Government COO Stephen Kelly: ‘There are some days I’ve left here and banged my head against the wall’

Stephen Kelly reflects on achievements, frustrations and hopes during his three and a half years leading digital transformation in Whitehall.


Stephen Kelly is relentlessly optimistic when we meet during his last week as government chief operating officer.

Kelly (pictured) is leaving the civil service after three and a half years to run software firm Sage, but he has nothing but praise for the colleagues he’s leaving behind. He reels off achievements: building GOV.UK, increasing the use of SME suppliers, and fledgling digital transformation in Whitehall.

“There’s a great revolution going on in government,” Kelly says. He claims the government has digitised a third of the 1.6 billion annual transactions with citizens since 2010 and that new digital services “typically cost around 20 percent less” than the services they replaced.

He singles out Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, digital director Mike Bracken and chief commercial officer Bill Crothers for particular acclaim.

However, during our conversation he highlights a number of issues: the lack of digital skills in Whitehall, poor service with management consultants, and a still too-slow pace of delivery in government.

He warns that it could take the best part of a decade for the government to truly be on top of its digital services, technology and contracts.

And even after then, transformation is a never-ending process of constant tweaks and improvements, he adds.

Despite this Kelly says he is confident the government will eventually behave more like the consumer world, offering more flexible, citizen-centric services. He believes digital transformation is ‘apolitical’ and will continue regardless of who forms the next government. 

“In the future there will be third-party apps that allow citizens to manage their own relationship with government, so they can get the services they need when they need it. And it’s all going to be mobile,” he says.

Speeding up the civil service

Beneath the upbeat exterior it’s clear Kelly has experienced some real frustrations. He admits: “There are some days I’ve left here and banged my head against the wall.”

One of his main bugbears has been the speed at which the civil service operates. Kelly also reserves some criticism for a civil service culture that focuses too much on policy over delivery, a situation he says he would like to see reversed.

“Things take too long. We worry too much in terms of process. And I’d say ambiguity is the enemy of execution. Clarity and leadership are what we need.”

Kelly says the civil service also has a tradition of being “very, very reactive”, but he thinks this is beginning to change, with more of a focus on planning projects. 

He is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge if the government is to reverse decades of contracting out its technology services and, as a result, capability.

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