Mike Bracken, former head of the Government Digital Service (GDS): Exclusive interview

By on 02/12/2015

As HM Treasury gives the UK’s Government Digital Service the cash to embark on a new wave of reforms, its former head tells Matt Ross what it’ll do with the money – and why he won’t be there to spend it

Mike Bracken doesn’t come across as a man given to wild exuberance – but when we meet, just hours after chancellor George Osborne has unveiled the new Conservative administration’s three-year spending review, the former head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) is plainly over the moon.

“GDS and all the programmes and business cases that we’ve worked on for 18 months have been backed,” he says contentedly – and in a way that “breaks the Treasury mould. Rather than being done by departmental line funding, these programmes work across government platforms – so it’s a measure of the confidence that my ex-colleagues, particularly those in the Treasury, have in this model.”

Certainly, finance departments aren’t easily persuaded to change their funding models: the shift in HM Treasury demonstrates its belief both that digital techniques and technologies are crucial to achieving the savings it requires, and that realising those savings will demand cross-departmental action pursued by a well-funded central unit.

Bracken’s former colleagues now have the capacity to start delivering those business plans. And though GDS has often encountered obstructive departmental officials since Bracken and then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude founded the unit in 2011, the former digital chief believes most civil servants will welcome its new funding: until his departure in August, he recalls, “the biggest problem I had with departments and agencies was managing demand. I had to turn down some amazing offers to be involved in projects, because we were massively oversubscribed.”

In Bracken’s view, GDS now has the money and the time – the next election is scheduled for 2020 – to take the UK government’s digital offer to the next level: “These programmes are set up not just to make public services better, but also to effect huge savings and transformational reform,” he says. “That extra money is given so that billions in savings come out of the other end.”

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A disruptive influence

GDS has already played a major role in modernising the civil service’s approach to ICT. Granted the power to veto departments’ IT contracts and projects, the unit first set about reducing the government’s dependence on a handful of huge IT providers, championing procurement from small businesses and launching a cloud-based digital services marketplace. It pushed departments to rethink services around users’ needs and digital capabilities, recruited digital leaders across government, redeveloped 25 ‘exemplar’ digital services, and absorbed thousands of websites into the single portal gov.uk.

Bracken arrived with a strong track record of digitally-led reform, having helped found civic charity mysociety.org and worked for communications giant UPC, tech services firm Wavex and The Guardian’s online operations. “I’ve always tried to use the skills I’ve got to improve social outcomes,” he comments; his CV contains “a thread of trying to transform organisations to make them work round the principles of the internet, not just to reform the organisation but for social good or social value.” But in government, Bracken encountered huge resistance to change – and clearly found it a bruising experience: as he left, he made clear that he’d been frustrated by the civil service’s reluctance to embrace digital technologies.

So what are the civil service’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? “Well, its greatest strengths are its resilience, its people – I will say that, the people are lovely – the…” Then he runs out of steam. “Yeah, they’re the major strengths. Its major weaknesses are its resilience, and its people!” Then he offers a summary that speaks volumes about his experience in government: “Large bureaucracies tend towards putting their own needs before the needs of reform,” he says. “The civil service is a large and enduring organisation that has been highly resistant to the internet and to technology-led reform since the Second World War.”

Nonetheless, GDS made substantial progress – increasing the range and reach of digital services, and producing savings of £600m ($900m) in 2014-15 alone. Bracken is clear that Francis Maude deserves much of the credit here: “Cabinet Office ministers in recent memory have been very ineffectual”, he says. “Then Francis Maude came in, and decided they were going to be an interventionist and operational bit of government that would have real power. That’s why GDS had the ability to work across different bits of government – and that’s what any functional lead really needs to effect change.”

