By Suzannah.Brecknell

16 Nov 2011

Why is government so bad at online services? There are many reasons, Cabinet Office digital director Mike Bracken tells Suzannah Brecknell, but none are intractable. And the first priority is to listen to users more carefully.

In just over five months as a civil servant, what has Mike Bracken (pictured above)– formerly director of digital development at Guardian News and Media – found most surprising about working for Her Majesty’s Government? “The facetious answer is the sheer number of passes you have to have to get in and out of the building,” says Bracken – but the more “enjoyable surprise is the relentless commitment to public service. [That] isn’t often portrayed outside the civil service.”

Despite his attempt to downplay it, Bracken’s first answer chimes well with a theme that emerges in our interview: civil servants want to deliver a good service for the public, but work within a very particular – and sometimes restrictive – set of procedures and processes. Bracken hopes to challenge these constraints by acting as “the voice of the user in the room”, bringing an external perspective to help officials understand how those processes and procedures can weaken government’s efforts to introduce digital services.

Bracken’s new role – executive director of digital in the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group – was created on the recommendation of the government’s ‘digital champion’, Martha Lane Fox. Last year, Lane Fox reviewed Directgov, and came to some far-reaching conclusions about digital services across government.

All government online services should be provided on a single government website under central control, she said; digital provision should be the default for any new service; and government data should be opened up to allow third-party providers to develop new services which replace or complement government provision.

Bracken’s remit includes running the Government Digital Service (GDS), overseeing Directgov, and developing a new single government website for all digital transactions. As befits the new age of agile government ICT, his team is developing this through a series of small, iterative projects. In May, after just three months’ work and with a budget of £261,000, they launched an initial prototype: the Alphagov website. Having gathered user feedback, they have now begun work on a second iteration – Betagov – and hope to have “some sort of public demonstration of that” to show early next year, says Bracken. This culture of iterative development will be crucial to digital services, he says, along with a focus on user-needs at all times.

But of course Alpha- and Betagov aren’t the first attempts at building a single government website: Directgov itself was launched in 2004 with the aim of creating a single point of access for government information and services. It was also supposed to reduce the number of departmental websites: the 2007 Transformational Government strategy set a goal of closing at least half of the government’s 951 websites. Given that the coalition identified at least 820 websites when it took power, one could argue that Directgov was hardly a raging success. But Bracken says Directgov was successful at publishing information, even if – as he concedes – its publishing-oriented structures and processes are less suitable for the transactional work on which the GDS is now focused.

“Many of the transactions have been done from within departments, and Directgov’s model has been to wrap around and point at those transactions,” says Bracken. “It’s done that extraordinarily well: it’s now a matter of recognising that there are too many [digital transactions] that are not moving to completion, that are not satisfying user need, and sorting those out.”

Digital by default
Bracken cares about those incomplete online transactions because he’s also leading the government’s ‘digital by default’ agenda, which aims to save money and improve services by shifting government services to online channels. It’s a big agenda, with some big savings in its sights – and plenty of obstacles as well. What does Bracken see as the key challenges which could stop government becoming digital by default? “The first is cultural,” he says. “We have to get people thinking digitally” – not just in the centre of government, but in frontline delivery environments too.

The second challenge is that there are already many “big contracts and systems already in place” to provide non-digital services. These are “not going to disappear overnight”, he says: channel-shift advocates must focus on the services more easily shifted to digital channels, and on making digital options so attractive to users that their popularity expands rapidly. “The strategy is really to stimulate demand for digital services rather than to battle with the incumbent people who are supplying non-digital services,” says Bracken.

So understanding how and why digital transactions are failing is crucial to Bracken. He’s recently pointed out that, of the 693 million phone calls received by central government in 2010, an estimated 150 million were the result of failed or incomplete online transactions. When designing digital services, Bracken believes, government has not been putting its users first.

“There are four competing demands on government,” says Bracken, naming the workings of government and its statutory requirements; cost efficiency and “expediency, getting things done”; the demands of individual departments or the private sector; and user needs. All digital services are a “trade-off” between those four demands, he says – and he’s found that “in most of the things I’ve looked at in the last four months, numbers one, two and three tend to jostle for prime position, and user need comes frankly a poor fourth.”

By putting users first, he suggests, departments can achieve their other goals more easily. Taking the example of those failed transactions, each of the resulting phone calls cost government £6.28; that’s a £542m annual cost that could be dramatically reduced.

The results of taking a user-centric approach are often quickly demonstrable, he says. For example, his team has been working with Buying Solutions to develop a “dynamic marketplace” which allows government to procure from small- and medium-sized enterprises. Bracken’s team suggested some basic changes to the user interface that will make it easier for SMEs to get involved, and therefore easier for them to win government business. “Just by fixing that alone we may help try and solve one of the biggest blockers to getting innovation in government. That’s a good example of the type of small cosmetic change we can make which can have quite profound results,” he says.

Maximising impact
Even if little changes can reap big rewards, Bracken’s team is a relatively small one, and there is a lot of digital work to be done. The team has already worked with a number of departments – for example, with the Ministry of Justice to create a widget to calculate interest on overdue payments prior to a court hearing, and with Number 10 on the e-petitions site – but surely it will be a challenge to improve all of government’s work in this area?

The first way to overcome this challenge, says Bracken, is to “demonstrate excellence”. At the moment there isn’t “a great poster child” for digital transaction and services, he says. “Some stuff works… but there’s nothing that’s absolutely beautiful.” Once there is a great poster child, however, he seems confident that departments will be able to replicate the principles behind it: “Government is full of smart people. If you make it clear how things were done and how it could be done in their area, they can copy it.”

