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What next for GDS after Mike Bracken? The rumour mill begins...

Within minutes of Mike Bracken announcing his departure as the government’s digital chief, Twitter was full of tributes from people in his team at the Government Digital Service (GDS), and from the wider digital community across Whitehall and beyond.

There is little doubt Bracken inspired huge loyalty – but according to insiders, that hasn’t always been mirrored outside the digital community. For now at least, Bracken’s leaving inevitably prompts speculation about what happens next for GDS and the management of digital transformation.

Sources suggest that Bracken has not always seen eye to eye with his boss, civil service CEO John Manzoni. We know from Manzoni’s public pronouncements that he favours giving power to departments, not the centre – “The good stuff happens when you put great people out in the departments. It doesn’t happen when you put great people in the centre,” he has said – a model that doesn’t suit the current shape of GDS.

Bracken said on Twitter soon after the announcement: “My last challenge will be to set up digital centre of Govt for next Parliament”, which seems to suggest that the governance of digital government is going to change, and that the role of GDS is set for a rethink.

In an email to Whitehall technology chiefs, seen by Computer Weekly, Bracken singled out deputy government CTO Magnus Falk who runs the government tech leaders network – but didn’t mention Falk’s boss, CTO Liam Maxwell, who originally set up the cross-Whitehall group. It’s easy to read too much into these things of course, but multiple sources have said that Bracken and Maxwell fell out with each other. It’s equally important to say that Bracken himself absolutely denies any rift with Maxwell.

Further speculation suggests that Bracken’s plans for government as a platform (GaaP) have not received the backing at Cabinet level that he hoped; and that Manzoni wants to cut GDS down to an architecture and policy unit and go back to the days when IT suppliers did most of the delivery. If any of this speculation is true, it will be a huge disappointment for the many people who support what Bracken has been trying to achieve. 

Bracken has been the driving force of pushing digital into Whitehall departments – he personally helped select over 100 digital leaders and experts to build up departmental digital teams. But some in those departments – often old-school IT types, sometimes civil servants with less enthusiasm about digital – resented the influence Bracken and GDS had been given.

The Cabinet Office highlighted Bracken’s achievements in delivering the Gov.uk website, and the so-called digital exemplars – the high-volume public services redesigned and redeveloped to be digital-by-default. But critics say that many of those digital services are little more than an aesthetic overhaul – it’s easy to find people keen to say that much more could have been delivered.

And then there’s Verify, the high-profile identity assurance system that has been frequently delayed, and is being rolled out with varying degrees of success. There are even rumours that HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions – the two biggest intended users of Verify – are considering building their own identity systems.

From my perspective, Bracken’s biggest achievement was in changing the conversation about technology in Whitehall – recognising the broken nature of IT delivery he inherited and making that the common view.

Bringing IT and digital skills back into government has been the single most important improvement in Bracken’s time, changing attitudes and organisations to put digital and technology much closer to the heart of government decision-making. His successors must retain that knowledge in Whitehall – surely, hopefully, government has accepted it cannot outsource everything to Big IT and needs to be a more intelligent customer.

Let’s not forget how hard it is to drive change in Whitehall and, compared to the past, Bracken achieved a huge amount in a relatively short time – even if some people inside and outside government feel a certain frustration that even more could have been done. I suspect Bracken shares that frustration.

But attitudes and organisations are easy to unwind, and that is the fear. Bracken leaves government with a report card showing mostly positive reviews, and his missionary zeal for digital transformation of public services will be missed.

The biggest test now will be to see how deeply embedded are the changes Bracken led. He leaves a strong legacy, it must not be wasted.

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