The UK government, Bracken explains “works in straight lines” – with power flowing out from ministers through their departments and agencies: central policymakers are distanced from their own frontline services, which are themselves split at the local level along departmental lines. The GDS’s role – based at the heart of government, but involved in redesigning frontline services – provided a challenge to that status quo: “If you have a system where you have a very small number of people, supported by some very young people who’ll provide no challenge to them, with these levers of policy-led control, then the last thing they want is someone coming in saying: ‘I’m going to have a complete view of the operation of government from here’,” he comments.

On conflict and collaboration

With Maude securing spending controls and political cover for GDS, the unit began its work quite aggressively – putting pressure on big IT suppliers and wresting websites away from departments. “In the first two years, there had to be such remedial and instant intervention across government because we were in a terrible commercial, digital and technological state,” comments Bracken. “But some of the crunchier side of that has gone on to characterise the entire Parliament; in fact, much of GDS’s work was built on collaborating from the start.”

As Bracken points out, “in a system as set up to be frictional as the civil service, you don’t get several thousand websites onto a single platform by having several thousand battles: you make something that they want to belong to. When people are dealing with legacy technology that’s making them unhappy and inefficient, and someone like GDS comes along and provides better services, there isn’t a friction about that.” For the latter two years of Bracken’s time in government, he says, he didn’t need to call on Maude’s assistance: “That sort of intervention was unnecessary; we had created enough collaboration. A cynic could say it was because people knew he was still in office so we had an escalation point, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but I genuinely think we’d found enough ground to collaborate.”

Meanwhile, GDS was fighting another battle to encourage civil servants to move from traditional ‘waterfall’ project management to an ‘agile’ approach. Digital public services, Bracken argues, are best developed by a process of incremental development and testing: “You use it for live services which are messy, have very quick feedback loops, are prone to policy changes – you need course correction, the ability to change things quickly.”

So what did he learn about introducing agile methodologies into government? “That it’s doable; and I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was welcomed and much less attritional than I thought.” Civil servants delivering public services, he says, use modern technologies at home and “have been deeply frustrated for decades with the clunky technology” of government. Then GDS involved thousands of them in hands-on development work, producing and testing services: “I’ll put a pound to a penny that they’d be very, very reluctant to go back to work in that old style,” he comments.

Agile’s reputation in government was tarnished by its association with the troubled Universal Credit (UC) programme, after the Department for Work and Pensions claimed it was using the methodology in its ambitious welfare reforms – then wrote off hundreds of millions of pounds and started again. But Bracken responds that “Universal Credit was already a year underway when we arrived: that didn’t do any agile at all – it was waterfall. That was set up wrongly.”

GDS then got involved in a digital UC programme, piloted in South London and now being rolled out – and “I’d suggest that was a model for agile development,” says Bracken. “I will give you an absolute guarantee that there was not a single piece of agile working in that initial Universal Credit. They spent hundreds of millions of pounds in that classic waterfall way.” And then wrote it off? “And then I talked to [work and pensions secretary] Iain Duncan Smith,” he replies carefully, praising the department for resetting the scheme.

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Rental values

Now Bracken’s former team will be focusing on the next wave of digital changes: the development of cross-government services, hosted in the cloud and rented on demand, to perform common functions such as payments and identity verification. GDS doesn’t build many services itself, he explains: “We did some technology work if necessary, but we used commodity services as much as possible. They’re often open source, often free, and they vastly reduce the cost of delivery.”

Those suppliers who sold hardware, software and long-term service provision contracts to government – and those officials who bought them – haven’t welcomed this change, says Bracken. “There are a lot of people in the ‘buy’ category who were very unhappy with GDS because it meant we didn’t have armies of procurement people,” he recalls. “And there’s lots of companies who [sell to government] for whom this wasn’t good news.”

With Maude’s backing, GDS pushed through this opposition – but encountered another obstacle, in the form of senior departmental officials keen to protect their autonomy. Bracken is still baffled by some of these objections. “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 asks. These days, payment services are “like electricity: they come out of the wall.”

