Making digital government better: An interview with Mike Bracken

| Interview

When it comes to the digital world, governments have traditionally placed political, policy, and system needs ahead of the people who require services. Mike Bracken, the executive director of the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, is attempting to reverse that paradigm by empowering citizens—and, in the process, improve the delivery of services and save money. In this video interview, Bracken discusses the philosophy behind the digital transformation of public services in the United Kingdom, some early successes, and next steps. An edited transcript of his remarks follows.

Interview transcript

Putting users first

Government around the world is pretty good at thinking about its own needs. Government puts its own needs first—they often put their political needs followed by the policy needs. The actual machine of government comes second. The third need then generally becomes the system needs, so the IT or whatever system’s driving it. And then out of those four, the user comes a poor fourth, really.

And we’ve inverted that. So let me give you an example. At the moment, if you want to know about tax in the UK , you’re probably going to know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is a part of government that deals with tax. You’re probably going to know that because you pay tax, right?

But why should you have to know that? Because, really, it’s OK to know that, for that one—but we’ve got 300 agencies, more than that; we’ve got 24 parts of government. If you want to know about, say, gangs, is that a health issue or is that a local issue? Is it a police issue? Is it a social issue, an education issue? Well, actually it’s all of those issues. But you shouldn’t have to know how government is constructed to know what each bit of government is doing about an esoteric issue like gangs.

What we’ve done with, and what we’re doing with our transactions, is to make them consistent at the point of user need. Because there’s only one real user need of government digitally, and that’s to recognize that at the point of need, users need to deal with the government. Not a department name or an agency name, they’re dealing with the government. And when they do that, they need it to be consistent, and they need it to be easy to find. Ninety-five percent of our journeys digitally start with a search.

And so our elegantly constructed and expensively constructed front doors are often completely routed around. We’ve got to recognize that and construct our digital services based on user needs.

Cutting the failure rate

Over the last year, we have audited calls for central-government contact centers in the UK. We had 693 million calls through our contact centers. This is from a population of 70 million.

Now, of those 693 million calls, we estimate that about 150 million of those were classed as avoidable. Usually it’s because the first attempt at a transaction failed—often because the digital service simply couldn’t transact all the way along—so you had to start again by making a phone call. Now, each one of those costs £6.28. And here’s the kicker: for each actual end-to-end transaction, it usually takes five phone calls to get the thing completed. That’s a lot of money; you do the math on that.

If you can start to remove that failure rate by letting people complete a transaction the first time they try it, to conclusion, digitally, it’s a massive cost savings—because, by definition, it is a fraction of the cost of face-to-face or paper-based services. But also, you reduce the amount of failure waste that you’re dealing with.

And what you do, when you do that, is you unravel something, one of the biggest conceits of government. Because in an analog world, government is very big; it’s all-consuming, it’s around there. But in a digital world, it isn’t.

Creating an easy platform

We’re a small, vibrant, complicated country with four regions, and each with some degree of autonomy of government. We recognize that about 50 percent of transactions, thereabouts, are delivered locally: your parking permit for your car, maybe your license to go and do some fishing in the local lake, something of this nature.

They’re not usually high-value transactions financially, but there are lots of them by volume. So our model there is not to try and deal with the 400-plus local authorities in the country, but to offer them a platform, to offer them a service that they can use. Technologically, give them APIs,1 give them open data, give them standards, and actually give them assets. That’s why most of our code is on GitHub. They can pull it down as, and when, they want.

Now, it’s early days yet. We’re only just starting with engaging with local government, because, we’ve been concentrating on central government. But that’s the plan, to offer them as a service. And rather than mandate that people use them, make them so good that people want to use them.

Making government data useful

If you simply publish data because you think people might want it, well, you’re right, they may want it—and they may not. And, actually, it’s a pretty hit-or-miss affair. But if you have a conversation with people and say, “Look, what data would help you drive activity, create utility, drive economic benefit for users and for yourselves,” then you can start to put data in a better space and make sure that the outcomes are there to be used.

Also, listening to people, listening to organizations say, “How do you want that data? What’s the best way and easiest way for you to go get it? And what ancillary services do we need to offer? What guidance and education do we need?” Because it’s a nascent industry, the data industry, in terms of government services. And there isn’t a very rich ecosystem of people who are paid well enough to take government data and make it into useful services. So we need to stimulate some of that activity via apps and so on.

There is increasingly an awareness that access to open-data services can provide a very big economic boost to existing partners and also create some new utility. I would like to tell you that there’s a richer and deeper seam of economic activity coming from government data; I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But I think in the UK we’re well placed to really harvest that over the next few years if, again, we get the data out in a more elegant way. And also help stimulate some of that activity.

For more in our series on innovation in local government, visit McKinsey’s Government designed for new times collection.

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