Hard lessons: former GDS chief on what works in government – and what doesn’t

By on 09/04/2023 | Updated on 09/04/2023
Speaking with Siobhan Benita in front of 500 Canadian public servants, former GDS chief Kevin Cunnington outlined the traps and enablers in digital transformation

Reflecting on his three-year stint running the UK’s Government Digital Service, Kevin Cunnington was as open about his failures as his successes. Now he’s running a research programme to help others avoid the transformation traps. Matt Ross reports

“Visions are largely irrelevant,” said Kevin Cunnington. “Most of our digital visions are the same: we all talk about life events, digital identity, joined-up services, better tools for civil servants. The differentiator is in the planning and implementation: it’s in the authority you have, and the means to implement your vision.”

To get planning and implementation right, he argued, digital leaders need a detailed understanding of both their own workforce’s capabilities, and the scale of the task facing them. Very few countries have reached this point, said Cunnington, who was director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) 2016-19 – and was talking from hard-won experience.

“In 2013, the UK estimated there were 650 central government applications we needed to build,” he recalled. “Nine years later, how many applications do you think we’ve implemented in the UK? It’s 7,672: more than ten times our original estimate! If somebody had told me at the start that there were 7,672, I’d have been terrified.”

Seven pillars of wisdom

Speaking at Global Government Forum’s AccelerateGov conference in Ottawa last autumn, Cunnington was outlining GGF’s Digital Leaders research programme – and answering moderator Siobhan Benita’s questions: in promoting digital transformation, she asked, “what are the common mistakes that people make? And what would you advise people to start doing – and not to do?”

Last year, Cunnington explained, he worked with GGF to interview the digital heads of seven national governments – publishing a report, ‘Asking the experts: what do digital leaders need to succeed?’, that identified seven key challenges in digital transformation. He then hosted online workshops on some of these issues with digital leaders from around the world, and took the report’s findings to GGF’s Summits for heads of civil services and of government finance – gathering feedback, opinions and solutions. The day after AccelerateGov, Cunnington would complete the second stage of research by discussing the findings with global digital leaders at the Global Government Digital Summit.

There he’d again outline his findings, beginning with this point on digital ‘visions’: these have little value, the research found, unless governments also detail the levers, resources and reforms required to realise their goals. Next up came finding two: “Citizen digital identity is very polarising,” said Cunnington. “If you have it, you can transform; if you don’t, you can’t, because you can’t join up the data that we hold about people in different silos.” Where countries lack a universal, national ID system, he added, “it’s incredibly hard to get it right – but it is vital”.

Don’t run before you can talk

Here, Cunnington reflected on the UK’s mistakes. “Everybody starts their digital transformation of government by building some applications,” he noted. “There’s some usual culprits: births, marriages, deaths, driving licenses, passports.” The UK made good progress on working up its 7,672 new digital services; but departments lacked a common way to identify people, or to share updates across government as their personal details changed. The result is that most services run their own databases, holding variable information in differing formats on individual users – and huge opportunities to cut administration costs and build delivery around the user are being missed.

“If you can’t uniquely identify people, you end up with silos of data about people that are terribly hard to reconcile,” he explained. “If you’re in a situation like the UK, there’s rather a lot of applications and no scaled citizen identity system: you’ve created an enormous problem for yourself that will probably take a decade to unwind.” The lesson is clear: “Try not to start by building, but by getting digital identity and your data model right.”

Kevin Cunnington: “Citizen digital identity is very polarising. If you have it, you can transform; if you don’t, you can’t.”

The report’s third finding concerns funding capital investment, Cunnington continued: “Let me characterise this as: ‘We gave you a lot of money five years ago, Kevin. We’d like to save all the money for climate change right now.’ But it doesn’t work like that: if you don’t continue investing, you don’t resolve your legacy issues.”

Fourth, on finance and project management: “Treasuries around the world still see digital transformation as similar to building a bridge or a railway. They think you have a five-year plan and you stick to it,” Cunnington argued. “What they haven’t recognised is that digital transformation is about changing citizen behaviour; and that citizen behaviour is unpredictable, and changes over time. So you can’t stick rigidly to your plan; you have to have some flexibility.” Similarly, he added, government procurement systems are often too onerous, rigid and slow to support effective transformation.

