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This is one speech all politicians should read

Last week Mike Bracken gave a speech that should be required reading for all MPs.

It’s fair to say I’m a fan of Mike – he’s the Director of Digital at the Cabinet Office and architect of the Government Digital Service (GDS).  He and the GDS have had a major impact on how the government approaches the delivery of public services in the digital age, bringing an agile, iterative, data-driven – some might say ‘startup’ – approach to the civil service.

The GDS recently celebrated their second birthday and have achieved a lot: a single government domain (GOV.UK), the redesign of 25 government services, and live performance dashboards among other things.

But despite their good work, it’s fair to say that they have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. That’s why this speech is important.

It sets out a radical (for the civil service) vision of why digital government matters and how it should be achieved, by focussing on delivery. I suggest reading it in full, but here are some key points.

Too slow

Mike forcefully argues that government needs to get away from the slow policy cycles of old:

In a digital age, traditional policy-making is largely broken.

It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change

Focus on users

Instead of a policy-driven approach, he argues for a focus on user needs, rapidly iterating to create services designed around the user. He cites the example of Carer’s Allowance, which the GDS helped redesign, halving the number of questions (down from 500!) and creating a simpler process.

Fail fast

He argues that by failing fast, and avoiding the big projects of old with a set launch date, you can save millions.

Sometimes we stop the project, but it’s having spent only a few tens of thousand of pounds…

The cost of failure is only enormous if you plan to launch with a big bang on a fixed date in a couple of years time, with the world’s media and public watching.

Don’t put digital in a box

As to how government can get there, he calls for the civil service to be flooded with digital people who are empowered to lead.

The answer is not a box in the corner labelled “digital” which you open on the rare occasions you need some Internet.

Mike argues against the traditional civil service model of policy generalists, instead calling for more makers:

We need a civil service with fewer critiques and more makers.

We need technicians to put platforms in place, and service managers to build upon them. We need leaders for whom the idea of using real-time performance data is a no-brainer, not an alien concept.

And we need user researchers and data analysts to do the hard work of understanding user needs and behaviour to continually improve services.

Big changes

The opportunity is massive.

This is a chance to rethink tax, rethink benefits, and rethink how people come in and out of the country.

Starting from the beginning to build the services we need will prove quicker, cheaper, and more responsive to what our political masters actually want.

It’s better than the alternative: attempting to build on top of old, broken machines.

These would be big changes for the civil service – accepting more risk of failure, using data to drive decisions, shifting away from policy generalists – but this approach would have a major impact to create better, cheaper and more responsive public services.

Image Credit: Flickr / Ian Smith