Stephen Foreshew-Cain joins ex-GDS comrades at the Co-Op

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez October 20, 2016
Foreshew-Cain, former executive director at the Government Digital Service (GDS), has announced his new role of Chief Operating Officer - Digital at the Co-Op.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain
Stephen Foreshew-Cain

The former executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Stephen Foreshew-Cain, has announced that he is taking up a position as Chief Operating Officer - Digital, at the Co-Op - an organisation that is now home to many ex-GDS staffers.

The Co-Operative Group created an internal digital team when Mike Bracken, a former GDS chief that spearheaded the digital change and strategy in government, controversially left his Whitehall position in the summer of last year.

Bracken joined the Co-Op, taking with him a number of his senior team from GDS, to create a new digital team for the organisation - citing similarities between designing services for citizens and designing services for members and communities.

Almost exactly a year later Foreshew-Cain suffered the same fate as Bracken, and was replaced by business transformation director general at the Department for Work and Pensions, Kevin Cunnington.

Both Bracken and Foreshew-Cain’s departures shook the digital community within Whitehall, with many, including diginomica, questioning the motives of senior civil servants. It was thought that on both occasions that the political daggers were out, as GDS caused too much disruption to the status quo.

A number of other digital jobs were lost on the same day Foreshew-Cain announced his departure from government, with one former senior GDS employee describing it as a “day of the long digital knives”.

Important values

All’s well that ends well though, as Foreshew-Cain has today announced that he will be joining Bracken & Co. at the Co-Op, six weeks after he stepped down from his position in government.

Announcing his appointment in a blog post, Foreshew-Cain wrote that he has decided to join the Co-Op and his former GDS colleagues because the organisation shares values that he believes are important. He wrote:

So far in my career, I’ve been incredibly lucky to work for organisations that shared my values. They all believed in openness, representation and participation; in making a contribution to a socially and economically just world, and making a positive contribution to the lives of citizens/customers and their communities.

These beliefs were core to their organisational thinking. When I left GDS, I thought it would be hard to find another organisation that thinks that way. I was wrong: the Co-op does.

Foreshew-Cain cites the importance of working with a passionate, community-minded organisation, as well as one that puts members - not shareholders - first. He adds that the Co-Op has a “different DNA” to other large commercial organisations he has worked with in his career, which he believes is “important”.

Foreshew-Cain went on to describe how new business models, such as the sharing economy, have created new challenges in the ethics of business - particularly as it relates to employment and pricing. It seems that may make up some of his focus at the Co-Op. He wrote:

Technical innovation can create opportunity for some, but without ethical business leadership (supported by, dare I say it, responsive and responsible government regulation) they can create inequality, restricting opportunity for others. A business that makes it harder for residents to find affordable housing by focussing on profits for its shareholders at the expense of local communities can hardly be said to be making a contribution to a socially and economically just world.

I’m excited about technical innovation. But I’m equally excited about how technical innovation can make all our lives better, not just some of them.

My job offer letter from the Co-op said its purpose is: “Championing a better way of doing business for you and your communities”. That’s the sort of innovation I mean.

I didn’t think I’d find as exciting and inspirational a challenge as the one GDS had presented, but I was wrong. Hello Co-op. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

The future of GDS

Kevin Cunnington
Kevin Cunnington

Since Cunnington joined as the new Director General of the Government Digital Service (GDS), replacing Foreshew-Cain, he has been spending his time trying to understand what is important to the organisation’s future strategy. Upon joining, he wanted to ease concerns that he was there to dismantle the GDS we know today. In a blog post he wrote:

I want to strengthen and accelerate the pace of change. I’ve read many times about the end of GDS, but it has always come back stronger than before. I want to tackle one thing head on: GDS will not be broken up. We remain part of the Cabinet Office with a clear mandate to lead digital, technology and data across government.

I say this with the support and backing of John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary for Cabinet Office. By bringing me in as Director General for GDS, John is making it clear that this organisation matters, and is here to stay.

Reports this week suggest that Cunnington is planning to release the new GDS strategy before Christmas, but the organisation’s levels of development and its staff numbers are likely to stay the same. However, there is likely to be an increased focus on improving and scaling GOV.UK Verify - the government’s identity assurance service - and tackling Whitehall’s complex data problems.

Cunnington has also said that a key part of his plan is to enhance communications between GDS and government departments - a problem that has been challenging for the organisation in the past.

My take

Congratulations to Stephen, and we look forward to hearing more about the work being done at the Co-Op.

Image credit - Image of Stephen Foreshew-Cain sourced via Paul Clarke, photographer at

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