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Interview: Government digital chief Mike Bracken – why I quit

Mike Bracken, the outgoing director of the Government Digital Service, talks exclusively to Computer Weekly about his departure from Whitehall

Sometimes what is not said can be just as important as what is; reading between the lines can offer as much insight as the spoken words. That’s how it feels talking to Mike Bracken, in his valedictory interview with Computer Weekly as the UK government’s digital chief.

Bracken surprised many people when he announced at the start of August that he was quitting as executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS). For more than four years, he was the figurehead for the digital transformation of public services, and the leader for a growing band of digital expertise recruited into Whitehall to support his plans.

But his departure – followed swiftly by several of his key team members – has raised many questions about the future of GDS and the delivery of digital government. There has been much speculation and rumour – some accurate, some not – and throughout our conversation, Bracken chooses his words carefully. There is clearly much more he would like to say, and perhaps at some point he will.

But three things are obvious – his passion for the digital transformation of government, his belief in the people he leaves behind to make that happen, and a real frustration at the inertia and resistance to change in Whitehall that led to his decision to leave.

The demands of the job

Only a year ago, in a previous interview with Computer Weekly, Bracken talked of his “utopian vision for digital government” and said: “I’m not going anywhere. I’m completely bought into what we’re trying to achieve.” So what changed?

“I'm still completely bought into what we're trying to achieve. My commitment to digital public services hasn't changed,” he says. But he admits he is tired, and seems worn down by the demands of the job.

“The stresses and strains of this job are almost impossible to tell people before you start, to understand how complex government is and the different pulls on your time and emotions,” he says. “What we do is profoundly important, and you have to sustain that to be able to motivate you to work every day and work as hard as we've done. I’ve never worked as hard in my life as the last four and a half years.” 

"I hoped the system would have had more capacity for institutional reform than it has"

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Bracken recounts a conversation with his former boss, ex-government chief operating officer Stephen Kelly, who left in November 2014 to become CEO of software firm Sage.

“I asked Stephen when he went to Sage: why now? He said he had to look the minister in the eye and say: am I going to go round the block again for another five years [of parliament]? And he said no. I asked myself that question and I thought if we can get the model set up and the business plan and business cases and the team to do it, does it need my leadership to take it round that block again? I don't think it does. I think it needs my leadership to take it to the spending round and to constantly re-win the argument that we need a digital centre of government – that argument needs to be won again and again,” he says.

On announcing his departure from GDS, Bracken tweeted that his last task was to set up a “digital centre of government for the next parliament”, and this is a theme he returns to several times in explaining the new post-election environment.

“We now have a different set of ministers, a different group of permanent secretaries, and you have to win these arguments over again. Just because you’ve won them once doesn't mean you’ve won them permanently, especially in a system that will roll back to what it knows,” he says.

Going against the grain

The argument he hopes to win is that the transformation needed requires new ways of working across the civil service – and it’s one that, in his experience, goes against the ingrained culture of departmental silos. He says it needs politicians to understand the digital opportunity and the scale of change it implies, and that simply relying on departments to deliver it will not work, focused as they are on their short-term, tightly defined remit.

“If government continues to not look at institutional reform as a necessity to enable better digital services, then it is destined to repeat the failures of the past,” he says.

“We need to say, as public administrators, that we need to work differently and more collaboratively in a system that is not set up to do that. Whitehall was described to me when I started as a warring band of tribal bureaucrats held together by a common pension scheme, and there is something in that.”

Throughout his time at GDS, there have been stories of disagreements with departments, and a perception created in some quarters that GDS wants to do everything. Departments have rarely been short of people willing to dismiss GDS as a jumped-up bunch of web developers. But Bracken insists the only way to achieve the full potential of digital transformation is collaborative, with a guiding hand in the centre that has the power to pull the levers when needed.

“The issue that we have right now in government is quite a central one,” he says. “Are we going to back a centre of government that works for all of government and is not departmentally aligned to a single issue? Or are we going to try to use a civil service system that is tremendously resilient but works in silos, to try to effect digital transformation. The jury is out, but that's the real question.” 

The role of Whitehall departments

Bracken is convinced that the departmentally led model, while supporting a robust and effective civil service, is not capable of delivering system-wide change.

“It is a matter of fact, not opinion, that despite spending over £6bn a year on technology, digital and associated operations, there isn't a government service [developed by a department] that could be considered as a platform, as in that it works for all parts of government. That is a matter of fact,” he says.

