Whitehall is not exactly known for being at the bleeding edge of technological innovation. But as the newly appointed government director of digital, ex-Guardian technology head Mike Bracken is set to change that perception. In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly, he discusses the challenges ahead.
When the £141,000 per annum role of digital director was first advertised it was met with a flurry of angry headlines, most notably from the Daily Mail which derisively branded the job as “Twitter Tsar”. But given the scope of Bracken’s task – to transform public sector services to a “digital by default” model – it’s surprising he finds any time to tweet at all.
Despite such misleading descriptions, Bracken is relaxed about the public attitude to his role.
“What I’m really bothered about is public enjoyment and consumption of government digital services. People in the industry we work in are quite right to take an interest in the nuance and details, but citizens don’t need to be bothered,” he says.
During our interview Bracken mentions the phrase “user experience” at least a dozen times. “Putting users at the heart of digital services is our vision statement, and as such it’s ultimately simple but involves a lot of transformation,” he says.
“The success behind companies offering digital services is a relentless focus on the end users, because they know that at a moment’s hesitation the user will switch if they can find a better service elsewhere. For a government to think like that and create products like that is a radical transformation.”
Cheaper services will be a by-product of this relentless focus on user experience, he believes. “If we make transactions friction-free as much as possible for the consumer, the cost per transaction will fall exponentially.”
Bracken took up the job in July following Martha Lane Fox’s recommendation that such a role be created in her government digital services review last year. “Martha really called it,” he says.
“It was exciting working at The Guardian, I look back at it as a golden time for digital innovation,” he says.
In less than three years Bracken’s team launched 27 products, “All of them mostly without a hitch”, including an iPhone app – the first chargeable mainstream news app, he says. “We were very proud of that.”
Other technological achievements included saving more than £5m in operational expenditure by taking out expensive closed systems and bringing in open source technologies; and increasing the newspaper’s audience two-and-half times using digital publishing strategies such as SEO [search engine optimisation]. “We effectively globalised a national publisher through digital techniques.”
The key to success was a culture of innovation. “What underpinned that was a collaboration and sharing culture and having an absolutely top drawer set of technologists and digital specialists. I hope to create the same level of expertise again because working with people that good is superb,” he says.
So apart from the £141,0000 annual pay cheque – an amount which some observers suggest falls below the private sector salary equivalent – what attracted him to this role? “Changing a publisher by introducing digital transformation at The Guardian was a fantastic opportunity. Doing that for your country on a national level is a huge opportunity,” he says.
While Bracken is not the first to enter the public sector with the challenges of a cross-government remit, he believes the will for change is strong. “From what I’ve read, people in the past have had more challenging welcomes, but I couldn’t have had a more welcoming and collaborative reception.”
This is due in part to an increasingly sophisticated sense of digital awareness. “With large-scale uptake of things like iPhones, everyone is an expert in digital applications and starting to expect more from government services, not least those who work in government themselves,” he says.
Choosing his words carefully, Bracken says some aspects of the public sector have traditionally precluded against rapid innovation – an over-reliance on externally run services being one. But now such weaknesses are being identified they can be addressed, he believes.
“For example, with e-petitions, no-one could predict just how fast that demand would go up,” he says. “Consequently we learnt a lot about scaling and applications within the government estate. We reacted literally within an hour to sort out [the site crashing]. If someone else is doing that for you, you don’t learn. Managing a contract is a distinct skill but actually managing the service is different.”
E-petitions is a good example of a successful small government project. It’s agile, based on free software, uses cloud-based services, is done cheaply and in an iterative way, Bracken says. “You don’t get to finish or launch this kind of stuff, you just do a first version and keep on iterating.”
The digital roadmap
Bracken is in the midst of heading up an internal transformation in government, which includes big structural changes and bringing in new talent for his Government Digital Services (GDS) team.
The five areas of GDS will include DirectGov, which will be the most prominent constituent; identity assurance, which will identify people consuming government services; BetaGov, headed up by Tom Loosemore and formerly known as the AlphaGov team building a prototype for a single government website; digital engagement; and the innovation team. “The only thing we’re concentrating on at the moment is bringing all those areas together,” says Bracken.
The next step is to complete the overhaul of 750 separate government websites, to be replaced by a single internet “front-door” to public services on the web through Directgov. This will signal a fundamental change away from publishing to transactions, he says.
“The government, like other sectors, has a consumption metric – whether that’s the number of pages read, or user hits. But the key metric going forward won’t be how many people completed a transaction, but how many didn’t. If you can find that number out and why, then you can do something to fix it.”
As director of digital, Bracken will oversee the £23m budget for Directgov, which is to drop to £17m by 2014. The overall budget for all five areas of GDS is yet to be finalised. But in the current environment of austerity, could cost constraints impede the progress of the transformation agenda?
“Money could always be an issue, but I’m not overly concerned right now,” he says. “We’re not talking about multimillion-pound deals with system integrators, we’re talking about the cost of developers.”
Bracken is keen to point out he’s not against big companies. “But we are coming into an environment where we don’t have long-term partners. So we’ve got a bit of a blank slate and are not tied to any particular partner at the GDS. I strongly envisage a horses-for-courses approach. Sometimes we will do things ourselves, with companies, and as partnerships with agencies.”
Swimming against the tide
The bigger issue will be in meeting demand. With a team of up to 200, the GDS is a minnow in comparison to huge Whitehall operations such as the Department for Work and Pensions, staffed by 97,000 employees.
“My job is to choose wisely what we do and don’t do, as some departments could swallow us whole. We’ve got to make sure we don’t misuse capability and get the best value for the entire government digital drive from the resources we have,” says Bracken.
Given the fact that his team is so small, changing culture in government will be vital to making this work, he says.
“Launching successful products and pointing at them as examples of what can be done will be key. One can do lots of formal learning, but the simple way to build that culture of expertise is take people on a journey with you, which also means failing and learning on the way.”
And, yes, social media will also have a role to play in improving digital engagement:”We recently talked to the managing director of Twitter to verify all ministers’ Twitter accounts so we can get them using Twitter a bit better and also make sure meet government requirements of how to use social media.”
So what about the use of social networks in his role? “I will also start to do some moreregular tweeting on what we are doing,” he says. “I am the Twitter Tsar after all.”