‘Fair and open’ hiring process pledged for government digital chief after concerns over Amazon head’s role on selection panel

Written by Sam Trendall on 27 August 2020 in News

Government claims using sector expertise is commonplace for the most senior roles

Credit: Amtec Photos/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The government and its independent recruitment watchdog have played down concerns over the appointment of the UK head of Amazon, a major technology supplier to government, to the selection panel for the new £200,000-a-year post as Whitehall’s digital chief.

It was announced earlier this week that the Cabinet Office is to launch the hiring process for the newly created role of government chief digital officer. The permanent secretary-level position comes with a remit to drive digital, data and technology strategies throughout central government. The postholder will sit at the head of the civil service’s DDaT profession, and will also oversee the work of the Government Digital Service.

The GCDO position comes instead of the previously planned role of government chief digital and information officer, a near-identical post that was announced and advertised in September 2019 – but never filled.

The candidate pack for the relaunched recruitment reveals that, as is customary for a role of this seniority, the process will be overseen by a representative of the Civil Service Commission – which regulates Whitehall recruitment to ensure fairness and openness.

Commissioner Isabel Doverty will sit at the head of a selection panel that will also include civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm, HM Treasury director general of public spending Cat Little, Home Office chief DDaT officer Joanna Davinson, and Doug Gurr, the head of Amazon UK.

It is understood that the Cabinet Office was responsible for the composition of the panel, which was then ratified by the Civil Service Commission.

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A spokesperson for the commission told PublicTechnology: “The commissioners are there to ensure that the process is fair and open to all candidates, and that all conflicts of interest are declared and addressed.”

Given Amazon Web Services' role as one of government’s foremost technology suppliers, the potential for conflict of interest is clear. But it is understood that several factors were taken into account when considering Gurr’s presence on the panel – including that he already serves as a non-executive director for a government body, HM Land Registry, and that he is also scheduled to leave his role at the tech firm later this year to take the post of director of the Natural History Museum. 

The outgoing Amazon boss also sits on government’s Digital Economy Council, where he serves alongside representatives of major rivals Google and Microsoft, as well as other tech industry figures, academics, and ministers.

The government indicated that external representatives are a regular feature on selection panels for permanent secretary-level posts. The previous attempt to fill this position saw Jacqueline De Rojas, the president of trade industry body techUK, join civil servants on the recruitment committee.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The new government chief digital officer is a critical role, with the successful candidate responsible for shaping digital transformation and innovation strategies for all of government. To reflect this, the interview panel has been designed to include both senior government officials and specialists in the field. This is entirely normal for such positions."

The job advert for the GCDO role reveals that the post comes with an annual pay packet of £200,000 – some £20,000 more than the GCDIO position advertised last year.

Applications are open until midday on 21 September and the successful candidate will have the choice of basing themselves in one of London, Bristol or Manchester – although national travel will be required.

“The GCDO will be responsible for shaping the digital transformation and innovation strategies for all of government, growing the technical talent of more than 18,000 DDaT professionals across the civil service, and representing the profession to industry and other government stakeholders worldwide,” the advert said. “They will be responsible for overhauling the government’s legacy IT systems, strengthening cyber security, improving capability, and ensuring government can better leverage data and emerging technologies to design and deliver citizen-centric services that enhance HMG’s reputation as the world’s most digitally advanced government.”


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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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