Transformation is a people issue

On workforce issues, Cunnington warned that constrained pay for digital staff is hampering departments’ ability to attract and retain senior leaders. “It’s the greatest false economy in government,” he argued – costing far more in delayed and failed projects than is ever saved in payroll. And among non-digital leaders, Cunnington added, “we still have a real issue right at the top, with ministers and very senior civil servants not really understanding digital well enough; not feeling confident, or having the skill sets to help us drive transformation”.

And the seventh point: there is, finally, “one bit of good news. Capability at the junior and middle levels, which was a real issue for us all 10 years ago, is largely resolved in the top countries. So at least we know how to do that”. The solutions, said Cunnington, in part lie in setting up digital academies – both to improve the skills of technology professionals, and to give other staff an understanding of digital technologies’ characteristics, capabilities and requirements.

The AccelerateGov conference was held in Ottawa last autumn; the Canadian government will host it again on 3 October 2023

This must be an early priority. Back in 2013, Cunnington recalled, GDS “committed ourselves to developing 25 exemplar services, which we did over a three-year period to 2016. In parallel, we built huge academies and retrained 5,000 civil servants”. So by the time digital leaders had developed the techniques and experience required to scale up transformation, they had also built up the workforce to do so. “You’ve got to scale up your training in parallel with your first implementations, so that when you come out of it you’ve got thousands more people with the skills to help you,” he said. During the three years after 2016, the UK built some 800 new services.

Meanwhile, GDS developed a detailed knowledge of the civil service’s digital, data and technology workforce – standardising how jobs, skills and behaviours are described, measured and rewarded, and gathering data on staff distribution and capabilities across government. This work too is crucial to creating a workable transformation strategy, Cunnington argued: “Only when you understand your capability can you understand what sort of a plan you can implement,” he noted.

Going forward together

The task facing digital leaders around the world is a daunting one, Cunnington said. But it is possible to work up a ‘playbook’ mapping out the key actions required to transform government – and, crucially, the order in which they should be carried out.

Prioritise citizen identity, data management and the establishment of a digital academy, he argued: progress at any scale is impossible without the latter, and ill-advised without the former. Meanwhile, governments should bring together departments’ websites on a single site: “That’s really important,” he commented. “We consolidated 1,900 sites into one national site, GOV.UK. It’s now used by one in three people every week, and has 500,000 pages. I’ve talked to a lot of governments whose national sites are on Facebook. That really doesn’t feel like the right answer to the problem.”

Next, said Cunnington, digital leaders should develop “standards and assurances processes that can be rolled out across government to ensure digital best practice is applied”. Then they can carry out that digital workforce audit; reform procurement of digital tools and capacity; and list and prioritise their service digitalisation caseload. Only when all this work is well underway – and those shared systems, standards, services and digital capabilities are in place – should governments begin digitalising services at scale.

To help digital leaders along this journey, Cunnington and GGF have now published a second Digital Leaders report: ‘The digital leader’s toolkit: 21 ways to transform government’ provides more detail on each of the seven key challenges identified in its predecessor, and offers three potential solutions to each.

Asked whether digital leaders can get involved in GGF’s research programme, Cunnington explained that the Global Government Digital Summit – which will be held in Ottawa again this year, during October – is open to all national and departmental heads of digital. And he suggested another potentially fruitful seam of research: one designed to scope the scale and nature of the transformation challenge facing governments. “I’d love to publish a taxonomy of the kinds of services, by function, that we all need across government,” he said. “That would help countries that are way back on this journey to really understand what they might want to prioritise, where they might start.”

“Finally, I have a personal view, when I look at places like North Africa and the Caribbean, that there are a lot of similarities between where people are at the regional level,” he concluded. “I’d like to host some regional conferences, to give people who are in the same boat a chance to discuss those issues. Let’s see whether people can help each other out.”

The digital leader’s toolkit: 21 ways to transform government’ was published on 12 March. If you’d like to get involved in our Digital Leaders research programme, please contact [email protected].

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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