Interview: Mike Bracken
Since becoming the government’s executive director of digital in 2011, Mike Bracken has transformed Whitehall’s approach to IT and web services. He’s done so, he tells CSW, by disrupting the status quo to implant a revolutionary new agenda
Somewhat disappointingly, the offices of the Government Digital Service are pretty typical for a Whitehall department. There are none of the wacky office features typically associated with the dot.com revolution: no plastic slides or fireman’s poles. Not even a solitary beanbag. There is a busy ‘break-out’ area in which staff can sit down and chew over problems, but it is – perhaps suitably, given that GDS exists to save public money – rather austere.
However, look beyond the fittings and fixtures, and it is possible to discern that this is no average civil service unit. In stark contrast to the monastic atmosphere found in some Whitehall workplaces, there is a buzz in the air here: the sound of chatter created by a predominantly under-40 workforce, gathered intently round Apple Macs and state-of-the art PCs. GDS, which was created in April 2011, currently has 301 staff: 176 on fixed-term contracts, and 125 contractors. “We have attracted talent from a generation – not necessarily just in age terms, but in relation to their world view of the internet,” says Mike Bracken.
Under Bracken’s direction, this new Whitehall force has radically changed digital government in the UK. It is hard not to notice some of the bigger achievements: gov.uk, which has united departmental websites onto a single platform, this month celebrates its second birthday. This project has gone hand-in-hand with an ‘exemplars’ scheme to simplify 25 of the most-used government transactions. But less visibly, GDS has also played a key part in shaking up the organisational structures and procurement approaches used by the civil service to run its IT and develop digital services.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Bracken is currently receiving plaudits from across the Pond. In August, the White House announced the creation of the US Digital Service, tasked with transforming digital interactions between citizens and government. The template, placing digital expertise at the heart of the state, was pioneered by Bracken’s own team at the GDS. “The US was very open about saying they were taking the GDS model,” notes Bracken.
The GDS chief reels off a list of other countries adopting the same approach. “Governments around the world have four common problems,” he comments. “They have less money to spend and have been used to spending big money on IT projects; they have unhappy users internally; they have increasingly unhappy and stridently unhappy users externally; and they are faced with the problems of security and procurement. Many governments are realising that repetitive failure may mean something needs to change.”
But the introduction of fresh digital thinking in the corridors of power has had a flipside: the culling of old organisational models. In 2013, the government decided to do away with the role of government chief information officer. “The old profession was about the view that a CIO should manage one large system integrator, who should then manage all the services,” notes Bracken. “We have a very different view.”
As many legacy contracts have yet to run their course, CIOs still exist within departments. However, Bracken is keener to talk about the central importance of the emerging symbiosis of chief technology officer and chief digital officer, which maps more closely to the new digital model. “A CTO is a technologist. A CDO is focused on user services and all the stuff that goes around that,” he explains. “It is a relatively clear distinction. We allow some blurring of that because we are not religious about it, but for all our departments we now have that CDO/CTO structure in place.”
In geekland, the word ‘disruption’ has positive connotations – it means challenging the status quo, using technology to find new, more efficient processes to achieve goals. But Bracken admits that there was some trepidation in Whitehall when he first arrived to build GDS and pursue its disruptive agenda. “There is always an existential fear in any industry about the advent of new technology,” he points out. “That has been with us since the wheel.”
In general, however, he believes that his digital reform programme had a “soft landing”, due to the simmering frustration which had built up at all levels of the civil service with the state of government digital services. “I hadn’t fully realised the degree to which 15 years or so of pretty unrestricted, unfocused digital publishing and concomitant technology purchases had got us into so many holes,” he recalls. “A lot of people were waiting for us to arrive; I realise that now.”
He is clear about the root of previous failures and confident that revolution, not evolution, has been vital to improving government digital services. He describes the approach: “Don’t take procurement issues on by trying to get better at procurement. The reality is that when governments discover they are spending a lot on multi-year enterprise technology and find out their digital services aren’t great, spending more isn’t going to get them out of that hole. So route around it, by commissioning and using tools and open source technology to create your own platforms.”
Bracken is grateful for the support he’s received from across government – particularly in the creation of the gov.uk platform, which needed the cooperation of a number of departments to get off the ground. “I give a lot of credit to Melanie Dawes, who was responsible for carving out the Business Link/Directgov agreement to get gov.uk going,” he says. “We also had great support from HMRC and BIS, who basically put both of their respective websites in the pot at the outset.”
Of course, bringing departments on the journey has required a certain amount of skill on Bracken’s part. “If we had turned round three years ago to the IT profession – and I suspect many of the senior leaders and permanent secretaries – and said: ‘We are going to implement government as a platform,’ I suspect that would have looked like just more techno rhetoric. So we didn’t say that,” he remembers. “We said we are going to fix a lot of problems, and we fixed a whole lot of problems. I think now is a time we can turn round and demonstrate that we have delivered government as a platform.”
