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What will happen to digital government when GDS chief Mike Bracken moves on?

The government’s digital chief Mike Bracken has announced he will be leaving, raising concerns over the future of digital government

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Will digital government remain on course?

Mike Bracken has announced he will be leaving his role as the executive director for the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Cabinet Office’s chief data officer.

His four-year reign at GDS has seen him lead the digital government agenda, assisting in the development of Gov.uk, the digital services framework and open data, with cost savings delivered throughout.

The development of the government-as-a-platform model – a centralised approach to government IT whereby similar services can be deployed throughout government to decrease redundancy – is ongoing.

These initiatives have changed digital penetration in government and paved the way for better digital services and cheaper, smaller government contracts for IT in the future.

Changes need to stay

Many argue that Bracken’s departure may lead to a deterioration of digital initiatives, the government-as-a-platform model and sensible procurement in government. These concerns initially arose when Cabinet Office minister and digital advocate Francis Maude announced he would be leaving his post in early 2015.

As stated by Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, Bracken’s sudden departure from the job “will ring alarm bells throughout the private sector”, as many wonder what direction digital government will take next.

“Mike Bracken’s work in GDS produced some of the most visible manifestations of digital innovation in a government that has been hugely supportive of the technology sector,” said Shaw.

“The impact of Gov.uk cannot be understated. Combining high-quality design with improved user experience demonstrated the improvement an effective digital strategy can have on public perception and cost efficiency,” he said.

Digital transformation was absolutely necessary for government, and the changes made by Bracken will continue to be embedded in the future, said director of external affairs at BCS, The Chartered Institute of IT, Adam Thilthorpe.

“GDS is part of the digital whirlwind changing our understanding of society and [what is] possible. Government cannot go back to the old days and must harbour the best and brightest talent to be able to keep pace,” said Thilthorpe.

“Agile as a state of mind needs to continue to be nurtured in tandem with those who seek to set policy, as well as those who could deliver it,” he said.

The team will save the day

Despite concerns over whether the government will continue to support the digital role created for Bracken, many argue that Bracken’s team and digital leaders throughout government are more than capable and passionate enough to carry forward the agenda.

“GDS has helped to recruit a new cadre of IT, digital and technology inspirers, such as Mayank Prakesh at DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], so we know this agenda is not going to be dismantled – and why should it be?” said Thilthorpe.

“GDS has achieved a great deal and has become firmly embedded in government so [if] an individual – even a leader – leaves, its work will continue,” he added.

What has already been put in place has laid the foundations for a digital future, but many believe the continuation of digital transformation may shift towards departments and the teams delivering particular services.

“To ensure lasting legacy and public benefit, GDS must find a way to scale and repeat its successes. It must also take people with it and not isolate those who understand the message – those who are true disciples, but sometimes feel outside of the new process,” said Thilthorpe.

“Digital transformation will ultimately be delivered by the departments themselves, relying on their own talent and capability,” he said.

Although Bracken has highlighted what government as a platform can provide, it is likely the digital agenda will move away from a centralised approach to be delivered in departments and local teams.

“Bracken’s leadership has raised the profile of digital and made it more relevant throughout government, both of which are crucial if government is to successfully use technologies to deliver more for less,” said Naureen Khan, associate director at industry body TechUK.

“To deliver great projects, government needs great talent, and Bracken has been central to attracting talent to GDS and departments. He leaves a strong team, which will be critical to maintaining progress following his departure,” said Khan.

But the industry makes it clear Bracken will need a strong successor to continue to carry on the government’s digital agenda, as well as wider government leaders committed to digital adoption to tackle the ongoing transformation, which has not always been smooth in the past.

Supporting the future

In a tweet, Bracken announced his last task would be setting up a “digital centre of government for [the] next parliament”.

But there are several projects that will need to continue, including the promotion of digital inclusion across the UK, the redesign of the digital services framework and assisting local authorities with their digital agenda – a movement for which GDS has been “waiting for direction”.

Earlier in 2015, Bracken admitted that ensuring the GDS mantra scaled to local government was not his remit, despite this being one of the main concerns highlighted by the IT industry following the election.

The industry still sees this as an important direction to head in, and has highlighted that the push for digital adoption and deployment of digital services may well now begin to come from inside individual departments.

Bracken is confident those he is leaving to carry on the work will ensure a continued digital outlook for government.

“I’m leaving government’s digital delivery in capable hands – especially with the support we are getting for the future of digital transformation from the minister for the Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock,” Bracken wrote in his departing blog post.

“The GDS leadership is strong, our plans are clear and focused, our people – and digital teams across government – are rolling up their sleeves to continue the work of transformation,” he wrote.

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Wow, CW has really bought into all the GDS marketing. Look behind the rhetoric and you will see a series of empty claims and broken promises. If GDS does continue without Bracken, it can't get much worse.
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