CIO interview: Kevin Cunnington, director general of digital transformation, DWP

Kevin Cunnington is responsible for making the Universal Credit IT system work - while leading the DWP's digital transformation

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When Kevin Cunnington joined the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as director general of digital transformation in October 2013, his new employer’s IT was already under fire.

The previous month, a National Audit Office (NAO) report revealed that long-rumoured problems with the IT for Universal Credit – the government’s flagship welfare reform – were true. Tens of millions of pounds of IT work by contractors IBM, HP, BT and Accenture would be written off. 

A whole new system was to be commissioned – a digital service to re-develop Universal Credit while the much-criticised existing systems would limp along supporting early trials. Secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith was putting his political reputation and that of his department on the line, dependent on the success of the new digital service.

Enter Kevin Cunnington, the man charged with making it happen. Previously global head of online for Vodafone and interim chief of digital IT at mobile service provider Lebara, he had the sort of credentials that the Government Digital Service (GDS) wanted to bring in across Whitehall.

A year later, the Universal Credit digital service has finally passed its first major milestone – approval from GDS to move from its alpha development phase to beta testing, and the first public trial of the system with real-life benefit claimants has just started.

“It was a great moment when the Universal Credit Digital Service was assessed as being on track to meet the GDS ‘digital by default’ service standard. This means we move from building an alpha service to a beta, which is a great achievement, with the service due to start – as planned – before Christmas,” says Cunnington.

“The digital service is being developed, and will be operated, in-house. It offers additional functionality over and above everything already being delivered for Universal Credit. It’ll allow households to report changes online and make changes to their Claimant Commitment to-do list online, with face-to-face support remaining available, especially for those who need extra help.”

Nonetheless, even this milestone has again been overshadowed by the latest NAO report into Universal Credit, published in November 2014. The digital service was criticised for already being delayed, and for a lack of a contingency plan that could cost taxpayers £2.8bn if the system has further problems. While the digital service is welcomed, plenty of risks remain. Cunnington still faces many challenges.

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Beginning transformation

Cunnington would only respond to our questions by email, not in a face-to-face interview, citing time pressures - and it should be noted that his answers were provided before the latest NAO report was published. His caution – or that of the DWP press office – is perhaps understandable, after his first press experience in the job saw him skewered by the Daily Telegraph over comments in an interview with Civil Service World magazine earlier this year. He did not, however, avoid any of the question we put to him.

“It’s been quite a year – there haven’t been many low points. Much of what we do is challenging due to the size and scale of the department, but we’re making progress. We’re at the beginning of a transformation in DWP – we’re starting to do the right work in the right way in the right places,” he says.

Digital academy

One of his first big challenges was bringing in and developing the sort of skills that would be essential to the DWP’s digital plans. Such skills are in scarce supply – evidenced by early recruitment attempts and by the NAO, which highlighted recruitment difficulties as one of the reasons for the Universal Credit digital service delays

To deal with the lack of readily available skills, Cunnington created an in-house training capability, the DWP Digital Academy.

“We started this in Fulham, London, and we’ve created a Digital Academy in Leeds too. We have trained more than 1,000 people to varying degrees. The aim is to grow digital skills in DWP. The Academy graduates go on to work in the teams driving digital development, meaning we’re growing our own capability rather than relying on external consultants,” he says.

While DWP has historically been one of the biggest government adopters of IT outsourcing, its Universal Credit experience led to the IT suppliers involved being excluded from the digital service work. Building skills in-house was, therefore, critical.

“We’re making good progress, defining how DWP should look and operate in the future. It’s been great to see digital being used to drive the transformation – but even better to see that it’s not just about designing digital online services. Transformation includes how we deliver good customer service, which meets the needs of customers in an automated and efficient way,” says Cunnington.

“We’ve recruited some great people with the relevant skills and experience we need. Some of these are already building our new digital services. The market is competitive and we’re looking at how we offer an attractive proposition to candidates, to give them the flexibility they often look for in their digital careers, while giving us the skills and expertise we’re looking for. We’ve found that the challenge of working with large-scale digital services in a department the size of DWP is an attractive one.”

Internal audit

Not long after Cunnington joined, an internal audit revealed serious deficiencies in DWP’s IT strategy – not least in exposing gaps between the old plan and the wider government digital strategy. Addressing that gap has been a key challenge.

One of the biggest challenges has been building understanding of the role for digital, alongside the role for IT, change, and developing skills. The whole story has to fit together

Kevin Cunnington, DWP

“There’s a lot of really positive interest in how we put customers at the heart of our thinking and deliver services that meet their needs. One of the biggest challenges has been building understanding of the role for digital in this, alongside the role for IT, change, and developing skills. The whole story has to fit together. We’ve tackled this by getting out and about talking to our colleagues, other departments and our suppliers about what we’re doing,” he says.

“The hardest challenge in an organisation of this size and complexity is applying agile iterative approaches at scale. The answer is to move away from a large programme-based approach to a commissioning approach which delivers user features over a period of continuous delivery. Our new digital initiatives are adopting this approach and the new operating model created by the [DWP’s] Business Transformation Group embraces this and works closely with our technologists to ensure that transformation is delivered in manageable and agile chunks.”

No more IT mega-deals

Like every other major Whitehall department, part of DWP’s commitment to government digital strategy is to move away from the outsourcing mega-deals of the past. As HM Revenue & Customs has found out, the scrutiny for DWP over making that change – and the risks it presents to paying the UK’s multibillion-pound benefits bill – will be intense.

How will DWP tackle the challenge of bringing in multiple suppliers, on smaller contracts, given the scale of its existing IT?

“The contracts we have with our major suppliers are coming to a natural end in manageable phases over the course of the next year or so. This provides us with an ideal opportunity to look at these with fresh eyes and devise new approaches to disaggregating into specific self-contained services,” says Cunnington.

“Some of this work has already taken place – for example, our networking contract – and this activity alone has resulted in significant savings. We are approaching the remainder in the same open way, combining our retendering activities with our strategic thinking,” he says.

“Our biggest challenge in moving from large-scale outsourced models to disaggregated sub-contracting models is that there is a need to bring the real knowledge of our systems and capabilities back in-house and the skills that go with them. We are progressing well on this journey and have completed a detailed modelling of our existing systems and our proposed future roadmap, using our own teams of DWP people.”

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Public versus private

Like many of the digital leaders brought into Whitehall, Cunnington was recruited for his private sector experience. But he says the differences in the public sector are less than some people might expect.

“The challenges and language are pretty consistent across public and private sector when it comes to the role of digital in transforming large organisations,” he says.

“Any transformation of this size across DWP or government has some consistent themes and challenges and these are no different here to the private sector. We need to operate in an automated and efficient way, moving away from paper-based processes and enabling our people to focus on what’s important for our customers.

“We need to engage widely – with customers, stakeholders, other government departments and our people – to create an efficient and joined-up service. We need to build services in an agile and collaborative way; and our people have to have the right skills, regularly refreshed, aligned to professions and careers.”

So the building blocks are in place. But with the public test of the Universal Credit digital service approaching, those IT mega-deals to deal with, not to mention a general election, there are still plenty of challenges for Cunnington and the DWP to tackle during his second year in the job.

“I’ve been made very welcome and my first year in DWP has been fantastic,” he says. “People have been very receptive to new ideas about how we transform the department and the role of digital in that. I’m as excited today as I was a year ago – one year on, and we’re going strong.”

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