The Co-Op snaps up Mike Bracken as CDO following government exit

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan August 5, 2015
Mike Bracken's been trying to transform UK government IT. Now he's turning his attention to another UK institution, the troubled Co-operative Group.

Like the man says...

The hot topic in the digital government world - and we do mean world! - this week has been where the UK’s Mike Bracken is heading following his decision to step down from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Would he head to the US? Or Canada? Or Australia? Or any of the other countries that rumours increasingly suggest seem to be more keen on the proven GDS model than the present UK administration?

Well, in the event, it’s a shift to the private sector and a massive challenge/opportunity. From October, he’s going to be Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at one of the UK’s best-loved brands, The Co-operative Group.

For non-UK readers, the Co-Op is one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives, with interests across food, funerals, insurance, electrical and legal services. Owned by millions of UK consumers, The Co operative Group operates a total of 3,750 outlets, with more than 70,000 employees and an annual turnover of approximately £10 billion.

It’s also not in a good way. This is going to be massive challenge because the Co-Op is frankly a bit of a basket case of a company these days, following financial meltdown at Co-op Bank that led to a £2.5 billion loss for the entire group in 2014.

But from a glass-half full perspective, it’s a great opportunity because if he can help turn it around, Bracken’s already high digital reputation will be further enhanced if he plays his part in saving a UK institution from itself!

He’ll be reporting to the man who’s been leading the turnaround efforts, Co-Op Group CEO Richard Pennycook, who says in the official announcement:

Mike brings with him outstanding and ground-breaking industry experience and will make a major contribution to our long-term recovery. His appointment is another clear demonstration that we are attracting the best talent in Britain as we rebuild our business.


As for the man himself, Bracken’s pitched the reasons for taking up his new role as follows:

There are many parallels between Government and the Co-operative: The opportunity to work at scale, in a £10bn organisation, to chance to set a digital strategy and improve member experience; to work with inspiring colleagues all over the country; and to build strong businesses serving diverse audiences. It’s another fantastic challenge.

The Co-operative movement is close to my heart. The values and ethics of Co-operatives are more relevant in society today than they have ever been and are highly congruent with the open Internet.  The group has millions of members, and its 70,000-plus colleagues are some of the most committed and community spirited I have met. The organisation, after some painful years, is in rebuild mode, and it is its digital strategy, focussed on its membership and people, that will define it in the next few years.

The fact that Bracken will report directly to the CEO is important and meets some of the first principles of how digital transformation needs to be delivered. The Co-Op also has a CIO in place, but having the CDO report to the CEO sets a tone for the entire organisation. Bracken says of Pennycook:

His support for digital and his willingness to reform institutions so they can focus on serving their users were the clinchers. The Co-operative has a history of adapting its institutional set-up to best meet member needs. Collaboration is the standard way of working. The community benefits are plain for all to see.

Like Richard, who has carefully brought the institution through a rescue phase, I am convinced that membership, and the digital services that connect members to the Co-op, are central to the organisation’s future.

Troubled institution

But it’s going to be a major undertaking, something which Bracken acknowledges when he argues:

There’s no reason why the Co-operative shouldn’t be able to move as fast and be as agile as any digital organisation – we will do that. But what will make it special will be feeding the organisation’s commitment to community engagement into the digital relationships we build. There are new opportunities to explore in the nascent ‘data economy’, in new services and platforms for co-operation – but they will be better and stronger because they will be infused with Co-operative values

This will require ambition, teamwork, listening to our members and correcting our course as we go, all based on the Co-operative values we inherited from the original pioneers. In Government, we worked hard to create an international movement of digital pioneers to remake the state, digitally. In the Co-op we already have the movement, now we have to remake it for the digital era.

Stirring stuff. But the Co-Op's gain isn’t entirely going to be government’s loss it seems. Reading between the lines, Bracken appears to have an agreement with the Group that he can still advise and consult with governments, not just the UK one, on things digital. He states:

I’ve been involved in the intersection of Government, the Internet and social change for 20 years, so leaving my current role means I am leaving Whitehall and the mandarins, not the wider community. With Richard’s support, I will be able to advise and help international Governments and those in the emerging digital government and civic tech movements.

I will be helping some international Governments to engage in digital transformation. I will continue to help colleagues as far afield as Singapore, Australia, Argentina and the USA. That movement has sustained me, and I could never leave it.

My take

A good win for the Co-Op in a bad week for UK digital government.

Having the ear of and direct access to the CEO will make a major difference to the chances of success. Digital transformation needs to be perceived as an organisational DNA issue, not an IT problem.

That top down endorsement from the biggest seat in the boardroom shows that Pennycook means business - and across the entire business.

Maya Knights, Global Retail Technology Research Director at Planet Retail, sums up the need for a CDO nicely:

I would characterise that need as one that reflects the increased amount of digital engagement we as consumers expect with big business and brands. The ones who can capitalise on digital engagement to reach customers faster, in a more coherent way, and then use that interaction to sell to those customers in a more proactive and potentially personalised way, will win more sales, and loyal custom and advocacy.

In a retail environment, this translates to having a joined up view of customer loyalty schemes, sales – both online and in the store – and any other media that a customer may interact with, socially or via direct and indirect marketing and advertising. As the division of responsibility for these areas is spilt between stores, ecommerce, marketing and even IT, retailers have found it hard to manage the presentation of a coherent brand image and offer to customers, and even harder to do so based on the individual customer’s preferences.

So a CDO can help to make sure all of these and other areas of the business are pulling in the same direction, and perhaps using the same, common strategy to promote a speedier route to market by focusing on sharing knowledge, assets and technology use.

Best wishes from diginomica in the new role Mike - we'll be keeping a close eye on your, and the Co-Op's, progress. Onwards!