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Digital Leaders Study 2023

The digital leader’s toolkit:
21 ways to transform government

A year ago, former UK digital chief Kevin Cunnington identified seven key challenges in civil services’ use of technology. Having gathered solutions from around the world, here he presents three ways to address each problem – providing ideas and inspiration to help you realise the potential of digital and data


In January 2022, we published ‘Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?’. Based on interviews with the heads of digital from seven leading nations, our report contained seven messages mapping out the key enablers and challenges around the digital transformation of civil service structures, systems and services.

In each of these seven topics, we found a great deal of consensus among our interviewees – both on the building blocks required to support rapid progress, and on the obstacles and constraints that hamper the work of digital professionals.

This commonality of experience was no surprise: the nature, capabilities and potential of digital technologies are universal, while civil services around the world tend to display a similar set of processes and behaviours. But ‘Asking the experts’ also emphasised that while nations may share a destination, their varying constitutions, cultures, politics and legacies mean that each has a different starting point and road to walk. While we can identify nations’ common objectives, and describe the obstacles they typically encounter on their journey, no single road map can lead every country to their shared destination.

Nonetheless, national digital leaders have a huge amount to learn from one another. How have others managed to overcome those common obstacles? How best to portray and explain that shared destination, demonstrating its value to government and the public? How can elected politicians, departmental leaders and the heads of other professions be persuaded to come on this journey? Many of the techniques, reforms and projects implemented by digital leaders around the world are highly transferable, and contain important lessons for their peers – presenting ideas and approaches they can adapt for use in own particular circumstances.

Our goals

We wanted to help people to learn those lessons, finding solutions to help them address the challenges set out in ‘Asking the experts’. So we designed a new research process, with twin goals: to test and develop the findings of our first report; and to identify great, proven ideas that could assist senior digital professionals in their work. Alongside these research goals, we wanted to carry the messages of ‘Asking the experts’ to relevant audiences: both civil service digital specialists, and senior colleagues in other professions whose work helps shape the environment for digital transformation.

‘Asking the experts’ found, for example, that “government-wide project funding, approval, governance and procurement processes are often poorly suited to the requirements of digital technologies, undermining delivery.” Many of these systems are controlled by finance leaders; it is crucial that they understand how processes designed in a pre-digital age are weakening civil services’ ability to realise the potential of digital technologies.

Similarly, we found that ‘Departmental leaders and ministers often lack the understanding and commitment to drive digital transformation’. But do civil service chief executives recognise these gaps in their knowledge and skills, and how do they think they could best be plugged? Our process was designed to carry our messages to these crucial groups; to understand their perspectives on these issues; and, through these discussions, to identify effective ways to address the challenges we’d identified.


Our research programme therefore had a number of strands. We presented our findings at three international events serving very senior officials: the Global Government Summit, an online gathering of national civil service leaders held in February 2022; the Government Finance Summit, which brought senior leaders from national treasuries and finance departments together in Estonia in June 2022; and the Government Digital Summit, held in Ottawa in October 2022 and serving national digital leaders. At each event, we held discussions in which we both gathered participants’ views on our findings, and sought solutions that might assist digital leaders around the world.

Timeline graphic

We also held four workshops covering some of our headline topics: producing effective digital strategies; developing the digital workforce; and strengthening digital ID systems and data management (reflecting the very different circumstances of nations with an existing national ID system and those lacking one, we ran separate workshops for each group). Each workshop brought together senior digital leaders working on these topics from around the world, and featured explanations of our research findings, presentations by civil servants from countries advanced in the field, and discussions on the common challenges and potential solutions.

In advance of each of these workshops, we surveyed the participants – testing our findings, learning their views on the keys to progress, and asking how far they’ve succeeded in making the required changes. This data has provided useful quantitative evidence, explaining and supporting the information gathered via events and discussions.

