Government digital director hits out at digital policy

Mike Bracken, the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) executive director, has hit out at government policy making procedure as an interference to the delivery of user-defined digital products across Whitehall.

In a blog post, Bracken has said that “there is no backing away from the delivery challenge” and that the government needs to change its approach.

The comments come after a series of digital announcements from the government in 2012, including the launch of GOV.UK, a single domain website for government, and plans to digitise thousands of transactions carried out by the public, which could save the public sector up to £1.7 billion a year after 2015.

“Here’s my take on why delivery is such an attractive digital strategy in Whitehall. Ministers are inundated with policy directives and advice, most of it of the risk-averse variety,” said Bracken.

“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 goes on to say that there is ‘far too much’ policy creation in government and that when users are mentioned in policy it is ‘self-reinforcing’ - in that it is referring to the needs of the government user, rather than the needs of the general public.

Bracken says: “I’ve lost count of the times when, in attempting to explain a poorly performing transaction or service, an explanation comes back along the lines of ‘Well, the department needs are different…’”

“How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me,” he adds.

This ‘closed loop’ of policy creation to suit the needs of government departments is something that Bracken describes as the ‘ultimate insider job’.

Bracken refers to the creation of GOV.UK as an example of how digital services can be delivered in a cheaper and quicker way by delivering a ‘minimum viable product’ that goes through a number of iterations, rather than ‘go through the twin horrors of an elongated policy process followed by a long procurement’.

“While many digital issues require clear policies, many more do not. What they require is a very quick delivery of a working version of the product,” says Bracken.

Bracken argues that the way government currently designs digital services – guided by policy, sent out to procurement, followed by lengthy deployments – means that by the time the public has a product to use, it’s outcome could be years behind what is now required.

“Because these services have been hard-wired, like the IT contract which supplied them, our services simply can’t react to the most valuable input: what users think and how they behave,” says Bracken.

“As we have found in extreme examples, to change six words on the website of one of these services can take months and cost a huge amount, as, like IT contracts, they are seen as examples of ‘change control’ rather than a response to user need.”

He added: “In the first 10 days after we released the full version of GOV.UK in October 2012, we made over 100 changes to the service based on user feedback, at negligible cost. And the final result of this of this approach is a living system, which is reactive to all user needs, including that of policy colleagues with whom we work closely to design each release”

The government has undertaken a number of initiatives in recent months to drive down the cost of IT spend in the public sector, which alongside the launch of GOV.UK, include mandating all departments to adopt open standards and the launch of the second iteration of the Cloudstore.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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