Give GDS boss a place at civil service’s top table to help drive reform, cabinet secretary told

Civil service chief told to “improve the balance” between policy experts and digital specialists in organisation’s top ranks

The head of the Government Digital Service should be given a place on the civil service’s most powerful decision-making body, an influential Whitehall think tank has argued.

In a new report, the Institute for Government says that the top tiers of the civil service remain too dominated by traditional policy experts – with 12 of the current crop of 18 departmental permanent secretaries hailing from a policy background.

While the report says progress has been made since 2013 to raise the esteem of specialists in the civil service, the report says it remains “critical that the civil service tackles entrenched perceptions that a policy background is better preparation for senior management roles in departments”.

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The IfG lists digital among eight areas where it believes Whitehall must still tackle “long-standing capability concerns”, warning: “All too often, Whitehall has struggled (along with many other sectors) to adapt to the new environment created by digital technology, which changes how government operates and services are delivered. The rate of change requires constant adaptability, which is a challenge for any hierarchical organisation.”

In a bid to redress the balance, the IfG says digital specialists should be better integrated into Whitehall’s key decision-making bodies, both at departmental level and right at the top of the civil service.

It says serious thought should be given to ensuring that the head of GDS – Kevin Cunnington – is given a place on the Civil Service Board, which sets strategic leadership for the civil service but currently contains no digital specialists.

“The Cabinet Secretary should improve the balance between permanent secretaries and central heads of specialisms on the Civil Service Board,” the report says.

“The current board – made up of permanent secretaries – is very different from federated organisations in the private and wider public sector, which seek greater strategic input from specialists at the top table.”

It adds: “Given the cabinet secretary’s well-publicised priorities around improving digital and commercial capability in the civil service, the Chief Commercial Officer and Director General of the Government Digital Service would be obvious candidates for full membership.”

The report also warns that the separate Civil Service People Board, responsible for overseeing HR and workforce issues in Whitehall contains only two heads of specialism, namely legal and HR.

“Even if we factor in the input provided by a small number of departmental chief operating officers and a departmental head of HR, there are still key areas of expertise missing, such as commercial, communications, digital and project delivery,” it adds.

The think tank points to the civil service’s Leadership and Learning Board, which leads on training development opportunities, as an example of a key decision-making body which has “achieved a much greater balance between heads of specialisms and permanent secretaries”. This board currently includes Cunnington, alongside the civil service’s HR chief Rupert McNeil and project delivery watchdog Tony Meggs.

The report also calls for change at departmental level, saying permanent secretaries could do more to ensure that digital directors and other key specialists “are represented on their departmental executive leadership teams”.

It adds: “The composition of departmental executive teams is dominated by senior officials in policy roles. The absence of officials in charge of other specialisms such as finance, HR, commercial and digital limits their input into top-level decision making, including decisions about how departments can improve their capability.”

The report praises the Department for Education for ensuring that policy and delivery specialists were brought together right from the start as the DfE developed its apprenticeship service, noting that a small team of specialists across policy, user research, business analysis and digital service design were involved in the scheme’s discovery phase.

“This collaborative, agile approach enabled the platform to be ready ahead of schedule for those employers who wanted to register early. It also allowed a phased approach to adding new functions to the online system, with adjustments made in response to user testing.”

Elsewhere in its report, the IfG says leadership churn at GDS has slowed progress on Whitehall’s digital reform agenda. The organisation has, it notes, been “through three leaders in just 13 months between August 2015 and September 2016”, with Mike Bracken, Stephen Foreshew-Cain and Kevin Cunnington all heading up GDS over this period. 

“This held up publication of the specialism’s strategy document… and created considerable uncertainty over the future role of the Government Digital Service and wider digital profession.”

Digital is also, it warns, lagging behind in providing learning and development to specialists, with the profession receiving by far the worst scores for training opportunities in the civil service’s annual People Survey of staff morale. “As a comparatively new cross-departmental specialism, digital is behind others in providing adequate learning and development opportunities to its specialists,” the report notes.

“Digital is the only major cross-government specialism not to have a core curriculum underpinning its learning and development offer (although the Government Digital Service is looking at developing one),” it adds, pointing to recent moves to extend the reach of the Digital Academy at the Department for Work and Pensions right across Whitehall.


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