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May 5, 2021updated 06 May 2021 5:59pm

Back to the drawing board? UK government reverts to plan to hire CTO and chief data officer

The UK public sector's three most senior technology leaders outlined their ambitions for digital transformation – and two new vacancies.

By Edward Qualtrough

Having failed to recruit a chief digital information officer (CDIO) earlier this year, the UK government’s most senior tech leaders have reverted to plans to appoint a chief data officer and chief technology officer (CTO) instead, it was revealed last week.

Paul Willmott, chair of the Central Digital and Data Office (a body established in January after two unsuccessful attempts to appoint a CDIO), said it will be hiring a chief data officer for the country, a policy commitment since 2017, while executive director Joanna Davinson, said that a new CTO will be hired to take a cross-government approach to technology infrastructure transformation.

Willmott and Davinson were speaking alongside Tom Read, the recently appointed CEO of the Government Digital Service (GDS), at The future of UK digital government forum organised by the Institute for Government. Willmott outlined his vision for the UK “to be a global leader in digital government” but public sector technology experts questioned how this will be realised in practice and how the CDDO would succeed without apparent sponsorship from the highest levels of government and an overhaul of the IT funding model.

CDDO chair Paul Willmott, CDDO executive director Joanna Davinson and CEO of GDS Tom Read

UK government tech leaders’ digital priorities

Willmott, who is also chief digital adviser for Lego Brands, said his three priorities as chair of the CDDO are to raise aspirations, secure buy-in across government, and build capabilities.

“We can and we should be the global leader in digital government, and to keep the bar high,” he said. “I’m in the process of assembling an advisory board of externals who will help us understand what the best is.”

“The second priority is building commitment across government – officials and ministers. There’s a need for us all to get on the same page in terms of priorities and pace.

“Finally, we’re building capabilities in the CDDO function, and indeed Tom is in GDS. We have a great team already, but we need more exciting talent at all levels.

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“And if you think you can be the next chief data officer for the UK, we’d like to hear from you. But also if you’re just finishing school or college, and you’ve got some technical skills, we’d also like to hear from you.”

Rob Anderson, public sector principal analyst at GlobalData Technology, believes the CDDO’s advisory panel could be extremely valuable but adds some caveats. “If it includes anyone from the tech industry – current suppliers or otherwise – it could raise controversy and accusations of excessive influence,” Anderson says. “The members, or at least a good proportion of them, have to be cognisant of the political agenda. The Civil Service is littered with folks who have come in from industry expecting to change things and been stymied by the bureaucracy.

“The board also needs to be reflective of a full range of users of government services. Willmott talked of his belief in diversity and inclusion, but we all resort to unconscious bias when recruiting colleagues.”

Roles and responsibilities for UK government tech leaders

Davinson, who was chief digital and information officer at the Home Office before taking on the inaugural executive director role of the CDDO in February, acknowledged the huge challenge of digitising government.

“We need to improve end-users’ experience of interacting with government,” she said. “There’s still an awful lot that is not digitised; there’s still an awful lot of paper in our system. If we’re honest, if you’re a user trying to navigate government systems, it’s very disconnected. There are a lot of broken user journeys, and the burden is very much on the user to actually discover services.

If we’re honest, if you’re a user trying to navigate government systems, it’s very disconnected. There are a lot of broken user journeys, and the burden is very much on the user to actually discover services.
Joanna Davinson, Central Digital and Data Office

“So we need to work as CDDO very proactively with departments to look at what are the opportunities to accelerate digitisation, leverage the benefits of things like automation, agile working and focus on digitising end-to-end. We need to work in multi-disciplinary teams with policy, operations, tech in order to deliver an end-to-end transformation.”

“We can’t afford to create some big central bureaucracy here,” she added.

