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Mike Bracken slams government decision to shift data policy-making from GDS to DCMS

Mike Bracken, the IT leader often cited as the mastermind behind the extension of public services online, spearheading government’s so-called digital revolution, has slammed the decision to move the data policy and governance functions of the Government Digital Service (GDS) to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The announcement, was made in a written statement to Parliament by Prime Minister Theresa May just before the Easter break. It went into effect on 1 April.

Sceptics had suggested that this was the final straw for the GDS, with government finally withdrawing the cross-government platform approach pushed by GDS since its inception. Instead, it has been suggested, there will be a return to a more traditional approach, in which individual departments have free reign over IT procurement and strategy.

But Bracken, who now works with governments around the world through Public Digital, a digital transformation organisation he founded, suggested that smaller nations have shown that having a central authority with the power of digital, data and technology, can rapidly transform public services and make their economies more competitive.

There were no standards. Departmentalism ruled, and the zero-sum game of Whitehall was in play

He suggested this happened, in part, because the UK itself had built the model, during the period of the coalition government, of how a government should organise its IT and digital platforms.

“£4.1bn in savings in one parliament; world-class digital public services in motoring, tax, justice and beyond; and, for the first time in decades, an enthusiasm for technology and digital professionals to work in public services,” Bracken wrote in New Statesman Tech.

He said that, in 2011, there was no central government technology function. Instead, there were thousands of shonky websites, transactions that were poorly digitised – if at all – and a ‘chaotic’ data model.

“There were no standards. Departmentalism ruled, and the zero-sum game of Whitehall was in play: For my department to win, yours must lose. The poor users were made to navigate government in the vain hope it could speak with one voice. And the cost to the public purse was astronomical,” he said.

Even with the powers aligned in the centre, Bracken said that there were still difficulties in stopping the “sovereign powers of departments, even with powerful ministerial intervention”.

To take data policy out of the centre and move it without mandate or clear explanation to a weak departments with no track record of delivery or cross-Whitehall power… doesn’t make sense

But GDS, under the Cabinet Office, did manage many positive achievements, particularly creating new standards with central authorities enforcing them, and focusing on meeting the needs of the ‘users’ of government, rather than the needs of the government itself. 

However, the move announced by the Prime Minister last week left Bracken bemused.

“To take data policy out of the centre and move it without mandate or clear explanation to a weak departments with no track record of delivery or cross-Whitehall power – known as the Department of Fun – run by a Minister who was forced to change the data privacy settings on his own app doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“It is surely a mistake to make such a move for political expediency or, alternatively, to perpetuate departmental games in Whitehall.

“There are pressing needs to develop data policy, whether it be in GDPR, social-media regulation or privacy, but those can all be done without removing a key central lever of control.

“These problems are unlikely to be fixed by throwing responsibility as far away from the centre as possible,” he wrote.

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