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Kevin Cunnington takes charge in GDS upheaval

01/08/16

Former DWP transformation chief takes over from Stephen Foreshew-Cain in sudden change at Government Digital Service

Whitehall’s digital leadership has gone through a sharp change today with the surprise news that Stephen Foreshew-Cain has been replaced as head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) by Kevin Cunnington.

It follows rumours over recent months that there has been significant opposition throughout Whitehall to the work of GDS, especially in its development of digital platforms to be used throughout central government.

Kevin_CunningtonCunnington (pictured) has come into the role from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), where he has been director general of business transformation and set up its Digital Academy to train civil services in digital project management.

Announcing the change, Ben Gummer, the recently appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “My predecessor in the Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock, had with foresight and energy pursued an acceleration of the delivery of digital public services. I am determined to complete the work that he began.

“That is why I am confirming the appointment of Kevin Cunnington as the new, and first, director general of the Government Digital Service.

“I have asked him to build on the outstanding legacy of Mike Bracken and Stephen Foreshew-Cain, to work with governments departments to continue the transformation of government services so that we can better serve the public, and to continue the global leadership in digital transformation that GDS is rightly famed for here and abroad.”

Stephen_Foreshew-Cain_1No clear reason has been given for the change, which has come almost a year to the day since Foreshew-Cain (pictured) was appointed as successor to Mike Bracken. He said in his personal blog that this morning he told the head of the Civil Service, John Manzoni, that he was leaving the role.

However, the speed with which Cunnngton’s appointment was announced indicates that he was already lined up for role.

In a Civil Service blog, Manzoni praised Foreshew-Cain’s work at GDS, notably in establishing a more disciplined management approach, affecting its budget and programmes, and in setting up a new leadership team.

Resistance

But it comes after months of rumours that there has been sustained resistance to the work of GDS in some Whitehall departments, and that several departments were resisting its Government as a Platform programme in favour of working on their own digital solutions.

Last week there were reports that following Prime Minister Theresa May’s reshuffle, in which Matt Hancock was moved on from the Cabinet Office role and replaced by Gummer, there were fresh attempts to cut down the influence of GDS, and that Manzoni has not been in favour of it setting a strong lead for other parts of Whitehall.

This has been especially relevant to the future of GDS-developed platforms for online services, such as GOV.UK Verify for information assurance, which recently went live, and GOV.UK Notify for notifications, which is now in private beta.

The news has stirred up accusations that the new Government is preparing to ditch much of the digital work done in the Cabinet Office under Hancock and predecessor Francis Maude.

Power grab

Opposition deputy leader Tom Watson, himself a former Cabinet Office minister from the last Labour Government, said in a blog for the Huffington Post that the move was a “classic Whitehall power grab” caused by Brexit and that it threatens the progress made in digitising processes in central government. He said that Ben Gummer needs to defend the work GDS has done.

“He must safeguard the digital reformers across government and protect Whitehall’s digital revolution from a counter-insurgency led by powerful private secretaries,” he said.

“If he fails to do so, a major opportunity will have been missed. Despite the success of the Digital Service, our country’s digital journey is still at an early stage.”

He added: “Theresa May’s new Government must renew the Digital Service’s political mandate for this Parliament and beyond. If it does so, I guarantee that Labour will continue to support its work.”

Whitehall shake-up

The change has come on the same day that HM Revenue & Customs confirmed that its chief digital officer, Mark Dearnley, is soon to leave as his three-year contract expires for a job in the private sector. Also, two weeks ago a shake-up in the Home Office’s digital leadership was announced, with chief digital officer Norman Driskell moving on as Sarah Wilkinson, formerly chief technology officer, took on the broader role of chief digital, data and technology officer.

It points to a degree of turmoil in Whitehall digital circles, the week after the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued a report of the DWP’s Aspire programme that emphasised the importance of continuity in senior leadership.

Images from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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