How to transform the Government’s digital leadership

January 3, 2020


The call from the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser, Dominic Cummings, for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts and assorted weirdos” has sent heads spinning in Westminster and on Twitter. But what does this mean in practice and where should he start? Well, as Policy Exchange pointed out in Whitehall Reimagined, the Government has a unique opportunity to revitalise its digital leadership. Key to the fulfilment of their digital ambitions will be the appointment of the newly-created Government Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO). Although the job was initially advertised in April 2019, Oliver Dowden, Minister for the Cabinet Office, formally announced its creation in September at the Sprint 19 Conference in London, sensibly increasing its pay packet to £180,000 (up from £149,000 when it was initially advertised). It is one of the most important positions that you may well not have heard about. If he wants his shake-up to bear lasting fruits, Mr Cummings would do well by ensuring the government begins by hiring a transformational CDIO, and designing Whitehall’s digital leadership around whoever is appointed.

Why is this appointment worth attention in particular? Whoever takes on the job will be responsible for all cross-government strategies for digital transformation, data, cyber security, and innovation. They face a monumental task. Politicians of all parties should be alarmed by the fact that the UK is slowly dropping down international eGovernment rankings, not least because these league tables should, in theory, favour the UK by taking into account elements outside eGovernment such as the wider business and innovation environment. The cross-party Science and Technology Select Committee did not mince its words when it said that “leadership in digitisation has been lacking in recent years since Francis Maude ceased being Minister for the Cabinet Office”.

Why is the drive towards e-Government slowing? To quote Paul Shetler, the former Chief Digital Officer for the Australian government until 2016, in the UK there is “no overall architecture to work within, no clear ideas of the role of the centre and the departments and agencies in delivery, no cross-governmental user journeys, no portfolio management no standardised approaches to funding.”

Indeed, although there have been some positive steps in the right direction – a pan-government Innovation Strategy is due to be published in the New Year – Whitehall has historically focused more on basic services (such as data compliance). Now is the time to think big about transforming Government and seizing the opportunities offered by cloud computing, big data and AI.

As Policy Exchange has pointed out in both The Smart State and again in Whitehall Reimagined, Whitehall’s departmental structure makes it intrinsically difficult to pursue a coordinated approach to digital, data and IT. Departments often spend millions developing their own systems and databases, tailored specifically to their needs, and their needs alone. While it may be of interest to the Government as a whole to move to common platforms, such as GOV.UK, and while it is certainly in the interest of its citizens, departments are naturally resistant to change, particularly if such change forces them to make trade-offs or abandon projects that have taken up time and effort.

So, what should be done? First, the Government must focus on getting this, and other future appointments right. Whoever steps into the CDIO role will need to grip the system and ingrain digital leadership across Whitehall. There are currently 17,000 digital and data professionals across Whitehall who will rely on their leadership, clarity of purpose and support. To get the right person, they should be prepared to reopen applications, and pay more if necessary.

Second, the Government must seize this unprecedented opportunity to restructure government decision-making and collaboration. According to Mike Bracken, former executive director of Government Digital Service (GDS), “if government continues to not look at institutional reform as a necessity to enable better digital services, then it is destined to repeat the failures of the past”.

For the new CDIO to be effective and accountable, they should have heads of digital and technology in each department who report to them, and not just the department’s Permanent Secretary. More importantly, the CDIO should have a team embedded in the Treasury to help the next Chancellor to get real information and expertise about the technical challenges that they face, as well as about the opportunities unlocked by big tech.

Upon appointment, the new CDIO should also take the opportunity to rethink other leadership positions. There are probably a number of different senior roles that could work beneaththe new appointment, all of which need specific mandates. These include a Chief Data Officer, whose job it would be to oversee data flows, use and ethics across Government, a Chief Product Officer, overseeing common platforms and the personalisation of Government services and a Chief Transformation Officer, entirely focused on legacy IT. These are just a few possibilities. The new CDIO will have to design their team from scratch if they are to overcome the inertia of the past few years.

Third, the GDS needs to develop a beefed-up internal consulting function. Each year the Government spends millions on digital consultants. Their reliance on consulting firms needs to be addressed and GDS needs to have the capacity both to bid for these contracts, and to deliver upon its bids. All the political parties have promised increased expenditure on R&D. This unit must benefit from this expenditure and attempt to supply the answer as to why the Government is not always ready when the demand for a big IT project emerges.

Finally, although Mr Cummings has focused on the need to integrate data scientists and technical experts in No 10, it is important to note that these skills are also necessary across Whitehall. Every Department faces complex technical challenges. Moreover, it is not enough simply to hire experts. They need to be made essential to operations and empowered to contribute to the formulation of policy. For example, when it came to the Universal Credit programme, policy, implementation and IT development took place in silos: had digital strategists been brought into the process earlier, millions in wasted costs could have been saved.

In short, the next Government will have an amazing opportunity to improve digital government. It needs to take the time to get these decisions right so that elected ministers can better implement the policies the British public voted for.

Benjamin Barnard is Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange

Join our mailing list