GDS chief says it should be ‘cajoling’ departments towards new tech

Kevin Cunnington believes the central agency should be leading on the ideas that will be of interest to departments in two years’ time

Photo: GDS

By Sam Trendall

03 May 2019

The head of the Government Digital Service has claimed he wants the organisation to devote more of its energies to “prototyping things today that departments will want to explore in two years’ time”.

Appearing on GDS’s own podcast, director general Kevin Cunnington (pictured above) cited a handful of priorities for the digital agency in the coming years. A major focus, he said, will be on helping to realise emerging concepts and lay the groundwork for government departments to implement new technology.

As an example, he pointed to the GDS’s ongoing work in the area of voice recognition and activation.


Cunnington said: “[We want to] be more proactive about, ‘this is what good in the space of biometrics’ [is], or ‘this is good in the space of voice activation’, and begin to work more proactively with departments to lay out that roadmap that we asked them to follow.”

He added: “[We should be] working with some departments on exemplars, setting the standards and then really encouraging – cajoling, even – departments to say: ‘well, now we’ve figured out how to do voice activation of services, why wouldn’t you make all your major services voice ‘activationable’ by 2027?’.”

Another priority picked out by the GDS chief was “reflecting the society we serve”. The organisation’s work in this area will include efforts to improve gender, race, and cognitive diversity, as well as broadening its supply chain and its geographic spread.

He said: “[We] need to encourage SMEs across the UK to work with us. We also need, as GDS, to have a more regional footprint.”

Since Cunnington joined as director general three years ago, GDS has more than doubled in size from 400 employees to about 860, he said, and this has changed the feel of the organisation.

“It was still kind of like a big start-up back in ‘16 [2016],” he said. “Where it is now in ’19… it feels more like an enterprise.”

Cunnington said that he routinely gives “two bits of advice” to similar organisations in other countries that are just starting out.

“Build capability, get the academies sorted at scale; [and]… don’t start building applications until you’ve got your identity strategy sorted out,” he said.

He admitted that, with the GOV.UK Verify programme, GDS had not adhered to this second piece of guidance.

Cunnington said: “If you don’t get your identity strategy first and foremost… then you find yourself in the kind of position we are – which is playing catch-up on identity.”

Elsewhere in his podcast appearance, Cunnington revealed that, earlier in his career, he “had a spell as an entrepreneur” which began successfully but ultimately saw him lose £13m on a venture that did not work out as planned.

He also said that, while it has been some time since he did any coding, he would like to return to the discipline one day.

“My passion was always Prolog and Lisp and since [those languages] are no longer really around, I just… wouldn’t have the skill set to programme in Java or Ruby nowadays, so I’ve not done any for years really,” he said. “I think I’d like to go back to it when I retire.”

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