, for some time now –not all of which GDS wanted to hear, nor did it always listen to.

The NAO concluded that “GDS needs to be clear about its role”. Let’s hope the changes at the top are the start of addressing the challenges it faces – and quickly. GDS has £450m and three years until the next election to prove its critics wrong.

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