Mike Bracken may no longer be part of the daily cut and thrust of life in the UK government but his name and reputation for digital impact linger still.
Between 2011 and 2015, as executive director of digital and then chief data officer, he spearheaded a radical transformation of government digital public services. His down-to-earth approach belies a deep reforming zeal, which twinned with his outsider’s expert perspective helped deliver a huge programme of change that went way beyond redesigning government websites.
“We did make a lot of digital services, including the websites,” he concedes. “But really it was about resetting the way government thinks about public services, whether it’s the building we’re in, how we were structured, the communications the whole lot. It was an intense few years to put it mildly.”
Hitting the digital ground running
Bracken wasn’t looking to join government. Comfortably ensconced as digital director of the Guardian Media Group, where he was responsible for all its consumer-facing technology services, applications and digital product development, the public sector was lacking on his cv. But then his name was put forward by dotcom pioneer and government advisor, Martha Lane Fox, to head up the new Government Digital Service (GDS). A couple of conversations later and he found himself settling into life in the heart of UK government.
“Martha had written a report for the new coalition government where she called for revolution not evolution,” he recalls. “After 15 years or so of not paying attention to our digital users, she felt the situation was pretty desperate. It was time for digital services to be designed around the needs of the user rather than the convenience of the government. It sounds obvious now, but at the time it had to be repeated. Unfortunately, government departments were often unaligned with the digital needs of those who received their services.”
So there was much to be getting on with when GDS opened for business in November 2011. Its fundamental strategy was to deliver rapidly to its users and, in doing so, transform how government works. There were six main programmes of work, the first being the creation of gov.uk, which meant that the government could have the same domain for nearly everyone it served.
“Again, things that seem so obvious and sensible now seemed at the time revolutionary,” recalls Bracken. “But actually, gov.uk was like kryptonite to a government system which in our case meant 28 government departments, 300 agencies and goodness knows how many non-departmental public bodies. It goes back to the user need taking precedence over the government need. gov.uk established design patterns to make it all look the same. There is only one user need at the point of need the user of a government service wants to deal with the government. That’s it. And gov.uk recognised this.”
And keeping up the pace…
Identity was next in the line of fire. “We all have too many passwords, meaning we all have multiple identities,” says Bracken, “but at the point of recognition, users need to be able to identify themselves securely and quickly. The critical thing about our Verify platform is that it enables you to use things like your mobile phone or banking identity to access government services. And crucially, it means that government doesn’t hold vast databases of users” data, which are inherently unsafe.”
Both gov.uk and Verify are two examples of data platforms, services that can be used across all parts of the government and are not confined to an individual department or agency’s digital boundaries. Bracken passionately believes that this represents the way of the future. “Siloed approaches to transformation don’t work and lead to far too much duplication and waste,” he says. “When each service has its own way of doing common things, it makes it more difficult for users and much more expensive for government. gov.uk is now used by hundreds of departments and agencies and has alone saved more than £60 million a year.”
The third theme of the GDS programme of activity was technology, and its mention prompts Bracken to pause, his sense of disappointment palpable. “I wish we had gone harder on this,” he admits. “In the end, we gave everyone in the department a top-of-the-range Mac and an iPhone and, in doing so, cut out 67% of the cost of technology. But we did better on measurement and analytics, our fourth priority. We quickly made a distinction that everything we analysed would be done internally and externally exactly the same. If you go to gov.uk/performance, you’ll see real-time analytics and real-time data.”
Capability was another focus area and Bracken believes it to be “the biggest single issue” in terms of getting people back into government. “But it proved to be remarkably easy once we had established the mission, because we had excluded people with these skills for such a long time,” he adds. “And the final stream of work was around transformation. We took 25 of the most important transactions in government and over two years between 2014 and 2015 transformed the actual service as well as the organisation that delivered that service. It was a huge undertaking and 21 of them came through successfully, which was much better than I anticipated.”
Bracken left government in September 2015, shortly after the next stream of funding was secured to take GDS through the new parliament. Now, he is working three days a week as chief digital officer of The Cooperative Group, a £10 billion mutual organisation in the UK. The public sector remains close to his heart, however, and he is also taking up advisory roles with various international governments about how they, too, can take their digital operations to the next level and beyond.
One of his key bits of advice is that digital reform, when done well, inevitably leads to institutional reform. “For example, the DVLA’s headquarters in Swansea our motoring division was the biggest holder of paper in the UK,” he recalls. “Its cargo doors were big enough to cater for the biggest truck allowed on our roads, four of which arrived every day loaded with paper. It had been like that for 40 years and was totally built on paper so there was no point building them a nice website without transforming the organisation.”
Such changes led to other challenges down the line, however particularly around supply chain. “In 2010, just seven suppliers made up 84% of our IT supply chain,” he reveals. “This was old, hugely expensive technology that was not really fit for the job any more. So one of the things we had to do was go after procurement protocols and really reverse much of our thinking to try and move to commissioning using open standards and the cloud. It really was a job where you could never stand still.”
Fortunately, Bracken could rely on the unswerving support of his ministerial boss, Francis Maude, who was a fellow believer on the road to reform. Such backing, he believes, is a crucial weapon in overcoming the tendency for departmental silos to spring up and quickly take root. Reform from the centre is therefore essential.
“Overall, we saved £4.1 billion during the course of our programme,” he points out. “But you get to these numbers by not thinking about numbers. You get to these numbers by working on stuff that really matters. And crucially we did it all in the open all of this stuff is out in the open, as it should be.”
Although the GDS story continues without Bracken’s hand on the tiller, his is clearly a lasting impact one that is felt every time a British citizen goes online to renew a passport or make a government payment. “When people come up to you in the pub and say they did something like that in 30 seconds, then that’s the type of feedback we’re all after,” he concludes, smiling.
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