Never mind Blockchain, fix your websites! - ex-GDS supremo Bracken's tough love message for government

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels October 9, 2019
Summary:
Mike Bracken is back with some uncomfortable truths for his successors in government digital transformation.

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Government IT leaders need to focus on delivering basic digital services before they think about creating innovative technological solutions to the challenges their citizens face.

That’s the view of Mike Bracken, partner at digital transformation consultancy Public Digital and former head of the Government Digital Service in its most impactful period. His experiences across his career lead him to paint a picture of service provision in government that isn't always flattering and to pitch the potential benefits of digital transformation. 

He starts with the complexities of Whitehall, which is home to more than 20 departments and 400-plus other bodies. He said the interesting thing he discovered from working within Whitehall is that everyone felt their organisation and its work was unique when in fact less is more:

They all needed their own website that needed to look entirely different from everybody else's because they were unique and special and different. I heard that phrase 50 times a day. So, we replaced that approach with one government – gov.uk. The point about gov.uk is that it’s a profoundly simple proposition, which says that if you’re the government, then you should look like it – and recognise that most people don't care.

Bracken argues that IT professionals should stop trying to use separate web-site identities to explain the inner-workings of government to citizens, who just want to get on with their lives and are focused on simple but important issues, like having their bins emptied on time.

The good news, says Bracken, is that most governments around the globe now understand the importance of digital services. He postulates that a second stage of public digitisation is emerging, which is about creating Government-as-a-Platform, citing the example of work around the online payment system, gov.uk/pay:

The reason that works so well – and it’s fiercely complex to work out a platform that handles all the payment processes coming into government, and yet make it dead simple – is that the team behind it first spent four years designing and delivering services across a range of government departments. So by the time they come to look at the really challenging ambition in terms of a payment platform, they were ready to do that.

Bracken also points to Notify, the public sector messaging systems that is responsible for sending millions of messages a month, the key achievement of which is that the system looks the same to every user who receives a message:

It all just looks like the government. And all of a sudden the mental barriers of departments and ministries, and special and unique and different, goes out the window because you're just getting stuff from the government. The simple message is that every time you get stuff from the government, and it works and it looks like the government, then your trust in the government will go up. Collectively, that's a huge benefit to the country that people can trust in the government to deliver these services and platforms.

Experience

Bracken argues that any team looking to develop digital government platforms must first have experience of delivering services, so the advice to local government organisations is to get working on digitisation as quickly as possible:

If you've not got a team of people, who haven’t already been making some pretty anodyne services better digitally, then the chasm between ambition and delivery is just too big. Because teams that build services understand why platforms are so useful.

Experienced service teams have a much deeper feel for what users actually need is Bracken's thesis. He looks to the quality of service developments across South America, particularly in Argentina,  that he has seen in his current role and suggests that smart local governments need to wake up to the power of digital:

Government-as-a-Platform isn't just an idea to modernise public services, it's actually becoming a competitive position statement for both cities and governments around the world. Now, that sounds quite ambitious. But if you go to Estonia, they've been at this for quite a while. If you don't have a team that's already well-versed in delivering services, then you're not going to be very good at competing.

Bracken believes that cities and states now realise that the digital brand of their locality is far more successful when it operates collectively. Yet he also notes that it’s crucial to recognise that creating a team, fixing services and then making those services digital is just the starting point:

Having really good websites and mobile stuff that works, that just gets you to the table. If you haven’t got that, don't talk about innovation and, whatever you do, don't talk about Blockchain; instead, just fix your website!

Bracken believes that once a government organisation sorts the basics, it can then start thinking about delivery. Citing the historical precedent of large suppliers dominating IT purchasing, he lives in hope that organisations recognise this old way of buying technology is over:

The era of big vendors driving digital services has gone; that is completely and totally gone. And if we in London are trying to play that game, then we're literally on the wrong side. It's all over. You might as well pack it in now.

Again he looks to South America for lessons he has learnt from working with government bodies and developers in Peru and Argentina. The speed of development in those countries is off the scale, he reckons, warning that UK government organisations will be left behind if they cling to the belief that multi-year outsourcing contracts will deliver a glorious future.

Bracken admitted that his attempts to open up procurement through the digital marketplace as head of the Government Digital Service, may not have been perfect, but were at least a step in the right direction. Government organisations in the UK must now start focusing on openness and the value of smaller, entrepreneurial IT:

None of the good stuff can happen – ambition, innovation, Blockchain, IoT, smart cities – until the plumbing gets sorted and some of these contracts get changed. London, and therefore the local governments that operate here, are not going to get the opportunity to do great stuff unless we tackle the technological and operational legacy that we've had for the last 20 years.