Interview: Kevin Cunnington, director general, Government Digital Service

The government’s new digital chief talks about his plans for the future and the challenges of transforming public services

On the wall behind Kevin Cunnington, a poster proclaims: “The challenge is service transformation. Not website redesign.”

The Government Digital Service (GDS), of which Cunnington became director general in a controversial appointment over the summer of 2016, has long been fond of its motivational posters. On either side of its new chief are two others – “Show the thing” and “Be bold”, they state.

In many respects, those three statements represent the three ages of GDS. Under its inaugural leader, Mike Bracken, it was all about “showing the thing” – a plan to redevelop 20 high-profile government transactions as new digital services, thereby demonstrating the potential of “digital” to improve public services.

Bracken left in September 2015, with some Whitehall departments seething at what they saw as an attempt by the centre to dictate to them, embodied in Bracken being unafraid, sometimes aggressively, to tackle entrenched interests – the “mandarin-led lands” as he called them.

His supporters will say such an approach was absolutely necessary, and fully endorsed by his boss, then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, himself happy to bang a few heads together to bring about change.

Bracken’s successor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, brought a more conciliatory approach – “We’ve got your back,” he would say.

One of his closest lieutenants, Janet Hughes, coined the phrase “Be bold” in a blog post exhorting the civil service to be braver and take more risks – with a clear subtext that “bold” implied “digital”. Hughes followed Foreshew-Cain out of the door soon after Cunnington took over.

Now, if there’s one, lingering criticism of GDS that Cunnington needs to address, it’s the perception that it’s nothing more than a bunch of website developers with little understanding of the complexity of big government IT.

Kevin Cunnington, GDS

He came into the role having led the business transformation function for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). His GDS tenure, therefore, will stand or fall on his ability to genuinely transform how public services are delivered.

“Our mission statement is transforming the relationship between citizen and state, and that sounds good,” he told journalists in his first meeting with the press since taking over.

Cunnington’s aim is to focus GDS around what it can achieve by the end of this Parliament in 2020.

“What I’m trying to create is a narrative where the Cabinet Office minister [Ben Gummer] can say to people that Britain will be very different in 2020 because we’ll be a much more digital government,” he said at the meeting.

“What could the prime minister say in 2020 about how UK life or the interaction between a UK citizen and the state would have transformed that relationship?”

“Our mission statement is transforming the relationship between citizen and state”
Kevin Cunnington, GDS

The new chief’s initial task is producing a new plan for GDS – dubbed the government digital transformation strategy. The question everyone around the Whitehall digital community is asking is, how different will it be to what has gone before? In terms of what GDS is expected to deliver, the answer, according to Cunnington, is not very.

He says the core focus for GDS remains around the three major programmes that attracted a £450m budget award in the spending round in November 2015.

These are: Common Technology Services (CTS), a programme to roll out new technology for civil servants and support the exit of the many big outsourcing deals due to expire by 2020; government as a platform, developing common services for use across Whitehall, in particular for payments and status notifications; and Verify, the identity assurance service that is proving to be complex and controversial.

We need to do more

“All of those big three programmes have business cases associated with them,” says Cunnington.

“I’m not planning on stopping anything we’re doing today. We said pretty clearly that the stuff we’ve been doing has been right. But as part of recognising GDS is transforming government, we need to do a bit more – so we do more, not less, going forward.”

“More” means the sometimes nebulous concept of transformation. “Getting into the transformation game [is something] that we still need to set some targets for – that’s all part of the plan to be developed,” says Cunnington.

“We’re working up to it. We started in a sensible place, which was to design services and get the hang of that. When you look at it, almost every department has a whole raft of citizen-facing services live already or becoming live that genuinely make a difference. Some of the stuff is really making a difference," he says.

“The reason why we’re not seeing lots of these services go live is because they’re quite hard and it takes a long time. That’s part of where government is getting good enough to have a go at some of these things with GDS’s help. But we won’t see lots of massive transformation programmes starting soon and finishing quickly because they are hard things to do.”

GDS has existed for six years to reach this point, so Cunnington only has three years left to effect the scale of transformation by 2020 that his boss Gummer, and prime minister May, are apparently expecting. That’s no simple task.

Furthermore, he reveals there is already a list of additional major transformation programmes that departments are considering that may start by 2020 but will not deliver until the next parliamentary cycle.

