Martha Lane Fox should lead search for new GDS chief, says ex-G-Cloud director

Parliament building at night

Whitehall will struggle to replace the outgoing chief of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Mike Bracken, according to former director of the G-Cloud, Chris Chant.

However, he stressed the digital transformation of government will continue unabated regardless of who fills Bracken's shoes.

Bracken announced his shock departure from his two Whitehall roles on Monday, after spending four years digitising government services and introducing alternative IT models like Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP), which would see costly legacy IT contracts left to expire, and replaced with common platforms that different departments could share.

However, rumours have emerged that Bracken and Manzoni did not see eye to eye over GaaP, while Manzoni has previously suggested that GDS should give up more power to individual departments.

But former director of the G-Cloud framework Chant told IT Pro that he is certain the GDS still holds sway within Whitehall - though he believes it will be a struggle to source Bracken's successor.

"We do need to replace him. But getting a replacement for Mike is a challenge because there's not many Brackens around and where there are, it would be difficult for government to get them to do something else," he said.

Chant added that Whitehall should turn to ex-government digital champion Martha Lane Fox to lead the hunt for a new chief of the GDS.

"They could do a lot worse than sourcing somebody through Martha Lane Fox, who is still someone massively involved with their finger on the pulse of what's happening everywhere," he said.

Lane Fox initiated the government's digital transformation in 2010, writing a report looking at the potential for technology to reform government and create digital public services.

Nevertheless, Chant added that GDS will not lose steam while it lacks a leader.

"The GDS have a great team in place there and one thing about leadership is you should be able to step away from time to time with a clear vision in place [and let them get on with it]," he said.

Technology industry trade body TechUK echoed this sentiment, with its associate director central government, Naureen Khan, saying: "He leaves a strong team, which will be critical to maintaining progress following his departure. We hope his successor will continue Bracken's work, to ensure digital remains a priority throughout government."

Bracken announced his resignation on the same day as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) signed two contracts worth 1.5 billion with the Atlas Consortium, a group of large tech outsourcers led by HP, as a renegotiation of an extension to its controversial Defence Information Infrastructure deal.

It will see HP host the IT for 200,000 users in its Helion Managed Private Cloud, and use Microsoft's Office 365 cloud productivity suite to improve their mobile working capability, and is the first major deal signed by new MoD CIO Mike Stone.

However, the contracts break the 100 million red lines established for IT outsourcing by the Cabinet Office, and TechMarketView analyst Georgina O'Toole said it's a sign of a power devolution from the centre out to the different arms of government, where an array of CIOs and CDOs want to flex their muscles.

"This highlights some of the shift in decision making power from the Cabinet Office back to the departments," she wrote in a paywalled report, MoD ICT shakeup: New contracts awarded.

"Government has been determined to get some hard hitters in place in departments and agencies to accelerate transformation and be more innovative."

Writing in a blog post, she added that the government should revisit the functions of the various bodies involved in digital transformation to make sure it is on the right track.

"The role of GDS vs. the departments and agencies and vs. industry should be reviewed to ensure that Government is getting best value from its digital initiatives," said O'Toole. "Already, greater collaboration between HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office indicates a far greater focus on solid business cases."

However, giving departments more power is the wrong direction for government to take, according to Chant.

"I don't think that's the way to go, we proved enough times that aggregation at that level doesn't produce better quality, doesn't produce lower costs, doesn't produce more innovation," he said. "But it doesn't surprise me that some of the bigger departments [still] dabble in that space.

"If you're serious about digitising government, it seems to me the GDS and someone leading that would be the appropriate thing to do."

Bracken's own blogged farewell said much the same - he wrote: "The GDS leadership is strong, our plans are clear and focused, our people - and digital teams across government - are rolling up their sleeves to continue the work of transformation."