Rebooting the government

Written by Mike Bracken on 26 February 2015 in Feature
Feature

Mike Bracken on how Whitehall’s digital revolution has resulted in big savings – and better services

It’s been four years since the Government Digital Service (GDS) began, shortly after the publication of Martha Lane Fox’s report, Revolution not Evolution. Soon after that, work started on the first alpha version of GOV.UK. We started with just 14 people – now ours is an organisation of hundreds working in Holborn, Whitehall, and with departmental teams up and down the country.

It’s fair to say that four years ago, government’s track record on technology wasn’t great. We were spending more on IT than almost any other government in the world. Most transactions were still done on paper, and weren’t designed to meet the needs of the people who used them.

The “revolution” Martha referred to included things like: Start with user needs. Build small prototypes quickly, and improve them in response to feedback. Be innovative, experimental, and disruptive.

That’s what we’ve been doing for four years. The result? Better services, simpler processes, and big cost savings.

We began with the government’s web estate. We built GOV.UK to replace hundreds of separate government websites, and to become the best place to find government services and information. It is simpler, clearer and faster than the websites it replaced, but delivered at a fraction of the cost. It has saved taxpayers £62 million a year, and gets over 12 million unique visits per week (totalling 1.2 billion since going live).

We’ve worked with departments to transform 25 of the biggest transactional public services.; to build digital versions so good, people prefer to use them. So far, there have been 5.8 million user transactions through new digital services. Three million people have registered to vote; a million student finance applications were made online in 2014-15; 138,000 claims have been made through the Carer’s Allowance digital service.

By the end of the next Parliament, we want to build at least three new platform prototypes. That, along with everything else on the to do list, should be plenty to keep us busy for at least another four years! 

We’ve changed the way the government buys IT. Gone are the days when we locked ourselves into long and expensive contracts with just a handful of big suppliers. Now we prefer shorter, cheaper, more flexible contracts. The Digital Marketplace is changing the rules for public sector procurement, in the best possible way, and G-Cloud sales reached over £430 million last year.

We’re fixing how government uses technology. For too long, many civil servants have had to put up with desktop computers so out of date, they were a barrier to productivity. Now we’re giving them computers that meet their needs – lightweight laptops and access to fast wi-fi and web-based collaboration tools. We’ve already moved over 2,200 staff at Cabinet Office, DCMS and the Crown Commercial Service, and so far the feedback is very positive. We think many more departments, and thousands more staff, will tread the same path very soon.

That’s just a fraction of what’s been achieved during four years of extraordinary hard work, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate everyone involved, even in the smallest way. It’s been a team effort – and by that I mean everyone in government, not just GDS. It’s been a privilege to work with so many talented, experienced and enlightened colleagues from departments and agencies across the country.

And yet – I bet you knew I was going to say this – we’ve barely begun.

Those first few years of work have been an alpha of a different sort: proving that radical change is possible, that digital should be at the heart of government, and that people are key to making big change happen. We’ve put a lot of effort into hiring and training people with digital skills. The era of outsourcing is over. With these skills in-house, we can move faster, be more agile. Small teams, loosely joined.

The next stage – and the one that will bring the real savings – is to coordinate our efforts across government, and reduce needless duplication. This means providing a common digital infrastructure that all departments can use and share together. That infrastructure is made of software building blocks designed to share data and share connections. Each block is built and shared in the open, and is easy to alter or amend if necessary.

It’s a concept we call government as a platform. It offers very clear benefits: when departmental teams no longer have to worry about technology, they can focus on the work they were set up to do.

We’ve already started building platforms. GOV.UK is a platform for government publishing. GOV.UK Verify is a platform for identity assurance. Platforms, like digital services, are built piece-by-piece. Start small and iterate upwards and outwards. By the end of the next Parliament, we want to build at least three new platform prototypes. That, along with everything else on the to do list, should be plenty to keep us busy for at least another four years! 

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Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken is executive director of the Government Digital Service

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