Interview: Government digital chief Mike Bracken on the next five years

The Government Digital Service celebrates its third anniversary soon, but has plenty more challenges ahead to change Whitehall thinking

As a lifelong Liverpool FC supporter, Mike Bracken appreciates a football metaphor.

Computer Weekly puts it to him that the Government Digital Service (GDS), of which he is executive director, is the IT equivalent of teenage player Raheem Sterling, an emerging star for the club and country, widely lauded for his talent and early promise, but five years from now everyone could be wondering whatever happened to him and where it all went wrong.

Bracken doesn’t disagree. Proof of that early digital government promise is demonstrated by two upcoming milestones. October will be two years since the launch of Gov.UK, now the common web platform for central government; while November sees the third anniversary of GDS itself, which Bracken has built up in that time to a 300-strong team aiming to disrupt and transform government IT.

But, ultimately, future success will be determined not by the past achievements of his team, but in managing the expectations set by those achievements.

He admits to joining the civil service in 2011 with a “utopian vision of digital government” and he is still as evangelical about the possibilities today, but experience has brought a greater understanding of the unique challenges of trying to change government while fixing a broken model of IT.

Most of all he wants people to understand and buy into that vision for digital government, but acknowledging that change in Whitehall will take time.

“We only really got going in late 2012, and the election was May 2010. Going from a standing start to where we are in not much more than half a parliament is pretty good. We’d all like to be further on but that’s where we are,” he says.

“It’s taken government 15 years to engineer itself into this heavily siloed proprietary position [with IT]. It’s going to take more than one parliament to get out of it.”

He reels off the highlights of those three years for GDS: Gov.UK is set to host more than 320 government and agency websites by the end of the year, with several thousand users across Whitehall publishing content – and countries from New Zealand to Argentina and Mexico are either using the open-sourced Gov.UK code or copying its model.

Six of the 25 high-volume transactions being re-developed as digital services are already live, with more on the way soon. “I'm really happy with what’s gone on there,” says Bracken. More than 80 dashboards are live to publicly measure service performance. Some of the best digital skills in the UK have been recruited to the team. And the critical identity assurance service – now re-branded Gov.UK Verify – is about to be released for public testing.

Read more about the Government Digital Service

Obvious dichotomies

But Bracken – indeed GDS and the whole government digital strategy – still faces some obvious dichotomies.

To outsiders, his work takes place in the context of a widespread assumption that government IT is rubbish; tainted by too many expensive failures in the past. To some Whitehall insiders, GDS is the upstart that doesn’t understand the civil service, tells departments what to do, how to run their IT and who to recruit, and rubs people up the wrong way.

GDS today is certainly the ingénue, recognised for its achievements and potential, but constantly having to prove itself. It exists to deliver Bracken’s utopian vision, but still needs to make sceptics and doubters understand what that future looks like and convince them of the role they have to play to make it happen.

“There’s a long way to go,” Braken admits.

“When you’re not in government you think, why can’t you just do this or do that? I had this sort of utopian vision of digital government. But in reality [government is] big old clunky machines. You’ve got to be much more measured and willing to accept there are only certain things you can do once you’re on the inside.”

With that acceptance comes an inevitable degree of frustration.

“The single biggest risk is inertia - people for very good reasons saying, ‘Do we have to do this now? Let’s leave it for a year’. Think what government could have achieved if GDS was ready at the start of this parliament,” he says,

“It’s a political risk because if we don’t start, it lengthens the period of time before we can sit down and say, ‘Yes minister, we can do that very quickly because we have a more interoperable platform’, rather than ‘No minister, it takes two years because we’re in silos’.”

Platform thinking

Bracken’s task is not just introducing better technology and online public services; it is getting Whitehall to think and talk in the language of digital. The word he uses most often is “platform” – as in “government as a platform”. It is, frankly, one of the words thrown around by digital experts that is most open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding by others who don’t want to make themselves look foolish by admitting they don’t know what it means.

But “platform thinking” is the essence of what Bracken intends to be the big transformation in the next five-year parliamentary cycle after the 2015 general election: “Government as a platform is something you will see a lot in the next parliament,” he says.

He explains it this way: Government today is a series of silos – departments or agencies, essentially – that look upon their services, processes and technology from a purely inward-looking departmental perspective. “When you think about how you reform an entire silo, you take parts of that and make it into a platform,” he says.

A platform is generic, and most likely underlies the functions of many different departments. He cites Gov.UK as the example.

“We have now demonstrated that platform working does work. On Gov.UK, by the end of the parliament we’ll have 6,000 to 8,000 people operating on it. No more than 50 or 60 of those will be in GDS. It is genuinely a platform for all of government – it’s not mine, it’s not a department’s, it’s for all of us,” he says.

