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Mike Bracken: 'we have a one-time chance to change government'

Charlotte Jee | March 19, 2015
Government digital director Mike Bracken warns Whitehall must not waste a unique opportunity to make public services 'fit for purpose in a digital age'.

"We are not a small bit of the state that just goes around fixing the slightly-less-fixed bits. That's not what we're here to do. We're here to do something that's big and meaningful," he says.

Procurement 'flawed'

With an election just weeks away, Bracken concedes GDS will be shaped by whoever wins power in May.

But the challenge for whichever politicians are running Whitehall is to "think about what government can and should be" in a digital era and how "citizens can interact differently with the state", he says.

One thing that desperately needs fixing is the way the government buys its technology, Bracken says.

"In technology and digital services, the whole premise of procurement is a flawed concept. We just don't procure. The word procurement is the problem - 'we buy once'. We're in a different world. We commission, we rent, we chop and change services," he says.

Bracken says many of GDS' purchases have been cheaper than even the lowest cost estimate would have been if it had been handled through formal procurement routes.

"The idea we should be procuring technology services, spending hundreds of millions of pounds for a five year future when I don't even know what we're doing next weekit's just ridiculous."

Whitehall's financial watchdog the National Audit Office has blamed a 'skills gap' in Whitehall for poor procurement practices.

But Bracken says he would like the civil service to worry more about managing its existing people better than bringing in new ones.

"The point I'd make is the thing that irritates me is not the skills we lack. It's how we're using the skills that we already have. That's the problem.

"There are skilled people in the civil service, they're just not being put to work in the right way in many caseswe've got to have multidisciplinary teams," he explains.

Finally, Bracken says he would like to see departmental siloes removed, encouraging agencies to collaborate rather than compete. After all they are all part of the same civil service, and are thus paid by and for citizens.

He jokes: "Some people ask: 'are you worried HMRC [digital team] will outstrip GDS? Well, I bloody hope it does. For goodness sake, there's about 30,000 of them. There are 500 of us."


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