Headhunter fees for second fruitless attempt to hire government digital head revealed

Department releases information on appeal under FoI rules – 18 months after request was made
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By Sam Trendall

15 Sep 2022

The Cabinet Office has revealed how much it spent retaining the services of a recruitment firm to support its second unsuccessful attempt to recruit a government-wide digital leader.

The spending figure was released by the department following a freedom of information request submitted by CSW's sister title PublicTechnology. After this initial submission was denied – on a claimed exemption on grounds of being commercially prejudicial – an appeal for further review was made: 18 months ago, in early 2021.

After – very – careful consideration, the department has now apparently completed this review process and decided that the exemptions under which it initially declined to release the information “were not properly applied”.

This being the case, it has now revealed that it spent “a provisional figure” of £56,500 with Russell Reynolds Associates during a 15-week contract that came into effect on 14 August 2020. The deal related to the process through which the Cabinet Office intended to recruit a government chief digital officer.

The launch of the hiring process marked the second time in less than a year the department had attempted to recruit such a figure. The August 2020 publication of the advert for the £200,000-a-year GCDO role came 11 months after a near-identical post – government chief digital and information officer – had been advertised. 

In both instances, the position was never filled.

Some time later, it emerged that the second attempt – as led by Russell Reynolds – did at least result in an “outstanding candidate” being identified, Paul Willmott. However, he was unable to take on the role due to his commitments to his current post as chief digital adviser to the Lego Group.

After failing to find a suitable appointee for the GCDO position for the second time, the Cabinet Office decided instead in early 2021 to create a new entity: the Central Digital and Data Office. Former Home Office digital leader Joanna Davinson was brought in as its executive leader, with Willmott appointed as the new unit’s chair: an unpaid, non-executive and part-time position, requiring about half a day of work per week.

A year later – and with Davinson understood to be planning to retire – a third bid to hire a government chief digital officer was launched in February. This time the Cabinet Office was successful, and it was announced last month that it had chosen former HM Revenue and Customs and NHS senior manager Mike Potter for the role as government's foremost technologist.

Russell Reynolds was once again retained to support this process in a contract with the Cabinet Office worth £55,000 – taking cumulative spending across the two recruitment attempts to £111,500.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared

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