Government Digital Service needs agility of a start-up

The Government Digital Service (GDS) must have the agility of a start-up to drive through change across Whitehall, says its director Mike Bracken.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) must have the agility of a start-up to drive through change across Whitehall, says its director Mike Bracken.

Speaking at the official launch of the GDS Bracken said: “Our mission is about putting the user at the heart of the digital journey. As much as possible we want to adopt the behaviour of a start-up.”

Previous government practices have impeded the pace of change, said Bracken. “They lacked delivery capacity because it was usurped by a culture of programme and risk management. Around 15 years ago that probably made sense to bring third-parties and take the risk out. But now things have changed,” he said. “In government the pace of change is very slow and has been transposed from a pre-digital era.”

Bracken also flagged the failure of departments to understand back end systems as an impediment to change. “What strikes me is just how often the back-end isn’t very well understood because [many departments] gave away that knowledge a long time ago.” Departments can only make iterative service developments when they know the answers to questions concerning back-end systems, he said. “To change things quickly you have to understand how they are delivered in a detailed way"

Government agencies that have outsourced IT to system integrators and have contracts coming up for review are in a position where they are ready to invest money and are asking for our help, he added.

In order to get the rest of government on board GDS is asking departments to select digital leaders to direct internal moves towards digitisation. Bracken had previously told Computer Weekly that one of the key challenges for GDS is not allowing its capability to be swallowed by large departments. 

“It’s inconceivable to imagine we could drive departments from the outside,” he said.  “But the problem has not been trying to engage departments but fighting them off for our help.” He added:  “This is not plain sailing as these are big machines, but we have good early indications.”

As part of its cross-government engagement strategy, the staff of GDS, which will total up to 200, are to spend three days on the front line across government departments. “This will be a hub but by no means the only base for the digital service,” said Bracken.

As part of its remit GDS is also offering a formal consultancy to departments and agencies such as the Student Loans Service.  Bracken’s team are also consulting with the Department for Work and Pensions on its flagship Universal Credit programme around issues of usability. “It’s a massive programme of upgrading work, we’ve got to make sure the move to digital brings in those people from hard to reach areas. We are not part of the IT programme in doing that, but we do have to make sure the user services meet demands in terms of the interfaces and user journey."

But Bracken said Universal Credit was more of a long-term play in terms of what the digital agenda was initially trying to achieve. “We want more momentum from the quick stuff today. For example, we have been improving the search function in Job Seekers’ Allowance, which you could argue is one of most valuable parts of the digital real estate.”

One of the key measures for success next year will be the move to a single domain for government sites, he said. “I’d want to see better versions of the consumer facing part of and the business part. If we don’t achieve that then I would be disappointed.”

Asked whether GDS would have a problem attracting and retaining talent as government sees its purse strings tighten, Bracken said: “I’ve learnt time and time again that great people who are innovative are driven by working with other great people,” he said. The potential benefit to society is another draw for talented individuals, he said. “Pushing products for commercial companies is all well and good, I’ve done it myself, but this has a greater level [of meaning] in terms of touching people’s lives.”

Also speaking at the event Ian Watmore, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, agreed . “I know some of you love the technology, but I hope you love the public services more. This is about lifting people out of social deprivation to get the skills they need,  allowing offenders to get back into the community as they have access to the right information, and people accessing the best healthcare in the time needed. Technology is a means to end and the end is very significant and important,” he said.

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