GDS opens recruitment for chief executive

Digital agency offers salary of £168k in search for first permanent head in more than a year
GDS staff. Photo: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

By Sam Trendall

02 Oct 2020

The Government Digital Service has opened recruitment for the role of chief executive and is seeking an “inspiring and talented senior leader” to become the organisation’s first permanent head in over a year.

Former GDS boss Kevin Cunnington left the digital agency in summer 2019 and was replaced by Alison Pritchard, who served as interim director general for about a year. Following her departure to take a position at the Office for National Statistics, chief operating officer Fiona Deans was last month promoted to the top job – once again on an interim basis.

When the new chief exec joins GDS – which is likely to be in the early weeks of 2021 – they will become the organisation’s first permanent leader in about 18 months.

The post has been rebranded from director general to chief executive, although the advert indicated it holds the same level of seniority. 

The successful candidate will be paid £168,000 a year, plus a potential performance-related bonus of up to 15% of this amount – £25,200.

Depending on the successful candidate’s preference, the role can be based in one of London, Bristol, or Manchester, although travel to all these locations will be required at times.

Unlike their predecessors, the incoming GDS head will report to the government chief digital officer – a newly-created position for which applications closed 10 days ago. 

The GDS boss will have a remit to “create and implement a vision and strategy for the delivery of common components, products and platforms that meet departments’ diverse needs and citizens’ growing expectations”.

In addition to promoting uptake of existing tools created by the digital unit, the chosen applicant will also be expected to “assure and oversee the implementation of technical strategies that will deliver robust, scalable and elegant products that will transform government services”.

The CEO will oversee the work of GDS’s approximately 850 staff, and hold responsibility for the organisation’s budget. They will also be accountable for managing performance and risk.

As well as leading work on the agency’s long-standing messaging, digital identity, and payment tools, according to the candidate pack “the CEO will also be responsible for the continued operation of the Vulnerable People Services, a key part of the government’s shielding programme in response to Covid-19”.

New impetus

In his foreword to the job pack, Cabinet Office permanent secretary officer Alex Chisholm said the “the coronavirus pandemic has provided new impetus and opportunity” for government’s transformation agenda. 

“Every decision relies upon the highest quality data and analysis. Every solution will benefit from technical expertise. Right now, the combined efforts of our digital, data and technology profession is integral to the national response, protecting our economy and saving lives,” he said.

“Delivering this change will require a major transformational effort: to update or replace numerous legacy technologies, accelerate the move to scalable cloud-based technologies, define the policies and interfaces needed to unlock the potential of the vast government data sets, and embrace the latest technologies to pioneer ever-more convenient ways to deliver services to citizens, with ever greater efficiency.”

He added: “The Government Digital Service will be central to this effort. For almost a decade, GDS has transformed government through the design and delivery of common components, platforms and services that have improved millions of citizens’ everyday experience of government and set the standard for the world. Now we need to go again – but even better.”

Candidates interested in the CEO post should possess “deep experience” of heading up development and delivery teams, as well as “significant software development and infrastructure architecture experience in designing large-scale digital services around user needs”.

The post will also require an aptitude for leading cross-disciplinary teams and promoting engagement with other job functions, in addition to experience of “leading or contributing to major programmes of complex, organisation-wide change, delivered at pace”.

Applications for the role are open until midday on 23 October. Candidates are asked to submit a CV, including contact information for two referees and details of their current remuneration, and a covering letter, running to no more than three pages of A4, explaining their interest in and suitability for the role. A completed diversity questionnaire must also be submitted.

Once applications have closed, a longlist will be drawn up, followed by initial interviews during the first half of November with representatives of Russell Reynolds Associates – a recruitment firm retained by government to support the hiring process.

Applicants will then be whittled down to a shortlist who will take part in a process of “assessments and stakeholder conversations” that will take place over the last two weeks of November.

Final panel interviews are scheduled for 8 December.

The panel will be chaired by Isabel Doverty of the Civil Service Commission – who is also heading up the panel for the recruitment of the government chief digital officer. Chisholm will also be present on both panels.

Joining them in assessing candidates for the GDS CEO role will be Susannah Storey, director general for digital and media policy in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The panel will be completed by an industry representative: Jacqueline de Rojas, president of techUK, who has previously served on the panel for other senior digital and tech jobs in Whitehall.

Chisholm said: “For an experienced leader, there is no working environment more exciting, more challenging, or more rewarding than government, and perhaps no more important time for public service. We have the opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people. If this appeals to you, and you think you have what it will take, please do get in touch.”

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

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