Caroline Nokes given responsibility of GDS and digital government

SUMMARY:

The recently appointed Under Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office met with GDS to see some of the work it has been doing on digital government.

Caroline Nokes with Kevin Cunnington, vistiting GDS

Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North, and recently appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office, has been given ministerial responsibilities for digital government – meaning she will be the political head for the work being carried out by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Previously responsibility for the role had fallen on the Minister for the Cabinet Office – but it seems that Damian Green, who was appointed by Theresa May as both the new Minister for the Cabinet Office and First Secretary of State, effectively making him deputy to the Prime Minister, will be focusing his efforts elsewhere following the shock election result earlier this month.

First Secretary of State, Damian Green, said:

The Government Digital Service has led the digital transformation of Government and is a model that is being copied internationally.

I am delighted to announce that Caroline Nokes will be taking Ministerial responsibility for it, and I will retain oversight of developments.

Nokes will replace Ben Gummer, who lost his seat as an MP during the election in a surprise result. Gummer reportedly played a role in writing the Conservative Party’s Manifesto in the lead up to the election, which included a significant number of digital initiatives – more so than any of the other political parties.

Having had a quick scan of Noke’s career – both political and non-political – it doesn’t seem that she has any experience in digital (that being said, not many MPs do), but she was named the most responsive MP by MySociety back in 2014, with a 100% rate to constituents enquiries.

A Cabinet Office source recently said to me that more work needs to be done by GDS to build a collaborative relationship with departments – claiming that the department has become very bureaucratic and that it needs to have more involvement throughout the design of new services, as opposed to just being a group of people that says ‘No’ all the time.

One of the primary criticisms of GDS in recent months is that too much of an Us vs. Them culture has been created, with GDS using too much stick. There are arguments for and against this, however, given that departments need to be forced somehow to do things differently.

Digital government has faced much upheaval in recent months, with a number of leadership changes taking place. The current Director General, Kevin Cunnington, launched the government’s Transformation Strategy late last year – to mixed reviews.

Things have been quiet in recent months on progress on digital plans, but that is likely to be as a result of all the political upheaval. One of the biggest challenges facing Nokes is going to be navigating the disruption caused by Brexit, bringing digital into that discussion, as well as not losing sight of broader transformation plans – all the while resources are increasingly being allocated to a successful exit from the EU.

GDS announced on Twitter that Nokes visited the department yesterday to find out more about the work it has been carrying out in recent months.

Kevin Cunnington, Director General of the Government Digital Service said:

I am delighted to welcome our new minister Caroline Nokes to GDS. Everyone at GDS is looking forward to working with the minister as we deliver on the ambitious agenda that was outlined in the Government Transformation Strategy. This will see us harness digital technology to build world-class platforms and services that will transform the relationship between citizen and state.

My take

A big challenge for Nokes and a steep learning curve. Much work needs to be done in the coming months to get digital plans on track – particularly in terms of how GDS’ work fits in with the ongoing Brexit discussions (we have yet to hear much on this front). That being said, given Damian Green has a direct line into the Prime Minister, and Nokes will inevitably be working closely with Green, that will hopefully be good news for raising the profile of the digital agenda – something that has been lacking since Theresa May took power.

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