GDS promised 'national presence' as it takes over DWP's Digital Academy and leaves Aviation House

Written by Rebecca Hill on 15 September 2016 in News

The Government Digital Service is to take ownership of the Department for Work and Pension’s Digital Academy to offer training to civil servants across Whitehall, as Cabinet Office says digital transformation strategy due by the end of the year.

GDS leader Kevin Cunnington has led the Digital Academy since it was started at DWP - Photo credit: Cabinet Office

Alongside what the Cabinet Office is billing as a beefed-up role for GDS, is the news that the service is to leave its current office in Aviation House for “modern and expanded offices” in Aldgate.

A statement from the Cabinet Office said this would “create a new Digital HQ and digital hub”. The move is due to happen before summer 2017.

Making the announcements during his first visit to GDS, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer said that moving DWP’s digital academy to GDS would build capability across government and “give it a real national presence for the very first time”.

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The shake-up comes just a month after the surprise change of leadership at GDS, when Kevin Cunnington, who was previously director general for business transformation at DWP, took over from Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

Cunnington also had oversight of the Digital Academy at DWP, which offers digital training courses to boost staff’s skills and often includes placements in digital teams across government, and the move to expand it under its existing leadership has been welcomed.

Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government, praised the expansion of the scheme, saying that government “urgently needs to increase its digital capability."

Meanwhile, Matthew Trimming, founder of market entry specialists META, told PublicTechnology that the academy was “the obvious candidate on which to build a broader digital profession across government; if you didn’t have it you would have to invent it”.

'Not just digital'

When Cunnington’s move to GDS was announced there were rumours that the senior Whitehall leaders were planning to kill off the service and scatter staff across departments, despite the new leader’s reassurance that he would not break up GDS.

Today’s announcement, though, does indicates a shift in the role of GDS within government, with Cunnington saying in a statement: “More and more we are going to make the work from GDS about transformation – not just digital.”

Trimming said that this is the natural next step for GDS and signifies and “evolution and maturing of its role” across government.

"It’s not going to build another 25 digital exemplars, it will be more about supporting and guiding departments on major transformation projects,” he said. “Kevin is going to focus on a broader transformation agenda across Whitehall as an organisation. Bringing the academy in is a practical example that he will own that transformation and digital profession across government.”

Trimming also suggested it showed Cunnington had the backing of civil service chief executive John Manzoni, making the comparison with the way the civil service's heads of HR or procurement lead their respective professions.

Digital strategy update

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office has said that the digital transformation strategy – which was due before the referendum on membership of the European Union – is now being updated to reflect these changes.

“The government’s digital transformation strategy is also going to be updated to match the new and larger remit of GDS and to take into account the EU referendum vote and the challenges that the Civil Service now face,” it said.

Cunnington added that the update would be completed “before the end of the year”.

Gummer also announced that the one of GDS’s flagship schemes - GOV.UK Pay – has taken its first transaction, with the first services coming online from the autumn.

“These are significant moments, not just for GDS and the Cabinet Office, but for the millions of people who use Government services every day,” Gummer said.

“Our message is clear: we are working hard to make life easier for the people of the UK. We want our services to be simple, easy and efficient - I’m here today to reaffirm that commitment.”

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Jane Roberts (not verified)

Submitted on 20 September, 2016 - 10:00
The doomsayers have clearly been proven wrong in assuming GDS would be broken up – that would be far too drastic a step and a blow to digital government. But I don’t see this as meaning there won’t continue to be more divestment from GDS. Yes, it will play a leading role in the adoption and promotion of digital technology nationwide but that also means it’s going to be more hands-off when it comes to overseeing digital deployments. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it will give departments more autonomy and more flexibility – and the principles laid down by the digital by default and supplier standards, for example, will ensure consistency. But there is a danger that we could see fragmentation and less collaborative working if there’s no real incentive to do so. To prevent that happening, government must ensure open standards are used and expertise shared to maximise the use of developed digital resources.

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