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The great unsung triumph of the last UK Parliament

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Former Prime Minister David Cameron believes the creation of the Government Digital Service, "was one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament.” We went to find out why.

Kevin Cunnington, Director General of Government Digital Services (GDS), is using a lifetime of experience in technology-enabled change to bring true and lasting transformation to citizen-facing government services.

Cunnington joined GDS in August 2016. He is continuing to focus on the objectives outlined in the earlier 2012 Government Digital Transformation Strategy, while working to deliver on new outcomes outlined in the recently released 2017 Government Digital Transformation Strategy.

It is a big task, yet Cunnington says many of his prior positions at big firms, such as Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, involved group-level roles with significant remits. He was keen to use that knowledge in government – and GDS gave him the chance to push control from the center outwards.

“I believe I have expertise in how to corral departments into a common set of objectives,” he says. “My role largely involves creating the vision and strategy, as well as creating the support organization. In government, all the departments want to come on this transformation journey. They realize digital can help them meet financial targets and citizen expectations.”

Building on his experience

Cunnington began his career with at a decade-long stint at PWC, joining the consulting firm through its graduate training program. He drew on his science background to work in the firm’s nascent artificial intelligence department. In 1992, he wrote PWC’s global methodology for Agile.

“People in government tend to think Agile is a new thing and are surprised when they discover that we thought it was sufficiently important 20 years ago that the details needed to be documented so that other people could use it,” he says.

Cunnington moved from PWC to Goldman Sachs in 1993, where he wrote trading systems. “In a way, it’s quite like AI – you speak to experts, you understand what they’re trying to achieve and you encapsulate what they do in a computer program,” he says.

After a decade with Goldman, Cunnington moved to T-Mobile in 2000 and helped pave the way for the future use of technology and information. At the time, he and his colleagues took what now seems a prophetic stance. “We believed the future of data was mobile, not on a computer,” he says.

Cunnington continued pushing boundaries in mobility through senior positions at Refresh Mobile and Vodafone. Following a couple of years in consultancy, he moved into government in 2013, becoming director for general business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The role allowed Cunnington to make the most of his experience. He built a strong relationship with DWP Permanent Secretary Sir Robert Deveraux, who faced the challenge of implementing Universal Credit. Cunnington discovered there was an opportunity to approach the issue through Agile and insourced development capability.

He and his senior colleagues at DWP built a process that relied on flexibility, testing and learning at the front end, as well as some hard-core engineering behind the scenes. “That’s pretty much the way all big transformation programs work,” says Cunnington.

Helping to create true government digital transformation

Cunnington moved from DWP to GDS in the summer of 2016 and found an organization that was already working well towards its digital-by-default agenda. By 2020, the government will be supporting more than 100 customer-facing applications, from renewing a passport to booking a doctor’s appointment.

“Pretty much the entire waterfront of customer expectations will be digital,” he says. The recently released 2017 Government Digitial Transformation Strategy puts in place the steps for further change. Cunnington says the strategy recognizes departments will have gone as far as they can in using citizen-facing digital services by the end of the decade.

The next frontier, he says, is information integration. “The real benefit going forwards comes from joining up the data that different departments hold,” says Cunnington. “The 2017 Strategy is all about setting us up for what comes after 2020.”

He expects transformation work at GDS to focus on several new, core areas. First, complete end-to-end change in a range of business areas, and continuous improvements in those projects.

Second, developing internal digital and data capability. Cunnington says the GDS is helping to train 3,000 of people a year through its academy programs. The organization has also built an external advisory panel to help foster transformation knowledge. Additional initiatives include orchestration programs for senior executives via Oxford University and the development of a transformation methodology, covering areas such as vision, planning, and leadership.

Cunnington’s third priority area through 2020 is an investment in data. This work will focus on the better use of operational data between departments, the publication of more open data, and the use of data mining and data services to help improve service quality. Cunnington is confident his new strategic approach will be successful.

“The UK is the leading e-government according to the United Nations – we would like to remain number one, so we’re putting in place a series of programs to understand how we can learn from other countries and, equally, how we can contribute to other countries as well,” he says.

Cunnington says proof of success comes from the fact that governments in other major nations, including USA, Australia and New Zealand, have taken a similar approach to change. “The myth I choose to spend most of my time busting is that transformation is about digital, digital is about technology and, therefore, transformation is all about technology,” he says.

“Technology changes all the time – digital is just one of the tools that you can use to affect transformation. The most important thing is to think about how your organization in the twenty-first century can operate effectively through the tools it uses.”