So what does that term mean, exactly? Bracken explains that instead of departments developing or commissioning processes and platforms in isolation, technological solutions are now shared across government: “The transactions use common platforms so that, for instance, the booking engine for prison visits will become just the booking engine for government as a whole. That model now is very attractive. It means we can be consistent, it is massively cheaper in terms of our staff and contracts, but it is also hugely beneficial to users because they know what they are getting.”
By the end of this year, 325 separate departments and agencies are set to have moved to the gov.uk platform. Bracken admits that this is later than he had originally hoped – partly due to the discovery that some transition projects were bigger than originally anticipated. He says: “The thing about GDS is a lot of our targets have been best guesses. I first said I thought we’d get it finished by April. But I had no problem saying: ‘This is going to take a bit longer but we have got to get it right’.”
GDS also promised to get 25 ‘exemplar’ services live by the end of this Parliament; successes to date include chunky projects such as the PAYE system and electronic voter registration. “The programme was hugely ambitious to do from a standing start,” says Bracken. “Sometimes the departments had no digital capacity and we committed to doing 25 in 18 months – that is pretty insane, but we have pretty much got there.” By next May, 22 of the projects should be complete.
Bracken is at pains to stress that even when a new digital service has gone live, the work of GDS isn’t over. “You don’t stop work on these services; you just develop them digitally,” he notes. “That definition is important because, prior to this programme, to make changes and even to add features to existing services took years, because you had to write a procurement document and requirements.”
The new publishing platform gives service providers immense flexibility, he says. “If we get feedback today that, let’s say, vehicle [road tax] renewal isn’t working well enough, we can just make changes. We make tweaks to gov.uk several times each day. There is no end state. ‘Live’ and ‘public Beta’ as terms are just names for points of progress.”
Bracken expresses satisfaction at what GDS has achieved in a short time, praising the way in which civil servants have bought into the process. “I look at the key domestic transactions; most come from seven or eight big departments,” he says. “They have gone from being pretty much of the view that they have an assurance capability over an outsourced contract with digital tagged on, to running their own digital products at scale.”
Of course, for all the achievements of GDS, the unit does not operate in complete isolation. Bracken admits that the civil service still faces some deep problems within its own ICT, and these flaws can constrain people’s ability to pursue the digital agenda. Indeed, he says he suspects that “because the technology they are using is so poor, the world view of people in departments of the art of the possible is sometimes restricted.”
Bracken says it is not in his gift to fix all these problems: “We didn’t come here to wire up Whitehall. We came here to deliver great digital services.” However, he says that the Office of the Chief Technology Officer is attempting to update hardware as far as is possible within contractual restraints, while at the same time moving towards making the browser the “standard transmission device” so that digital services can be accessed on any web-capable device rather than requiring users to install software on their machines.
Similarly, Bracken says that he does not currently have the capacity to respond to calls from some quarters in local government to bring his successful approach to digital services for councils. But he points to cross-government initiatives such as G-Cloud as routes for local authorities to take advantage of the work of GDS. He adds: “Most of our own platforms use open source technology. We are not stopping anyone from using them. There is a false binary of control – either local or central.”
As Bracken takes stock, he says there’s plenty of work left for GDS to do: “As the Parliament comes towards its end, we are talking about putting more meat on the bones of gov.uk. Now we have a common publishing platform and common tooling, why don’t we have a common location platform to look up addresses?” Departments currently use a range of systems to allow users to input their addresses; this looks like another area ripe for a cross-government platform. “New platforms are clearly going to come,” Bracken notes.
Sourcing the manpower for this continuing work does not faze Bracken, and he plays down the idea that pay caps make it difficult for GDS to compete with businesses for staff. “Many of our staff have come in for less than the market rate,” he says. “You come here because you want to work with people like this and, crucially, you want to change public services. That will always attract great people.”
Keeping hold of them is another matter; and although he likes the idea of his staff gaining experience in different departments, Bracken says that “at the moment, people with digital skills are so rare I would like them to sit where they are and get some work done.”
A bigger problem he faces is the merry-go-round of departmental senior civil servants clambering up the career ladder. “If we are doing a 12-month programme and a senior manager leaves halfway through, that is a problem,” he comments. “We do have to address some sort of programme delivery view of whether people should deliver a programme before leaving a department.”
Whether Bracken himself is open to offers is another matter. Rumours have been doing the rounds that he has been offered a job at the new US Digital Service, and his skills would undoubtedly be in demand from governments playing digital catch-up with the UK. But during our meeting, Bracken says he is “loving” being a civil servant and wants to focus on the “large amount of work we have ahead of us.” In any case, he says, there is no great secret to his success. “Just deliver,” he says. “That momentum carries everyone with it.”
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