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Kelly quits while he is ahead



Among the things Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude can thank Stephen Kelly for is the timing of his departure.

The chief operating officer's new employer, Sage, picked a busy news day to tell the Stock Exchange of Kelly's poaching, rather than exploiting the traditional "Friday night drop" to ensure that positive news stories get a big splash in the weekend city pages.

The announcement also slipped out just before the newspaper "silly season", in which unlikely news stories, from crop circles to NHS computerisation, gain extraordinary prominence. For the moment, at least, the Daily Mail has plenty to keep itself busy without trying to blow events at the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group - including the Government Digital Service - up into some sort of scandal.

Media mischief-makers would have some promising starting points. Unexpected departures always provide a good excuse for examining the machinery of government, especially the expanding role of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, who is apparently taking over Kelly's role as chief operating officer.

Meanwhile, after years of a relatively good press, the digital by default programme could be in line for a kicking. It has seen some recent setbacks - the U-turn on requiring all small businesses to file VAT returns electronically, for example - and will face more as it gets to grips with politically sensitive transactional services. It is only a matter of time before the first dispute over the only lasting powers of attorney service hits the courts.

Identity assurance and data sharing remain potentially troubling issues, despite government attempts to kick them both in to touch.

On the wider IT front, the Cabinet Office cannot keep a permanent lid on the payout to Fujitsu over its disastrous involvement with the last government's National Programme for IT in the NHS. Finally, of course, there is the Universal Credit programme.

From all this an alert opposition could certainly contrive a narrative along the lines of "public service computer chaos as 'Mr Efficiency' quits".

That's all a great deal more exciting than "Ambitious chief operating officer moves on to highly lucrative private sector post before six months of frustration caused by pre-election paralysis throws a shadow over his genuine achievement."


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