But he is also aware that critics point to Gov.UK as proving only that GDS can run a better website.

There are some things in this parliament that we are just not able to do because when a minister wants a new service we have to say, well this thing doesn’t talk the same language as that thing over there. So that government as a platform idea is coming

Mike Bracken, GDS

“The idea that platform plays come and equalise everything is a difficult one for people who have not seen them before,” he says.

“Gov.UK is so important because it establishes the idea of a common platform for all of government. Once you have that platform thinking, then you apply that to booking, registering, getting a licence – all things that are common in government.”

This time he cites a recently launched service as a small-scale example – prison visit bookings, developed by the Ministry of Justice digital team. To Bracken, it’s not a siloed system for booking prison visits; it is an underlying platform for booking anything for any public service – jobcentre appointments, perhaps, or driving tests.

“One of the pieces of utility they came up with was a booking application. Now, when you want to book something else, we have that common component and booking in government should look like that.”

Expanding that principle in the simplest terms, tax collection potentially becomes not a bespoke system built by and for HM Revenue & Customs, but a platform to collect money that can be used for taxes or any other payments to government. Welfare becomes a platform for paying out money that can be used for benefits or any other payments to citizens. Each department simply adds its own unique functionality – such as the logic behind PAYE calculations – on top of the standard, re-usable platform.

In a platform world, when a political policy changes, you don’t need to redevelop the whole siloed system with all the risk that entails – look at Universal Credit as a prime example of how hard that can be.

“The question then isn’t what you do with the contract structure in one silo - it’s how can your infrastructure deals with that commonality of platform,” says Bracken.

IT as a function of digital

And here is where the big IT challenges start and end. Bracken sees technology only as a function of digital, not as an end in itself.

“I’m head of the government technology profession, but Liam Maxwell is the CTO, and he works into digital, reporting into me. That positioning is important - that it’s not an industry in and of itself, it’s there as part of the whole operation,” he says.

And that thinking represents a huge change for the big IT suppliers who continue to take billions of pounds out of the government every year through their longstanding outsourcing deals.

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Bracken describes the move from silos to platforms as a “generational” switch. “That is going to be the bulk of the activity technically in the next parliament. It brings with it many decision points – whether you stick or twist, whether you replace, reform, or retire [systems], in any given department. Part of the problem with that debate is people wanting to talk about the entirety,” he says.

“We need an enabling strategy that allows us to do that [switch]. It is no good saying, 'Why can’t we share data X with data Y to make a new service?' – the reason we can’t is because that data is held in proprietary systems and doesn’t talk to each other. You have to redesign.”

That requires a different way of working with IT suppliers – one that many IT suppliers have yet to fully grasp, convinced as they are that Whitehall just can’t do big, national IT systems without them.

When asked if he thinks the traditional IT providers understand what is required, Bracken’s response is illuminating.

“You’d be surprised how little I deal with suppliers on any sort of level. Your question seems to presume that I know the current health of those organisations, and I don’t,” he says.

“The engagement [with big suppliers] is what it is. The ideal engagement is via a browser, a quick, open, transparent engagement to buy services, to commission organisations to work in a way that is interoperable and open. Our architecture and our commissioning are based on the principles of open standards, so we’ll get better prices and more competition. 

"We’ve moved hosting of Gov.UK at least three if not four times – a perfect model of how better suppliers can serve us. That model should work whether you’re a megacorp or whether you’re a startup - that’s what we hope to see.”

Bracken is critical of a situation where suppliers have separate contracts with different parts of government, charging different prices to each: “As a relative newcomer to government, I don’t know how we got there.”

What he wants is a very different buyer-supplier relationship from the cosy one of old.

“I don’t like going to Twickenham with suppliers and all that sort of thing. We have a user focus, and we’re evangelical to some degree about that. We focus on our users, on our people, we want to have an open and innovative and price-efficient supplier relationship. We want to use government data on services and get it out in the market and help third parties use it to create more utility that we can then bring back in,” he says.

“I look to commission not to procure. If you procure, you procure one thing, but the point of modern services is you are constantly commissioning, driving down price and driving up value. That sends the right signal to the market and makes the market work in the way we want it to work.”

Educating politicians

But it’s not only suppliers that Bracken needs to convince. Ultimately, politicians need to understand the potential for digital government and create policies in a digitally friendly way. Progress has been made here too – not least a new process for getting funding approved by the Treasury designed for the more iterative nature of agile projects, instead of making a business case up-front for an old-style “big bang” project that might take years.

Bracken thinks the outcome ministers want is close to his utopian vision – they just don’t realise it yet.