The objections, he recalls, rested on departmental permanent secretaries’ direct accountability to Parliament for the spending of their budgets. But this “is pretty much nonsense”: departmental services are so interdependent these days, he believes, that “none of us in government can really be solely accountable for anything. The principle of having platforms that we all use is naturally baked into government. So when I hear people say: ‘I want to be accountable for everything’, what I really hear is: ‘I just don’t want to play’.” Resistant officials, says Bracken, were often simply protecting their staffing levels or departments’ independence: “It is upon inspection not an easy position to defend.”

GDS has been developing a set of these cross-departmental services – and the “biggest long-term strategic play”, says Bracken, is Verify: a way of securely identifying people online, so they can access government services.

Many businesses “invest huge amounts of time and effort on tuning their identity services, and we’re never going to be able to keep up with that,” he explains. So GDS has created a set of standards, and accredited private companies such as Experian and the Post Office to offer Verify: “It matches government to the emerging standards of what they’re doing,” he explains, “so we don’t have to compete and spend millions of pounds; yet every time security and identity management services in the marketplace get better, we get better.” Citizens can choose their own provider, with companies confirming their identity and verifying it to a growing list of digital public service providers.

The future for GDS

With its business plan accepted and funded by the Treasury, Verify can be rolled out across government. But Bracken quit three months before the spending review: why didn’t he stay to argue the case for reform until the crucial decisions had been made? “I’d argue that I did!” he replies. “Before I resigned, the business cases were done. And I had to ask myself the question whether I was going to go round the block again – and if I wasn’t, someone else had to take it from there.” New GDS director Stephen Foreshew-Cain is more than capable of delivering the unit’s objectives, says Bracken, “and I’d led GDS through five very tough years. I felt it was the right time to leave – but I did take it to the spending round, although I didn’t wait for the date to happen.”

Nonetheless, the Treasury’s vote of confidence may have surprised Bracken: faced with resistance from departments, and with Maude moved to another department, it’s looked at times as if government was backing away from the GDS. Does he think the PM and chancellor contemplated leaving the digital agenda to departments, then backed away? “You’d have to ask them,” he replies. “I think that 2015 has been a year of three major events: an election, an emergency budget, and a spending round. That leads to a lot of vacillation and ambiguity. That’s what I’ll say to that!”

Looking ahead, Bracken points out that to deliver its plans, GDS “now has a requirement for world-class technology platform delivery people in the centre of government. That wasn’t the case in the last Parliament; we weren’t set up to deliver these programmes.” It will also need a new set of senior managers: many followed Bracken out of the door – including five who joined Bracken at his new job with the Co-operative Group. “Probably didn’t help, me taking a few,” he comments, carefully straight-faced. “But there you are!”

Even given the money and new staff, GDS will still need the support of departmental chiefs. “Where we worked best was where we had an alignment with departments and with users for transformational reform,” he recalls. “Where we had the right leader saying: ‘We can do this together,’ it worked like a dream. And where you had much more sovereignty, where people were saying: ‘We do things like this round here, not your way,’ then it was harder. Harder slash impossible!”

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The future for Bracken

There are, of course, many governments around the world trying to do “hard slash impossible” things in the digital space – and to help them, Bracken has just got the old team back together and launched public.digital: a consultancy that aims to “see governments start again with a digital approach to delivery of services; to strengthen the democratic engagement with citizens – we won’t work with certain governments; and to bring the best of the internet generation, with all its values, into the heart of government.”

Along with Bracken, that team comprises Tom Loosemore, Russell Davies and Ben Terrett, all longstanding collaborators: Bracken and Loosemore wrote about “how we can re-imagine government” for the New Statesman back in 2000, he says, and all four worked together at GDS. The group will be helping “international organisations and governments with strategic and delivery challenges,” adds Bracken. “So it’s advisory: we’re not delivering government services, mercifully!” The team have been talking to governments including the USA, Australia, Finland, Sweden and Canada, he explains, “but nothing is signed as of today.”

