Cabinet Office seeks new top dog to ‘lead transformation to digitally enabled 21st century civil service’

Central department opens recruitment for new permanent secretary – who will also serve as civil service chief operating officer – who will replace outgoing Alex Chisholm, who has spearheaded digitisation and reform

The Cabinet Office has launched a recruitment campaign for its next permanent secretary after Alex Chisholm announced he would step down.

A salary of between £170,000 and £185,000 is on offer to Chisholm’s successor, who will also take on his role as civil service chief operating officer.

The outgoing leader announced earlier this month that he will step down from both roles in the spring. According to the latest data, from September 2022, Chisholm – who succeeded Sir John Manzoni in both roles in 2020 – received a pay rise last year that boosted his earnings to  the range of £205,000-£209,999.

This is at least £20,000 higher than the salary on offer to candidates seeking to replace him. However, the job advert states: “More may be available to secure an outstanding candidate – subject to approval from the chief secretary to the Treasury”.

As civil service chief operating officer, Chisholm has helped to drive digital reform and promote better data literacy across government.

The job specification for a candidate to replace him begins by outlining the position’s remit to “lead the ongoing transformation of the civil service with the ambition of creating a more purposeful, professional and digitally enabled 21st century civil service which makes the best use of digital and data capabilities and ensures that the UK continues to top global league tables ranking public administration effectiveness”.

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The successful applicant will also serve as “principal advisor to the minister for the Cabinet Office, providing support, counsel and challenge in setting the overall strategy and policy, ensuring it is cost effective, evidence-based and achievable – and meets the needs of departments”.

The role is open only to applications from UK nationals, who have until 11.55pm on 10 December to apply.

Following shortlisting and assessment processes, final interviews are slated to take place in mid-January 2024. These will be conducted by a panel chaired by civil service commissioner Martin Spencer, and featuring Department of Health and Social Care permanent secretary Chris Wormald, Cabinet Office lead non-executive director Anand Aithal and one other member to be confirmed in due course.

After 10 years in Whitehall, Chisholm will leave as government enters the final 12 months of an ambitious three-year digital and data strategy.

Speaking to PublicTechnology at the launch of the strategy last year, he said that the document and its implementation represents a “change in tone” from the transformation typified by the early work of the Government Digital Service following its creation in late 2011.

“GDS, at the beginning, had a lot of attitude – which was probably [done] deliberately, to try and cut into a sense of inertia, or a lack of awareness in the wider civil service,” he said. “It was also deliberately trying to say: ‘We don’t want every little part of government to have its own website and its own web team – because that’s going to be inefficient’… There was a degree of assertiveness necessary to change that.”

“But, 10 years on, it is very different and a lot of the capacity and capability now is in departments. If you look at HMRC, DWP, MoD, Home Office, or MoJ – they’ve all got really big digital teams of their own: there are 3,000 or so DDaT people in HMRC, [for example] and it is one of the most sophisticated digital organisations in the country.”

In a presentation given this week, the soon-to-depart civil service COO said that digital transformation of services will enable efficiencies of £365m a year, while artificial intelligence will annual deliver productivity savings of £4.8bn, while taking on the workload of “tens of thousands” of existing administrative jobs.

Sam Trendall

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