Junior Minister Oliver Dowden given digital brief at Cabinet Office


Parliamentary Secretary Oliver Dowden has been made Minister for Implementation, put in charge of the Government Digital Service and digital strategy.

Oliver Dowden MP, Minister for Implementation

It has finally been announced that Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere since 2015, has been given the role of Minister for Implementation at the Cabinet Office, meaning he will be the political leader of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and the Transformation Strategy.

Dowden was appointed Parliamentary Secretary in the Prime Minister’s botched reshuffle last week, but it has only just been revealed that the junior Minister will take on the substantial digital and technology brief.

He will replace Caroline Nokes, who has been moved out of the Cabinet Office to the Home Office to take on an immigration role, following just six short months in charge of the digital agenda. Dowden is the fourth person to take on the brief in the last two years, with many hoping for a consistent figure to take charge.

Dowden’s responsibilities are set to also include efficiency and controls, cyber and resilience, single departmental plans, commercial models, shared services and behaviour change.

The Minister hasn’t put out an updated statement commenting specifically on the new brief, but upon being appointed Parliamentary Secretary during the reshuffle, he said:

I am delighted to have been appointed as Minister for Implementation at the Cabinet Office. It’s an honour to be able to serve Hertsmere and the country by helping to ensure that the Government delivers on the things that matter to people.

Of course I will continue to work as our area’s local MP, representing the people of Hertsmere.

What do we know?

The government digital agenda has been crying out for a political leader that has the know-how to drive through the necessary change in Whitehall, something that has been absent from recent appointees. The last effective Minister, in our mind, was Lord Francis Maude, which established the brief and helped build up GDS in the early days.

So what do we know about Oliver Dowden? Not a great deal, given he was only elected as an MP in 2015.

Prior to that he joined the Conservative Research Department in 2004, before moving to PR company Hill & Knowlton in 2007 as what was described as a ‘lobbyist role’. He was only in the position for a short time, however, before returning to the Conservative party in 2009 as a special adviser and then Prime Minister David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff.

In an article in the Independent at the time, he was described as a political figure to be feared:

With an expertise in the attacking form of political communications that has led to comparisons with Alastair Campbell, Mr Dowden is one of the most highly regarded figures in Downing Street.

Since then, we can’t find too much information about Dowden, apart from that he was against the idea of Brexit during the referendum in 2016.

Since being appointed to the Cabinet Office last week, he has however already made comments in the House of Commons about the government’s SME and procurement strategy, in the wake of the collapse of Carillion. Dowden suggested that policy changes could be brought forward to encourage a more diverse SME marketplace in government. He said:

I would point to three pieces of information: direct spend with SMEs is up 80% since the Conservatives came to power in the coalition in 2010; more small businesses than ever are bidding for Government business; and the Government now spend about £5.6 billion directly with SMEs.

There are two aspects of this: there is the direct spend—as I have said, it is about £5.6 billion—but we also need to ensure that we get spend into contracts lower down, with people who have Government contracts then spending with small businesses, which is something we are committed to doing as a Government.

We will be taking further measures in relation to SMEs. We will use transparency to encourage large businesses to employ more SMEs and make prompt payment part of the selection process for larger suppliers, which is the point that he raised. I can tell the House that we will be bringing forward proposals on that very shortly.

My take

It’s too soon to tell how this will pan out – especially given that Ministers in this role don’t have the best track record in sticking around. However, Dowden’s PR background and his reported political savviness may come in use, given the challenge in driving digital change across government. We will be watching closely to assess Dowden’s approach, as he settles into the job.

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    1. says:

      ‘Given his background in PR’….then one would hope this will encourage GDS and other departments and users in the sector to be more open in their dialogue and supportive of the tech companies that are trying to bring about ‘transformational change’. The sector buys on reference, yet if departments wont put their heads above the parapet to talk about what they are doing through fear of being decapitated then the chances of successful wide scale change will be hampered. As one main government provider has often said “its good to talk” innitReference

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