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Kevin Cunnington, Director General of GDS - ‘Combining waterfall with agile for genuine transformation’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 15, 2016
Kevin Cunnington explains his plan for getting government institutions to transform into modern, digital organisations.

Kevin Cunnington
Kevin Cunnington, Director General, GDS

On the day of the fifth anniversary since the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), recently appointed director general Kevin Cunnington took the time to sit down with diginomica/government to explain his ambitions for wide-scale digital transformation of Whitehall.

Cunnington joined GDS in August of this year, leaving his post as director general of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions, to help the digital department accelerate its progress in modernising the public sector.

However, Cunnington’s appointment wasn’t well received by all. Some described it as the “day of long digital knives”, as a number of senior digital bods in government left their posts, including outgoing executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

It was perceived that those near the top of the Civil Service were playing political games to protect the old ways of working, as Whitehall culture dug its heels in and resisted the necessary change. A number of good digital people have since left government, and some have publicly criticised the increasing resistance.

That being said, Cunnington is just a few months in and now deserves the chance to prove himself. He has spent the time taking stock of GDS and the digital workings of government, and along with his team, has been preparing the recently leaked Government Transformation Strategy.

2017 will be the year that Cunnington moves to execute on the strategy and will be being closely scrutinised on the progress.

From my sit down with Cunnington it’s obvious that he’s someone that is highly invested in this idea of transformation in Whitehall. He says he doesn’t want to scrap the work GDS has done thus far, but instead wants to build on it - looking to the back end systems that so desperately need modernising.

However, his approach may raise a few eyebrows, as he, and the Transformation Strategy points out, the old ways of doing things aren’t completely dead in the water. And in fact they should be incorporated into the GDS agile approach.

The interview is wide-ranging and covers the topic of data, skills and engagement. On the reason for his appointment in the Summer, Cunnington said:

Bringing me across was an investment in GDS. GDS has never had a Director General before. So, that's an obvious statement by the centre that we're putting more importance on what we're doing here in GDS. I think the second element is, you know a lot of my core skill set is digital technology, that's my background.

If you like, a lot of my professional expertise my USP is around transformation, digital transformation, so taking large programs of work and making them successful. Like Universal Credit, which is not only the lipstick on the pig, but the whole transformation of the service itself.

So part of why I'm here is an investment in GDS, but it's also a signal that we're moving towards the whole stuff of transformation.

The four pillars

The Government Digital Service

As noted above Cunnington is keen to emphasise that his appointment and the new strategy do not mean that the GDS work that has come before will be scrapped. He wants it to be known that GDS will now continue to build on the work it has done and will be further investing in four specific areas: transformation, capability, Verify and data.

Transformation is the big picture, tying everything together and working on those tricky, ageing back-end systems. Capability is about skills, skilling up the Civil Service and attracting the right talent to Whitehall so that digital transformation is possible. Verify is the government’s new identity assurance platform, which Cunnington now wants to “drive really hard” because it allows government to recognise a citizen across a number of services/departments. And finally, data is the foundation for all of this - but data is currently locked up in ageing systems and needs to be organised, giving it authority, allowing departments to work together on new services.

The skills piece has always been an imperative for GDS. Whilst it has created a good brand and managed to attract strong talent, other departments have been less lucky. It is consistently flagged up that Whitehall will need to either hire or retrain thousands of people to be successful. Cunnington’s plans centre around adopting a DWP model of retraining existing Civil Servants. He said:

We brought the academies over from DWP. DWP trained roughly 3,000 of their own staff in these academies over the last two years. We're going to double that number and train 3,000 civil servants a year going forward.

[That] gets us over that obstacle of not having enough skills within departments to do the things we might want to do. The academy is definitely cross-government.

Cunnington is also looking at restructuring existing job roles and considering reward-based frameworks for recruitment work. He would also like to leverage the GDS brand in further recruitment drives. He said:

We are creating a whole set of job families, for each of the technical roles in digital data and technology. Then we're setting levels of competency for those roles that we can test against, so we know whether somebody is an expert in one of these or a practitioner of one of those. Again, we're looking to benchmark the salaries for those roles within industry and come up with a civil service view of how to consistently pay people across all departments.

