Tech will not solve public service
21. October 2019
Good public service does not start with innovation and big tech. Fix the basics and design for the users, says former director of the UK Government Digital Services and partner in Public Digital, Mike Bracken
Mike Bracken on the struggles of public digitalisation. Read the full interview below.

With the launch of our new platform Future Welfare, we are expanding and building on some of the most efficient design tools for transforming the public sector. On the occasion of the launch, we had the pleasure of having Mike Bracken, former director of the UK Government Digital Services and partner in Public Digital, talk at our DesignAM event on digitalisation of public services. We caught up with him for a Q&A after the event to discuss how design tools can make the transformation more efficient and user-centered.

One could argue that many large-scale public digitalisation projects are implemented on a trial and error basis. And if they fail, it is a both costly and politically problematic affair. How can governments become more successful in the planning and implementation of digital projects?

The problem for government is that they have to think in the long term. That leads to the natural desire to answer lots of questions straight away when you don’t know all the potential outcomes. The way to mitigate that risk is to try not to answer all the questions with a big business case or false certainty. It’s to try small elements of a program. Do it quickly with a team for all the disciplines you need, including service designers, and work in the open. Once you’ve tried that for 6 or 12 weeks, you can test your assumptions and move on. Working in this agile way, using design tools and learning as you go along, isn’t perfect, but it’s much less likely that you’ll have a failure on your hands. And if you do fail, you can change as you go along.

What are the main barriers to digitalisation in the public sector?

The first barrier is the financial one. Governments like to plan and fund outcomes, that it would like to see, over multiple years. Unfortunately, in a digital world, users have very rapidly changing expectations of public services. Moving from financing upfront to funding multidisciplinary teams who can then develop services around user needs is the big change that needs to happen. But governments don’t like doing that, although is much cheaper and has proven much more successful. 

Looking at tender processes, how can governments create better frameworks? 

The best way to do it is by having openness as a default. Open standards, open-source technology where possible, and also looking at developing markets of multiple-sized companies, internally and externally. You can do that if you’re engaging with the market digitally. Not by using massive tender documents, but by working with and seeding the market on small projects, and promoting organisations which are capable of working with government around open standards. If government is looking for arrangements with very large IT providers, you’re not going to get a healthy mutuality of service provision in the long term. Digital service does not equal big IT, and chasing shiny new, emergent technology is not the same as delivering good public services. We start with design. We need technology, but you need to design first.

Chasing shiny new technology is not the same as delivering good public services. We start with design. We need technology, but you need to design first.

Mike Bracken
Mike Bracken
Mike Bracken / DesignAM

Why doesn’t that openness extend to the entire world when it comes to govtech? Ie. entirely open global markets?

We have been brought up to think about two things: Our near neighbors, and our framework in regards to them. And we’ve all probably got a mental map of which governments are leading the world. Usually it has to do with size or how loudly they talk about themselves. In Europe, we tend to think that solutions from Latin America or Africa are not as advanced, but many countries around the world are actually creating brilliant services and products in the public realm. We lack curiosity. They’re all out there in the open, to be accessed with a browser and a search engine. And they’re rapidly going to surpass us in the older and, traditionally viewed, more advanced countries.


The transition period for digital projects is often prolonged to the degree that the new system or product is outdated, when it is finally implemented. What can we do to speed up these processes or ensure that the new digital solutions can be continuously updated?

If the product is acquired by procurement, it’s almost never going to be up to date. The way to do it is to not buy IT by a tender or an IT vendor, but to fund a team inside your government, who’s responsible for continuous development of that service. 


Are you actually against the much-hailed public-private partnerships?

No, I advocate strongly for the partnerships in which you mutually create better services for government. The nature of such a partnership, however, should not be predicated on a transactional, one-time contract where one is a supplier and one is a consumer. They should have an excellent well-funded central team with all the disciplines they need who can engage with the market for the product or services that they need, at the time they need, and in the time period they need, to help them develop services for users.


We see government innovation units inspired by the private sector popping up all over the world. They are often in charge of the “innovation mindset” and leading digital projects. Do these units work?

It’s hard not to be cynical around the growth of innovation units. I generally advocate closing them down, because what they claim to be should be a core part of everyone’s job. Thinking about the needs of users, and, if necessary, requiring innovation to meet them, is a core part of being a public servant. The truth is that for many public services, you don’t need much innovation. You need consistency, well-designed, simple, and often free, technology and operations, and you need a friendly human being to deliver them. There’s not much innovation about that, I’m afraid.

Mike Bracken
Mike Bracken / DesignAM
Mike Bracken
Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken served as Executive Director of Digital of the UK Government in 2011 and as its Chief Data Officer in 2014. He was responsible for overseeing and improving the government’s digital delivery of public services, which yielded £4.1bn in savings. After government, he sat on the board of the Co-operative Group as Chief Digital Officer. Before joining the civil service Mike was the Digital Development Director at Guardian News & Media.

His non-executive portfolio includes Lloyds of London, the world’s leading insurance market, and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm. He advises the Inter-American Development Bank, and is also an honorary Professor at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London.

Mike co-authored the book Digital Transformation at scale: why the strategy is delivery with his colleagues at Public Digital. He was named UK Chief Digital Officer of the year in 2014 and awarded a CBE.

Learn more at Public Digital.



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