And don’t forget – the civil service has to administer leaving the European Union (EU) while all this is going on.

A national approach

So while the “what” for GDS is challenging enough, it’s the “how” that seems to be where Cunnington hopes to make the most immediate impact.

An early priority is to make GDS more of a nationwide operation – it has often been accused of being too London-centric, especially for big departments with much of their work taking place in the regions.

Cunnington plans to open four locations for his digital academy – a civil servant training initiative he launched in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and brought with him to GDS. He’s also taking GDS on a UK roadshow to talk to departmental staff outside London.

“The real work is going on in [places such as] Leeds and Manchester, as well as London. We need to be part of that,” he says.

“The example I use is where DWP now runs a whole set of disability benefits. It would be incredibly helpful if DWP had selected and consensual access to some of [those people’s] medical data.

“Right now, NHS Digital and DWP are having that conversation in Leeds and we’re not in the conversation. Why wouldn’t GDS be in a conversation like that? If we’re going to be, we’ve got to be in Leeds – we can’t do that from here.”

Relations with departments

The rationale for a national approach touches on the thorny topic of GDS’s relations with those big government departments.

It’s common knowledge that there have been significant tensions, with departments unhappy to be told what to do by the centre. Big departments such as DWP and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have lobbied against GDS, wanting to take back powers and budget from the central operation, and bypassing some of GDS’s controls over their digital projects.

Coming from a departmental background himself, Cunnington acknowledges that some departments’ relationship with GDS has been “adversarial” at times. But he insists the situation is nothing like the way it has been widely perceived.

When asked by Computer Weekly how he intends to change that relationship, he says simply: “We’ll just play nicely.”

Read more about GDS

  • The Cabinet Office and its latest recruit – new Government Digital Service chief Kevin Cunnington – are adamant that GDS will not be broken up.
  • Times are changing at the Government Digital Service (GDS). Not only is the organisation moving out of its home in Holborn, its power is also shifting.
  • Three directors of Government Digital Service have departed since appointment of new director general Kevin Cunnington in August.

He immediately acknowledges that such an answer “sounds a bit trite”, but admits that GDS needs to spend more time listening and being “more discursive”.

“There’s no need for departments or GDS to take these adversarial positions. Most of us have the same view of where we need to get to and the same kind of plan to get there. So part of it is that we need to spend more time talking to each other,” he says.

“I think GDS having a national footprint will really help because we’ll be in the conversations from the get-go. Most of us get on perfectly well. Love and peace is there, really. Love is in the air.”

However, he later says that he wants GDS to be “much more involved in the minutiae of the work that departments are doing” – an idea that seems anathema to some outside GDS. Cunnington insists not.

“In truth, they quite like us. We’ve got some good people. You [can] use the word adversarial, but we don’t spend most of our time fighting with each other in the civil service,” he says.

“Oddly enough, we get on quite well with each other, and it’s just a case of keeping that going. I’m pretty sure departments do not object to GDS helping them with their difficult problems,” he says.

Spending controls

One particular area of contention for departments is GDS’s spending controls – rules laid down under former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that meant departments needed GDS approval for any IT contracts worth more than £100m, or digital services worth more than £100,000.

Having been on the receiving end of such controls, Cunnington says they need to change.

“In the past, GDS legitimately had to police some things that were going on. If you go back to the original spend controls when they were set, permanent secretaries will tell you that it was quite useful having GDS saying no to some of their plans, because their plans weren’t as well formed as they could have been, based on the fact they didn’t have the experience to put them together,” he says.

“But nowadays we are more comfortable that departments have created their own capability. It’s about having a proper grown-up discussion around roadmaps in the future. We’ll get much more comfortable, so the relationship is changing.”

In particular, the £100,000 limit on digital projects is likely to be increased.

“£100,000 now for a digital programme is just too low. So we’re looking at two things. One is, what is the right level of control? The controls themselves have been a bit of a proxy for saying, ‘are you doing the right work?’ They tend to go a little bit adversarial if you’re using financial controls to get people to a design you’re comfortable with,” he says.

“We’ve taken a different approach now and are sitting down with departments every month to review their six-month, one-year, five-year plans and say are we all going in the same, right direction. From GDS’s perspective, if we are prepared to be a lot more collaborative about the use of controls, it’s just really a change of approach.”

That new approach is being piloted with three departments already – Cunnington cites DWP, Home Office and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) – to help determine where to set the levels of control going forward.

