Mike Bracken, head of the Government Digital Service, spoke about the social and political effects of a networked era on the way that the Civil Service operates. The event follows the speech given by Martin Donnelly at the Institute in June, Positive Neutrality and Trust - the policy role of a permanent civil service.
The demand for digital transformation was not a policy option, Bracken said, it was a ‘delivery crisis’.
He argued that the Civil Service needs to shift its focus from policy to delivery of services, and that digital skills, tools and people are key to making this happen. He said that the internet had fundamentally changed the structure of all organisations and industries.
Bracken said that the Civil Service had been slow to embrace and adapt these changes, because its digital services were tied into long-term ‘Big IT’ contracts. These had failed to deliver, making many civil servants wary of the promise of digital transformation.
He said that delivery – not policy – should be the fundamental organising principle of the Civil Service. The policy making process was ‘slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change’. In the twenty-first century policymakers should adopt more agile working practices: fail fast, fail cheap, then put things right. This would, he argued, allow them to find out how services actually work in practice, and then rapidly iterate to fix failures. He suggested that this would bring users much closer to the policymaking process.
He said that digital skills and specialists should lead organisations, ‘Digital people… are the ones who run successful organisations now, because they’re the ones who know how to.’ Digital, he suggested, offered the opportunity to fundamentally rethink our public services and the civil service needed to employ different kinds of people: technicians; service managers; user researchers; data analysts; and leaders who use real-time performance data.
Bracken named five forces acting on government which are adding pressure to the need for digital transformation:
- financial pressures
- demand from users for digital services
- need for better digital tools inside the service
- challenge of security
- challenge of procurement.
He said that addressing these challenges should create a civil service which would be less hierarchical, more networked, more transparent, and more focussed on user-led service provision.
Bracken argued that that government was obsessed with departmentalism, which acts as a barrier to sharing. He pointed out that users do not think in terms of the departments, and gov.uk has allowed them to interact with the government which makes most sense to them. Trying to address departmentalism at an organisational level was, he conceded, harder.
Bracken also pointed out that digital inclusion strategies were now delivering, and improvement in this area was an ongoing challenge.
Mike Bracken will reflect on the lessons he has learned while leading the digital agenda across government, and set out the thinking driving GDS’s strategy for the next Parliament.