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Local digital services “not my job” says GDS’s Bracken

The government’s digital chief was questioned over how local authorities can collaborate with Whitehall on common challenges

Government digital chief Mike Bracken claimed the Government Digital Service (GDS) is “waiting for direction” around how to assist local authorities with their digital agenda.

Speaking at a Policy Exchange event in London on 29 June 2015, Bracken was asked about GDS’s role supporting local government. He said “we have no mandate for local”, despite chancellor George Osborne announcing in his March 2015 Budget that “local government and the Government Digital Service will collaborate” on digital services.

“The platform approach doesn’t cut through the various lines of government. In terms of mandate and what local can do, I’m afraid it’s not my job,” said Bracken.

Labour’s shadow digital government minister Chi Onwurah criticised Bracken’s response. She said a government as a platform model should not be just about using the open-source code repository Github, where GDS software is available for local authorities to apply in their own situation, and that more assistance will be needed. 

GDS is following the Government as a platform (GaaP) model to support the development of common services used across government, such as payments or identity, which can then be adapted and used by any public-sector body without a new and mostly duplicated system being built.

GDS has already begun the process by producing Verify, an identity assurance service used by government departments such as HM Revenue and Customs and Defra.

But there have been concerns across the industry that the GaaP model created by GDS will not scale at a local level because it is difficult to maintain internally built bespoke models.

According to Bracken, institutional reform is next on the GDS agenda to break down Whitehall silos and solve the problems brought about by monolithic IT.

“We must break out of siloed models of service delivery and take a new cross-government approach,” he said.

“What we’re on the cusp of with government-as-a-platform is recognising that we’ve proven we can do our services and we’ve gained a bit of confidence, so we’re getting a lot better at it. We’re gaining the trust in each other in government to say ‘Let’s use us as a platform right across the piece,’” he added.

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Bracken said that, when he first joined GDS, he was told government would never work together well enough for common good, but he found that lack of funds and unhappy users led to people banding together to find an answer.

“Technology as good [in Whitehall] as we use at home should be a base line, not an aspiration,” he said. “GDS is the critical national infrastructure that is delivering digital government.”

Bracken explained the “trick” to digital government is to realise it’s more of a movement than an individual project.

“There’s a lot of stuff you won’t have seen that’s not worked because we stopped doing it really quickly,” he said.

“Because of the agile way we work we can [stop projects] really quickly. I think a real testament to agile is that you can try stuff quick, fail fast and move on.” 

But Bracken said one of the things that will never work for the future is continuing to procure large, long-term IT contracts.

“Government has largely done this to itself. We’ve locked ourselves into paying high rates while the cost of technology has fallen sharply,” said Bracken. “I fail to see how locking ourselves into those deals can bear us great digital services.”

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