Public Services > Central Government

Bracken insists government should focus on 'real user needs'

Charlotte Jee Published 14 January 2013

Blog post warns that endless creation and revision of policy distracts from delivery

Mike Bracken, Executive Director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), has recommended that, for all things digital, the government adopt a policy of delivering 'often, iteratively and repetitively'.

In a blog post on his personal website, Bracken warns that "when it comes to digital, the voices of security and the voices of procurement dominate policy recommendations. The voice of the user barely gets a look-in". He adds, "How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me."

Bracken says that there is "far too much" digital policy creation in Whitehall and that "the absence of knowledgeable input from those delivering services is alarming."

Although Bracken admits that "it's usually the way with large, rules-based organisations: that more time is spend on internal logic and process", he says that "in the case of public service provision, it is too often a completely closed loop, the ultimate insider job."

However, according to Bracken, many digital issues do not require policies. Indeed, he says, "what they require is a very quick delivery of a working version of the product." A particular example of this, he says, can be found last year in the process of establishing of GOV.UK, which will provide a single portal for all government operations.

Bracken says that, in discussions with other senior Whitehall figures, "the collective reflection was frustration with and at the system. As one candidly put it, 'the strategy was flawless, but I couldn't get anything done'. And there's the rub. Delivery is too often the poor relation to policy."

Bracken explains that this is because "policy-led digital service creation closes down responsiveness, builds in long-lead times and results in services which are dictated by legacy IT thinking, not by user needs."

He says that "due to a combination of European procurement law and a reliance on existing large contracts, a 'system' is procured, at great time and expense. After a long number of months, sometimes years, the service is unveiled...we then get the user feedback we should have had at the start. Sadly it's too late to react."

Bracken says that this process "looks all too familiar because you will have seen it with much of how government approaches IT. It's a process which is defined by having most delivery outsourced, and reinforced by having a small number of large suppliers adept at long-term procurement cycles. It is, in short, the opposite of how leading digital services are created, from Amazon to British Airways, from Apple to Zipcar, there is a relentless focus on, and reaction to, user need."

Regarding his team and the year ahead, Bracken says, "the challenge this year is to deliver new, re-designed transactions to meet our digital ambition, and to do that we must change our approach to delivery. And we can only do it together, by placing user needs at the forefront of our thinking."

Commenting on the Government Digital Service, government Chief Operating Officer Stephen Kelly recently said , "It is a Trojan Horse to fundamentally, radically change the speed of operation and improve services dramatically at a fraction of the cost of the old route and I genuinely think that in two, three, four years' time, there'll be some of the same team and there will be more. We'll have built up our capability and we'll have delivered so much."

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