Mass exodus at GDS a week after Mike Bracken steps down

The Government Digital Service lost four of its directors and department heads today, a week after its director Mike Bracken announced he was leaving to take up a post as chief digital officer at the Cooperative.

ComputerworldUK understands Bracken’s departure was linked to civil service plans to “drastically” reduce the GDS budget and headcount as part of Whitehall spending cuts this autumn.

Deputy director Tom Loosemore, design director Ben Terrett, user research head Leisa Reichelt and strategy director Russell Davies have all announced today that they are set to leave the unit this year.

Reichelt is heading back to her native Australia to join its new government ‘Digital Transformation Office’. However Loosemore, Terrett and Davies have all left before securing new positions elsewhere.

Bracken has led GDS since it was set up in 2011 and was a strong evangelist for digital transformation in government, helping to unpick the legacy of decades of IT outsourcing to a handful of large suppliers.

Bracken has been replaced as digital director by GDS chief operating officer Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who joined in April 2014 but is still a relative unknown beyond the unit. Foreshew-Cain's LinkedIn profile says he held roles at LBi, Capgemini, Accenture, ITV and ThoughtWorks before joining government last year.

GDS had a budget of £58 million and a total headcount of almost 700 during the last financial year.

Both are rumoured to be in the firing line for cuts as part of HM Treasury’s search for savings, ordered by chancellor George Osborne.

The cuts could see GDS’s role and the reforms it is helping to oversee fundamentally change, sources close to the unit have suggested.

After announcing his departure, Bracken tweeted: “My last challenge will be to set up digital centre of Govt [government] for next Parliament”.

ComputerworldUK understands GDS’s work to set up ‘Government as a Platform’ is also expected to be ‘much reduced in scope’.

The idea is that common technology platforms and shared web-based infrastructure across departments will reduce duplication, save millions (if not billions) of pounds and improve services for citizens.

Making this platform model a reality is the main task currently facing the Government Digital Service (GDS) post-election and has been backed by new Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock MP.

However it is rumoured civil service CEO John Manzoni does not back Government as a Platform. He has publicly supported moving power away from the centre to departments, which would make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to set up a platform model across Whitehall.

Many who work or have worked with Mike Bracken reacted with shock at his departure.

“The old world reasserts itself…buy shares in Capita/Fujitsu”, one ex-civil servant privately told ComputerworldUK.

Hundreds within the digital government community took to Twitter to pay tribute, thanking Bracken for his work to make public services easier for users and make digital a priority within Whitehall.

The US Digital Service tweeted: “sending you our deepest admiration and gratitude for evangelizing the power of digital government” while Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka said his legacy is “global and far-reaching”.

“You changed the world and will be remembered for it,” government SME representative Stephen Allot tweeted.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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