By Rebecca Hill

16 Mar 2017

After a tumultuous first six months as director general of the Government Digital Service, Kevin Cunnington has finally got the long-awaited Transformation Strategy off his desk and is looking forward to an office move. Rebecca Hill meets him.

Kevin Cunnington – Photo credit: GDS

Whenever Kevin Cunnington talks about the digital services the government will have built by 2020, he starts by enthusing about applying for a fishing licence online.

Imagine CSW’s disappointment, then, when we ask the new director general of the Government Digital Service whether this focus on the gentle riverside pursuit is driven by a personal interest – and he responds with a quizzical look and a laugh. “No...” he says, pausing to check it isn’t a trick question. “It’s just a great application. I’m not a fisherman.” 

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Instead, his choice of sporting pastime seems rather less relaxing than whiling away the hours at the end of a (licensed) line: the new Government Digital Service leader is an avid fan of cold water swimming, spending his spare time at his “local”, Tooting Bec Lido in south-west London. “I swam last weekend in the cold water championships,” he says. “It was 1.5 degrees and I was 28th out of 44 in my age group, which isn’t bad considering I’ve just turned 56.” 

Not that Cunnington has had much time to relax in the six months since he took the reins at GDS, the central government team set up in the last parliament to lead digital reform across Whitehall.

On arrival he was not only faced with reworking an already-delayed strategy in the aftermath of the EU referendum, but also had to deal with widespread speculation that the government’s central digital team was about to be disbanded.

Cunnington, who was director of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions until August 2016, has been consistently relaxed – bullish, even – in his public comments about the rumours, brushing them off and repeatedly stating that the service is safe in his hands.

Despite this, the early weeks of Cunnington’s leadership were marked by what seemed like a mass exodus of the top team at GDS, as he brought in some of his closest allies from DWP – in particular the former head of business design Andrew Besford, who is now deputy director of transformation at GDS.

A few friendly faces might have eased Cunnington’s transition from one of the largest and most traditional departments in Whitehall to the upstart central team. As he points he out, the average age at GDS is about 30 — a full 20 years less than that of DWP, but Cunnington insists that the two workplaces have more in common than one might think.

Where they do differ, he says, is in the need to collaborate. “You have to get more consensus into what you’re doing [at GDS] and bring other departments with you,” he says. “That’s different to DWP, where there’s not that same need to involve so many people and drive things forward on a collegiate, centralised basis.” 

"It’s a bit of an open secret that I wouldn’t have joined DWP it if I hadn’t liked perm sec Robert Devereux so much."

Cunnington says the GDS way is more akin to his previous job as global head of online at Vodafone, a position he held for three-and-a-half years before moving to Caxton House to take over part of the beleaguered Universal Credit programme. Of that move, Cunnington says he was “compelled by the need to improve the service offering both for own folk and people looking for work” — but his switch to the public sector after a career working for big businesses (he spent seven years apiece at Goldman Sachs and PwC) was also driven by the people at DWP. In particular, permanent secretary Sir Robert Devereux. “It’s a bit of an open secret that I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t liked Robert so much,” Cunnington says, matter-of-factly.

When Cunnington joined DWP, Universal Credit – which was beset by problems of leadership churn, poor planning and a lack of experience in digital working from the start – was in the process of being “reset”.

After the reset in 2013, the department took a “twin track” approach, creating a “live” service that allowed people to register online but with all further transactions being done over the phone or by post, while continuing to develop the full “digital” service that would allow all interaction online.

Cunnington was responsible for the digital service, and – faced with a dearth of digital skills in the department – set up a Digital Academy to train civil servants in basic and more complex technical skills, something he had also done while working at Vodafone. This academy is now a crucial part of GDS’s future: it is being spun out of DWP and expanded across the rest of the civil service and the country, as part of efforts to give GDS a national footprint and improve its relationships with government organisations across the UK.

The academy is also part of the Government Transformation Strategy, which was released – after almost a year’s delay – at the start of last month. Once billed as a Digital Transformation Strategy, the government dropped the “digital” to emphasise that the reforms – which Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer described as “deep transformation” – will require departments to do more than simply switch paper-based services to online ones.

“For most of the strategy, we talk about business transformation, rather than digital or technology,” Cunnington says. Instead, the focus is on establishing a culture change across Whitehall that will see leaders encouraged to adopt more “agile” ways of working. The trademark of the digital sector, agile calls for projects to release prototypes early on and then make small, iterative changes along the way: those in charge have to be ready to make, and learn from, mistakes.

For some this is more likely to be a culture shock rather than a gradual shift, but Cunnington seems confident that there are the operational plans to back up the rhetoric in the strategy. He cites a monthly transformation peer group, Transforming Together, that he has been co-chairing, and which is led by the chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Tony Meggs.

“We’ve been holding these get-togethers, where all the DGs responsible for transformation in the big departments and their core teams talk about how we’re doing transformation, how that’s different from major projects – like building a railway, for example – and what we’re learning as part of that process,” Cunnington says.

This Whitehall supergroup has created a methodology to support transformation projects, which the GDS leader describes as the “seven lenses of transformation”. These lenses include: asking teams to think about their vision, plan, governance and the competencies they have before they start the programme.

