© iStock/PeopleImages
© iStock/PeopleImages

The government's recruitment for its first Chief Digital Information Officer has been the subject of much speculation about the likely candidates and the responsibilities that they will hold.

The search is being conducted by executive recruitment firm Leathwaite. Helen Vowls, a director within the global CIO and COO practice at Leathwaite, told CIO UK that the government wants a candidate with the experience of leading a large organisation with a complex structure that can at times hinder delivery.

"They need someone who can sit above all government departments and really pull together the strategy and the foresight for where technology is going," she said. "It's not a heavy-line leadership role; it's a role that is very much leading by influence.

"But obviously it's a very heavily matrixed organisation, so we're really aiming to bring someone in who has got experience in a large business and understands how organisations are federated and how to navigate and influence in those kinds of [environments]."

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Their main responsibilities will day-to-day operations will be something they need to determine themselves after evaluating what they need for the government's digital transformation journey. 

They will be work closely with the CIOs of each government department to understand their pain points and incorporate their needs and insights into a central strategy.

"It's someone who will hold a lot of power but it's very much convening people through thought leadership rather than using that power," explained Vowls.

CDIO skillsets

Candidates will need to be up-to-date with all the technical challenges and opportunities around IT, but softer skills and cultural fit will also be essential requirements.

Vowls explained that the government is seeking excellent communicators with high emotional intelligence rather than the more aggressive and divisive personality types that have traditionally been prevalent in corporate IT leadership.

"It's going to be someone who's quite slick at leadership with really strong EQ," she said. "I think that's key to success in this role - someone whose emotional intelligence is just as strong as their intellectual intelligence."

Vowls added that the commercial nous of heavyweight private sector CIOs could make them compelling candidates if they can navigate the setup of the civil service and the wider government, which will be crucial as the role is a permanent secretary-level position – the most senior grading in the civil service.

Read next: Top UK Government CIOs, CTOs, CDOs and other IT leaders

The postholder will also hold direct accountability for the approximately 800 digital, data and technology professionals in the Government Digital Service (GDS), which Vowls believes is highly significant.

"What's really interesting in this role and it shows where all of technology leading is that Government Digital Services sites within it, and that shows you where a lot of the change will be," she said.

Recruitment process

The speed of the recruitment process had led some to speculate that the government had already earmarked someone for the role.

Vowls said that the process can be quickly completed because Leathwaite are directly contacting candidates that they believe could be right for the role.

"We are adding to the applicants with people we know as well," she said. "It's not just relying on people coming to us we are actively approaching people with this opporunity."

She added that search companies such as Leithwaite are well aware of the reputations of individuals in the market, which makes it crucial for ambitious CIOs to become known for their exceptional work and build a personal brand. 

"For roles of this level, they're very rarely in the public domain," she said. "This role has to be in the public domain because of where it is and who it's for. I would say that FTSE 250 companies very rarely go to market with these roles. They normally retain firms such as Leithwaite or one of our competitors to do that for them.

"What you tend to find is that roles at CIO level, you'll get a tap on the shoulder for. It's worth remembering that reputation is everything."