“We can't just keep making or buying technology solutions in one department and then just chucking it over the departmental wall and saying, 'That will work for the rest of government', because it never does. Ever. New platforms for all of government have to be designed and architected thoughtfully, and probably not by the same people who are fixated, rightly, on in-year policy delivery and massive change to existing service provision.”

He cites, by contrast, four platforms developed so far by GDS - the single website, an online service performance dashboard, Verify for identity assurance, and the digital marketplace for commissioning suppliers. 

For Bracken, it’s about achieving a balance between strategic direction and short-term budgetary restrictions. And the challenge is that departments have no incentive to think strategically beyond their own silo.

“There is absolutely nothing but support [from GDS] for departments,” he says. “Departments work largely on in-year funding; they are focused largely on achievements in a year. I've been saying for some time that we need to think of the two ends of that spectrum – strategic and short-term.”

As an example, he cites the recent initiative to develop a common payments platform for use across Whitehall, to replace the multitude of ways citizens can pay government for transactions, such as applying for passports.

“Currently, government has hundreds of different contracts with payment providers,” he says. “We could work through the current system and have hundreds of slightly more efficient contracts with payment providers or we could have a payment platform that allows us to use a whole bunch of technologies that gets rid of all those payment issues. It probably means we strip that out from departments and agencies and run it as a platform service for everybody. We have a choice whether to do that.” 

Sounds convincing? Apparently not to everyone. “At the moment, the jury is out. In government, we have never made that choice, and the single fact I come back to is there isn't a department that's created a platform service in that way that's used by everybody,” he says.

“You need a mixed model, it's not GDS or the departments, it's doing it together.”

Making the case for government as a platform

The argument Bracken has been trying to win most recently is over government as a platform (GaaP), his solution to the issue of departments versus the centre. Payments are just one example – he points to a list of at least 25 other common services that are needed by multiple departments that currently do their own thing. Part of that includes the need for consistent, canonical registers of data to avoid duplication.

The rumour mill has it that GaaP has not been well received; that the business case was rejected; that Bracken’s boss – civil service CEO John Manzoni, formerly of BP – doesn’t support it. Not true, says Bracken. Everything in government for the next few years – not just in digital – depends on the outcome of the forthcoming Treasury spending review, and GaaP has to follow that process like any other policy.

I don't really care about the actual size of GDS, I care about the commitment to digital at the centre
Mike Bracken

“We're right on the submission of that piece of work [the business case for GaaP]. It has to be considered in the spending review first. It would have been very easy last autumn to go in a room and say, we want these platforms because we think we know everything. We didn't do that. We had workshop after workshop, we spent months with colleagues across government working out what the current businesses are and what would benefit them. Where we ended up is not where five CIOs from big departments would have started,” he said.

“This has got to be one of the most collegiate business case productions you'll ever see, because we had to get everyone's hands in and saying we want this platform or that one. If it doesn't come through, for whatever reason, that will be a real shame – not for GDS but for government. If I'm in a department now facing up to 40% cuts over the course of this parliament, plus huge in-year cuts already made, you have a pressing amount of priorities and there’s the possibility that someone else might deliver a platform play to you. If that goes away, you really are stuck.”

Bracken cites business cases that show a four or five times rate of return – “massive savings over the life of a parliament” – but which, in his view, depend on a level of central funding.

“To a technologist, these things aren’t that difficult, but it goes against the grain of having everything work in silos, and that's the issue here. We have to win that argument, we have to do it dispassionately, we have to do it based on business cases,” he says.

Mandarin-led lands

But it’s clear that Bracken isn’t convinced the argument will be won.

“I'm just one voice in a very large government,” he says. “We have made the case dispassionately, we have made it on evidence, we have shown we have a track record of delivery, it's supportive of a departmental model, it helps the Treasury take the costs out of business, it's deeply aligned with the priorities of the government of the day.

“We can do little else than that. If it is decided that we should not do that and should revert back to mandarin-led lands of authority, then that's [someone else’s] decision. I think that would be an incredibly regressive decision, and it would be disappointing.”

Read more about government as a platform

“GaaP requires different behaviours from departments, and that’s not going to happen without support from the top.

“GaaP requires departments and agencies to be providers and consumers of services and data. It requires them, on occasion, to give up their own bespoke systems and use the government platform. This requires strong, vocal, public support from within the civil service leadership and especially through the spending round. And that doesn't come naturally,” he says.

