Mike Bracken criticises digital policy making in Whitehall

Digital policy under fire

Mike Bracken, the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) executive director, has called government policy making procedure a hindrance to the procurement of user-defined digital products in Whitehall. He believes that the government needs to change its approach.

Bracken said: “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. 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 believes that there is too much policy creation in government, and that the users who are mentioned in policies are often government users, rather than the general public.

“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 said.

Bracken argues that the current method of designing digital services means following a policy, sending the project out to procurement, and then deployment. This lengthy process could result in an out of date product.

“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. 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. 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,” said Bracken.

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