UK Cabinet Office announces new strategic digital unit

By on 13/01/2021 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Building a new digital empire: Paul Willmott, chief digital adviser at LEGO Brand Group, will chair the newly created Central Digital and Data Office. Credit: Will Porada/Unsplash

The UK’s Cabinet Office is overhauling the leadership of digital, data and technology, appointing a new head of the Government Digital Service plus leaders of a Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which it says will act as a “new strategic centre for digital, data and technology”.

The CDDO will be led by two new senior appointments: the former founder of McKinsey Digital, Paul Willmott, will be its chair; and Joanna Davinson, who is currently chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office, will become executive director. Meanwhile Tom Read will become the new chief executive of the Government Digital Service (GDS), moving from his role as chief digital officer at the Ministry of Justice. Fiona Deans, the acting GDS chief, is to return to her role as GDS chief operating officer.

A change of plans

The government has long been trying to recruit a permanent secretary-level Government Chief Digital Officer: the job was first advertised in 2017 and renewed in both 2019 and 2020. When launching the third search in August last year, government chief operating officer Alex Chisholm wrote: “The GCDO will be the professional head of HMG’s 18,000 strong DDaT [digital, data and technology] profession, oversee GDS and lead the DDaT function.”

But Cabinet Office never found a suitable candidate at the salary it was offering, and now says it’s rejigging its plans to bring Willmott in as CDDO chair instead. “While recruiting for the GCDO, Paul was the person that everyone recommended as the best fit for the role. But at LEGO [where Willmott is chief digital adviser] he already has a big, complex and exciting job, and he is committed to his employer,” wrote Chisholm in a blog published today. This led Cabinet Office to “flex the structures to fit the individual” and explore “other ways to involve Paul”.

“And so we have created the CDDO, to which we are delighted to appoint Paul as chair,” Chisholm wrote, claiming that the new office will fulfil the same responsibilities as that of the GCDO.

The CDDO will “shape strategy and assure delivery for digital, data and technology across government”, according to the Cabinet Office press release. In a blog, Chisholm explained that the CDDO will “provide professional leadership” to the DDAT function and profession; advise ministers and officials across government; oversee departmental DDAT plans via the business review process; develop the ‘spend controls’ system with Treasury; and support GDS in developing and enforcing technical standards.

Chisholm added that the “CDDO will eventually comprise a council of non-executive experts, appointed by the Minister for the Cabinet Office with the support of Paul, with deep practical experience across the range of DDaT disciplines, from automation to cyber security, cloud and data, product and service design.”

CDDO’s executive director Joanna Davinson, who’s been appointed on an 18-month contract, began her career at the National Audit Office before spending 28 years at PwC and IBM. She rejoined the civil service in November 2017.

Two digital units

With CDDO apparently leading on the DDAT profession and strategic issues, it appears that GDS will in future focus on managing the use of its digital standards across government and helping departments deliver digital projects. Its staff will “oversee the operation of their standards, controls and assurance functions, and enhance their focus on the development and delivery of new digital products and services”, according to the press release.

GDS’s new chief Tom Read began his career in banking and media, joining government in 2013 as chief technology officer at the Cabinet Office. He has run the Ministry of Justice’s digital operations since 2016.

Both Davinson’s role as executive director of CDDO, and Read’s as chief executive of GDS, are director general-level posts, according to a spokesperson from the Cabinet Office – with both reporting into Alex Chisholm, who alongside his role as civil service chief operating officer is the permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office.

While they will work together, the spokesperson said, the roles will be “separate and parallel”, and Davinson will build her own team.

“Together, they will be responsible for shaping and delivering the government’s innovation and transformation strategies to overhaul legacy IT systems, strengthen our cyber security, improve capability, and ensure the government can better leverage data and emerging technologies,” the press release said.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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