UK geodata and digital chiefs to step down

By on 24/06/2019
Priest: handing over to deputy policy chief Thalia Baldwin (Image courtesy: Niklas Halle'n).

The heads of the UK’s digital unit and its geospatial data strategy are both to leave their jobs, with digital chief Kevin Cunnington moving to a new role promoting UK government services to public sectors overseas.

On Friday the Cabinet Office announced that Thalia Baldwin is to become director of the Geospatial Commission, following an open competition. She is to replace William Priest, who founded the commission following his appointment last year.

Last year, the Geospatial Commission consulted on structural reforms to the UK’s data management operations, with Priest hinting at radical changes. “We have six individual bodies tasked with producing geospatial information,” he told Global Government Forum in an interview in October. “Should they come together? Should they all be part of the commission? I’ve an open mind; but there are some structural changes that we’ll consider”.

Priest also praised Singapore’s mergers of the bodies responsible for mapping and land ownership data, and its creation of “a virtual, end-to-end commission for all geospatial data,” calling it a “really good model.”

A new model

John Manzoni, chief executive of the UK civil service, commented that under Priest, “the Commission has established a strong team of functional expertise, delivered the first outputs to unlock an estimated £11bn [US$14bn] of economic value and begun to assemble the evidence it needs to develop a long term geospatial strategy for the UK.”

Thalia Baldwin, Priest’s replacement, is currently the commission’s deputy director for policy. She was previously head of digital policy at HM Treasury – a role that will have left her with useful expertise and contacts for her new job.

Overseas offers

Priest’s departure follows the announcement last Tuesday that Cunnington, director general of the Cabinet Office-based Government Digital Service, is to take up a new role as director general of the newly-created International Government Service (IGS). At IGS, Cunnington said, he’ll be “exploring how the UK can provide government-to-government services, including digital, on a global stage.”

John Manzoni, chief executive of the UK civil service and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, said that during Cunnington’s tenure, “GDS has matured into an established function, responsible for accelerating digital transformation right across government and the wider public sector.

“The civil service now has more technical capability than ever before, while the UK is consistently ranked among the world’s most digitally enabled governments.”

Cunnington: moving to promote UK government services overseas (Image courtesy: Niklas Halle’n).

From policeman to preacher

Cunnington has worked to reposition the GDS as a champion of innovation across the civil service, conducting a ‘landscape review’ and, earlier this month, publishing a Technology Innovation Strategy.

However, in other areas the GDS seems to have been in retreat. Last year, it lost control of data policy, with responsibilities split between the culture department, and Priest’s new Geospatial Commission.

And in recent years the unit has taken a less interventionalist approach to departmental digital projects – abandoning its ‘spend control’ approval process, and allowing departments to audit their own programmes under GDS oversight. In a December interview with Global Government Forum, Cunnington acknowledged that GDS has also introduced a still lighter-touch process for Brexit-related schemes, in order to avoid becoming a bottleneck slowing the delivery of urgent projects across government.

Cash savings

However, he denied that these changes have weakened GDS’s effectiveness, saying the amount of money saved each year due to its work had risen from £339m ($428m) to £450m ($569m).

GDS has also run into trouble on its Verify identity verification service project.

In December, spending watchdog the National Audit Office criticised the project, calling it “an example of many of the failings in major programmes that we often see, including optimism bias and failure to set clear objectives.”

Alison Pritchard, GDS’s director for EU exit and transformation, will replace Cunnington on an interim basis while the government runs a competition to find a permanent successor.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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