Unravelling the new digital leadership plans in UK government

In September 2019, the then civil service chief executive John Manzoni told Computer Weekly that the new digital leader he wanted to recruit for the UK government would “have to be very wise, very experienced, and very powerful”.

Originally envisaged as a cross-government chief digital and information officer, the role was subsequently amended to a plain old chief digital officer, to be appointed by a specially formulated selection panel, which included Home Office chief digital, data and technology officer Joanna Davinson; Manzoni’s successor, civil service chief operating officer (COO) Alex Chisholm; and – controversially – Amazon UK country manager Doug Gurr.

The £180,000 a year role was intended to oversee the Government Digital Service (GDS) and have the same seniority as a Whitehall permanent secretary.

Fifteen months later, the government has finally got its… people. Along the way, things clearly changed. And it leaves questions.

A whole new organisation has been created – the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), reporting to Chisholm. This will be run, not by a CDIO or a CDO, but an executive director – presumably, not at permanent secretary level. That job has gone to Joanna Davinson – you’ll remember her from above. She was on the selection panel to pick the best person for the job. They picked her.

But most interesting for the long-term, is the appointment of an unpaid, non-executive chair of the CDDO – Paul Willmott, currently chief digital adviser at the Lego Brand Group and former founder and managing partner of McKinsey Digital. The Cabinet Office stressed he is not leaving his job at Lego – Chisholm explained in a blog post that Willmott “already has a big, complex and exciting job, and he is committed to his employer”.

That post also revealed that Davinson has only been appointed to her new role for 18 months.

A former McKinsey partner and digital big-wig at one of the international companies that has been most successful in its digital transformation – does that sound “very wise, very experienced, and very powerful” to you?

Willmott describes himself on his LinkedIn profile simply as: “I help organisations adapt to the digital age“.

Davinson will be appointing a leadership team for the CDDO, including a chief data officer – a job previously under recruitment by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport, which has clearly lost the Whitehall in-fighting in this case.

But it doesn’t take much to speculate that Willmott was the leader that government really wants, and they’re willing to wait 18 months until he can take over the job full-time.

Chisholm’s post implies that the creation of the CDDO was Willmott’s idea:

“Paul and I discussed with ministers his reflections on what success should look like and how to get there, in order to help further focus our search. Like me, ministers were impressed and, in the knowledge that sometimes we must flex our structures to fit the individual, we explored the potential for other ways to involve Paul, who is instinctively excited by the scale of the challenge and the opportunity for public service. And so we have created the CDDO, to which we are delighted to appoint Paul as chair.”

Chisholm added: “The CDDO will eventually comprise a council of non-executive experts, appointed by the minister for the Cabinet Office with the support of Paul, with deep practical experience across the range of digital, data and technology (DDaT) disciplines, from automation to cyber security, cloud and data, product and service design.”

Note, a council not appointed by Davinson, but by Willmott. In that light, Davinson’s step from selection panel appointing Willmott, to interim leader putting the structure and people in place ready for him to take over, makes more sense.

In that time, a clear priority for Chisholm and Davinson will be to explain what this new organisation structure looks like, because we haven’t mentioned GDS yet.

In October last year, another new role was announced – a CEO for GDS, the first permanent boss of GDS since the departure of former director general Kevin Cunnington in July 2019. That job has gone to Tom Read, CDIO at the Ministry of Justice, one of the most popular and respected digital leaders in Whitehall. As part of GDS in its earlier, disruptive days under Mike Bracken and Liam Maxwell, he will be welcomed by staff as one of their own.

However, Read will also report to Chisholm – not to the CDIO / CDO that was envisaged. Given that Read is a peer to Davinson in the Whitehall DDaT leadership community, perhaps this is also an arrangement that will only last 18 months.

Either way, it appears that the brief of the GDDO takes away some of GDS’s responsibilities.

The GDDO will own the DDaT profession and function across government, and lead on strategy and policy – all of which have historically been under the GDS chief’s remit. Significantly, it will “work with HM Treasury to optimise the government’s approach to funding DDaT initiatives” – in other words, it owns the budget.

GDS will now, it seems, be focused on standards, development and delivery – an in-house software development shop, effectively.

So, the GDDO says what to do and why, while GDS looks after how?

Given Whitehall’s disposition towards power-plays and in-fighting, few would imagine that two organisations covering different aspects of what is effectively the same remit – to digitally transform government – is a long-term arrangement.

Expect further changes to come – at a wild guess – in about 18 months.

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