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Mike Bracken: I turned down an increase in GDS budget

Outgoing government digital chief says he rejected the chance of extra funding and that his platform strategy is still on the table

Mike Bracken, the outgoing chief of the Government Digital Service (GDS), turned down the chance of a significant increase in his GDS budget and insists discussions over future digital strategy have yet to be finalised.

In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, Bracken revealed he met with senior government leaders – including Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and minister for government policy Oliver Letwin – in 2014, along with representatives from the Treasury and Number 10, to discuss the future of GDS.

“They asked me, what if we put a lot more money into digital? What if we gave GDS five times the money it has now? I said don’t do that, you don’t want a ‘department of digital’ – that’s the last thing we need,” he said.

Since Bracken announced his unexpected departure from government on 3 August 2015, rumours have been rife over potential cuts to GDS budgets and claims that his core strategy for government as a platform (GaaP) had been rejected. 

However, Bracken said the GaaP plan is still on the table and the business case will be considered as part of the current spending review led by chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne.

“We need to create an argument for government as a platform so we have platform plays rather than doing everything in hundreds of silos. And that’s what we’ve done. 

“The question that needs to be asked is [whether] that model is going to be backed? The spending round is the time that will be answered. Anything on the journey to the spending review is just in-year budget management of costs,” he said.

As an example of that short-term cost management, Bracken said GDS “didn’t get 40% of what we asked for” in the summer Budget , which is in line with cuts Osborne is imposing on many government departments.

Bracken also denied suggestions his boss, civil service chief executive John Manzoni, had scuppered the GaaP strategy.

“We have to do it dispassionately, we have to do it based on business cases, and John has been a strong advocate of that process. What he’s brought is a degree of financial rigour and approach,” said Bracken.

“GDS’s instinct is to go and build an alpha [test] and try it. We've done some of that, but we’ve also spent a lot of time working with the Treasury on the robustness of business cases. I don’t really care about the actual size of GDS. I care about the commitment to digital at the centre [of government],” he said.

Bracken is set to leave at the end of September to become chief digital officer at the Co-operative Group. Since his announcement, several of his senior GDS leaders have also quit – often with no job to go to – sparking further speculation about the future of the organisation. GDS chief operating officer Stephen Foreshew-Cain will take over leadership of the team.

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