Public Services > Central Government

Cabinet Office needs new leadership as May forms minority government

Neil Merrett Published 09 June 2017

Ben Gummer, previously responsible for driving digital transformation in Whitehall, loses his seat in bruising night for the Conservatives. Where now for GDS?

 

A night of election shocks has seen Cabinet Office Minister Ben Gummer losing his seat, forcing changes at the helm of digital government transformation in the UK.

With the Conservative Party having their overall majority reduced to 318 seats - with one constituency left to declare at the time of the publication, Theresa May has announced she will form a minority administration, reportedly supported by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leaving a number of policy decisions up in the air.

Most drastically for public sector technology, any cabinet she forms will require a new Cabinet Office Minister to lead the Government Digital Service (GDS) and broader technology transformation across Whitehall after Ben Gummer saw labour candidate Sandy Martin overturn his 3,700 vote majority in Ipswich.  Having also reportedly played a key role in drawing up the Conservative General Election manifesto, Gummer would perhaps have expected a revised role in the new cabinet had he remained an MP.

Since taking up the role of Cabinet Office minister last July, shortly after Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister, Gummer's tenure saw the appointment of a new GDS head in the form of Kevin Cunnington, and the publication of a delayed Whitehall Transformation Strategy.  The strategy included a broad focus on the future direction of GDS' work under May, as opposed to setting out a standalone technology plan.

With the Tory manifesto setting out or reaffirming a number of digital commitments such as building up use of its GOV.UK Verify ID assurance common platform, as well as incubating more online services and “digital transformation fellowships”, it is not known how these will be affected.

Yet without Gummer at the helm, questions will now be asked on the type of individual needed to oversee the Cabinet Office brief.  One potential candidate would be Gummer’s predecessor Matt Hancock, who already committed his loyalty to May.

With Gummer having largely continued the strategy employed by his immediate successors Hancock and Francis Maude, some analysts argue there will unlikely be a significant shift in digital transformation policy under the minority government.

“Digital is going to have to run itself for a time, until a new Cabinet Office Minister is found to replace Gummer,” said Jessica Figueras, chief analyst at GlobalData Public Sector.  “But I can’t see that a new minister would bring much change to the government digital transformation strategy. The key planks of the strategy were put in place some time ago, and there’s no political appetite to tinker with it further.

“If anything, Gummer’s departure reminds us that digital government is very, very low down the list of Britain’s political priorities right now.  Digital was one of the key themes of the Conservative manifesto, which he co-authored - but look how badly the manifesto went down with the public. In contrast, Labour’s well-received manifesto barely mentioned digital at all.”

Julian David, chief executive officer for industry association techUK, said the new parliament faced significant challenges in not only having to navigate Brexit, but to also try and tackle the complexities of rapid global digitisation.

“To thrive the UK needs to be at the forefront of countries that are inventing the future, not just by leading in innovation and the use of new technologies, but by enabling the economy to adapt and people to flourish,” he said. “This will require some big thinking and some bold policy making. It is vital that the UK remains an open and dynamic.”

Related articles:

Conservative Party manifesto highlights cyber, digital and data ethics initiatives

Whitehall must address lack of digital leadership post-Maude, think-tank argues

Hancock out at the Cabinet Office as Ben Gummer takes over








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