“Thresholds are more likely to be a sensible discussion about money, rather than one size fits all, because we know that big departments spend a lot of money on technology and programmes, but some of the smaller departments spend less. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model going forward, but we haven’t decided yet exactly where to set them,” he says. Verify

Another area of contention is around Verify, the identity assurance service that is meant to become the default way in which citizens interacting with government online prove they are who they say they are.

Roll-out of Verify has been slow, with technical issues to overcome and challenges around sourcing sufficient data to be able to assure everyone’s identity on application.

Currently, barely 70% of people using the service are able to verify their identity, and only 35% of visits to the service result in a completed transaction.

HMRC has been particularly reluctant to use Verify, and is developing its own alternative for the digital tax accounts service. DWP was initially reluctant to adopt Verify, but is using it in the new digital version of Universal Credit, although that system is in very limited use as part of trials. The NHS is cautious too.

Cunnington, however, says he is “very bullish” about Verify, while acknowledging that GDS’s advisory board of external experts told him to prioritise “sorting out Verify” and getting it adopted at scale.

“You have to expect [GDS] to change as we learn what's been working well and what needs to happen differently”
Kevin Cunnington, GDS

He says that GDS is “internally looking at all the things we now need to do to make Verify a success”, with that review concluding at the end of November 2016.

“We are actively working with the departments on their internal roadmaps for how they adopt Verify. There are some big potential uses of Verify – NHS would be one and the DVLA and MoJ could do more. DWP does quite a lot. It’s just a case of putting a proper plan together that frees up some of the learnings we’ve had over the past year or so,” he says.

On HMRC, he says the issue is simple. HMRC requires a lower level of assurance than Verify currently offers – DWP, by comparison, needs a high level of assurance because it pays money out to people. HMRC, however, receives payments, so is less worried about potentially onerous identity checks.

“The HMRC issue isn’t an issue. HMRC has a different means of verifying people that it has had for a while. We are talking to HMRC about how we could merge these things eventually, but HMRC isn’t against it. It is all for it, but it’s just the wrong hammer for the wrong nail,” he says, adding: “We are looking at potentially lowering the level of authorisation required so HMRC can use it.”

Meanwhile, HMRC continues with its own development, which involves adding extra features to the existing Government Gateway identity portal.

Gateway also supports assurance of companies – something Verify is not designed to do. Computer Weekly did not have time to ask about Verify Basic Accounts, a cut-down service developed previously to address the same issue – little has been said publicly about this alternative since trials concluded a year ago.

Cunnington was, however, keen to discuss the potential for Verify to be used beyond government, highlighting talks with banks and online gambling companies about using the service for identity checks.

“We are actively looking at whether we can change our business model for Verify. Candidly, a number of banks have said to us they’re in the business of identifying people for money laundering regulations – they could see themselves moving to Verify rather than continuing to do that for themselves,” he says.

“It’s the same for gamblers as well – gambling organisations have the same legal requirement to know their customer, which could be solved using Verify.”

Ambitious targets

With ambitious targets for 2020 ahead, Cunnington has to get up and running quickly – but let’s not forget he has been in the job for less than two months.

He faced the personal challenge of stepping into the shoes of a popular leader in Stephen Foreshew-Cain, as well as the fact that Cunnington came from a department in DWP whose senior executives are known to have been antagonistic towards GDS.

“People are giving me a chance to prove whether I’m good or not. To be honest, if people applauded when I walked in I’d have been surprised,” he says.

“They don’t really know me, so they’re giving me a chance. I get the sense that people are warming to me. I think they’re pleased with the plan.”

GDS staffers will be relieved to hear that Cunnington expects the team to be the same size by 2020 as it is now – around 650 people – but with a burst of recruitment in between to take the team temporarily to 800 as extra bodies are needed for current projects before they go live and settle down.

He also says that – contrary to widespread rumours – GDS is not cutting back on doing software development.

But the devil is in the detail. His strategy is still being written, and many people are keen to see the detail therein. Certainly, changes are ahead.

“GDS was set up to be disruptive – revolution not evolution. What I’m saying to people is we should celebrate that and we should celebrate all the good work that we’ve done,” says Cunnington.

“But also, we need to recognise that GDS is, in and of itself, a transformation programme. So you have to expect it to change as we learn what’s been working well and what needs to happen differently.”

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