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Former Head of Govt UK Digital Service Analyses challenges ahead for leaders

Former Head of UK Government Digital Services, Kevin Cunnington, believe that there should be major changes to the way governments handle digital services. This response came off the back of a report where Cunnington interviewed up to seven digital leaders.

Kevin Cunnington ran digital service operations by for the government from 2016-2019.

Speaking at the Global Government Forum, Cunnington believes that UK and a number of other countries encounter the same set of obstacles.

The report ‘Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?’’ highlights a few of the challenges facing digital leaders, including structural, cultural and funding challenges. Everybody’s solution to the same problem is different, he said. “Constitution, culture, politics, and legacy technology have a profound effect on where you start and how you can move forward."

Cunnington believes digital leaders still have “so much to learn from each other” with interviews showing that leaders share similar experiences.

The report featured the following leaders as interviewees:

  • Shahar Bracha, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Government ICT Authority, Israel

  • Geoff Huggins, Director of Digital, Scottish Government

  • Fariz Jafarov, Director of the E-GOV Development Center, Azerbaijan

  • Paul James, Government Chief Digital Officer, New Zealand

  • Siim Sikkut, Government Chief Information Officer and Deputy Secretary General of IT and Telecoms, Estonia

  • Aaron Snow, Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Digital Service, Canada (now a Faculty Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, Georgetown University, USA)

  • Tan Eng Pheng, Assistant Chief Executive – Services, GovTech Singapore


One of the issues highlighted was leadership and the planning of how various nations would reach their goals. “One of the most important things that has to happen with leadership is that they have to say out loud that change is going to be uncomfortable,” one interviewee said.

Weaknesses in strategic planning were also highlighted. Cunnington said many countries digital visions were ‘samey’; adding: “Best practice in this area was all about how you created the plan to implement the strategy, not about the strategy and vision itself.”

One interview said that too many strategies “‘contain nothing objectionable, and also nothing actionable’.”


Whilst reporting on funding, Cunnignton believes the research highlighted a “sense in many governments that we put a lot of money in[to digital] five, ten years ago, and actually our priority isn’t digital any more”. He said there was a reluctance to make capital investments in transforming legacy services, and back office systems are holding back progress.

One thing which Kevin Cunnington is positive about was the size that workforces have grown in size and capabilities. “Ten years ago, all of us would have said the most presenting problem in government was getting hold of good digital resource to implement services. Five years ago, it was still a big problem,” he said. “Now, none of us think that is a problem at all.”

Overall, although there are reasons to be optimistic about the future, Cunnington believes that there is still a “huge journey ahead of us. He also believes that leaders could learn a lot from each other based on their respective experiences; often regretting that he did not do so himself whilst head of GDS.

“If you have a conversation with someone who’s tackling exactly the same problem as you, sometimes in the same way or with the same constraints, not only is that quite therapeutic, but actually I can see a way forward now that I wouldn’t have seen before,” he said.

The Global Government Forum will hold a series of workshops for digital leaders working in key fields of strategy and delivery.

You can read the full report here


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