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Failing to find a CDIO, UK government spawns a new division

The Central Digital and Data Office for Government will be chaired by "best fit for CDIO role" Paul Willmott, who continues his job as chief digital adviser at Lego.

After two unsuccessful attempts to appoint a chief digital information officer (CDIO), the UK government has created a new division of the Cabinet Office to give a candidate who doesn’t want to leave his current job a part-time position. Insiders describe the move as “shuffling things around” and further complicating responsibility for digital leadership.

The new Central Digital and Data Office for Government (CDDO) will be chaired by Paul Willmott, chief digital advisor for Lego Brands Group and former senior partner at consultants McKinsey.

“While recruiting for the [government chief digital information officer], Paul was the person that everyone recommended as the best fit for the role. But at Lego he already has a big, complex and exciting job, and he is committed to his employer,” explained Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer for the Civil Service and permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office, in a blog post announcing the appointment.

“In the knowledge that sometimes we must flex our structures to fit the individual, we explored the potential for other ways to involve Paul, who is instinctively excited by the scale of the challenge and the opportunity for public service. And so we have created the CDDO, to which we are delighted to appoint Paul as chair.”

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Joanna Davinson, currently chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office and veteran of IBM and PwC, will serve as executive director of the CDDO for the next 18 months. Davinson sat on the panel overseeing recruitment for the CDIO role.

uk government cdio
After two unsuccessful attempts to appoint a chief digital information officer, the UK government has created a new division of the Cabinet Office. (Photo by Yau Ming Low/Shutterstock)

Third time lucky?

It is the third attempt to fill the UK government’s top IT job since April 2019. The original plan was to appoint a CDIO to manage its digital, data and technology, reporting to Kevin Cunnington, then director general of the Government Digital Service. With an advertised salary of £149,000, the job posting was withdrawn before making an appointment.

In September 2019, Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden announced the search for a new CDIO to oversee digital, data and technology across Whitehall. Now at a more senior permanent secretary level and “leading the government’s 17,000-strong DDaT community”, the salary increased to £180,000.

With Kevin Cunnington having left GDS for the International Government Service shortly after the first failed appointment closed, the role was to report to Civil Service chief executive and Cabinet Office permanent secretary John Manzoni. That search was managed by executive recruiters Leathwaite with final interviews scheduled for Friday 29 November 2019, but no appointment was ever made.

In August 2020, new Cabinet Office COO and permanent secretary Alex Chisholm relaunched the hunt for a government CDIO to “head HMG’s 18,000-strong DDaT profession, oversee GDS and the lead the DDaT function”. Led by search partners Russell Reynolds and with a salary of up to £200,000, the selection panel comprised of Chisholm, Davinson, Civil Service commissioner Isabel Doverty, and outgoing Amazon UK boss Doug Gurr.

CDDO responsibilities

From February, Davinson will be the day-to-day operational leader as executive director of the CDDO “for the next 18 months” – a director general-level role rather than at the advertised permanent secretary level. The former IBM public sector IT boss has been running the 3,000-strong digital, data and technology function at the Home Office since 2017.

Willmott, whom Chisholm described as “one of the UK’s most experienced digital executives and thought leaders”, was the founder and managing director of McKinsey Digital. He has one year of CxO experience from when he was chief digital officer for Lego from November 2019 until November 2020, when he moved into an advisory role.

The Cabinet Office permanent secretary did not lay out the full remit and responsibilities of the CDDO. Instead, he gave a broad overview suggesting it will act as an in-house consultancy with added budget responsibility which will “fulfil the same function and responsibilities that we expected of the GCDO”. The Cabinet Office expects the unpaid chair post to be a half-day-a-week commitment; Willmott and the Cabinet Office Minister will appoint a council of non-executive directors.

New leadership for the Government Digital Service

Chisholm also announced the appointment of Tom Read, a popular and highly regarded chief digital officer at the Ministry of Justice, as the new CEO of the Government Digital Service, the government’s internal digital development agency.

The unfilled government CDIO position was to have responsibility for GDS but Read will report directly to Chisholm, who positioned GDS as being shoulder-to-shoulder with the new CDDO in his blog post.

“Read’s blend of experience at the centre and in the line, combined with his inclusive and progressive leadership style make him an excellent and inspiring choice as GDS’s CEO, and the perfect partner to Joanna as executive director at the CDDO, under Paul’s leadership as chair.”

Read – who previously worked at GDS – concluded a celebratory tweet with the word, “Onwards!”, a favourite term of GDS co-founder Mike Bracken’s signature phrases. The unit has lost some of its influence and cache since Bracken’s departure in 2015.

“I look forward to delivering a refreshed focus on the development and delivery of digital products and services underpinned by strong digital standards,” Read said in Chisholm’s Cabinet Office announcement.

Unanswered questions

Tech Monitor heard from Whitehall technology insiders who were underwhelmed by the announcements of the government chief digital technology officer role and launch of the CDDO.

One said: “It’s hard to be enthused by the announcement; the fact they’ve been captured by the ultimate big consultancy company [a reference to Willmott’s background at McKinsey] says everything – it’s so far away from where GDS started. There is no memory in Whitehall, just teams going back around the same circle, and endless trophy appointments and announcements.”

Another source questioned the long-awaited appointment of government chief data officer – a policy commitment since 2017 and reiterated by Digital Minister Oliver Dowden in September 2020 – and the supposed role of Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in overseeing data strategy. “This just sounds like shuffling things around and making it look like something is happening, while complicating the structure of ‘digital’ and the relationships between GDS, DCMS and others.”

Edward Qualtrough

Special projects editor

Edward Qualtrough is special projects editor for Tech Monitor.