The result of a year’s work, this report presents Analysis sections adding new depth and detail to each of our previous findings, and notes where progress is being made: while digital leaders continue to hit a common set of obstacles and constraints, in many parts of the world the digital agenda has real momentum. Once again, we will disseminate this report’s messages to all relevant audiences ­– both digital professionals, and senior officials working in other fields – to strengthen and broaden understanding of the requirements and characteristics of digital transformation.

Our main focus, though, is firmly on practical solutions: built around the seven Findings of ‘Asking the experts’, this report provides three potential solutions to the challenges in each field.

These solutions – which range from case studies to personal experiences, from universal principles to helpful arguments – lie at the heart of our report: it’s a toolkit, providing readers with information and ideas that you’ll find useful in your working lives. The Contents section at the foot of every page names the topic and the three solutions covered within each chapter, enabling you to go straight to the subjects that most interest you. We would of course be thrilled if you were to read the full report; but start with the chapters covering the biggest challenges you’re facing. Hopefully, there you’ll find tools that can help you to get purchase on the problem.

Talking to top digital leaders from 33 countries, plus the OECD, UN and World Bank, we’ve explored how nations around the world have worked to build digital capabilities and promote transformation – and gathered 21 ideas to accelerate your own country’s progress. We hope you find them useful. And if you have any comments, or would like to contribute to our research in any way, please do get in touch: we believe these two reports make a useful contribution to the discussion, but there’s so much more to learn.

Kevin Cunnington

March 2023


To produce this research, Global Government Forum (GGF) – the publishing house for civil servants around the world – teamed up with Kevin Cunnington. Kevin is a senior UK digital leader: he spent his early career in programming and IT consultancy, later becoming the global head of online for Vodafone Group and director general of the Business Transformation Group at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). He was director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) from August 2016 to July 2019, and digital envoy for the UK and director general of the International Government Service until 2021.

Kevin worked with Matt Ross, a journalist specialising in public sector leadership and management issues, to conduct the research and write this report. Matt was features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, and editor of the UK title Civil Service World 2008-14. He has worked with GGF since 2015, and is currently a contributing editor focusing on special projects.

A note on quotes. Some of the quotes used in this report were gathered during the workshops explained above, and some are taken from previous GGF interviews and Summits; in these cases, we have included hyperlinks to our original coverage. Where the context is not explained, quotes are from the 2022 Government Digital Summit, where the assembled digital leaders covered many of the themes of our first report – which played a key role in shaping the Summit’s agenda. All those identified at the Summits and workshops have approved the use of their quotes in this report.

The graphs draw on the responses of workshop participants responding to online surveys distributed in advance of each workshop. Details of the workshops can be accessed via our Research home page, along with the identities of those registered to attend. In each case, a clear majority of those registered completed our survey; these are of course small sample sizes, but – as a scan of our attendance lists will reveal – our findings represent the opinions of a set of very senior digital leaders from around the world.

Where you see the word ‘I’ in the text, that’s Kevin speaking. ‘We’ refers to Kevin, Matt and the Global Government Forum team.

Finally, we’d like to extend our thanks to all those who’ve contributed to or participated in this research: we are enormously grateful for your time, advice and expertise, and hope that you found the experience valuable. In total, those who attended our dedicated workshops and the Government Digital Summit worked for the governments of 33 nations, plus the World Bank Group, the United Nations, the OECD, and the administrations of Catalonia, Ontario and Wales (we also tapped into the views of leaders from other nations at the Global Government Summit and the Government Finance Summit). The nations whose digital leaders contributed to this research are:

Antigua and Barbuda; Aruba; Australia; Austria; Azerbaijan; Barbados; Brazil; British Virgin Islands; Canada; Colombia; Croatia; Cyprus; Czech Republic; Dominican Republic; Egypt; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Hungary; Iceland; India; Ireland; Italy; Latvia; Lithuania; Montenegro; Singapore; Spain; Thailand; Ukraine; United Kingdom; United States of America.

If you have further queries about our research, or would like to participate in our Digital Leaders research programme, please email [email protected]

Contents: find solutions for your problems