GDS under Kevin Cunnington (so far) - different, and yet the same

Computer Weekly’s first opportunity to meet with Kevin Cunnington, the new director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS) answered a lot of questions – but raised plenty too.

It’s important to start with the caveat that Cunnington is still very new to the job – barely two months at the time of writing. And he is yet to publish his new strategy for GDS – because that plan requires ministerial sign-off from his boss, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, he is limited in how much he can reveal until that approval is forthcoming (it’s due to be published by the end of the year).

So it’s perhaps understandable if there were a few mixed messages coming from his first briefing to the press.

Cunnington stressed that GDS’s remit will essentially stay the same. Core projects such as Common Technology Services, government as a platform, and the Verify identity assurance system continue, and he insisted that (contrary to persistent rumours) GDS will still develop software and maintain its current levels of staffing. “I’m not planning on stopping anything we’re doing today,” he said.

But he also emphasised that “you have to expect [GDS] to change” and that ultimately “it is the departments who deliver”. Plus, he revealed he is internally reviewing Verify  – “looking at all the things we now need to do to make Verify a success”.

He acknowledged the relationship between GDS and those Whitehall departments has been “adversarial” at times, and admitted that GDS intends to relax the spending controls that caused many departments a lot of frustration.

But he also he wants GDS to be “much more involved in the minutiae of the work that departments are doing” – an ambition that seems at odds with the widely stated desire of many big departmental teams to have greater autonomy and fewer controls from GDS.

He acknowledged that GDS has grown and encouraged the use of SME suppliers in delivering digital services, but revealed he has been speaking to “quite a few” big IT suppliers about his plans to find out what they think, “because obviously they have a set of expertise and credibility”.

In one clear break from the past, Cunnington said he supports the move by several departments to end the split between separate CDO and CTO roles that was firmly established by one of his predecessors, GDS’s inaugural director Mike Bracken.

“I’ve always felt the [organisational] distinction between digital, data and technology is somewhat artificial,” said Cunnington.

“It’s time to bring [those roles] back together because having them apart actually causes a sense of confusion and boundaries that don’t really exist in reality.”

Cunnington’s former home, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the Home Office, have both merged CDO and CTO roles back into one – something anathema to Bracken who felt that having a single CIO in charge was a sign of outdated, old-school thinking. That’s not to suggest he was right, of course – just that his view was different.

Some sources suggest that GDS remains under close scrutiny from above over a lack of delivery success – if true, Cunnington’s honeymoon period will be short and his ability to strategise and overhaul operations will be limited by the need to show concrete improvements in key areas, in particular Verify.

At the time of his appointment, the Cabinet Office – and specifically, its permanent secretary and CEO of the civil service, John Manzoni – never properly explained the rationale for bringing in a new GDS chief, nor why the previous incumbent, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, was so unceremoniously dumped.

To this observer, there seemed little substantive difference between listening to Cunnington outline his plans, and hearing Foreshew-Cain do the same in the past. The only notable change was Cunnington’s welcome desire for a more nationwide footprint for GDS, which has been criticised in the past as being too London-centric.

Both emphasised the need for closer collaboration with departments, and to improve that relationship. Both understood the importance of getting the government data strategy right, to underpin wider digital initiatives. And both saw the goal of GDS as transforming government, not simply developing better websites.

The next few months will offer an important opportunity for Cunnington to demonstrate how his approach differs from the past, and to prove that his strategy will accelerate the delivery of digital transformation by the end of the current parliamentary cycle in 2020 – little more than three years away.

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