Junior minister becomes the 12th parliamentarian in less than seven years to oversee digital government initiatives
Heather Wheeler has been confirmed as the minister with responsibility for the work of the Government Digital Service and the Central Digital and Data Office.
Wheeler (pictured above) holds a junior ministerial post as parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet Office. She becomes the 12th person in a period of less than seven years to take on the GDS and wider digital government brief.
Between September 2021 and February 2022, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay – the department’s most senior minister – was understood to have directly overseen government digital and tech issues.
A mini-reshuffle in February saw Barclay given an additional, non-ministerial job as Downing Street chief of staff, meaning many of his duties were reassigned to minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Ellis, or other, more junior colleagues in the department.
Having been added to the Cabinet Office’s ministerial line-up as part of the mini-reshuffle, Wheeler’s responsibilities were confirmed some weeks later.
A key part of her finalised portfolio is the work GDS and CDDO – including overseeing the project to deliver a single login system and GOV.UK app for all government services. She will also be responsible for government digital and data more widely, and will be expected to promote science, technology and innovation across departments – particularly the use of evidence-based policymaking. Shared services and civil service HR are also part of her remit.
She has already undertaken her first public engagement in post, speaking about digital transformation at the Vietnamese Investment Forum event held in London last week.
Following the event, she tweeted: “As we recover from the Covid pandemic, grow our economies domestically, combat climate change and trade with nations across the globe, we are all reliant on great digital services and must invest in transforming our digital capability in South Derbyshire and our nation.”
Wheeler’s appointment means that a dozen ministers have now overseen the work of GDS since May 2015. Following the departure from the front benches of Francis Maude – under whose watch the digital agency was created – Matt Hancock, Ben Gummer, Damian Green, Caroline Nokes, Oliver Dowden, Simon Hart, Jeremy Quin, Lord Theodore Agnew, Julia Lopez and, latterly, Barclay have all held the ministerial reins of GDS.
Wheeler has been the Conservative MP for South Derbyshire since the 2010 general election. Prior to joining parliament, she served as a local councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth and then in South Derbyshire – where she became leader of the council in 2007.
Since arriving in Westminster, she has held junior ministerial postings in the then Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Earlier in her career she worked in the insurance industry, and was specialised in professional indemnity insurance.
In 2019, while serving as homelessness minister, Wheeler apologised for using “inappropriate language” about rough sleepers in her constituency, whom she had described in an email as “the traditional type, old tinkers, knife-cutters wandering through”.
These remarks were “not at all representative of the great cultural contribution and rich heritage that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities make to this country”, she said.
The prior year, the minister had faced criticism for tweeting about what the Olympic medal table would look like if the “British Empire” counted as a single entity.