GDS cuts

Much of the public debate since Bracken announced his departure has focused on the future of GDS and cuts to its budget, but he says GDS in itself is not the issue. He says GDS “didn’t get 40% of what we asked for” in the recent summer Budget, but that is in line with other parts of Whitehall. It’s not about cuts, it’s about commitment, he says.

“We've done the 10% and the 5% cut, and we've done that already. But our budgets are so small, they are a rounding error – we're accountable for less than 0.5% of the government budget on digital and technology, yet we provide much of its common infrastructure. Much of our core spending wasn't presented at Budget, so these cuts are hurting,” he says.

“I don't really care about the actual size of GDS, I care about the commitment to digital at the centre and an approach that says we are going to back those platforms. If that approach is backed, you are left with a subsequent question, which is: who is best placed to do them? The evidence shows departments are not best placed to do them.”

Indeed, Bracken turned down the chance of an increase in GDS budget last year, during discussions with ministers, the Treasury and Number 10.

“John Manzoni said let's put it in business cases, let's take the emotion out. He's been very good at that. We've followed that line slavishly and his direction throughout. My hope is those people who come to make that decision make the right decision, based on more higher-minded issues as public administrators, rather than winning Whitehall cases of who's big and who's small, who gets more and who gets less," he says.

"Is it about how big GDS is. It's the wrong mentality to ask: how big is my department? We should be focused on the user need as that always results in reduced cost and better services. We need to say, as public administrators, that we need to work differently and more collaboratively in a system that is not set up to do that."

Digital leaders

Before the 2015 general election, with the backing of former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in the coalition government, Bracken had the support to shake things up. As well as building up GDS, he helped recruit more than 130 people into senior digital leadership roles in departments, creating a community of digital and technology experts that, in partnership with GDS, worked for both their departmental needs and the common cross-government good.

He cites savings of £500m in 2012/13, £975m in 2013/14, and “a very large number” for 2014/15, as evidence that the model works. He says the fact that so many other countries are copying that model – he has talked with the US, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Singapore, Taiwan, Macedonia and others – is proof that “central levers” are needed to deliver transformation. His supporters might feel entitled to say the argument has been won. But the British civil service doesn’t work like that.

I can honestly say there hasn't been a day where I've not gone home and kicked myself for doing or saying something
Mike Bracken

“It's easy when you come to government to take solace in things that have worked in industries you've worked in previously, but it is a matter of fact that pushing delivery of platform plays to departments has singularly failed,” he says.

“The ability for any system to revert to what it knows is the key thing. I talked to Jeremy [Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service] before his holiday. He said you're going against the grain, and I said I can't see how we can do this going with the grain.”

Bracken made a point of acknowledging Heywood for the support he has given within the current structure, but says further change is needed.

“Jeremy Heywood offered quiet, private support and, in public, supported the civil service and government’s digital achievements,” he says. “I've appreciated that greatly at times, especially on a personal level, but for most of this period, digital has not been an institutional challenge. Now it is.”

Digital government at a crossroads

So digital government is at a crossroads. Once Bracken leaves, the spending round will determine whether GaaP gets the backing he believes it needs, and the organisational structure he is confident will deliver it. But if it doesn’t, is there a fear that many of the positive changes already introduced will simply unwind, and digital government will revert to being “mandarin led”?

“Yes,” says Bracken. “In any organisation with a tendency to revert back to what it knows, I recognise that. All I can do is say I have confidence in the hundreds of people around this system to be a bit bigger than that.”

With that in mind, does he leave with a sense of frustration at not having achieved as much as he had hoped?

“Always. I need some time to reflect. I hoped the system would have had more capacity for institutional reform than it has. There is a salient lesson for every institution in every sector, which is this: the internet always wins. Government is no different. We ignore that at our peril,” says Bracken.

Read more about digital government

But he is adamant that what has been delivered in the past four years has been hugely positive for government.

“We have made some huge reforms and they will stick,” he says. “The genie is out of the bottle – you can't put it back in. People are not going to accept some of the stuff they used to. Some myths have been busted to show you can improve things quickly, particularly with technology. We have a confidence in government now that wasn't here five years ago.

“When I came to government and said we’re going to create digital services, people said things like, ‘Which systems integrator shall we buy them from?’. Now we're gaining confidence and I look at all these parts of government that were perceived to be moribund and are now creating vibrant, modern digital services. I cannot see how they can go back. I look at the ambition of, say, HMRC [HM Revenue & Customs] and I'm blown away by what they’re trying to do.