Davinson explained that the new chief data officer would be responsible for fostering improved data sharing across the UK government. “We’ve really got to get into defining and promoting cross-government approaches on things like data registries, data models, and the technical infrastructure to support data exchange,” she said. “That’s why we think it’s really important that we appoint a government chief data officer, not to do it all but to convene and lead the cross-government communities who are engaged.”

The CTO, meanwhile, will be tasked with providing the infrastructure to support that data exchange. “We’ve also got to address the technology infrastructure, really modernise that and focus on how we implement hybrid cloud environment for everything, develop a much more modular approach to how we architect, reduce legacy tech debt and cyber risk, but also enable interoperability and data exchange that really maximises our flexibility and our agility to respond,” Davinson said.

This strategy – to lead a cross-departmental community of technologists from within the CDDO – will require buy-in from senior staff at frontline departments and agencies, notes GlobalData’s Anderson. “While Davinson talked about the ‘coalition of the willing’, it’s all too easy to listen and nod one’s head when this type of organisation is being established; when the pressure is on to deliver the (sometimes conflicting) goals of your unit, collegiate thinking can get put to one side,” he says.

When asked whether this strategy would be accompanied by a change in the IT funding model for the UK government, in which HM Treasury allocates technology budgets directly to individual departments, Davinson hinted that the CDDO will be able to exert tighter spend controls from the centre.

“My preference is always to work with people, build consensus and persuade people – move us forwards jointly and together,” said Davinson. “But ultimately we do have spend control authority within CDDO over all aspects of digital, data and technology spend, and quite wide powers out into the core departments – so there’s always that ultimate control that we can apply.

“But generally our preference is to use the carrot, not the stick.”

Since departments tend to “play the game” when submitting budget forecasts, providing only the minimum information required to gain approval, Davinson’s comments could be an acknowledgement of the issue and a step in the right direction, Anderson says.

Top priorities for the Government Digital Service CEO

Digital specialists in government have achieved a huge amount in ten years, said Read, who was CDIO at the Ministry of Justice before he was appointed GDS chief executive. This includes setting up the website, moving all government websites onto a single platform, and developing high-quality digital services across departments and agencies.

But Read warned, “there’s a risk we’ve declared victory a bit too early”. For every digital service there are “probably 50 or 100 that still require the user to have a printer or a fax machine,” he said. “We’ve identified 4,000 services in central government alone that still require downloading a PDF.”

Read’s three top priorities for the next five years in GDS are the maintenance of as a crucial part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, building new platforms and components “in the centre that can be reused right across government”, and developing what he described as “whole personalised user journeys”.

These might be life events, and Read used the example “turning 18-as-a-service”, “retiring-as-a-service”, “having a baby-as-a-service” and “starting a business-as-a-service” as areas where multiple departments, agencies, ministers and civil servants would have to work together to design services for citizens.

This is not a brand new idea. Former government deputy CTO Jerry Fishenden noted on Twitter that one of’s predecessors, UKonline, included ‘life episodes’ services back at the turn of the millennium.

For Read, GDS’s real opportunity comes from using the excitement around digital technology to fundamentally improve service design. “For a lot of people in digital government, the real mission is not building websites – it’s using these magical words ‘digital’ and ‘data’ that nobody can ignore, and use them as a Trojan horse to get user-centred design through.

“I think GDS’s role is to celebrate user-centred policy design, user-centred service design, and demonstrate how it should work.”

Ministerial support for digital transformation

Covid-19 has been a catalyst for digital transformation at the most senior levels of UK government, Davinson said. When she and Read outlined their initial ambitions, ministers pushed them “to go further and do more,” she said.

While Willmott said the team is working hard to establish civil service and ministerial support across Whitehall, Read added that Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary, Julia Lopez MP, was “the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable minister about digital I’ve worked with for many years”.

However, this perception does not “resonate with her public profile where she rarely talks about technology in a convincing manner,” says GlobalData’s Anderson. “To succeed, this initiative has to be seen to have sponsorship at the highest levels in government, and at the moment that appears to have gone AWOL.”

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