I think the second thing I would like to do, which I'm only now mooting, is the best digital branding in government is GDS. It's much easier to recruit under a GDS heading than it is ... I won't mention any department…

One thing I think we need to do, is take a more active role centrally, say, "Let's use the GDS brand to attract the top talent and then for sure we will inherit some of that, but so will some other departments as well.

The other key, government-wide problem facing Cunnington is that of data. Without useful, organised and authoritative data, the government’s digital services will struggle to scale. Data in government is often replicated, siloed and locked up in ageing, and often outsourced, legacy systems. Cunnington and his team want to fix this, creating registers that are canonical sources of truth and for departments to figure out ways to share data. Cunnington said:

There are some difficult data issues out there that actually underpin the transformation that we now need to work on…getting the operational, largely silo departmental datasets working together, more succinctly.

Getting to a point where we can do large-scale transformation does require you to unlock the data. Unlock some of the legacy contracts that stop you from chunking up the items of work.

Going national

Cunnington faced a lot of questions upon his appointment about whether or not he had been brought into break up and dismantle GDS. There was a view that senior Civil Servants were beginning to tire of the digital disruptor at the centre messing with their day-to-day operations - an Us vs. Them environment had been created.

However, Cunnington quickly said after joining that he had no such plans and that GDS would continue in its current form. He reiterated those points during our discussion. However, Cunnington added that GDS will be broadened in scope in terms of its location - it will be taken national. He said:

Yeah, so GDS will continue in its current form. We're very clear on that, we're not breaking it up. It will, though, start to have a national footprint. That's one of the other things we've said. All the work from the big departments are, generally, done outside of London for economic reasons. We need to be much more in those centres of development than we have been to date, if we're going to meaningfully help solve operational problems.

We do have a team under Chris Ferguson [Cabinet Office Director], looking at how to create a national footprint for GDS, where should we be based, what sort of work we should facilitate in those regions going forward. We're not breaking it up, but we will be supporting departments on a national basis rather than localized.

Another approach that will differ under Cunnington’s tenure is that ‘transformation’ will look to incorporate the government’s traditional approach to technology design and build, with that of GDS’s agile approach. Cunnington believes that if GDS can find a sweet spot between the two, that will enable front-to-back transformation of services. This is going to be done in coordination with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). Cunnington said:

Government is good at two things and it has invested a lot of money in being good at two things. The Cabinet Office has a separate group of people called the IPA. They’ve trained a lot of people in how to do break up of programs, management of large programs, primarily using a waterfall methodology. We're actually quite good at that.

GDS has been focused on citizen facing services. Normally medium scale, usually agile. What I'm really focused on is how do you bring those two things together, combine large waterfall developments with nimble, agile programs to create a genuine transformation in the middle. Our focus, my focus, has been, how do you pull this trick off? Which is a combination of the stuff we're good at in GDS at a certain scale, combined with a different scale of things we're good at, using waterfall methodology.

Cunnington said that this will be enabled through a program of work called ‘Support, Enable and Assure’. He added:

For instance, in support, we've not got an expert advisory panel of people that, if your department think about doing one of those things, we can provide that expert resource to you. They will help you understand what good looks like, help you get started.

In the enable domain, we're doing things, working with other parts of Cabinet Office and parts of government to streamline some of the processes that go around this. Then, under assure, we turn up, along with the IPA guys, at various points and say whether we think you've got it right or not.

Getting the Permanent Secretaries on board

One of the biggest challenges that has faced GDS in years gone by has been collaborating effectively

government parliament
with individual departments - often with it wanting to move at pace, and departments resisting the rate of change. Not always, but sometimes. There have been reports of conflict and even full-blown rows between senior civil servants.

Cunnington said that he has moved to make these relationships between GDS at the centre and the departments smoother by recruiting a former advisor at Number 10, Emily Ackroyd, who will help manage the relationships with the permanent secretaries. Cunnington said:

Ultimately, the Permanent Secretary is the accounting officer for the department, therefore answerable to Parliament. Ultimately, the responsibility is with them. We have, I guess, a set of ... Well, I wouldn't even describe them as leavers, we have a set of options that we can help with.

