Life after Bracken – Digital leaders urge that Mike's vision be fulfilled

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 4, 2015
The Director of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, has quit. And the industry and digital insiders are now concerned about the future direction of digital in government.

mike bracken
The Director of the UK's Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, has this week announced that he will be stepping down from his position at the end of September, in a move that has surprised and shocked many.

The abruptness of the departure, which comes just a few months after Bracken agreed to take up his role as the government's Chief Data Officer, has brought into question the commitment from senior officials in the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and No. 10 for Bracken's vision for the pioneering creation of a government-as-a-platform.

Sources have told us that the loss of Francis Maude as Minister for the Cabinet Office has resulted in diminishing political support for the radical transformation of public services.

With the rate of change across government departments and agencies still very varied, there's still plenty of work to do. Furthermore, there are a number of large outsourcing contracts that are coming up for renewal, which were meant to be broken up as part of the digital agenda, but which are now being brought into question.

We asked the question: does this mean that there is a risk of the Oligopoly making a return? We also called on the those at the top of government – the most senior decision makers – to voice their support, publicly, for GDS and the continued transformation of Whitehall.

As a result, we approached a number of stakeholders and close watchers of GDS and the digital transformation in government for their view. Many have made similar calls for Bracken's vision to be fulfilled. These are their comments.

Chris Chant

chris chant
Chant is one of the main people responsible for the creation of the innovative G-Cloud framework, now a director at Rainmaker Solutions, and someone that is still very influential in government digital circles, and he has pledged his full support for Bracken's vision. He lambasts the processes of the the past and calls for those at the top to recognise the digital talent in front of them.

Fundamentally what needs to be done is exactly what Mike Bracken was planning. John Manzoni (CEO of the Civil Service) and Sir Jeremy Heywood (Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service) need to understand just two things:

1 - Properly making Government digital and in-line with user need is the only way to really reform Government to achieve lower cost and maximum engagement.
2 - They know nothing about digital, so should just get the right person (Mike was it) and support their approach unreservedly.

Government need to target real savings with minimal individual and business impact - those savings are available through the use of government-as-a-platform and I would estimate at least £4 bn over 5 years, with a serious approach.

They need urgently to find another Mike Bracken, which is a huge ask. I suspect they need to start by asking Martha Lane-Fox for help again. They need to publicly submit to deep guaranteed financial support, not just public platitudes when it’s too late. The individual needs above all to be a visionary leader who, like Mike, had experience of successful transformational change and can retain the amazing capability that exists today in GDS.

Above all, leadership in the Civil Service needs to rid itself of the pettiness and self serving attitudes that have prevented digital progress.

Chi Onwurah MP

Onwurah is the MP for Newcastle Central and is also Shadow Cabinet Office Minister. She was responsible

for Labour's digital review prior to the national election and has been actively involved in the discussion of transformation of public services. She said:

I have a huge amount of respect for Mike Bracken and I think everything that GDS has done that I admire is down to the people at GDS. And everything they have done that I don't admire is down to their Ministerial leadership. I am very concerned indeed that he is going, as it takes someone with a unique mix of tech and political and policy and execution skills to do that job.

But I do think that GDS has got to the point, which happens to many start-ups, where there are a lot of decisions to be made about where they go from here. They couldn't stay the same, they have to change. They could try and stay small and do what they do really well, or they can try and expand. If that happens, then they need different people with different skills.

However, GDS isn't working with local government. They also work in terms of users, rather than people. They talk in terms of transactions, whereas I think services should be co-designed with people. And their other main challenge is tackling digital exclusion.

I think those are their three biggest challenges. But I hope that the new Paymaster General (Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock) has not failed to provide the centre of excellence, which is GDS, with the support and strategic vision it needs. If you're lucky enough to inherit a centre of excellence, you don't mess it up.

Bill McCluggage

bill mccluggage
McCluggage was the government's deputy CIO between 2009 and 2012 and was one of people responsible for for interviewing and hiring Mike Bracken. He has offered praise for Bracken's achievements and has said that he hopes that his departure doesn't mean that the digital agenda loses pace.

It's truly remarkable how the totally different approach that Mike Bracken brought to the design of the 'digital by default' agenda transformed the way Government now thinks about the delivery of citizen services. I remember thinking at his interview panel that here was an individual with a clear set of ambitions to deliver real change and indeed it wasn't very long before he had announced his 4 point plan that included the establishment of GDS.

Mike can rightly claim that in GDS he has delivered an organisation that has become an exemplar in its own right and an approach to the design of new digital services that is being replicated by other countries around the world.

While no single individual is irreplaceable, there is a danger that the next phase of progress on the development of the digital marketplace and delivery of a range of Government as a Service platforms  will experience a hiatus until a suitable replacement is found. At this point it is hard to imagine that such an individual exists but hopefully the momentum generated to date by Mike and his team at GDS will not be allowed to falter by his departure.

G-Cloud Insider

Although this person wishes to remain anonymous, I can vouch for their influence and their continued digital work within Whitehall. Their comments are worth listening to.