And what has Bracken learned at GDS about how to pursue digital in government? “Wiser governments are understanding that many of their institutions are probably beyond the point of reform, and you need to start again at the service level,” he replies, arguing that many services have “accreted over years” to involve dozens of separate, badly-aligned functions and teams. He used to recommend using digital to streamline these services, but now believes that “with digital, you have the ability to design a new service – not just to make your existing service work a bit better.” This is a “key message for all governments”, he adds.

He’ll be applying some of that thinking, he hints, in his other job as chief digital officer of the Co-Operative Group. Founded in 1844, he says, it’s “a legacy organisation. But there is a real value in thinking openly in starting again, because internet technology has been so commoditised that it’s so cheap it’s mostly free!” So does his task at Co-op match that he faced at GDS? It does not: “It’s big, it’s federated, it’s important; it’s got a big national brand, potentially global,” he replies. “The crucial thing is we were invited in.” And weren’t you invited into government? “Well, we were mandated into the centre,” he says. “We weren’t invited in by the civil service.”

What’s to learn?

Another key lesson of his time at GDS, says Bracken, is that “in the middle of government, you have to align the skills and power”. To achieve change, nations need an influential, dedicated unit at the centre of government: “It’s not something you can put on the periphery of government; you have to have reform at the centre.”

Crucially, this unit needs a powerful political champion with heft across the departments. “I suspect Maude’s legacy – and he’s done many things: he signed the Maastricht Treaty! – will be those years in Cabinet Office, breaking the mould and reaching out across government to use his influence,” he comments. Though such units can build collaborative relationships over time, they do face resistance and “I don’t see how you can do the initial bit without a strong political lead.”

Finally, Bracken adds, there’s “a model there for politicians”, who must focus on upgrading their government machines for the digital age – sometimes at the cost of other policies. “If you’re a politician coming to the centre of power, you’ve worked very hard to get there – and to have to put your ambitions slightly to one side and fix the machine you’ve spent all this time getting to run is a tough call. But that’s what governments need to do: their operations need to be reset digitally, and that resetting needs political leadership. It doesn’t matter from what side of the [political] spectrum that comes, but it needs to happen.”

If politicians wish to make that leap, Bracken’s new team will be there to help – as long as they’re not in the UK: he’s made it clear that he’s done his time inside Whitehall. When we meet, though, he’s enthusiastic about the prospects for GDS: “The spending review has backed GDS and backed agile hugely; it’s been a great day,” he says, with quiet satisfaction. “Politicians and senior civil servants should take a lot of credit. They took a leap to get us in, but they’ve taken another leap five years later to back it.”

And Bracken’s legacy? What did he leave behind in Whitehall? “Confidence,” he replies. “The knowledge that you can make brilliant digital public services, make people happy, save a ton of money, and transform government. And you can do them all at the same time!”

 

The Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

http://legislemos.org/gabrielaydiego/ This site from Buenos Aires shows how simple digital techniques like multivariate testing can apply to the modern political process.

Are there any projects or innovations in your country that might be valuable to your peers overseas? 

Loads. Mysociety.org has led the way for years outside government; recent work by the Universal Credit digital team show how public services can be designed afresh; and Iain Patterson and the DVLA team in Swansea show how legacy services can be transformed.

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their peers overseas? 

By making their working lives truly digital. By sharing code and services, and adopting open standards. And by ensuring all public officials need to use their own services and deal directly with their users, to understand the human cost of failure and waste.

What are the biggest global challenges within your field over the next five years? 

Climate change is everyone’s field, but after that the protection of the user, privacy and our commitment to use digital to help the most in need in the public realm.

What is your favourite book and why?

It may well be The Image, by Daniel Boorstin. At the moment I am reading ‘The internet is not the answer’ by Andrew Keen. Provocative so far….

 

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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