Downing Street fellowship hopes to lure ‘top tech talent’ to Whitehall for a year

GDS backs programme to bring in 10 tech experts

Credit: PA

Downing Street has launched an Innovation Fellowship programme it hopes will tempt “top tech talent” to lend their expertise to civil service programmes for a year.

The scheme, which is modelled on a similar initiative run in the US by the White House, aims to bring in about 10 fellows, each of whom will be given an initial one-year contract at senior civil service 1 level, with a salary of £85,000 a year.

All roles will be primarily based in Bristol, London or Manchester, and the government indicated that the contracts may be extended by another year and that it hopes, even after the conclusion of their involvement, many participants “will be inspired to apply for senior leadership roles in government”.

The scheme will be delivered by No.10 in partnership with the Government Digital Service. Fellows will be assigned to one of five departments, each of which is working on a digital- or data-focused project.

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The Ministry of Defence is seeking expert support with its work to use “deep reinforcement learning to support planning for military operations”, while the Department for Education wants to explore the use of digital tools in teaching.

Fellows joining the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department of Health and Social Care will be dedicated to projects focused on the use of information; the former is interested in “unlocking the power of data to address humanitarian crises”, while the latter is working on “designing high-impact data solutions in the fight against Covid-19 and beyond”.

The Ministry of Justice is the final department seeking to recruit fellows; those joining the MoJ will be working on “using digital solutions to better manage offenders in the community”.

Joanna Davinson, executive director of government’s newly established Central Digital and Data Office, said: “It’s essential that we have the right technical skills and experience within the digital, data and technology profession to deliver the best public services. We already have a wealth of talent in the civil service and this programme will allow us to harness external expertise in tackling some of the biggest challenges we face. I look forward to meeting our first cohort.”

Applications for a place on the programme are open until 28 March 2021, and funding for the scheme is provided by the Cabinet Office. If their current employer agrees, fellows can take unpaid leave in order to take part and, for “exceptional candidates”, secondment arrangements may also be considered.

“We want a richly diverse group of fellows united by a passion for using cutting-edge technology and approaches to deliver positive societal impact”, said the programme’s website. “You might be an entrepreneur – perhaps the founder of a social purpose technology company. Or you might be deeply technical – a data scientist with a special interest in privacy preserving machine learning.”

Following the end of the application window, shortlisted candidates will be asked to give “lightning talk” presentations in mid-April, followed by interviews to take place in the latter half of the month.

The fellowship programme will be overseen by an advisory board, chaired by Davinson and also featuring new GDS chief executive Tom Read. 

Anthony Finkelstein, the government’s chief scientific adviser for matters of national security is also on the board, alongside Cabinet Office non-executive director Henry De Zoete – a key figure in the Vote Leave campaign of 2016 who went on the secure a bumper investment deal in his Look After My Bills business when appearing on the television programme Dragons’ Den.

Other members of the board are: Tom Hulme, European head of Google Ventures; Tech Nation chair Stephen Kelly; Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of entrepreneurship Fiona Murray; Tom Shinner, chief operating officer of Entrepreneur First; Deborah Okenla, chief executive of Your Startup, Your Story; and Clara Tsao, president of the foundation that runs the White House programme on the which the fellowship is based.


Sam Trendall

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