UK launches new search for digital chief

By on 24/08/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Alison Pritchard is to leave GDS to take on a new role at the Office of National Statistics. (Photo by Paul Heartfield).

The UK has begun a recruitment drive for a government chief digital officer (GCDO), Cabinet Office permanent secretary and chief operating officer of the civil service, Alex Chisholm, revealed in a blog post.

The GCDO will head up the government’s 18,000-strong Digital, Data & Technology (DDaT) profession and oversee the Government Digital Service (GDS). The appointee will be responsible for shaping and delivering innovation and transformation strategies to overhaul government’s legacy IT systems, strengthen cybersecurity, improve capability, and “ensure government can better leverage data and emerging technologies to design and deliver citizen-centric services”, Chisholm said.

He added that the UK civil service “faces some of its greatest challenges in a generation”, including managing the coronavirus pandemic and preparing for the EU exit, and that the DDaT function will be integral to this work.

The government had initially begun the search for a government chief digital information officer (GCDIO) in 2017. It relaunched its recruitment drive last year and increased the seniority of the role to permanent secretary level. Final interviews were scheduled to take place last November, but no appointment was made. Cabinet Office sources have told GGF that the GCDIO recruitment failed, in part, because the salary – £180,000 (US$235,000) – was well below those available to senior digital leaders in the private sector. The new role is being advertised with a slightly higher salary, at £200,000. 

It is understood that the GCDO role will be filled instead of that of GCDIO. Chisholm said in his blog that he had taken the opportunity to review the role and person specification and to “clarify the levers and support” the appointee would be able to draw on to make a success of it.  

The news follows the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) appointment of its first head of data policy in November last year. There had been ongoing tensions between the DCMS and the Cabinet Office, in which GDS is based, over control of the data agenda, though last month prime minister Boris Johnson announced that responsibility for the government’s use of data had been moved back to the Cabinet Office from DCMS.   

Alison Pritchard moves on

In the blog post, Chisholm also announced that GDS’s interim director general Alison Pritchard – who GGF interviewed last year – is to take up a new role at the Office for National Statistics (ONS). She will begin her role as deputy national statistician and director general for data capability in October.

Pritchard will “drive the transformation of data services available to analysts, decision-makers and the public, mobilising data held by departments and providing an authoritative and compelling public face for this agenda,” Chisholm said.

The role will also include the delivery of digital services including “utilising data from across government and the private sector to enable the production of better statistics, the delivery of technical platforms which are efficient and resilient to support digital services and the transformation of business processes,” he added.

Chisholm said he is grateful for Pritchard’s “direction and leadership” over the past year, in which the GDS has performed a vital role at the centre of the government’s preparations for the EU Exit and the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic “under considerable scrutiny”.

Fiona Deans, who is currently chief operating officer at GDS, is to take over as head of the unit until a GCDO is recruited.

A July 2019 report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, found that the UK government’s digital strategy had lost momentum and blamed a lack of leadership as one of its primary concerns. As part of its response to that report, the government pledged last October to develop a “robust” set of metrics to measure the progress of digital initiatives.

The need for more progress on the data agenda isn’t lost on Pritchard, who said in a GGF interview last year that taking Brexit out of the equation, her biggest priorities were data and digital identity. “There aren’t really any technical barriers any more, other than making sure people are abiding by the standards,” she said. “It’s now about working out the use cases and delivering those at scale.”  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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