The team’s “guiding principle is to work with [departments] to demonstrate how it should be done”, adds Bracken, “but of course those principles are backed up by powers.” Firstly, departments must get cabinet-level approval for digital spending and Bracken’s team, through the cross-government CIO board, feeds into this approval process. The team has already looked at “about seven or eight very large requirements for funding”, including bids from the energy department and HMRC, and suggested amendments which could save money or improve services, says Bracken: “So we’re already demonstrating that that approvals process isn’t a matter of saying ‘no’; it’s a matter of saying ‘yes’ but with a better or cheaper way of doing it.”

The next power which Bracken can wield is the ability to keep sub-standard services off the new single government website, on which members of the public will be able to find and carry out all of their transactions with government. He has recently written to a department to say he will not back a particular programme of work, he says, because he didn’t think it was “taking us anywhere nearer to digital by default – in fact, it [was] taking us further away”. Nonetheless, he adds: “These are powers that I don’t want to use”. He would prefer to work with departments to make the transactions better – in the example where he had to withhold support for a programme of work, the GDS then sent eight people to work on the project for four months, “so we didn’t just advise from a distance”.

Identity assurance
Another obstacle to going digital by default is ensuring that users can identify themselves securely when using government services online. In a recent blog post, Bracken – who has just been made the sole SRO for government’s identity assurance (IDA) programme – wrote about this challenge, saying: “We can transact anonymously in some contexts, but not all. When we disclose personal data we need to do it securely. And we need better ways to protect people from transacting with fraudsters. If we don’t address these problems then people will lose confidence in digital channels.”

As well as the technical challenges of setting up a secure and effective system, this work sits on tricky political terrain. Memories of the ID card programme are very near the surface for ministers and privacy campaigners alike – but Bracken believes that the IDA programme has been successful in distancing itself from the spectre of ID cards. As well as doing “great work in the legal area, in standards”, he says, the team has “moved a lot of partners, particularly the privacy lobby, from a tough position after ID cards [when] they were quite a long way away from government in terms of their stance. We’ve engaged with them and we’ve taken them on this journey about where we’re going.”

Rather than setting up a single database and identification system, the new programme aims to work with third party providers to set up a ‘federated model’ under which users can choose from a number of inter-operable IDA services to identify themselves to government. Much good work has been done on identification across government, says Bracken, but it has too often focused on departmental needs rather than making things simple for the user, and it has been “less than the sum of its parts because it was underfunded and under-resourced” – so Bracken is“very grateful” for the £10m funding which he has secured from the £650m cyber defence fund. The team is now set to have a meeting with “all the players across government,” he says, and will begin “re-resourcing the programme both from within government and outside”.

Talented people
Bracken is also doing some ‘re-resourcing’ of the GDS team: last month the team advertised for a number of posts, with salaries ranging up to £90,000. Writing on the GDS blog, he said that “there have been a few raised eyebrows at hiring in these straitened times,” but added that “we need digital talent all across government. In policy, legal, procurement and service delivery, deep digital experience in government is scarce.” He expressed a similar sentiment in a recent interview with IT magazine Computer Weekly, noting that his success at the Guardian was underpinned by “a collaboration and sharing culture and having an absolutely top-drawer set of technologists and digital specialists. I hope to create the same level of expertise again, because working with people that good is superb.”

He is optimistic about the IT skills and attributes which can be found both inside and outside government. “The good news is there’s plenty of digital talent around in the UK,” he says. “The other great news is that many people with digital talent are also – because of the demographics and what drives them – hugely committed to developing digital public services.” Many of these talented people, he adds, “are already here, scattered around departments. But they’re often working in digital environments which mitigate against innovation and against using their skills effectively.”

So it won’t be enough to simply recruit or promote talented people. In order to innovate, Bracken believes, the civil service needs to develop a new culture: people need to feel trusted to try new things. “So often in my part of government we hire the best and the brightest, the most appropriate people for the job, give them great positions of responsibility, and then give them tools and services which show absolutely no trust whatsoever,” he says. “If we don’t start trusting our people digitally then we have no hope of those people being able to innovate on behalf of the public, and that’s what the public needs right now.”

The systems which inhibit innovation are fostered both by a natural – but outdated – response to the risks of IT, Bracken believes, and by a lack of user focus. Many years ago, he says, government decided “to look at technology as a commodity service which is full of risk”. Fifteen years ago that “was probably the right balance, yet while the risk has largely gone from some of those services, our capacity for innovation is still tied up in that programme.” Many flaws in government IT systems “are the result of having two stakeholders in a room – the stakeholders from security, and the stakeholders from procurement,” he adds. Too often, Bracken argues, no “voice of the user” was invited into development meetings to ask whether the systems being developed would be user-friendly and accessible as well as secure and cost-effective.

Bracken doesn’t aim to overhaul all of these systems alone – “I didn’t come here to reform Whitehall’s IT, mercifully,” he says – but he does hope that his team will be able to support reform by showing what can be done. The government-approved laptops which GDS team members use, for example, are loaded up with Google’s webmail service and its suite of online office programmes – Google Docs – which both encourage staff to work flexibly and collaboratively, and are cheaper than the systems they replace. “It’s our job to knock the doors down,” says Bracken, “and let that innovative talent work.”

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