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DWP director Kevin Cunnington set to take over as new head of Government Digital Service

Kevin Cunnington, currently director general for business transformation at DWP, is taking over as the new head of the Government Digital Service

Civil service chief executive John Manzoni is due to announce on Monday 1 August that a senior director from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is being brought in to take over the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Computer Weekly has learned that Kevin Cunnington, currently director general for business transformation at DWP, has been appointed as the new head of GDS. He is expected to make the transition to his new job in the Cabinet Office during the coming weeks, and is not being replaced at DWP.

A series of internal and external briefings will take place on Monday to explain why GDS has its second new chief in barely nine months.

Sources say the Cabinet Office will justify the move as “strengthening and investing” in GDS but they also reveal the sensitivity around the decision and around the future of GDS.

Computer Weekly revealed last week that DWP and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) had been specifically excluded from the GDS business plan last year that led to the award of a £450m budget for GDS in the November 2015 spending review. Insiders said that senior civil servants at both departments had been lobbying to break up GDS or to move some of its responsibilities back into their departments.

Sources now suggest that the appointment of a senior DWP executive is a compromise move to ease relations between departments and GDS. However, those well-placed sources – talking on condition of anonymity – also say that Cunnington’s appointment could lead to senior GDS managers considering their own future in the organisation.

Insiders have also questioned the timing of the change, given that GDS has recently made positive progress on its government as a platform strategy, launching common platforms including Verify, Pay and Notify into public use for identity assurance, payments and electronic notifications, respectively.

Digital influencers

The Cabinet Office announcement will position Cunnington’s appointment as a move to “accelerate the delivery of digital public services”

Manzoni is expected to brief several “digital influencers” in advance of the announcement to explain the changes, including Martha Lane Fox, who wrote the original plan that led to the creation of GDS. 

Briefing such respected influencers shows the importance of damage limitation around the unexpected decision, in the opinion of our sources. Those insiders say the Cabinet Office is anticipating questions about Cunnington’s appointment that reflect the sensitivity around perceptions that GDS is being weakened or diminished.

Concerns that civil servants hope to address, according to our sources, include accusations of a lack of confidence from new ministers over the progress of digital government; the need for a second change of leadership in less than a year after the departure of former GDS chief Mike Bracken in September 2015; and whether GDS will be broken up.

The Cabinet Office is expected to say that GDS is “categorically not” being broken up and that the move represents a further investment in GDS.

It is understood that the change in leadership has been under discussion for several months, with the decision approved by Matt Hancock, the former Cabinet Office minister, and now endorsed by his successor, Ben Gummer.

Gummer is expected to issue a statement that will outline the government’s commitment to delivering digital public services and to the role that GDS plays in that.

In addition, Computer Weekly has learned that Gummer is due to launch the new government digital strategy, alongside Cunnington, at an event on 15 September. The strategy has been delayed for several months, with insiders pointing to the difficulty of gaining cross-Whitehall agreement for a plan that will affect several departments.

Our sources say the Cabinet Office hopes to use the launch of the new strategy to “nullify any coverage around GDS being in confusion or disarray”.

Digital transformation

Cunnington joined DWP as director general for digital transformation in October 2013, having previously been global head of online for Vodafone Group and interim chief of digital IT at Lebara. He was recruited by DWP permanent secretary Robert Devereux, who is said by government insiders to be one of the main critics of GDS’s centralised role.

In an interview with Computer Weekly in December 2014, Cunnington outlined his approach to digital transformation.

“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,” he said at the time.

“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.”

Read more about GDS

Mike Bracken, the outgoing director of the Government Digital Service, talked exclusively to Computer Weekly about his departure from Whitehall

Revealed: The battle for GDS – how Whitehall mandarins are trying to carve up digital strategy

No matter what happens next, GDS's long-term future is not assured

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