Hack the state, Mike Bracken tells public servants


The third wave of digital transformation will inevitably force old fashioned structures and systems of government to give way to platforms that can deal with an increasingly uncertain future, argues Mike Bracken, former head of the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service.

“Government structures will have to change radically in ways we can’t understand yet” in the era of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence, said Bracken, who was introduced as “the godfather of digital government” at the Technology in Government conference this morning in Canberra.

The pre-recorded address was a little hard to follow, as it was structured around eight questions that failed to appear on the video, but Bracken clearly got across the point that governments have to set themselves up to prepare for “inherently uncertain outcomes” and “design for chaos”.

That means thinking in terms of platforms that can be scaled up exponentially, breaking out of the traditional straight lines of responsibility and public servants thinking of themselves as “curators of data”.

“We have the opportunity to start again, to resize and reshape the operations of the state around these new technologies … and frankly if we don’t, they’ll do it to us,” Bracken said.

The former GDS chief argues that traditional government communications processes with press releases and press conferences also hold back digital government, and favours a rolling series of celebratory product or platform launches.

In the UK, he said there was “serious pushback” when he suggested that ministers should see their roles as early adopters and advocates for new digital service platforms, rather than the sole point of responsibility for success or failure.

Internal systems, such as those for enterprise resource planning, human resources, or even simply office room booking, also need to be replaced with new scalable platforms that improve the user experience for the public servants and enable the wider transformation of government.

To do all this, Bracken told delegates “the biggest thing we have to recognise is that we have to go back to writing code” and referred to his current job as an independent adviser to Google’s DeepMind team.

“The point is that code is now the everyday language of changing deployment within these new-breed organisations,” he said, warning that government must “harness that power of code [so it can] talk to and bring in this new breed of technologists”.

When it comes to security, Bracken favours the approach of asking how you can do something safely, rather than having a rigid set of rules that kill ideas in the cradle. He complained that in his experience, government “securocrats” often throw up barriers to new ideas.

He picked out spending too much money — “buying ever-bigger systems from a smaller number of vendors while the world of technology is rapidly diversifying” — as another perennial problem of government IT, along with miserable user experiences both internally and externally.

In Bracken’s view, government in the UK is hidebound due to long traditions, conventions and structures and he sees “small internal power battles” between various departments and agencies that are petty compared to the scale of the digital transformation he lives and breathes. But he feels that Australia has a better opportunity to escape the old ways and develop open platforms of digital government.

On the other hand, some of the UK’s civil servants have made their own criticisms of GDS projects and its way of working to change the bureaucracy, pointing to some pretty good examples of where it got things badly wrong.

The head of the Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, said one of the biggest attractions of the job was the opportunity to do a few things better than GDS, on which DTO is based.

“One of the biggest mistakes [in GDS] was that the departmental teams didn’t learn from each other,” said Shetler, pointing out that DTO has already re-used some code it developed for its project with the ACT government for its project with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

“New mistakes are OK, but don’t keep making the same old ones, and the best way to avoid repeating the same mistakes is to … learn from our colleagues.”

Bracken ended by advising Australian government technologists to “turn stuff off” including websites, legacy systems and unnecessary internal processes, and to “hack” the bureaucracy and institutions of state themselves through their own small acts of digital rebellion.

“Make better rules” that focus on collaboration, he added, embrace new technology right when it emerges, and start playing with it well before it is “box-ready” for the enterprise market. And of course, focus on the user.

“Governments, unless they are consistently reminded, focus on themselves, and so do all large institutions,” Bracken said.

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