Former GDS chief Bracken on data move to DCMS - ‘Government now harder to reform’

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez April 4, 2018
Mike Bracken headed up GDS in the early days and has weighed in on the controversial decision to move data functions into DCMS.

mike bracken
Mike Bracken

The Prime Minister last week confirmed that the data policy and governance functions that sit within the Government Digital Service (GDS) will be moving over to the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), a controversial decision that was revealed by diginomica/government back in February.

This week we argued that the move is being driven by personal agendas within DCMS to build new empires, rather than a desire to drive the digital reform programme forward. You can read our full take here.

However, former GDS chief Mike Bracken, who was in charge of the department in the early days and played a key role in the rise of GDS as a powerhouse within Whitehall, has weighed in on the decision in an opinion piece penned for the New Statesman.

Bracken outlines why taking data policy and governance functions out of the centre of government and placing them in a fringe department like DCMS is a bad idea and states that the UK has now made government reform harder and more complex.

Bracken cited the work he is doing with governments around the world, where he consistently sees the necessity to bring together digital transformation, data policy and technology reform into the centre of government, in order to focus delivery around the needs of users, rather than the “preferences of departments and ministries”.

Bracken said:

To elicit government-wide institutional reforms in a digital age, one needs three levers – digital, data and technology – to be in one place aligned to the financial levers of government. It took a financial crisis and repeated delivery failures for the UK to harmonise these powers, and this triple-play model is now becoming the new normal globally. So it was curious in the extreme when, at the start of the Easter holidays, the Government slipped out the news that data powers would be moved to DCMS without any explanation.

He added that when the government had these “levers of reform” it experienced a multiplier benefit that saw £4.1 billion of savings in one parliament, “world class” digital services introduced, and an enthusiasm amongst digital and technology professionals to work within government.

However, the move by the government to separate these levers of reform, which have been copied by governments all over the world, is being done “without clear benefit to users or clear benefit to government”, he said.

Some history

Bracken explained that we only have to look back to 2011 when all of these functions were separated into individual departments, creating siloed mayhem across government. He said:

There was no central government technology function worthy of the name. Government produced thousands of shonky websites, most transactions were poorly digitised if at all, and the data model for government was chaotic. There were no standards. Departmentalism ruled, and the zero-sum game of Whitehall was in play: For my department to win, yours must lose.

The poor users were made to navigate government in the vain hope it could speak with one voice. And the cost to the public purse was astronomical. As the cabinet secretary once opined: “It’s just so hard to get anything done in Whitehall.”

Bracken said that this improved over the life of GDS through the introduction of digital service standards, canonical registers for data, and through the use of spend controls to force departments to think differently about how they did things. Diginomica/government has been following the progress of these reforms for years, and many readers will understand how things have improved for the better.

Bracken said that it’s hard enough to get this job done with everything at the centre, with all these levers of reform in one place. He cited examples of how this will now become more difficult now that data is not part of GDS. He said:

Even with these powers aligned in the centre, it is sometimes difficult to stop the sovereign powers of departments, even with powerful ministerial intervention: Who will force the Department of Business to liberate physical address data from the Post Office, as Number 10 found impossible. Who now will make HMRC use the same definition of ‘a company’ as DWP, BEIS and Companies House and thus reduce red tape for every business in the country? And who will stop the Department of Health sharing medical data on migrants with the Home Office? One thing is for sure, this move will make it harder to deliver reforms across all of government.

In the UK system, the centre means Cabinet Office or Treasury. To take data policy out of the centre and move it without mandate or clear explanation to a weak departments with no track record of delivery or cross-Whitehall power – known as the Department of Fun – run by a Minister who was forced to change the data privacy settings on his own app doesn’t make sense. It is surely a mistake to make such a move for political expediency or, alternatively, to perpetuate departmental games in Whitehall.

There are pressing needs to develop data policy, whether it be in GDPR, social media regulation or privacy, but those can all be done without removing a key central lever of control. These problems are unlikely to be fixed by throwing responsibility as far away from the centre as possible.

My take

As Bracken notes in his piece, future governments will be expected to keep pace with the speed of Internet delivery and find themselves facing more unnecessary siloes and power plays that block their path. Why? I’ve said a number of times previously that GDS isn’t perfect and it needs reform, but the fundamental pillars are there to make it a success. Let’s disrupt it and fix it from within, not disband it and make reform that much harder.