Former UK digital chief offers a welcome and a warning

By on 02/12/2015
The UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) was awarded £450m ($680m) to deliver its plans for cross-government programmes, in last week’s three-year Spending Review

The former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) has welcomed last week’s three-year Spending Review, in which the unit was awarded £450m ($680m) to deliver its plans for cross-government programmes.

But in an exclusive interview with globalgovernmentforum.com, Mike Bracken also warned of the resistance to change in Whitehall.

“GDS and all the programmes and business cases that we’ve worked on for 18 months have been backed,” he said, adding that the allocation of funds for cross-government projects “breaks the Treasury mould. Rather than being done by departmental line funding, these programmes work across government platforms.” Bracken praised ministers and civil servants for supporting the business plans, emphasising that they could unlock huge savings.

Cloud services bought on demand cost a fraction of traditional IT schemes, he said – but GDS often encountered scepticism from “people of a certain generation who’ve been told for 20, 30 years that technology for government is big and complicated and costs hundreds of millions of pounds. They just don’t believe you.” Yet at transport agency the DVLA, “we took out £220m this year; I think it will be over a billion over the Parliament – and we’ve done that with tens of millions of pounds.”

Bracken described the UK civil service as a “large and enduring organisation that has been highly resistant to the internet and to technology-led reform since the Second World War.” The digital agenda “hasn’t been embraced in the centre quickly enough,” he added, with departments reluctant to adopt shared platforms for transactional services. “Why on earth would anyone in their right minds, in this day and age, want to own, manage and deliver a payment system when PayPal, Applepay, have completely commoditised that?” he asked. “It comes down to basics like: ‘People work there so I want to protect jobs’, or ‘To create a sense of what’s mine. It is upon inspection not an easy position to defend.”

The Spending Review saw big budget cuts for many departments – with many administration budgets falling by more than 20% over the three years – and the government has presented the GDS’s programmes as a way to cut running costs. The flagship GDS cross-government programmes include one supporting IT purchases; one providing core systems for departments’ own digital services; and one offering identity verification systems. “By 2020 the government’s ambition is for citizens to have the option to pay online for every central government service, including passports, driving licences and motoring fees,” the Review said.

Bracken is meanwhile launching a new global consultancypublic.digital – to “help international governments and transnational organisations transform digitally,” he said.

Read our full interview for Mike Bracken’s views on transforming government services, the next horizon for digital reforms, and the frustrating resilience of the British civil service

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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