“We’ve also created a panel of external experts – we don’t have a lot of these guys in government – who sit with big departments when they’re starting a transformation programme and say, ‘This is the best way to start that programme’,” he says.

There are also bigger meetings, where around 150 people will talk about best practice, what resources might be available for their various projects, and what methodology should be used. “We’ve invested quite a lot in getting a peer group together, developing a methodology and providing external expertise so that when we do these big transformation projects we stand more of a chance of getting them right,” he says.

So how would the group have benefitted him when he first moved into government and was thrown into working on the high-profile Universal Credit?

“It would have been massively helpful,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Because I didn’t come from that parish – I came from Vodafone – I didn’t know how to do these things. You felt pretty isolated. And it’s quite a responsibility if you’re asked to do one of these billion-pound transformations having not done it before.

“It would have been helpful to understand the scale, the timeframes, the sorts of things we all bump into – that it takes longer than you think and that the funding and resourcing money that you start with needs to be adapted as you move through.

“We might not always know the answers, because we’ve never done some of these things before, but at least you’ve got a kind of self-help group that sits with you and says ‘You’re not alone’. It would have been incredibly helpful.”

Cunnington’s membership of the cross-Whitehall transformation group might also help thaw the sometimes fraught relationships between GDS and the rest of Whitehall.

The GDS boss has been trying to engender a change in attitude and approach since he joined the service, saying that he wants interactions to be less “adversarial”, particularly when it comes to GDS’s spend control regime, which was set up by former minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude and founding GDS leader Mike Bracken.

Designed to encourage more innovative thinking in government digital and stop departments frittering away millions on IT projects that were doomed to fail, the controls – which allow GDS to audit and reject departments’ spending proposals if they are over a certain amount – have been praised and pilloried in equal measure over the years. Proponents argue they cut down on wasteful spending, but not everyone is on board, with concerns that they will reduce departments’ autonomy.

After just two months in the job, Cunnington indicated his own opinion on the controversial controls, when he said there were plans to change the way they worked, and he has now revealed some of the details of the new plan to CSW.

“We’re moving away from the one-size-fits-all model where if you spent £100,000 you had to go to GDS assessment,” he says. “Now we will we look at departments’ 15-month roadmap and go through it in some detail and we will decide what we’re really going to focus on [with the department]. Our expectation is that 70% will be fine, and they can crack on with it. Twenty percent, we think we’ll need to keep an eye on it with them, and on the last 10% we’ll say ‘we probably just think you’re wrong’ and will need to get involved.”

Cunnington says this will lead to “much more considered, continuous interactions – it’s more informed, but also removes us from this adversarial point-in-time audit”.

However, there can be no escaping the fact that the initial proposals for the move towards more flexible controls were greeted with dismay from some of the more vocal critics of the new-look GDS, while the Government Transformation Strategy was met with a generally lacklustre response from people who feel the wind is leaving GDS’s sails. What does Cunnington say to his detractors?

"We are taking on a harder job and trying to do it more effectively"

“I wouldn’t agree with any of it,” he replies. “We have genuinely said that we’re doing everything we said we’d do in the [original digital] strategy published in 2012, and that has been successful to a point where we now feel we can have a really good go at the really hard stuff that we weren’t able to do when we started the journey. So, I’d say: we are taking on a harder job and trying to do it more effectively.”

Cunnington’s arrival has also brought with it a reorganisation of GDS’s structure, away from splitting people into digital, data or technology teams and towards placing them into one of three main groups: capability; service design and assurance; and policy and engagement. Some of this has been prompted by a greater awareness of how the gap between the policy and digital delivery teams is causing problems for projects, with the two sides remaining largely separate entities that often fail to understand each other.

Cunnington also notes that GDS has hired two former No 10 policy advisers – “proper policy people”, as he describes them – who are helping the team translate what policy changes need to be made for transformation to be more effective.

“Having policy people on board helps you really lift up the definitions and decide what are you trying to do in terms of changing behaviour, whereas previously we’d almost have digitised it the way it was, rather than thinking about how we’d redesign it in the first place,” Cunnington says.

The new leader is also keen to emphasise that GDS is growing in both size and seniority. “This is the first time we’ve had a DG running GDS, not a director,” he says. “We have today six director-level posts, and we’ve been recruiting four to five people a month into GDS. In many ways, I’d say we’ve upscaled GDS to have more people at the top running things. [The strategy] is actually all about upgrading GDS to do more than it used to.”

Part of this upgrade involves a move to brand new offices in east London’s Aldgate as the lease on GDS’s current home at Aviation House in Holborn comes to an end. Although Cunnington is excited about the new digs, he also names the move as one of the two biggest challenges he’s faced in the past six months – the other being getting the strategy ready for publication.

“But the move is a positive challenge,” he says. “We’re at the point now where we are creaking at the seams, so the thing we’re looking forward to is the space – and it’s nicer, much more modern, and you can rub the crayons off the new whiteboards: they’re all glass.”

Cunnington certainly seems upbeat about the future of GDS in its new home, as well as the wider government transformation drive. But, as the cold water swimmer readily admits, he is known for diving into challenges others might shy away from.

“It takes a certain amount of idiosyncrasy to want to chuck yourself into one-degree water,” he says. No doubt the same could be said of his day-job.

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