Government's deputy CTO resigns saying GDS ‘is entering a new phase’

Written by Rebecca Hill on 24 November 2016 in News

James Stewart, the director of technical architecture at the Government Digital Service, has said that he will step down in January, after six years at the service.

'GDS is entering a new phase': The service is due to move to a new HQ in the new year - Photo credit: Derwent London

In a blogpost announcing his departure, Stewart said that the service was “entering a new phase” and that it was “time for me to move on and try something new”. He will leave at the end of January, but said he had not yet decided what he would be doing next.

Stewart is also deputy to the government chief technology officer Andy Beale, who last month announced that he would be leaving government in December, after a summer of high-profile resignations by digital staff across Whitehall.

However, compared with some of the parting shots fired at GDS – most recently the business department’s head of digital recruitment Ann Kempster said GDS was being “slowly dismantled” – Stewart’s blogpost takes a more positive note.

“These six years have been an incredible experience,” he wrote.

“It’s really hard to pick out highlights from the past few years. I’m expecting to be reflecting on what I’ve learned and done for a long time to come, but [there are] a few things that really stand out.”

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Among his eight stand-out points Stewart picked out improved partnerships with security agencies and with other governments, such as India and the US, and formalising the informal links between technology leaders across government through the Technology Leaders Network, which he took over in July this year.

He also emphasised his belief in the spend controls that the former minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude brought in at the start of the decade – controls that new GDS boss Kevin Cunnington has indicated could be relaxed.

In an interview with PublicTechnology last month, Cunnington said that the service wanted to take a less adversarial approach with departments, which would involve lifting the £100,000 limit on digital projects.

“The thresholds are more likely to be a sensible discussion around the money, rather than an actual one-size-fits-all limit, because we know some of the big departments spend a lot on technology and have some big programmes, while some smaller departments spend less,” Cunnington said.

Although Stewart did not refer to these comments directly, he said: “Spend controls are always going to be a controversial topic, but they’re absolutely vital. I’m proud to have been deeply involved in them for several years.”

Stewart argued they had done “a huge amount” to save money, reduce self-harm, force departments to think up better solutions to problems and allow teams to try something different.

“It’s great to see so much praise in the industry for the team that rolled out the new MOT system,” he said.

“Through spend controls, we had spotted a problem there, we were able to support new leadership and a shift in direction, lived through a tense few days of close monitoring and ministerial briefing as they migrated hosting, but a really successful service resulted.”

Stewart’s final point of praise is for the team he has worked with, saying “nothing’s given me more pleasure than creating space for truly multi-disciplinary teams” and that GDS is full of them.

The news of his departure was met with praise and thanks from digital leaders across Whitehall, many of whom took to social media to offer their best wishes.

“Sad news, but people do get to move on… @jystewart is one of the nicest, most aware and empathic people I’ve met in Gov. A proper GDS star,” said GDS transformation lead Simon Everest, while former GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain described him “an amazing technology leader".

Meanwhile, Beale wrote: "Thank you to @jystewart from me & [Her Majesty's Government] as a whole. Led so much positive change & a great ambassador for UK tech globally."

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