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Questions that new GDS leader Kevin Cunnington needs to answer

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 1, 2016
This week we have seen a digital purge in government, as the old guard attempt to put a stranglehold on the future work of GDS. Cunnington has a challenge on his hands.

Kevin Cunnington
Kevin Cunnington

Once again we find ourselves somewhat in the dark about the future role of digital in central government. After what we described as a ‘digital purge’ yesterday, following the exit of a number of senior digital leaders in Whitehall, including GDS chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain, there is once again an unnerving sense of instability.

We’ve been here before. And as experience tells us, instead of getting too wrapped up in the drama of it all (as fun as that is), it’s important to quickly try and understand the details around where we go from here.

And as much as I’m disappointed in Civil Service CEO John Manzoni and frustrated by the departure of Foreshew-Cain, we can’t write off new GDS leader Kevin Cunnington. He’s got a big challenge on his hands, but he has to be given the opportunity to present his version of where we go from here.

I don’t know much about Cunnington, apart from his role in business transformation at DWP - but I thought it might be useful to start a discussion around the questions that he is likely to face as he enters his new role and begins to lead a team that has faced quite a bit of disruption in under 12 months.

I don’t take the view that this change means that digital is dead in government. Or take the view that GDS is perfect. But I think things are a hell of a lot better than they were 5 years ago. And I think there are forces at play in Whitehall that would like to see things go back to the way they were.

Which is why we need some clarity, without all the noise. Here is my list, but it’s very much a working list and feel free to contact me if you think anything needs adding.

What kind of GDS will we have?

We had two very distinct and differing strategies under Mike Bracken and Foreshew-Cain. Bracken was the disruptor, ruffling feathers and setting the wheels in motion to drive the digital and GDS agenda through Whitehall. He wanted to wake people up to the fact that the status quo wasn’t good enough and that the citizen was being ignored. In doing this he upset a lot of people, and he needed to. Bracken got things in place for a new, more collaborative chief to step in and try get GDS working more effectively with departments. That was Foreshew-Cain’s view - GDS ‘had the back’ of Whitehall. He recognised that to get things done it had to work with departments, not against them. Not that that got him very far…

But what is Cunnington’s plan? Is he going to continue with Foreshew-Cain’s approach? What will define his tenure?

What I do hope is that Cunnington is not at the mercy of Manzoni and the other permanent secretaries that are playing their power games. I hope he has the skill to navigate the Whitehall political minefield and define his tenure on his own.

What problems are we solving?

No, Minister

This might sound a bit obvious, but I think GDS could do with going back to basics a bit and just reiterating to Whitehall and citizens what problems it is trying to solve. These problems are obviously hugely complex, so I’m not looking for soundbites, but it would be useful to get a picture from Cunnington on specifically what problems - both citizen facing and back-end in gov - he feels GDS can help address. This needs to be less about GDS the organisation and more about the strategy of digital in Whitehall - looking broadly at the roles different functions will play. We need objectives, transparency, milestones and clear insight into why GDS is doing what it is doing.

Centralised or decentralised?

For about a year now there has been speculation that Manzoni and his cronies want to break up GDS. This has been labelled ‘decentralisation’, where the view is that digital delivery can’t happen solely from the centre and the bulk of capability needs to be integrated into departments. GDS would argue that that’s exactly what it is currently doing - guiding from the centre and working with departments to build up their own capability, but that is not the perception elsewhere.

Whilst I’m not against ‘decentralisation’ in principle, I am not convinced that Whitehall is yet set up to get going with this on its own. I don’t think we can yet say that departments are fully ‘digital’ and know how to work together towards a better, citizen facing, digital government. It would be very comforting to go back to the status quo (as is human nature) and in my opinion GDS as a control for the time being is a good thing.

But if the name of the game is decentralisation - what’s the plan? How is this going to be done effectively? What controls are going to be put in place? How are they going to be measured? And how do we ensure that no department is left behind?


Related to the above point, what is Cunnington’s strategy regarding skills and leadership? Given the exodus of digital chiefs this week, there are holes that need plugging. Not only this, but from my discussions with Foreshew-Cain, he had been working through plans to try and find new ways to fill the digital skills gap across the whole of Whitehall.

It has been said that departments need thousands of digital staff to fulfil their objectives, where are these people coming from? They can’t all be GDS - and are the GDS staff even interested given recent events? Will the private sector play a role? Has Cunnington given thought to creating more flexible pay structures for those that are in high demand? How are roles being classified? All of these things need thinking through and clarifying.

What role will the private sector play?

Again, linked to the above point, what is Cunnington’s view on the private sector in Whitehall’s digital delivery. Obviously private sector companies are always going to play a part - but we need to know where and how. Is outsourcing still a taboo? Should departments solely be looking to the digital marketplace for suppliers? This has been confused in recent years, to some extent. The Bracken-era GDS was very anti big SIs, whilst Foreshew-Cain took a softer approach to the private sector filling gaps in capability. Where does Cunnington stand and what is the game plan?

Budgets/Spend controls

Although not one and the same, budgets and spend controls are an important part in any digital ‘transformation’. GDS did well to secure a large budget from the Treasury during the last spending review, which indicated that there was commitment from the very top of government about its role in Whitehall. Will that budget now remain with GDS? And if not, where will it go?

If decentralising is going to be key, it makes sense that money will follow. But if GDS is going to lose control of the budget and department leads are going to have more cash to play with, who is going to be monitoring how that money is going to be spent? Is that still GDS? Or will responsibility fall to organisations such as the NAO, which typically only retrospectively scolds when things go wrong?
Spend controls can work as a very effective stick to force different behaviours. Are departments ready to go it alone without the guidance and input of a fairly effective central organisation? I’m not convinced, but if that’s going to be the case we need to hear from Cunnington how this is going to work.


We have covered the idea behind Government-as-a-Platform a great deal. GDS has already begun building cross government services in an attempt to commodify the delivery of digital to citizens - see Notify, Pay, Gov.UK, Verify.

These have been created to varying degrees of success, but the idea in itself is a solid one. Why should government not use its scale to create commodity services that can be used across the whole of government, as opposed to each individual department and agency trying to figure things out on their own?

If GDS is going to play less of a delivery role and become more of an advisory function, and if departments are going to be taking the lead, are these departments going to continue the work around Government-as-a-Platform? And if they are, how are they going to execute?

There is an argument that certain departments with certain expertise could take the lead on certain platforms, but are we confident that they can do this in unison with other departments all working towards the same objective? I’m not convinced. However, if Government-as-a-Platform is still seen as the smart approach, what’s the strategy? And what milestones are we working towards? Cunnington needs to clarify.


The result of the EU referendum has huge potential to disrupt the digital work carrying out in Whitehall thus far. I’m fairly certain that the result and the fallout have contributed significantly to the changes that we have witnessed in the digital sphere over the past week - people see disruption as an opportunity.

If Brexit is to go ahead, there is going to be a lot of attention in Whitehall placed on the removal of British systems from their EU counterparts. Resources are going to be diverted and attention is going to be strongly focused on creating independence for the UK.

Not only this, but many of the technology projects currently being carried out in government are linked directly to EU directives or activities. What does this mean for these now? Brexit needs to not be used as an excuse to cut back indiscriminately or divert attention away, but we do need to be realistic about the impact.

Image credit - Images sourced via author

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