Francis Maude and Mike Bracken, the duo who spearheaded the government's digital and supplier overhaul, have opened up on their time in power, speaking of civil servants sabotaging their work and the perception that digital staff were "hippies".
Speaking to the Centre for Public Impact on a podcast, the duo reflected on the time during which they were charged with making government procurement better through digital technology and improving the way it interacted with suppliers.
Maude become minister for the Cabinet Office in 2010, and later executed the "digital by default" strategy. The Government Digital Service was then created, led by Mike Bracken, and paved the way for frameworks like G-Cloud.
Maude said that prior to 2010, the government did not know who its top suppliers even were, let alone the split between big firms and SMEs. Since then, the government has made efforts to allow smaller, more niche firms supply the government.
On the podcast, Maude said there was some scepticism about the work he and Bracken were doing on digital.
"A lot of people in the civil service in Whitehall thought ‘why has Francis brought all these weird hippies into government?'" he said. "That's why it was so important to just do some stuff and show that actually these are really serious, capable people who have huge standing in the industry. It's just a different world from the world in which government IT had operated - a world which was cheaper, quicker, better, more flexible and more adaptable. That took a lot of getting used to."
"Mike's mantra was ‘strategy is delivery - get on and do it' and my mantra was JFDI - just do it."
He said that getting results quickly was important to him.
"The great thing with all of these things was [we] just got on with these things and did it," he said. "Mike's mantra was ‘strategy is delivery - get on and do it' and my mantra was JFDI - just do it."
Maude described his time at the Cabinet Office as "a pretty wearing five years" but said he hopes his work helped change mind sets across the government and public sector. Over the last six years, the government has pledged to become more open, publishing previously confidential data sets to allow for public scrutiny. Maude said this move alone changed civil servants' behaviour.
In order to prevent big, expensive IT projects failing and costing taxpayers cash, Maude personally signed off on any IT deal above £1m to begin with, a figure then rising to £5m.
Not all areas of government were receptive to the changes, and Maude and Bracken agreed some projects were sabotaged.
"In order to drive the kind of change we needed - not just in digital, but across the piece - we needed much stronger central powers, which we gave ourselves," said Maude. "We took them. When you do that, on things like shared services, we struggled to get departments to give up their shared services. What you then get is sniping and the bits of government who want it to fail and who will sabotage things, which is pretty disgraceful. It's pretty outrageous but it did happen. It does happen."
Bracken agreed and said failed aspects of one project, which he did not name, was a result of this.
"It was directly a result of that and [people] saying ‘I'm not playing'," he said. "When you have a chief executive who says I do not accept the rule of the government, you can't tolerate that. You can have a debate but, that's just not on. If you feel that strongly, you should leave, in my opinion. That's fair enough. But to sabotage from within is not right."
Bracken stood down as GDS boss a year ago, following on from Maude stepping down in light of the May election.
Both told the CPI they are optimistic about the future of the government regarding digital transformation.
Maude gave his advice for future governments on taking on the same challenges he faced.
"I think you have to re-pot these operations periodically," he said. "You just need to start again and you need people who are passionate about it and don't mind pissing people off, frankly. People who don't mind annoying people or upsetting the system. Mike and I were people who neither of us saw our -long-term future in government. And so you are prepared to invest pretty heavily in the work."
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