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GDS is trying to democratise digital, says Cunnington

GDS boss Kevin Cunnington offers departments help with Brexit and says GDS is working to solve the “hardest problems”, as well as mapping innovation across government

Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington has offered departments help with Brexit preparations, and highlighted the success of the GDS Digital Academy.

Addressing civil servants at the Public Sector Show, he said the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) could be a serious challenge for all government departments, but also brings opportunities.

“There’s an offer from me as the head of GDS: if you’re a government department struggling on the EU exit, give us a shout and we’ll give you some of our guys for a while to help you understand what ‘good’ looks like and help you transform,” said Cunnington.

The organisation recently appointed former chief operating officer Alison Pritchard to lead GDS’s work on Brexit, including coordinating work with departments. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of things to help departments,” he said. “We’ve been doing central recruitment of difficult jobs, or challenging to find people like tech architects and java developers, and it actually really helps that GDS is a great brand. Probably a better brand than most government departments, people want to work for GDS and under the banner of government digital.

“So we’ve been somewhat successful in finding these people where departments struggle.”

Doing things differently

When Cunnington took over as GDS chief in August 2016, he said he wanted to change the way GDS worked with departments. Now, he says, the way the organisation works with the rest of government is very different than previously. 

“GDS has been changing the way it works with departments, and we’ve been using an old adage to help us understand how to do that: if you give someone a fish, you feed them for the day, if you teach someone to fish, you feed them for life,” he said. 

“This is the mentality behind GDS nowadays. We’re trying to help democratise digital so departments can actually do it for themselves with some help from GDS, but they’re not dependent on GDS and it isn’t the be all and end all of digital across the government.” 

Over the last nine months, GDS has been mapping innovation across government to see what people are doing and cataloging it.

“Now we’ve got that, we’re maintaining it using machine learning, so we have machine learning tools going to look at various people’s intranets and the internet, and figuring out where government is using interesting technologies like biometrics, machine learning, augmented reality, the internet of things and distributed ledgers,” said Cunnington, adding that the map will soon be published on Gov.uk.  

He added that this includes being one step ahead, asking GDS staff to look two years ahead, and start doing “the sort of things in GDS we think the rest of you are going to be able to do well in two years’ time”. 

If GDS can’t solve the “hardest problems”, it can’t expect departments to do so, he said.

Read more about the GDS

GDS has been in the news lately due to losing both digital identity policy and data policy to the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). It has caused many to question what future GDS really has.

However, during his talk at the Public Sector Show, there was little mention of this. Instead, Cunnington focused on successes, like trebling the number of users of Gov.uk Verify in the last six months, which he said “most people would be proud of”.

He also mentioned the success of the GDS Digital Academy, an idea Cunnington brought with him from his previous role at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). 

So far, Cunnington said, the academy has trained around 1,000 civil servants who have all been through a 15-day foundation course.

It has also ran an AI course, which he regarded a huge success, adding that the academy has been particularly well received among the older generations.

“Older people in life were so pleased to be given a new set of skills that allowed them to lengthen their career and took to it like a duck to water,” said Cunnington. “They loved being part of the digital academy, learning new skills and doing more interesting things.”

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