I am worried that this now signifies GDS no longer has the remit or backing to push forward the transformation agenda across government technology, in a way that has teeth. GDS do not have all the answers nor have they got it all right on the way, but through Mike and the team, they have massively shifted the way the public sector thinks about technology, forced departments to challenge their out-dated and overpriced IT, and work differently.

 G-Cloud was a fantastic example of this thinking, opening up the market and providing access to innovative and lower-cost commodity services. What I fear is that without the central pressure for change, departments are going to lose the fear-factor. Without Maude and Bracken, naysayers within departments will revert to type and I fear that this will grease the pole for SI’s to extend contracts and take us back to big IT and big costs.

Simon Wardley

Wardley has a big influence in the digital sphere and has also been actively involved in shaping the conversation around the direction of GDS and the government-as-a-platform proposal. He said to me on Twitter:

Anonymous Insider

A source that is very close to the digital transformation work across government, but does not wish to be quoted, has also expressed concern. This person's worries, despite being anonymous, are absolutely worth paying attention to. They said:

We have a new set of CIO/CTO/CDO. Do they understand the frustration and why we started this journey in the first place? We need to revisit Chris Chant's speech on the Unacceptable. It was really bad then and I don't see any significant change in the behaviours of the SI's. They still thwart change and are overly expensive, they are hard to change and difficult to deal with. We are still dependant on them and I see no indication of them working with us to change the status quo. Why would they?

Execution of the vision is always the hardest part and giving up half way through just because it is hard would be cowardice. We have had many challenges along the way but for the first in a long time there was a plan and strong leadership

We all are concerned about capability gaps. But we have them already in government in many areas. For example, we are very poor at contract management, which has allowed our suppliers to go unchallenged. It would have taken time to build up the new capabilities we needed but to my mind the risk of this is no less than the known risk of staying how we were.

If there is a return to the oligopoly, the 'New CIO/CDO/CTO' may be stronger in managing suppliers. And that is a good thing. But I hope they also address the very poor service we have had, as well as the expense.

We can no longer shave more efficiencies on existing arrangements. In order to improve service and achieve cost savings, we need to transform. If we are to achieve 40% savings we need to be able to use data in a different way to transform how we do our business. This is not easy with incumbent suppliers under current contract arrangements and is often expensive.

There are many people in government who are passionate about improving our service and many that still believe the vision set by Mike and others is the way to do so. I hope they prevail.

Simon Hansford - Skyscape

Simon Hansford, CEO of cloud services provider Skyscape, an avid defender of the G-Cloud, has echoed

simon hansford
diginomica's call for support from the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and Number 10 Downing Street. He said:

The last five years have been game-changing: for government, its technology suppliers and for the citizen. The vision and drive of Maude, Bracken and many others has shown the UK public sector, and much of the rest of the world exactly what can be achieved when there is a genuine collective and political will for change.

Thanks to Bracken and his team the UK is leading the world in digital public service, supported by a new generation of innovative and agile suppliers. Going back to the old world simply isn't an option on any level, so we are right behind diginomica's call for Cabinet Office, Treasury and Number 10 to show some leadership and give GDS the public support it needs and deserves.

Emer Coleman

emer coleman
Coleman, now CEO of DSRPTN, a digital consultancy providing leadership masterclasses for C-Suite leaders, but also previous deputy director of digital engagement at GDS, added that thanks to Mike Bracken those in government don't have any room for excuses about transformation of public services. Coleman was also one of the first people to introduce me to the exciting things happening at GDS and is someone that completely 'gets it'. She said:

My favourite quote about leadership comes from Nietzsche "one repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil". So I see Mike's departure as a rallying call for all those digital leaders who have been earning their stripes across Whitehall the past few years. And they will repay him very badly if they don't find the courage to now provide that leadership themselves.

Change in government only happens when people care enough to really stick their head above the parapet. There might have been an excuse in the past for risk averse behaviour because there really was no template. But over the past four and a half years, Mike envisioned, developed and lived that template so now there can be no excuses.

As for the possible return of the oligopoly? One would hope that on a moral basis the large vendors have not looked on the last few years as a blip that dented their bottom line but as a revolutionary wake up call about their obligation to provide government with the best value possible for the tax payer and the best user experience for citizens. The past few years have been all about talking to the taxman about poetry. Because, as Billy Bragg rightly sang “outside the patient millions, who put them into power, expect a little more back for their taxes.

Under Mike Bracken GDS has done just that. I would hope in the future that is the path that continue to be followed.

Naureen Khan - TechUK

The Associate Director at TechUK, the UK's tech trade lobby group, agrees that GDS needs to remain a force in Whitehall. Naureen Khan said:

naureen khan techuk
“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 new technologies to deliver more for less. 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. We hope his successor will continue Bracken’s work, to ensure digital remains a priority throughout government.

“The tech industry wants an effective and strong GDS. Whatever decisions Ministers make, we hope it’s done quickly so we can get on with the job of delivering”

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