Mike Bracken's exit leaves GDS at a crossroads – the return of the oligopoly?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez August 3, 2015
Summary:
Mike Bracken has stepped down as Director of the Government Digital Service. This indicates a lack of support across Whitehall. That support needs to come back.

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Mike Bracken's decision to step down as the director of the UK's Government Digital Service has left those involved in public sector transformation in what can only be described as a state of mourning. The reaction on Twitter has been phenomenal, as anecdotes and praise for Bracken flood in.

And whilst my sentiments largely echo what's being said out there, they also serve as a stern reminder about who and what we are actually losing here. Is Mike Bracken perfect? Absolutely not. There have been a number of bumps along the way with regards to digital transformation, which we have made it our mission to cover rigorously.

But it can't be denied that Bracken provided a vision that inspired a hell of a lot of people. He brought GDS together and did the impossible: he got people thinking differently about technology delivery in government. Bracken changed the conversation and that alone should not be underestimated. He also made mistakes okay; because they were smaller mistakes, that cost less and could be rectified.

However, his departure is of huge concern to us at diginomica. And it should be of huge concern to anyone that wants digital in Whitehall to succeed – particularly with regards to government-as-a-platform. And that's not because the job can't be done without Bracken. Of course it can. We'd have preferred it if he was staying, but that's his call and he needs to do what he needs to do (it's important to remember that we don't know the specifics of where he is going yet).

And it's not because there isn't a huge amount of talent within GDS. There is. There are plenty of good people that are working hard there to try and make this thing work.

But there is only so much that GDS can do without the political support it needs. And it's becoming increasingly obvious that that support is diminishing.

The Cabinet Office's previous Minister, Francis Maude, was ruthless and determined about the digital agenda in government. The announcement of his departure was already causing angst internally at GDS prior to the election, because he was brilliant at understanding what needed to be done and making sure that GDS got there.

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Mike Bracken

As Stephen Kelly, the government's previous Chief Operating Officer, now CEO of Sage, recently said to me: “Maude is a business man. He just gets it”. And that's not the first time I've heard that. Since his departure Maude has dearly been missed. And that's because he did everything in his power to make GDS a digital powerhouse across Whitehall.

Have we seen the same from the new Cabinet Office Minister, Matthew Hancock? Perhaps it's too soon to judge. To be fair to him, he's only been in the position a few months. But if his public speeches are anything to go by, we have our doubts. Whilst there has been praise for GDS' projects to date, there's noticeably been an absence of any insight into his future vision for the department.

And whilst Bracken said in his exit blog that Hancock is a “capable” set of hands, I'm hearing that GDS is still concerned about its role in the absence of Maude.

Is Hancock willing to voice his support for GDS and its role in the future development of government-as-a-platform, publicly? If so, we want to hear it. And soon.

Digital from the centre

This is not being helped by the recent comments made by Civil Service CEO John Manzoni, where he has placed doubt into our minds about the future role of a central digital capability. According to Civil Service World, he said:

Our first step was to intervene and this was the Francis Maude era. There was an intervention in stopping all the bad stuff happening. But what we hadn’t figured out how to do was how to enable the good stuff to happen.

And the good stuff happens when you put great people out in the departments. It doesn’t happen when you put great people in the centre.

He added that there was now a “dawning recognition” that the “modus operandi of the last five years won't get us where we want to be”.

I'd be interested to know what has brought this dawning recognition on – we aren't aware. I also thought

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that GDS was helping departments with a strategic vision and then helping them to recruit their own digital talent? But more importantly, where does this leave the all important vision for government-as-a-platform?

If that's not being directed from the centre, where is it coming from?

The whole theory behind government-as-a-platform is that a central pool of resources, assets and building blocks are used to iteratively build systems across an organisation e.g. in the style of Amazon. Is this no longer the plan? If not, it needs to be explained how government-as-a-platform is going to be approached.

Again, we need Manzoni to voice his support for the role of GDS in this vision, rather than implying that it is going to be stripped back.

Also, it's worth noting that Bracken isn't someone that is trying to keep digital control in the centre. He's repeatedly arguing for cross-government collaboration and support. Yes GDS sits in the centre, but his vision is effectively for an organisation that is open and communicates to get things done properly.

And finally, it's worth noting that Bracken took up his position as the government's Chief Data Officer in March this year. Just five months ago. Bracken isn't one to do a half job – his appointment to this post was central to the development of government-as-a-platform – so why abandon it so soon?

It's important for me to say at this point that whilst this may all seem like wild speculation, it really isn't. We have heard from a number of sources that Bracken's departure is a signal that there is a lack of support for the radical transformation of public services, from a number of areas across government.

The Oligopoly strikes back

And this support seems to have dropped off just as some of the country's largest outsourcing contracts are due for renewal and are supposedly going to be broken up into smaller, agiler, more digital-focused deals. Aspire, for example, the UK tax office's (HMRC's) multi-year, multi-billion pound contract, is meant to be going through a digital transition in less than two years.

Is this feasible without the political backing it needs? I'd seriously question the likelihood. The shift away from these contracts is going to be challenging enough and there are a lot of companies with a vested interest in keeping things status quo. In fact, I've already heard rumblings that those large vendors are getting a bit excited at the prospect of GDS falling out of favour...

If the dismantling of Aspire fails - given that it is one of the largest contracts in the spotlight, and one of the first up renewal - is it likely that other departments will buy-in to the idea that it's possible to break up theirs? I'm not so sure. It sets a precedent.

And this brings me to my final point: we need to be very careful. Although GDS has achieved an awful lot and has changed the conversation, it's not impossible that things could go back to the way they were. The oligopoly has been resting and waiting, but it's still very much there. Because, let's face it, the old way of doing things is easy and it's understood. Plenty of folk know how to operate that way. We could very easily go back to a world of multi-year deals, where consultants are paid to keep the lights on, where projects fail and where citizens don't get what their hard-earned taxes deserve.

One of Bracken's favourite mantras is 'keep calm and carry on'. We have seen the logo used frequently over the past few years. However, whilst I wouldn't urge panic, I think it's time for GDS to get some bite. It needs

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to fight and it needs to do everything it can to carry on and finish Bracken's vision. It also needs a proper support network. We need the 'next' Bracken, Chris Chant, Denise McDonagh, Stephen Kelly, Francis Maude. We need a tonne of them.

These are all names that drove the digital agenda and made it happen. Made GDS a household name. They are a group of people that drove digital through Whitehall and gave the oligopoly the scare it needed.

Do we want to go back to the old way of thinking? It would be a damn shame.

And so we at diginomica are calling on the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, even Number 10 to voice their support for GDS and the future of government-as-a-platform. Let us know you want it to work. Let us know the old way is dead. Remind us why this is important. Find the talent and get them to the forefront. We need the assurances this isn't game over.

For our part, we are going to hound and put pressure where we can until we get an idea that this is happening. If not, we too will go on the attack.

And this needs to happen before the rest of the talent at GDS flees for higher paying jobs in the private sector. Which is a very real possibility.

Let's make sure the past four years haven't been a waste.

Update: When first published this post referred to a rumour that Mike Bracken and Liam Maxwell had fallen out. This has been confirmed as untrue by Bracken, who has described Maxwell to me as a "star". Which we are pleased to hear.