“Ambition levels are high. We, as a group of public administrators, have confidence we can create digital public services – that just wasn't there when I came. And we've also shown that in collaborating, we learn more and gain more together than if we play the silo game. The trajectory has changed from ‘you can't do anything, lock it down, keep buying big IT, it will fail, and we'll manage the failure’ to now it's 'you can create your own stuff, you can please users, you can save money'. There will be bumps on the road, but it's a better service. That’s the debate that has been changed.”

What next?

GDS is left in the hands of its chief operating officer, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, recruited by Bracken from agile software firm Thoughtworks. But it seems unlikely that Bracken’s role will see a direct replacement brought in.

“I don't believe there needs to be a successor because the environment has changed,” he says. “GDS has a great management team and structure. No need for that to change. Across departments, there are 130 leaders plus all manner of teams working with them.

There is a salient lesson for every institution in every sector which is this: the internet always wins. Government is no different
Mike Bracken

“I look at immigration, borders, policing, reform of criminal justice, these are high on the list of government policy, and at the centre of them lies digital transformation as a vehicle to effect that change. We should be spending much less time on this [short-term] stuff, and on getting the foundations right, which is what I've done. We should have much more time spent with advocacy and education and helping ministers through these very difficult problems. That job is not the job for one person – that is a distributed job.

“I think the person that looks at the structure should recognise GDS is well set up as a management team, but say: how do we as a group in the centre and colleagues across government give a consistent line of advice to ministers, so they are not hearing silo-based in-year demands over there, and strategic issues over here? That’s the question – how do we have a distributed leadership that is advising ministers consistently on the pros and cons of the digital transformation to come?”

In reflecting on his time in government, Bracken readily admits he has made mistakes along the way.

“I can honestly say there hasn't been a day when I've not gone home and kicked myself for doing or saying something. I don't know how I come across, but I've had real trouble with that sort of self-doubt, because there have been some difficult moments,” he says.

“The job – and this is why it shouldn’t need a direct successor – is a curious mixture of support, direction, occasional censure, and continued pleas to collaborate. That is a hard mix, and there are some individuals with whom I've not got that right. That's between me and them. There’s a very long list of things I didn't get right in this job, and I've got a chance to reflect on that. But it’s a hard thing to do.”

A new challenge

Bracken's next challenge takes him to the Co-operative Group – an organisation described by one retail CIO as “making government look joined-up”. But he’s only working at the Co-op three days a week, and hopes to continue his involvement in digital government – albeit that’s unlikely to be with the UK.

“I won't be going away from this area, but I won’t be trying to contract back into any part of the British government,” he says. “For the next few years, any help I can give is to international governments going down similar lines. I won't be commenting on the day-to-day stuff in British government, I’m not going to do all that. I will always be around to help with advice and support the thousands of younger civil servants if they need any help. I didn't put this much hard work in to criticise.”

Bracken also makes a point of asking to thank some of the people who have helped him along the way.

“Some of the best support I've had has come from previous incumbents, like [former deputy government CIO] Bill McCluggage and [former digital chief] Chris Chant and I intend to do the same,” he says.

“The business cases behind GaaP, including Common Technology Services, the various platforms like payments, communications and hosting, the ongoing technology reform led by [CTO] Liam Maxwell and [deputy CTO] Magnus Falk, plus improving our identity assurance with, promise to account for around a tenth of the stated target of savings in this parliament, and they don't involve turning services off but making them better for users. 

"The cost of that is the investment goes to both the centre and departments and we have a central digital and technology play to support departments. I think that's a cost worth paying, but we shall see as the spending round progresses. Whatever happens, this work belongs to thousands of my colleagues in government, so I would like to thank them all for their collaboration over the last year.

“I just hope government, for its own sake, takes a more bold position than it has done in the past and really goes for the digital service and platform model, rather than just default to hoping stuff will come from the departments.”

Institutional inertia

GDS has had plenty of detractors, and some of the criticisms have been fair. But Bracken points not just to what his team has done, but to the wider digital achievements.

“We’ve delivered billions of pounds of savings; a higher quality of service, evidently, to users; happier users; and an international reputation for leading,” he says. “There's not much not to like there. To move away from that model in the name of how things have always been would seem to me to be perverse. But all we can do is put our business case in, make a compelling argument and see what happens.”

But Bracken will not be there when it does. The UK government is not the first organisation to struggle with digital transformation, and it won’t be the last. Overcoming institutional inertia is hard for any organisation, let alone one as complex as government. Mike Bracken believes he knows how to overcome that – others might disagree – but it’s now obvious that he doesn’t have confidence that civil service leadership will give him the backing he wants. And so he quit.

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