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GDS goes nationwide to ease relations with government departments

Government Digital Service aims to open more regional outposts for training civil servants in digital skills, says new chief Kevin Cunnington

The new chief of the Government Digital Service (GDS) wants to give the organisation more of a nationwide presence and be less London-centric, as he looks to enhance relations with Whitehall departments.

Kevin Cunnington, controversially appointed as director general of GDS in August 2016, is working on the new government digital transformation strategy, which he intends to publish before Christmas.

In his first briefing with journalists since taking on the job, he revealed that he plans to open GDS outposts in Scotland, Wales, Birmingham and Bristol.

The regional sites will house new locations for the digital academy that Cunnington instigated during his time in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – the existing academy sites in London and Leeds were moved into GDS in September. The academy trains civil servants in essential digital skills.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue & Customs already operate digital development hubs in their regional locations, such as Newcastle and north-west England.

“That [plan] gives GDS a national footprint with being quite so sequestrated down here in London. The real work is going on in Leeds and Manchester, as well as London. We need to be part of that,” he said.

The DWP digital academy has trained 3,000 people, said Cunnington – but he wants it to be training 3,000 every year across all departments.

“The whole basis of this is in order for departments to deliver on this stuff – because it is the departments that deliver – we’re going to support you,” he said.

In further recognition of the regional nature of much of the digital work underway in departments, Cunnington plans to take GDS on a roadshow around the UK to improve relations and understand how best to work together.

“GDS has been good at presenting, but less good at listening. So we’re going to listen a bit more. We’re going to do things like go on the road and work with departments,” he said. 

“We’re planning a tour in the New Year where we go to 10 cities in three weeks. We’ll do joint presentations with departments to show that we’re all part of the ecosystem. We’re not sequestrated down here in London.”

But despite the planned growth in regional staff, Cunnington said that GDS will stay the same size – around 650 people – at the end of the current parliamentary cycle in 2020.

“We will have a national footprint. I think we’ll be more geographically dispersed but probably the same size and on the same mission with the enhancements we talked about,” he said.

There have been significant tensions between GDS and major departments in the past, and Cunnington acknowledged that in some aspects the relationships had been “adversarial” at times.

As a former digital chief in one of those departments, DWP, he insisted that departments “quite like GDS” but said that under his leadership the relationship needs to be “more discursive”.

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