One of the things we've done recently to help with this, is we've recruited someone who was an advisor at Number 10. So that we can now have a conversation with permanent secretaries around policy and how we're trying to change policy to get the right outcome for transformation.

So, we've really raised our game to say, "We want to be in at the get-go with you, permanent secretary, understanding what you're really trying to achieve. We have the expertise to help you achieve that. We'll work alongside you to do that.” Which I wouldn't describe as, you know, a mandate, but more of an offer from us to be the go-to guys to help do transformation.

That's one of the things I've been very proactive about changing. There's no resistance from Perm Secs to be helped out on difficult issues like transformation. In fact, they're very receptive to having a conversation right at the front, saying, "How could we help them do that?

I also raised the point with Cunnington that his predecessors often took an approach that more stick was necessary than carrot - with the introduction of instruments such as spending controls, ‘red lines’, the cloud first policy, limits on contract extensions and ambitious targets.

The idea was that these would force people into the digital transformation lane, placing necessary pressure on them to make changes that they wouldn’t have previously considered. Some argue that this approach is too harsh and creates animosity between the centre and departments. Others argue that until the cultural changes are embedded, these instruments are necessary to control behaviour.

I was keen to get some insight into Cunnington’s approach going forward. He said:

I think you need, and I have to take this nicely, I think you need both a stick and a carrot. A good example would be, we created the service standard that we hold departments accountable for reaching. My experience is that they all want to do that, but often, or sometimes, they don't. Part of what I'm trying to change is, if we can train people in the academy, so that meeting the standards is an intrinsic part of the way they're trained in the first place, it should be easier to make that standard. Does that make sense? If I provide the carrot kind of up front, I need less of the stick later, if that makes sense.

Changing the shape of government?

.GOV on blue digital background © Denys Rudyi -
Another point that I wanted to raise with Cunnington was in regard to how much he believes that ‘digital transformation’ will mean changing the institutions of government. One school of thought believes that new institutions are needed to support government in a digital-era, because if we were to design government from afresh now, it wouldn’t be designed in the isolated, fragmented way that it has evolved into over the years.

However, Cunnington doesn’t necessarily buy this argument. Instead he wants to see greater interoperability between departments through the better use of data. He said:

I think I probably don't agree with machinery of government changes being a necessity. I do though completely buy the argument that departments are much more interdependent in the modern era than they have been in the past. Particularly for data.

All the analysis shows that without the data side of departments being accessible and working, it's quite hard for them to transform. When they do have access to the data they can really transform and become much more efficient. It is very dependent on getting the right model for interoperability of data between departments.

Finally, I asked Cunnington: what will success look like for you in 2020? The current Transformation Strategy runs up until 2020. What would Cunnington like to have achieved by that point? He said:

You know, the mission statement…transforming the relationship between citizen and state. What does that mean? What does that mean in practice for me? There will be - I don't want to put a number on it - but let's say, more than 100 digital services which are being delivered between now and 2020, that citizens will interact with.

So, things like applying for your fishing license, which is now done digitally, right through to renewing your passport, renewing your driving license, claiming benefits, checking your state pension, paying your tax digitally. All of that will be wrapped up as a coherent government service, digital service. All of which is wrapped around a single identity, which we call Verify. If you like, my big vision for 2020 is mass adoption of a identity about big government services digitally.

My take

It was great to finally meet Cunnington and to hear his approach first-hand. During the discussion, it was obvious that Cunnington’s real passion for this rests with the ‘transformation’ of the back-end systems. Whether his plan of combining the IPA’s approach with GDS’s approach works, remains to be seen - I’m not sure how the two will work together in practice. That being said we are just at the start of this new strategy under Cunnington, and we need to give it some time. The proof will be in the end-to-end services that are developed under his tenure. We will be watching closely throughout 2017.

Image credit - .GOV on blue digital background © Denys Rudyi -

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