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DWP digital experts brought in to help assess plans for Government Digital Service

The new GDS chief Kevin Cunnington has turned to his former DWP colleagues to help as he prepares his plans for the team

The new head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has brought in several of his former colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to help as he develops his plan for the organisation, according to sources.

Computer Weekly has been told that at least four of Kevin Cunnington’s former DWP digital team are involved at GDS as he assesses the unit that he took over in a controversial appointment earlier this month.

The move raises further questions about the role that major departments such as DWP are taking in setting the direction of GDS strategy. Insiders suggest there is significant disquiet among senior figures in GDS at the involvement of DWP staff.

Sources say that among the DWP digital experts brought in are Nic Harrison, DWP’s director of enabling digital delivery; Andrew Besford, head of business design; and Andrew Dennehy-Neil, head of the communications and engagement team in Cunnington’s former DWP business transformation unit.

They are understood to be looking at key GDS responsibilities such as delivery of digital platforms as well as central controls over Whitehall's digital projects and IT spending.

Cunnington was brought in to take over GDS on 1 August 2016 by civil service CEO John Manzoni, with his predecessor Stephen Foreshew-Cain leaving Whitehall as a result. His appointment came soon after Computer Weekly revealed that major Whitehall departments, including DWP, had been trying to carve up GDS and take over responsibility for much of the central team’s cross-government digital remit.

The Cabinet Office said Cunnington’s appointment showed that GDS would not be broken up, and Cunnington himself reiterated the point in his first blog post in the new job.

However, Computer Weekly sources have suggested that some GDS leaders are unhappy with the latest events and may consider their position. One of the GDS senior team has already quit – Janet Hughes, programme director for the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance programme, and also head of strategy, policy and departmental engagement for GDS.

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Hughes made no suggestion that her departure this month was connected to the leadership changes, although she is known to have been close to Foreshew-Cain.

The Cabinet Office has yet to respond to Computer Weekly’s questions about the role and remit that the DWP digital leaders have been brought in to fulfil at GDS, but the department said there had been no changes to the GDS leadership team, and that GDS was “not under review”. The DWP involvement currently appears to be on a short-term advisory basis, rather than full-time appointments.

“Kevin has been busy meeting the teams and getting to know people, with work continuing as before,” said a spokesman.

In an email sent to GDS staff by Cunnington after his appointment was announced, he said that “this change is not the signal of an organisation under threat”. He also promised to “listen” to GDS staff “before I form a plan over the next few weeks”.

A new GDS strategy, intended to outline how it will spend the £450m budget allocated in last year’s spending review, has been repeatedly delayed. It was first due to be released in December last year, then at the GDS Sprint event in February, but it has yet to be published. Computer Weekly sources suggested that the strategy would be launched at an event on 15 September, hosted by Cunnington and new Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, but so far no such details have been confirmed.

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