GDS demise talk "wide of the mark", says the Institute for Government

Daniel Thornton of the respected IfG think tank predicts greater role in business transformation work for government departments

By Jim Dunton

22 Aug 2016

Civil servants should expect to see a refocusing of the Government Digital Service under new chief Kevin Cunnington but no weakening of its role, the Institute for Government has said.

Earlier this month the departure of Stephen Foreshew-Cain from the helm of the GDS sparked claims of a “Whitehall coup” over the central digital body’s remit. 

Last week, CSW reported that Janet Hughes, programme director of the GDS’s flagship Verify identity-assurance scheme, had become the latest senior digital leader to announce her departure.

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One of new GDS director general Kevin Cunnington’s (pictured) first public acts in post was to state in his inaugural blog that the service was here to stay and would not be broken up.

Institute for Government programme director Daniel Thornton, who closely monitors the government’s digital operations, said Cunnington – who was previously director general for business transformation at the Department for Work and pensions – should be taken at his word.

Speaking to CSW's sister title, Thornton pointed to the £450m funding settlement achieved by Foreshew-Cain for the GDS in last year’s spending review that will see it through the course of the current parliament, as well as to the glowing endorsement civil service chief executive John Manzoni gave to Cunnington on his appointment.

However he said it would be wrong to expect “more of the same” from the GDS under its new chief and predicted a greater role in business transformation work for government departments in addition to continuing work to make the government’s online presence more user-friendly.

“Kevin moving to the GDS is fine and a good thing,” he said. “We [at the IfG] feel very aligned with where he’s at.

“Recently there’s been a lot of talk of government departments ’gutting’ the GDS, which is rather wide of the mark, I think. Instead, what we’re seeing is more of a continuing evolution of GDS.”
Thornton said he expected Cunnington to look to build on his DWP successes at GDS.

“Where Kevin has more experience is in how to transform services end-to-end and deal with legacy services,” he said. 

“He has perspective on the role of digital, and on digital as a driver of transformation, not just changing websites.”

Thornton said he believed Foreshew-Cain had been “already starting” to take the GDS in the direction he predicted Cunnington would. 

Reports that HM Revenue & Customs has been working on its own customer-identification package rather than looking to use GDS’s Verify have contributed to claims that central-versus-departmental tensions are threatening the GDS’s future.

But Thornton said that while it was preferable for government departments to use standardised products to suit their needs, HMRC would have a sound basis for prioritising a solution that worked in its best interests.

“If we look at what the strategic things are that the government needs to get right, then verifying people’s identity is clearly one of them,” he said.

“If HMRC wants to reduce fraud, it’s not about better service for customers, it’s about better service for the taxpayer – the nation as a taxpayer, rather than individuals. Added to which, HMRC needs something that will work with businesses as well as individuals.”

Thornton said he expected reviewing the “take-up” of GOV.UK Verify, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay would be on Cunnington’s to-do list.

In his first – and so-far only – blog entry in his new post, Cunnington said he intended to spend his first few weeks getting to know his team and their ideas, thoughts, and concerns before reporting back with his next online update. 

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