UK Government to appoint Government Chief Digital Information Officer at one of the highest levels of Civil Service

Oliver Dowden, Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The UK Government is set to appoint a Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) at one of the highest levels of the Civil Service, it was announced today.

Ministers want a new and “powerful” Permanent Secretary-level appointee to drive transformation more rapidly across government as a “signal of how important we think effective, integrated online government is.”

“Their job will be to ensure that we deliver cross-government strategies for transformation, data, cyber security, and innovation,” Oliver Dowden, Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office, told delegates at the Sprint 19 conference in London today.

He said: “They will design and implement standards which improve delivery outcomes, reduce risk and enable value for money in departments. Crucially, they will ensure that we are equipping Government departments with the skills needed to reform, develop and thrive.”

“We’re looking for someone world-class, with the skills and experience to up the pace of transformation and be your champion within Whitehall.”

It will be the first time such a senior role has been created in the Civil Service with overarching responsibility for digital services across government; Dowden said the hunt is “underway” for a candidate and that he hoped to provide an update soon.

He said also that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has asked the UK to host a global ‘E-Leaders’ event in Autumn 2020, which he described as a “huge honour” and an opportunity to showcase to the world what Britain can do.

Reading between the lines of Dowden’s speech, there was a clear subtext that he wants to reboot the Government Digital Service (GDS), which saw the departure of its Director General, Kevin Cunnington, last month. Alison Pritchard has been appointed as Interim Director General but there is clearly a shift in power underway as the new appointee is set to report to John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service. 

Gripped by the Brexit agenda, it is yet to become apparent how much the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his controversial Chief of Staff, Dominic Cummings, who is a huge advocate for technological-driven disruption, will see the new GCDIO role as a chance to shake up the old-fashioned bureaucracies of Whitehall.

Dowden, who sits in Cabinet, will be assisted by Simon Hart, who has taken over his old role as the Minister for Implementation and will have day-to-day oversight of GDS, which also indicates that the profile of digital is set to beefed up in the new administration. The announcement also comes a week after it emerged that Downing Street had ordered departments to centralise the collection and analysis of user information from the government’s main public information website – GOV.UK – ahead of Brexit, to the alarm of privacy campaigners.

Rebutting that claim, Dowden used his speech to suggest that government is more interested in bringing data sets together in order to ‘get it right from the start’ rather than to exercise state control over personal information.

He said: “Doing this requires us to bring together data that already exists – into one place, so that trends can be properly analysed to improve things for users. But up until now, analytics for GOV.UK been fragmented, which has made this impossible.

“We’re now fixing this siloed approach to data once and for all so that we can get better insights into how people are interacting with government online.”

He added: “But let’s be clear. It is absolutely not about gathering people’s personal data for political purposes.”

On the need to keep moving forward, excerpts of Mr Dowden’s speech seemed to be an attempt to boost the moral of GDS staff, who won high praise when the organisation was first created but have been stung in recent years by criticism over various stalled projects including the identity programme VERIFY.

He said: “I remember when GDS was created. I remember the excitement, the pace, the ‘revolutionary’ spirit centred around making things better for users – and we must always challenge ourselves to continue breaking new ground.

“I want to know that in five years’ time, my successors will still be invited around the world to talk about the work you’re doing now – so the challenge is to keep moving forward.”

The Minister told the audience that improved online services would free up civil servants’ time and save taxpayer’s money, allowing investments to be made in hospitals, schools and the police.

He also set out an ambition to drive a new wave of digital transformation, in which online services are integrated and data and digital identity are used to proactively help the public – for example by prompting those claiming childcare online to look at information for parents on support in the early years.

And he revealed that the Government is already working to integrate services, data and information around key life events – like having a baby, setting up a business, and what to do when a loved one passes away – in order to support citizens.

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