US Digital Service founder warns against 'Big IT' after Bracken's exit

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 4, 2015
Jennifer Pahlka was one of the founders of the US Digital Service, having learnt and discussed what was happening in the UK with Mike Bracken. She now warns against things returning to days gone by.

Jennifer Pahlka
Jennifer Pahlka

Within a year of setting up the Government Digital Service in the UK, Mike Bracken's vision was already getting people talking in the United States. This is largely the result of a visit from Jennifer Pahlka, whom we now know as the founder and director of Code for America – an organisation that uses open source technologies to help bridge the gap between the private and public sector – but who is also one of the founders of the US government's Digital Service.

Pahlka is a big hitter on the digital scene Stateside – well, globally actually – and following the news of Mike Bracken's imminent departure from GDS here in the UK, she took the time to write a blog thanking him for his influence and advice, as well as warning against Whitehall returning to the approach to technology we would have seen five years ago (Big IT).

She also highlighted that many countries around the globe – from the US, to China, to Australia – are now benefitting from the vision that Bracken laid out four years ago when he took up his position as director of GDS.

It's worth noting the irony that Bracken has inspired other countries to adopt the GDS approach to public service delivery, setting a new global standard, and now we ourselves are left questioning whether or not that vision will continue here in the UK.

But anyway, back to Pahlka's blog, which oozes with gratitude and praise for Bracken's work. She explains how she visited GDS back in 2012 and was blown away by the organisation's work, which then attracted the attention of the White House in the UK. Pahlka says:

Mike changed my life, and I’d like to take a moment to thank him. I suspect I’m speaking for many others.

July 4, 2013, the day we celebrate our independence from Britain, was the first time I called Mike Bracken for support. We laughed about the irony. It wasn’t the last call I made to the U.K. that year I spent in D.C., and not the last time Mike generously shared his time, wisdom, and enormous compassion. Soon, I wasn’t the only person in the White House paying attention to the U.K.’s GDS. My colleague Nick Sinai paid a visit much like mine, and returned with a mind similarly blown with what was being achieved: not just ideas about policy, but with what the GDS was actually delivering to citizens and residents.

Next, Ryan Panchadsaram went. Now, a pilgrimage to the GDS that Mike and his team have built has become a rite of passage (and a shot of energy and inspiration) for every serious digital government reformer in city, state, and federal government in the U.S. and around the world. Each of us is hoping to learn from and borrow Mike’s model and capture even a fraction of the team’s success.

Jennifer Pahlka
Jennifer Pahlka on a panel with Mike Bracken

Pahlka also took the time to highlight the depth and breadth of Mike's influence across the globe, not just in the White House. She adds:

Hundreds of people are responsible for what’s happening in Washington D.C. these days. It’s big news, covered by Fast Company, Politico, and The Washington Post. These groups, not just the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, but technologists across all of government, together with all the ground-breaking work in local and state governments, represent our shot at making government that works for people and by people in the United States.

The role Mike has played, through his work at GDS but also personally, by making time for me and many others as we’ve struggled to bring these ideas to life, cannot be overstated. And it’s not just the U.S.; he’s mentored digital government reformers around the world from Chile to Australia and had a profound impact on all of them. Australia’s brand new Digital Transformation Office builds directly on the work that GDS has done.

However, it's the final few paragraphs that really ring true. We at diginomica have warned against the rise of the Oligopoly once Bracken has left GDS for pastures new. And we have outlined how many in the industry want his vision to carry on.

But it is Pahlka that sums up very nicely the position we now find ourselves in. She highlights that GDS has the people and the momentum to live long and prosper way beyond Bracken's tenure. But she also notes that a return to Big IT of the past would be a mistake, as the UK has already had its fair share of costly failures and should have no desire to go back. Pahlka writes:

Mike’s departure is a setback in one sense, but his work and the work of this amazing team cannot be undone. I can’t predict if Big IT will once again dominate technology in U.K. government. If so, I can hope against hope that they are not headed again for more headline-grabbing tech disasters, for multi-billion dollar services that don’t work, as we have seen too many times here in the U.S. as well as the U.K. What I can predict is that everyone in our larger movement will continue to be inspired by what Mike and his team achieved, and that the dozens of digital service units popping up all over the state, local, and federal government – all inspired (if they know it or not) by the GDS – will together move us closer and closer to government that works for its users, also known as the people.

Mike’s departure means the first era of government transformation is over. We’ve been shown the

mike bracken
way and it works.

Our governments dearly need leaders like Mike. People who know that howgovernment delivers for the people is as important as the policy of what government delivers. People who understand how digital works and use that knowledge to deliver better government that works for its users. People who put users first, because that’s what government is supposed to do.

My take

Listen to Pahlka, she knows what she's on about.

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