As Cunnington goes global, where now for GDS?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan June 19, 2019
GDS is in search of a new boss as Kevin Cunnington quits for a new role.

Kevin Cunnington

The Government Digital Service  (GDS) is on the hunt for a new boss following the announcement that current incumbent Kevin Cunnington is leaving to take up a new global role to promote UK government services worldwide.

Cunnington is to become DG of the new International Government Service (IGS), a joint initiative from the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade. While its specific remit has yet to detailed, the mile-high mission statement is to promote the work of government services, not only digital, to other countries.

John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service, said:

Kevin is well qualified to take on his new role as head of IGS. Under his leadership, GDS has matured into an established function, responsible for accelerating digital transformation right across government and the wider public sector. The Civil Service now has more technical capability than ever before, while the UK is consistently ranked among the world’s most digitally enabled governments. Kevin leaves GDS in a strong place, ready for his successor to take digital government to the next level.

Who that replacement will be remains to be seen. A recruitment process for a full-time successor is underway. Until an appointment is made, Alison Pritchard, currently Director for EU Exit and Transformation, will act as interim head.

Cunnington’s departure was originally rumored last year, but in the event he remained in situ. In an email to GDS staff yesterday, he chalked up GDS’s various achievements:

We have now helped government realise more than £1 billion of benefits through scrutinising technology spending, and we will shortly be announcing how far we have exceeded this amount in the last year.  Working with the Crown Commercial Service over the whole SR15 period, we expect to deliver around £542 million in benefits, by supporting depts to secure less expensive IT contracts through the Digital Marketplace.

190 organisations, and 660 services are now using common components across central and local government and the health sector. The continuing development of http://GOV.UK  including the creation of a site-wide taxonomy to make it easier for users to find the information they need and developing new patterns such as Step by Step which was recently recognised at the D&AD awards.

We’ve expanded our work through the Local Digital Declaration, working in partnership with MHCLG to create a new way of collaborating with local authorities, and this year, Sprint moved outside of London to showcase digital transformation, share best practice and hear about some truly innovative digital programmes across national boundaries.

We have launched the capability framework which supports over 17,000 professionals in government, giving them a career pathway. I’m especially proud of how the GDS Academy has expanded and matured, training over 10,000 civil servants. By creating the Emerging Technology Development Programme we are embedding expert advisers across government on how to apply new tech to the most difficult government problems.

We have launched the GovTech Catalyst, and last week, the government’s Technology Innovation Strategy, creating a foundation for how the government can innovate through emerging tech.

He even pitched the hugely criticised Verify ID program as a success story:

We now have 4.3 million users of http://GOV.UK  Verify and last week, we announced the new digital identity unit which will consult on how to best organise the new digital identity market. This is the next step in for realising the potential of digital identity, capitalising on the relationships we have built across the public and private sector, and the standards that the Verify team has led.

Perhaps with an eye to his new role, Cunnington looked beyond Brexit and to new international challenges/opportunities:

To support EU Exit, we have placed 57 GDS experts in departments to support critical digital delivery, enabling international trade, emissions trading, business readiness, and market surveillance. The http://GOV.UK  team has played a critical role in the delivery of the Cross Government public information campaign to support the government’s top priority as we leave the EU.

Since 2016, the UK Government has consistently ranked in the Top 5 of the UN E-Participation Index and E-Government Development Index. This endorsement, of the work you deliver here in GDS, as well as across government, is a springboard for the new International Government Service. I will be building on GDS’s achievements by taking forward the international capability-building activities being delivered in communications, project management, digital and security functions. As well as sharing good practice and enabling other governments to build their capability, the International Government Service will ensure these are aligned with our foreign policy objectives and the Global Britain agenda.

As for the body he leaves behind, the departing boss pitched a ‘keep calm and carry on’ message:

GDS is a unique organisation, in a unique position in government. Our role continues to grow, as we announced in February, my successor will lead the integration of the digital function across Cabinet Office as well as GDS. The last 3 years have been both exciting and challenging at times. GDS has established itself as a driving force at the centre of government and I will miss being a part of it. I’m sure the organisation will go from strength to strength and I look forward to working with many of you in my new role.

My take

Full marks for spinning Verify as something to be proud of!  Cunnington has done a solid enough job as head of GDS at a difficult time when the reforming changes of early days of the organization and of digital transformation across government have appeared in reversal as the ‘oligopoly’ of Big IT reasserts itself.

It seems a long time ago now when Whitehall was told that there would be not more ten year contracts signed with the big ticket SIs. The ground that was won there has been surrendered.

What happens next will be critical as GDS’s role in a post-Brexit Britain takes shape.

Whoever takes over needs to be his or her own man or woman and re-ignite the evangelism for change that Sir Humphrey has tried so hard to push back on.