Departmentalism doesn’t make sense for digital, says Bracken

Written by Jacqueline Tenreiro on 26 February 2015 in News

Government Digital Services director Mike Bracken predicts shakeup for Whitehall structures as a result of digital service delivery

Current departmental structures and silos don’t make sense for digital government, said Government Digital Services (GDS) director Mike Bracken.

At a digital government event on Tuesday, Bracken said Whitehall must change its structures and attitudes to meet user needs.

While services already in place make sense, the structures and departments that lock them in have to change in response to digital government, he said.

“Logical groupings [make sense] to ministers [because that’s how] we run Parliament. We need that.

“But in terms of delivery of service in a digital age, departments and structures don’t often make that much sense,” he said.

Speaking from experience of other sectors he said: “Whenever digital change comes along, the organising principle of the sector changes. There’s a 100% track record of that in every sector and every industry.”

“Maybe not in my time, but in the organising principle of government, I think digital will possibly see an institutional reform that will probably erode much of the departmentalism that goes on.

He added: “The best civil servants, and the best public servants, don’t really care for organisation silos and structures.”

When asked how the GDS was received in Whitehall back in 2011, he said: “There was a growing number of people at various levels, and various ages and powers in the system that just thought: "hold on, something’s got to give here."

“We wouldn’t have got anywhere without the leadership people in departments.”

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Jon-Paul Rosser (not verified)

Submitted on 12 March, 2015 - 14:22
Services were being successfully delivered digitally before GDS came into being. Just take e-filing of returns to HMRC. Then GDS comes along and suddenly the services that were being provided by individual departments are being eroded or have simply collapsed. Take guidance for instance. Guidance is a simple way to help customers and advisers help themselves. Now if I want to search for a specific page in the Capital Gains Manual, I can't pick it up on Google, the world's most popular search engine. I can't even search for it in I have to drill down in to the manuals, use that to go to HMRC's pages and its only there I can search for a specific page in a manual. The result of GDS's disasterous intervention into guidance is that we now have guidance that's written in such a simplistic manner that it's wrong, the guidance that's correct is no longer accessable to professionals that need it and contact to telephone centres keeps increasing puting further strain on departmental resources. Where are the savings? Where is the focus on customer needs? It's not in GDS that's for sure. That's not to say i'm opposed to breaking down silos between departments. Its madness that departments can't easily share data to ensure that a customer isn't contacted multiple times about the same issue. Removing multiple contacts will meet customer needs. However that won't be accomplished by some flashy looking website that's heavy on style and bereft of content. Instead the back-office systems need to be improved and linked so that we have a comprehensive government system. Holding data once would reduce data storage needs and therefore costs. A single IT system would reduce It costs. It would make sure that correct data is available to everyone that needs access to it. These are tangible benefits and this is the area that GDS should be working on if it wants to deliver savings and improvements. Unfortunately if is a yardstick for what GDS can do, this will be well beyond the ability of GDS to deliver. On a final point, I've strongly criticised GDS for what they've done but I don't blame the staff there. They are being given unrealistic deadlines to meet and not enough resources so its no wonder that the products they produce are inferior and not fit for purpose. Where GDS is lacking is in strong leadership that has a clear vision where GDS should be going. This article proves that: "Maybe not in my time, but in the organising principle of government, I think digital will possibly see an institutional reform that will probably erode much of the departmentalism that goes on". Why does he only think that? Why isn't he taking active steps to make sure that GDS accomplishes that goal? Because he's there simply to give great soundbites to give people the impression that everything is going well. Unfortunately the truth is already out. Numerous organisations are begging for a return to the individual department's websites. The Register have given a detailed account of the failures of GDS and the reasons why: Now I'll go back to my organisation silo and actually try to help people.

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