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GDS boss admits the jury's still out on digital-by-default government services

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 30, 2015
Progress has been made on the digital transformation of government services in the UK, but there's a way to go yet and ultimately it's a political decision.

mike bracken

The jury’s still out on digital-by-default public services and the ultimate decision on the shape of Government-as-a-Platform will be made by politicians, not technologists.

Two nuggets from the head of the UK's  Government Digital Service (GDS) Mike Bracken at a session on The Future of Digital Government, hosted by think tank The Policy Exchange this week.

Bracken’s been in situ at GDS since 2011 and during his tenure has driven through a number of successful digital services.

But he candidly admits that there’s still a way to go, adding that government departments had “not yet got to the maturity” of being able actually to turn off non-digital services entirely. Some services were at around 80-85% digital take-up level, but in terms of a full channel shift, that’s not in immediate sight.

Of the current take up percentages, he admitted:

That’s not quite enough to really put your hand up and say, ‘Yes, we’ve engineered channel shift'. But I think that will come.

I think the jury’s still out on full channel shift. I think of it as a timing issue.

We’ve created a lot of digital services. Many of our services that we have now didn’t exist – there wasn’t a digital option. So this wasn’t about improving stuff we had, it was doing stuff for the first time.

There’s no way that you can engineer channel shift and move potentially millions of people to a really mature digital service unless you’ve taken them on that journey. And we’re still taking some people on that journey.

And no-one should underestimate the scale of the challenge, he added, pointing to “far too many” examples of ways in which digital interactions varied and resulted in end user frustrations.

Lessons can be learned here from private sector examples, he counselled:

We’ve still got dozens and dozens - probably hundreds - of payment routes, which all look a bit different and you have to learn them all a bit differently. There’s no reason you should do that - as a consumer, as a business, you should make it easier and more simple.

You’d be surprised if one of the major digital brands or John Lewis or Marks and Spencer’s made you check out in a different way every time. Why does government do that, at least for some of its services? So I don’t think we’re there yet. But I think we will [get there].

He added:

Users just want stuff. And the difference here between the local and the national, the difference in the buildings around [Whitehall], is largely absent in their thinking. They just want the government stuff to work, they want it to work quickly, and they want to get on with their lives and do stuff.

Data and GaaP

Bracken has a second job title, as the UK’s first Chief Data Officer. In this capacity he faces the challenge of breaking down data and information silos that have grown up over the decades in Whitehall. To do this, he believes he can bring learnings from the GDS digital transformation efforts:

It's early days, but I think we've created a model for digital leadership and then technology leadership, different networks of skilled civil servants. We've hired a lot of people in the data space.

There are thousands of diligent civil servants working really hard to maintain lists of stuff, which become registers and they are all often doing it in the same place. My job really is to bring them together, so we can have a conversation and settle on individual registers that can serve everybody.

So it's as much learning from the brokering I did around technology and bringing it to the data space.


Bracken also talked about the strategy for Government-as-a-Platform. There are currently four cross-government platforms in place, including GOV.UK, the Digital Marketplace and the beta of the Verify identity management offering.

Bracken says that current thinking is that there will be a need for 20 platforms in total. What order these are delivered in is under discussion at present with business cases now presented to the Treasury, based around departmental needs:

We have spent a year really working with colleagues to come up with a platform list I guess that has the most buy-in. Where it will land, we'll see I guess in a few months.

Whatever the outcome, the challenge here is ensuring that the platforms provide a unified experience across government and get rid of the existing, often very different processes and practices:

When you are making payments, it's a platform that does that. Whether you are applying for a licence to run a club or bury nuclear waste, these are quite different things. But in a digital age, if you have a licensing platform, a license is a license.

Ultimately though many decisions around digital government will end up being taken by politicians. It will be up to Ministers to decide when it’s OK to turn off non-digital services, for example.

These decisions will however be guided by the Civil Service and in this respect all eyes will on the work of Chief Executive John Manzoni. Bracken confirmed Manzoni:

has been very clear on making sure that the centre and departments are working as one.

That in itself is a major transformation, Bracken noted:

When I came to government I was told by pretty much everything that the one thing that will never happen is government will ever work together well and neatly for common good, because, as one of my early colleagues described it, ‘We are a warring group of bureaucrats held together by a common pension scheme.’ He wasn’t wrong!

But when you’ve got no money and when users are unhappy and when your internal users are unhappy, and when you can see better services coming for a fraction of the price of your old ones, people are waking up to it.

We’ve proven we can do our services, and we’ve gained a bit of confidence. We really lacked confidence a few years ago, but we’re getting a lot better at it. Now I think we’re gaining the trust in each other in government to say, 'Well let’s use platforms right across the piece.'

My take

A pragmatic assessment of digital transformation progress to date. The UK continues to blaze a trail in this area, as seen by the visit to GDS last week of their US counterparts from 18F. Meanwhile down under the Australian government yesterday launched its Digital Transformation Office as an executive agency, modelled after GDS and with essentially the same remit. (It's also just nicked GDS' director and former Ministry of Justice Chief Digital Officer Paul Shetler to run it!)

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