Stephen Foreshew-Cain leaves Government Digital Service as Labour warns of Whitehall 'coup'

Written by Rebecca Hill and Matt Foster on 1 August 2016 in News

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Kevin Cunnington is replacing Stephen Foreshew-Cain at the helm of the Government Digital Service, the Cabinet Office has announced, amid reports of a departmental push-back against the central team.

Cunnington, who has been director of the business transformation group at the Department for Work and Pensions since October 2013, takes over from Foreshew-Cain with immediate effect.

The government has also decided to change the title from executive director of GDS to that of director general.

Foreshew-Cain (pictured) had only been at the helm of the GDS since last year’s departure of GDS founder Mike Bracken, and his exit comes as Labour warned that “a Whitehall plan to undermine” the digital unit was “already well-advanced”.

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Announcing the move on Monday afternoon, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer — appointed as part of prime minister Theresa May’s new government – paid tribute to the “foresight and energy” of his predecessor Matt Hancock.

And he said he was “determined to complete the work” that Hancock began.

Gummer added: “That is why I am confirming the appointment of Kevin Cunnington as the new, and first, director general of the Government Digital Service.

“I have asked him to build on the outstanding legacy of Mike Bracken and Stephen Foreshew-Cain, to work with government departments to continue the transformation of government services so that we can better serve the public, and to continue the global leadership in digital transformation that GDS is rightly famed for here and abroad.”

Cunnington said he was “delighted” to be joining the GDS, which he said would carry on “working across government to continue to improve digital services and increase value for money for taxpayers”.

Cunnington became business transformation director at the DWP in 2013. He also has extensive experience outside Whitehall, having served as head of online at telecoms giant Vodafone and as head of technology for equities, capital markets at global bank Goldman Sachs in the 1990s. 

The reasons for Foreshew-Cain’s departure are not yet clear, with the Cabinet Office declining to directly respond to reports of an internal battle over its future made by trade title Computer Weekly.

According to the site, senior civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC are pushing for responsibility for digital to be returned to individual departments — a move that would undo the efforts made by GDS since 2011 to centralise digital services.

A departing blog posted by Foreshew-Cain on Medium today made no reference to the rumoured splits, with the outgoing GDS chief saying he had told civil service chief executive John Manzoni on Monday that he would be “leaving government”.

Foreshew-Cain, who also serves as the LGBT champion for the Cabinet Office, paid tribute to his colleagues and said GDS had shown it was “possible that users hearts shouldn’t sink whey they needed to do something that meant dealing with government; that government services could be simple, could be clear, and could be fast”.

He added: “I’m confident that I’m leaving a strong team of capable leaders in GDS to see the job through. The leadership team in Alex Holmes, Wendy Coello, Chris Ferguson, Janet Hughes, Iain Patterson, Olivia Neal, Andy Beale, Susana Burlevy and Paul Maltby are the right team to continue to mission of transforming government.

“I’m incredibly proud to see this team of leaders emerge and step up to the plate. And I’m particularly proud of the number of women in that list. Our strategy and our plans are focused. Everyone in the digital profession — right the way across government — is getting on with the job. I wish them all the very best.”

Foreshew-Cain recently spoke out on Twitter over DWP’s project piloting the use of Blockchain technology for benefits payments and spending.

“You can be sure that the user need wasn't: [Please] record forever, immutably, details of my benefits & restrict how I spend them,” he wrote on the social network at the time. “It's not the most vulnerable in our society being served here but divisive ideology of ruler and ruled.”

Writing in the Huffington Post today, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson meanwhile said the latest changes represented a “minor coup”.

Referring to the Home Office’s decision to merge its digital and technology units, which saw the departure of the department’s chief digital officer Norm Driskell, Watson added that a number of Whitehall’s senior digital leaders risked being “quietly removed”.

And the shadow Cabinet Office minister called on Gummer to fight back, saying: “He must safeguard the digital reformers across government and protect Whitehall’s digital revolution from a counter-insurgency led by powerful private secretaries. If he fails to do so, a major opportunity will have been missed.”

The suggestion that GDS-run services could be taken over by other departments would tie in with the recent confirmation that HMRC will not be using the GDS-developed GOV.UK Verify system for businesses to confirm their identities.

Instead, it is expected to develop a different verification system to replace the out-dated Government Gateway.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited government digital strategy – originally due for publication in February but delayed until after the EU referendum – is now expected no earlier than September. This is likely to hold crucial information on GDS’s future, including details on how the £450m promised to the team in last year’s spending review will be allocated.

In June, GDS chief operating officer Alex Holmes told that GDS’ part of the strategy was complete, but that no information would be released until the strategy was published in full.

Today’s Cabinet Office release seeks to stress continuity, saying: “GDS has just announced that 2 of its key projects, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay, have taken huge strides forward, with Notify moving into private beta testing, and Pay now approved to process credit and debit card payments on behalf of other government departments and wider public sector organisations." 

It adds: “The government’s 2015 spending review outlined a £450 million investment in the service.”


This article was amended on 2 August to say that the title of director general is not a lower grade than that of executive director.

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