“In conversations [with ministers], a good analogy would be that they are asking, 'Why can’t we have an eBay for this or a Tripadvisor for that?' What they really mean is, 'Why can’t we have a platform that works?'” he says.

It seems to me that if we focus on better services, for less money, with more sharing, acting as one government, focusing on the user, and enabling ministers to deliver policy quicker in the way they want to, it’s hard to see who loses

Mike Bracken, GDS

“The answer is, prior to this parliament you didn’t have any platforms, you had silos - vertical top to bottom. We’re in an era that requires platform thinking. Those conversations aren’t going into the technical guts and neither should they be. I sense what people are asking for is government as a platform. Within limitations, following regulations, within constitutional impositions, why can’t we be more interoperable and share? Or at least have that policy capacity. The answer is because we don’t have any platforms – that’s why.”

Politicians may not be talking about platforms, but what they want requires platforms to be delivered, says Bracken.

“I think people are asking, 'Can we have the outcomes that would come if we had those platform services?' I’m not saying here’s a future digital state. I don’t want to promise a utopian vision because I know how the internal systems are. But I want to say, 'Here is a bunch of enabling stuff we should be sorting out now', so in the next parliament, when we want to do more of that, it is at least deliverable,” he says.

“There are some things in this parliament that we are just not able to do because when a minister wants a new service we have to say, 'Well, this thing doesn’t talk the same language as that thing over there' or, 'They are in different contractual constructs that were designed to keep them separate'. Of course ministers will want that. So that government as a platform idea is coming.”

But Bracken can only talk about his existing ministerial masters. With a general election next year, the politics, people and priorities of government could change entirely. Tory Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has been central to the digital and IT changes introduced, using his considerable political weight to push GDS thinking into often-reluctant Whitehall departments.

The politics of digital government

Labour has signalled its commitment to digital government, and eventually backed what GDS is doing. In the coming months, Opposition MPs will be given official permission to talk to the civil service as part of a regular pre-election process to ease any potential political transition.

Bracken says he has deliberately avoided Labour’s digital government review, but is aware they will be keen to talk to him: “I’m confident a number of politicians will want to have a look at GDS and talk to us,” he says. But he refutes any suggestion that a new government of any political colour is a risk to his strategy.

Many industries have been disintermediated so they know how it works. Government doesn’t understand that because it’s never really gone through it

Mike Bracken, GDS

“It seems to me that, if we focus on better services, for less money, with more sharing, acting as one government, focusing on the user, and enabling ministers to deliver policy quicker in the way they want to, it’s hard to see who loses,” he says.

Labour has accused the Coalition of focusing its digital efforts too much around cost cutting, and of seeing digital government only as a way to deliver services more cheaply than face-to-face or by telephone.

For Bracken, whatever it takes to get government moving in the right direction is worthwhile.

“When we talk about transformation we’re talking about doing the whole thing differently, but what some people have been hearing is that you’ll get a cheaper version of the same stuff,” he says.

“But what we’re saying is it’s not going to be about an IT system - we’re going to have an abstract picture, we’re going to make digital service levels, we’ll plug in various modules that are interoperable, then it will be administered very differently. That’s not a message that is easily communicated to people who have never seen that. Many industries have been disintermediated so they know how it works. Government doesn’t understand that because it’s never really gone through it.”

The utopian vision

The vision that Bracken describes is compelling. The platform thinking he wants to deliver in the next parliament promises to enable faster and more flexible policy decisions, based on better data and information sharing. Relations with suppliers will be driven by publicly available performance dashboards – if a supplier can improve the performance level of a particular service, or cut its costs, then they win the business and the process is transparent; all made possible by an open, interoperable, common IT architecture.

Ultimately, citizens get better public services, that cost taxpayers less. But there is still a long way to go, many challenges to face, and more doubters to convince.

“A year ago people said, 'It’s all about websites, you can’t do transactions'. Now we have a million people registering to vote and 80% of those digitally. People then think, 'What’s the next thing you can’t do?'” says Bracken.

“Sometimes when I talk to people [in government] I want to say, don’t be the next music industry. We can make digital services. Yes we have a long way to go, I’m not in any way complacent, but I think we’ve proven collectively we can do it,” he says.

“Government still thinks in terms of winning and losing – my department wins, your department loses. That doesn’t work anymore, but that’s hard for government to understand, as it is for corporations. We all realise there is a common problem we’re trying to solve, which is to transform, to eke out the savings that we need.”

So, a star of the future, or tomorrow’s busted flush? Don’t expect to see Mike Bracken playing in the lower leagues anytime soon: “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “I’m completely bought into what we’re trying to achieve.”

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