IT spending controls are set to change, says new GDS leader

In his first press briefing since taking over at the Government Digital Service, Kevin Cunnington has indicated plans for lighter spend controls, a greater national presence – and perhaps a farewell to bunting.

Cunnington has said there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to spend controls – Photo credit: GDS

The Government Digital Service’s new leader Kevin Cunnington has suggested that spending controls on government IT projects could be relaxed.

In his first press briefing since taking the reins from Stephen Foreshew-Cain in August, Cunnington said that GDS would “still definitely” be monitoring government departments’ spending on IT projects.

However, he added that it was working on a “different approach” that aims to be less “adversarial”.

The spend controls were introduced by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2010 in an effort to stop departments being tied in to high-value IT contracts. They allow GDS to review and approve – or reject – digital or technology projects where departments want to spend more than £100,000.

However, Cunnington said that this limit was set five years ago and that £100,000 is not “just too low for most of the digital projects that government wants to carry out”.

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GDS is instead looking at taking a different approach to spend controls, he said, which involves piloting a new system with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice that will complete at the end of the year and deciding on what the right level of control is.

When asked by PublicTechnology if this meant the £100,000 threshold would be changed, Cunnington said that “it’s highly likely we would”, while suggesting that there may not be a single threshold across Whitehall.

“The thresholds are more likely to be a sensible discussion around the money, rather than an actual one-size-fits-all limit, because we know some of the big departments spend a lot on technology and have some big programmes, while some smaller departments spend less,” Cunnington said.

Changing relationships

Cunnington also said that the spend controls had been a proxy for deciding whether departments were “doing the right work”, which had led to “adversarial” conversation with departments at times.

He said that when GDS was set up it “had to – legitimately – police people”, but that there was now “no need for departments or GDS to take that adversarial approach”.

Instead, GDS wants to improve collaboration with departments and spend “more time talking to each other”.

On standards, this will involve working with departments to review projects at six months, and one and five years, to check they are going in the right direction – “and if they are we’re prepared to be a lot more collaborative about controls”.

Cunnington’s replies hint at a different design approach to the assessment of digital projects, which would tie in with comments made by Emily Hall-Strutt at the MoJ, who last month revealed that the MoJ was testing “continuous service review” in a bid to cut stress levels and last-minute cramming by teams whose services were due an assessment.

During the briefing, Cunnington repeatedly emphasised the importance of GDS gaining a “real footprint” across the country, saying that it needed to be part of discussions happening in the regions.

For instance, he said, discussions about data-sharing between the NHS and DWP are taking place in Leeds, where NHS Digital is based, and it would be helpful for GDS to be involved in such conversations.

Asked how he envisaged GDS gaining this national presence, Cunnington pointed to the work it would be doing in taking the DWP’s digital academy to a national scale – he has said he plans for it to train 3,000 civil servants a year in digital, technology and data and establish another four bases across the UK.

Good-bye to bunting?

There has been much speculation lately that Cunnington’s appointment is part of plans within the civil service to start breaking up GDS and sending delivery back out into the departments while shrinking GDS at the centre.

However, Cunnington said that he expected the service to be “broadly the same size” (currently there are around 650 staff at GDS) and have a better relationship with departments, noting that it would also be in “lovely new offices” in Aldgate.

He also stressed that the teams within GDS would continue develop services – contrary to rumours that the service would become more of a central government transformation strategy unit than one that also delivered services.

Responding to a question posed by PublicTechnology about morale within the service, Cunnington seemed to acknowledge that the transition had been harder for some to handle than others, but stressed that some of the speculation was “overstated”.

“They’re giving me chance to prove myself,” he said. “I get the sense they’re warming to me… They want me to be myself.”

Despite this positive answer – and clear enthusiasm for the trendy new offices – Cunnington declined to definitively answer PublicTechnology’s question about whether the bunting that GDS is so famous for would survive the cross-London trip, instead offering a smile and a slight shrug in response.

Pressure on Verify

Another major area of focus for GDS will be on the flagship identity assurance programme Verify, which has been plagued by delays over its years – although some people have said this was due to it being set unrealistic targets initially.

Cunnington’s comments during the briefing suggested that the programme was being closely watched by civil service chief executive John Manzoni, but the GDS boss said he felt “very bullish” about its potential to succeed.

Among his plans for Verify are efforts to change the business model so that it is no longer limited to government services, saying that both banks and organisations that run gambling services are interested in the programme. However, he added that there were no plans to charge for the service being used by those outside the public sector.

He also batted away questions about concerns over lack of buy-in from the major departments, such as DWP and HMRC, saying that DWP was a “strong supporter” and that the “HMRC issue isn’t an issue”.

His argument was that Verify works at a higher level than is required by HMRC – it acts to verify someone’s identity at a level that ensures the right people are being paid by government (for instance benefits payments), rather than verifying people who want to pay money in to government.

In addition, Verify is constrained to citizens and not agents – which HMRC requires – and it is not likely that Verify will be adapted for that purpose at the moment.

However, Cunnington indicated that he wanted to push for increased use by other potential users, such as the MoJ, NHS and Drivers and Vehicles Licencing Agency.


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