Labour attacks ‘haemorrhaging’ of digital talent

Six permanent members of staff have resigned from the Government Digital Service (GDS) since May, Matt Hancock has disclosed.

Last month, Labour’s business and culture spokesperson Chi Onwurah tabled a question in the House of Commons asking the Cabinet Office minister to reveal the total number of exits at the central government unit. 

Her questions followed the departure of the digital team’s executive director Mike Bracken, a move which prompted speculation that the digital team could be downsized at the forthcoming government-wide Spending Review.

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Responding on Monday, Hancock confirmed that six permanent employees had resigned from the central government digital team since May 1, representing 2% of the total GDS workforce. 

Staff turnover in the year to September 30 stood at 19%, the minister said, lower than the turnover rate at the wider Cabinet Office, which stood at 30%.

On the turnover figures, Hancock added: “This includes loans, secondments and fixed term appointments ending, transfers to other government departments (including machinery of government changes), voluntary exits, resignations and retirements.”

Speaking to Civil Service World, Onwurah said the figures showed the Cabinet Office was facing a “human resources disaster” and the “haemorrhaging” of digital talent. 

She added: “If you inherit a jewel in the crown of global digital government the least you can do is keep it together.”

The recent departures at GDS – which has sought to change the way departments buy IT, ensure common design standards for digital services, and bring government all websites under the single GOV.UK domain – were downplayed by cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood in a recent interview with CSW.

Heywood said GDS’s work remained one of his “top priorities”, adding that Hancock – who replaced Francis Maude following the general election – was a “huge supporter” of the unit’s work.

Heywood added: “Yes, we have lost Mike, and we’ve lost two or three other people. It’s a rapidly turning over part of government. We’ve brought some good new people in as well. I’ve got absolute confidence in the team that we’ve got and it’s got my full backing. It has to: there’s no way we can make these savings without mainstreaming digital. So I think Mike would be the first to say the stories in the press are completely misguided.”

As well as Bracken – who has left to take up post at the Co-operative group – GDS confirmed in a recent blog that deputy director Tom Loosemore, director of strategy Russell Davies, and director of design Ben Terrett would also be heading for the exit. Head of user research Leisa Reichelt also announced her intention to step down, while digital transformation programme director Michael Beaven has taken up post with private sector tech firm Methods Digital.

Hancock’s answer also revealed that the six were part of a wider 27 resignations of permanent staff from the Cabinet Office since May 1. The 27 exits represented 1% of the department’s total workforce, he said.

Colin Marrs

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