Government services are important, but delivering them isn’t nearly as big or complex a task as all the grand buildings and hallowed traditions suggest, says Mike Bracken, founder of the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services.
“Government’s institutional memory is very big and governments for a long time have conflated importance with size,” says Bracken in a podcast recorded by the Centre for Public Impact (listen below).
“Now, governments are really, really important. However, transactionally, the numbers behind them are quite negligible. Most government services are nowhere near as large and as complex as your average dating site. That is very difficult for people who run tax and welfare systems to understand; they’re important, but they’re not big.”
This tendency to imagine each service government provides for its citizens as an extremely large-scale undertaking has led to the myth that “big IT” grunt is always the answer, he argues.
“Try and understand that the reason that Facebook buys 40 people in Whatsapp for such a large amount of money is that they’re a very talented 40 people. The same sort of 40 people can utterly transform a large piece of government, and that’s an uncomfortable truth for all of us in government.”
It is usually an uphill battle for change agents who are brought into government from outside to shake things up. Bracken resigned last year because it was still hard to get things done, he tells the CPI, having worked for Whitehall since 2011.“Most government services are nowhere near as large and as complex as your average dating site.”
Change agents usually come in keen to get to work but, according to Bracken, “the machine … looks at them and says: ‘Right, we can manage you out of here within two to three years, and you will have done nothing.'”
The former GDS boss said the bureaucratic inertia made him feel like he’d been set up to fail, and claimed other digital experts brought in to change government had similar experiences.
“The system is not set up to do stuff,” Bracken says. “It’s set up, frankly, to have an intellectual pissing match around how its things should be.
“So I just brought my own delivery machine with me and said to [former Minister] Francis Maude: ‘What I need mostly is an office outside of Whitehall and I need complete freedom to hire whoever I want to hire.’
“And we hired insanely talented internet-era technologists and gave them a chance to change government, and the great thing about them is they move at such pace. They move so quickly that they can deliver in the time it takes to have the meeting to discuss whether to do the thing in the first place. And they did, time and again.”
At the same time, Bracken acknowledges that changing things was clearly the whole point of his role and nobody ever expected it to be easy.
“The culture clash was clear for all to see and my job was to manage that through in the best way possible,” he says.
Bracken advises other change agents in government that the only way to get things done quickly is to focus on delivery, to show progess rather than debate.
“You don’t get there by standing on ceremony and arguing about it. Because in government we have some of the smartest people who can write very detailed and thoughtful policy recommendations; what we don’t have is the same number of smart, internet-era technologists and service providers and designers and producers who can then go and make those services.
“And what GDS did very quickly was drop into a powerful centre of government with a hugely influential and supportive minister [in] Francis Maude — 300-400 people who wanted to change not just government services, but the institutions of government, using the tools of the open internet — and it was just a pleasure to help them do that.”
Right off the bat GDS built the UK’s online platform for petitions to parliament, in eight weeks with four staff at a cost of 100,000 pounds, while in contrast it took six months to get the office set up. That project got the ball rolling for GDS to have impact on the UK’s bureaucratic culture, Bracken says, and is still his proudest achievement.
“From a standing start with no set-up, we’d delivered something which had very visibly changed the democratic system, because you could see people asking questions [based on e-petitions] in the house of parliament.”
He says that helped shift the “very introverted, academic, intellectual” mindset of civil servants because it made them question why it took months and years to run procurement processes and draft policy advice.
Next was a dashboard for the prime minister which provided significant “symbolic” value, according to the digital service delivery pioneer.
“That sort of pace of change was uncomfortable, but had a huge galvanising effect on a system that had no understanding of how quickly things could be done,” says Bracken.
The GDS “has become a case study in how you reform an institution from within using internet era skills” since 2011 and inspired other nations to explicitly copy it, as Australia has done with the Digital Transformation Office. Still, Bracken eventually tired of being an agent of change inside “the machine” that runs the UK.