The government’s new CDIO role - poisoned chalice or digital saviour?

Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah By Sooraj Shah September 27, 2019
There is going to be a powerful new digital leader in Whitehall. But what will their remit be? Who will they be overseeing? And who might be the best person for the job?

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When Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden told delegates at Sprint 19 that he had decided to create a new powerful role - a Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) – most of the room would have been aware that a job advert had already been published detailing what the role was about and what kind of candidate the government was after.

Dowden emphasised the enormity of the role:

This will be the first time someone at permanent secretary level has been appointed to lead a function – that’s a signal of how important we think effective, integrated online government is.

He said:

Their job will be to ensure that we deliver cross-government strategies for transformation, data, cyber security, and innovation. They will design and implement standards which improve delivery outcomes, reduce risk and enable value for money in departments. Crucially, they will ensure that we are equipping government departments with the skills needed to reform, develop and thrive.

We’re looking for someone world class, with the skills and experience to up the pace of transformation and be your champion within Whitehall.

While this reaffirmed the government’s intention to create a new digital role – perhaps the most powerful ever – it raised further questions.

Firstly, what would this mean for the interim Director General of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Alison Pritchard – would the CDIO effectively replace her role?

At Sprint 19 she told media:

I can’t answer that with a yes or no. I think [the new role] is a reflection that this is a more senior post with a scope across the function. We need to give this person the opportunity to work out how they want to be supported in a more senior role. 

Hence, yes I am doing some thinking around how best to provide some options… permanent secretaries and secondary permanent secretaries often have senior level support. But I’m not presuming, I am an interim – so whatever we do, we can seamlessly transition into the new arrangement.

Pritchard didn’t rule out applying for the job either – but it’s clear that she would like to be involved in some capacity, whether it is in supporting the CDIO or becoming the CDIO. 


Pritchard’s future role is uncertain, but so too is the exact remit of the CDIO. One former senior executive within digital government said that senior roles like this were positive, but that it depended on the mandate, and crucially, that hard powers were needed.

Indeed, this seems to be the key question from those within the industry: how much power will this CDIO actually have?

According to Paul Shetler, the former chief digital officer of the Ministry of Justice and the Australian government, it depends how much governance ‘teeth’ the role has.

He said:

In principle, I think it could be a very good thing, one of the best jobs going… but without clear ability to define standards, architecture, methods, the overall government portfolio and funding, it runs the risk of being either a poisoned chalice or just a new lick of paint.

Dominic Campbell, the CEO of FutureGov, is unsure of how the CDIO role fits into the current government system. He said:

Would the CDIO be the boss of all [the departmental] CIOs and digital teams in departments or would it be a more outward facing role? At Sprint 19, GDS was talking about being seen to be leading edge, and therefore perhaps the role could be a more outward facing role.

But centralised, top-down control in government is something that Campbell fears, particularly as the government does not have a good track record of that approach.

However, Dr Graham Evens, chief information and technology officer at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, would welcome a top-down approach if it meant that someone would bring some thought leadership to the various sectors within government.

He said:

While we think we are all different and unique, many of the challenges in health are equally applicable in other government departments, so I think if the role is about bringing thought leadership, learning and spreading best practice across government departments, then a central role like this can be a very positive thing for the benefit of the country.

Shetler emphasised that the new role was not about managing other departments, and was rather about managing a whole-of-government portfolio of work, including what to spend on, how to release funding, how to govern delivery, what methods to use and which platforms to use.

Perhaps most difficult of all is around data strategy, a core component of a digital strategy, and one of the key pillars that Pritchard had talked about at Sprint 19. She spoke about bringing together operating models to optimise data-sharing – but Georgina O’Toole, chief analyst at TechMarketView suggested that this is the single biggest barrier to the government moving onto more complex digital projects and getting the greatest value from truly deep digital transformation.

She said:

Until now, there hasn’t really been anyone taking this bull by its horns, with activity across government in various organisations and limited coordination.

My fear is that this is a massive task; technology is not the problem. The new CDIO will have to take on much bigger issues spanning the cultural to the organisational to the political. Not only does data need to be shared, it also needs to be trusted across organisational boundaries if it is to be used effectively; there is widespread evidence that isn’t the case currently

The ‘world class’ candidate

The CDIO will be more powerful than the head of GDS and the CDIO roles in HMRC and DWP –the other leading digital roles in Whitehall, and this is why the make-up of who takes up the position is crucial. There has been a resurgence of IT roles in government over digital people in central government, which could dictate whether Whitehall hires someone with a CIO mind, or someone who is more digitally minded.

Campbell suggests that permanent secretary level roles usually go to civil service lifers, rather than deep experts in their field, so it would be interesting to see if someone who is currently in government could be considered. As well as Pritchard, other candidates could include Tom Read, the chief digital officer at the Ministry of Justice, Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Jacky Wright, chief digital and information officer at HMRC.

Dr Evans, who is also chief digital officer of the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System, said that the selected candidate should have an appropriate understanding of the different government departments.

There needs to be a degree of caution as there are some nuances in health that are not 100% applicable to other sectors, so an understanding of the domains and departments is crucial

Campbell believes the role is for someone who can lead, set vision, convene and overcome the divide in IT and digital worlds, as well as creating a voice for digital at the highest level in government. 

He said:

This is a great aspiration but this sort of role, which is common in Australia, has really struggled to live up to that aspiration elsewhere.

But as with any senior role, this is a two-way street. The prospective CDIO is likely to seek assurances from the hiring managers about what they’re actually able to do.

According to Shetler, this would include basic questions such as: what changes to the funding, governance and portfolio issues have already been agreed, what happens to GDS, and what is the role of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

He said:

Right now, there really is no governance, no government IT or digital strategy, no overall architecture to work within, no clear ideas of the role of the centre and the departments and agencies in delivery, no cross-governmental user journeys, no portfolio management, no standardised approaches to funding that allow for the understanding the need for different methodologies – and deliverables – in different parts of programmes or between different types of projects.

It’s really all over the shop and appears quite fragmented to an outside observer like me – that’s why the new role is potentially so intriguing .

My take 

Intriguing it is – and with applications for the role only open until 9am on 7 October, there’s only a matter of time until we see if the government can find the right calibre of candidate, and whether it can provide the candidate with the powers necessary to make the role a success.

Image credit - Image sourced via Pixabay

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