‘Outstanding candidate’ identified in previous recruitment for government digital head did not take job
Evidence submitted to MPs reveals that decision to create CDDO was a bid to ‘flex the structures in order to get the right talent’
The previous attempt to recruit a government-wide digital leader identified an “outstanding candidate” – who could not take on the role because of commitments to his current job.
The Cabinet Office recently opened applications for the £190,000-a-year position of government chief digital officer. This marked the third time in less than three years that such a role has been recruited for, following the publication of job adverts in September 2019 and August 2020.
The first of these – for which the job title was government chief digital and information officer – did not result in any appointment being made.
The relaunched process 11 months later also did not lead to the recruitment of the advertised role, but it was announced in January 2021 that government would, instead, create a new Cabinet Office-based agency – the Central Digital and Data Office. Former Home Office digital head Joanna Davinson was installed as the new entity’s executive director, and it was indicated that her appointment, and the launch of the CDDO, came instead of hiring a government digital chief officer.
Alongside her, Paul Willmott – chief digital adviser for toy company Lego – was appointed as chair of the new digital and data agency. The role is an unpaid, non-executive and part-time position, requiring about half a day of work per week.
With Davinson planning to depart her role soon, the Cabinet Office is now engaged in a third attempt to appoint a government chief digital officer, with applications for the post open until 18 March.
It has emerged that, during the previous recruitment process, a senior technology executive was, in fact, “identified as the outstanding candidate for the role”.
However, the candidate in question was Willmott – who did not take the role as he “was committed to his current employer”, according to newly published official correspondence.
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay recently wrote to parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to provide an update on the progress of various government reform and transformation initiatives.
The letter indicated that, once it was evident in late 2020 that Willmott was unable to take on a full-time executive post, “government chief operating officer Alex Chisholm and ministers recognised the need to flex the structures in order to get the right talent”.
“As such rather than appointing a GCDO, CDDO was launched in April 2021 to lead the DDaT function across government and put the conditions in place to achieve digital transformation at scale,” the missive added.
The previous bid to recruit a Whitehall-wide digital leader was, in part, prompted by a September 2020 report from government advisory body the Digital Economy Council. In a major review of digital delivery across government, one of the eight recommendations put to the Cabinet Office was that it should “hire a permanent secretary-level head” of the digital, data and technology function.
Following the decision to, instead, create the CDDO, a progress update provided by the council in Barclay’s letter to PACAC points to some “early successes” for the digital unit during its first year in operation.
This includes the establishment of “a new Digital and Data Board at permanent secretary-level to set and drive delivery of the strategy for the digitisation” of government, as well as other “forums that regularly bring together chief digital officers, chief data officers and chief technology officers from across government with a remit to guide the development of common architectures and standards and to share best practice”.
Once appointed, the government chief digital officer will take on responsibility for the direct leadership of the 200 staff of the CDDO, as well as holding “wider accountability… as leader and professional head of HM Government’s 20,000-strong digital, data and technology community”.
Other duties of the post will “owning the vision and strategy for digital, data and technology” throughout government, and working closely with HM Treasury to ensure the £8bn-plus cumulatively spent by departments on technology and IT services each year provides value for money and delivers the desired outcomes.
Although he was not able to take the job, the “outstanding candidate” identified the last time the role was advertised will this time at least help choose who is appointed, with Wilmott forming part of the final interview panel. Alongside him will be civil service operations chief Chisholm, as well as Ministry of Justice Gina Gill, and former Barclays and HMRC digital leader Mark Denney. The panel will be chaired by a civil service commissioner: Jane Burgess.
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