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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Co-Op CDO Mike Bracken on GDS, going digital and his next adventure

This is the first in a new series of interviews with the UK’s IT leaders.

Mike Bracken is revered in public sector IT for the work he put into the Government Digital Service (GDS); masterminding the extension of public services online, and being a key factor – along with the former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – for much of the progress in the government’s digital transformation efforts.

His resignation in August 2015 from the role of head of GDS, as well as chief data officer of the Cabinet Office, caused a storm, with many outsiders speculating that it would mean the end of GDS as it was known, and that all of the good work would be reversed with government departments falling back into their own siloes and money being splurged on disparate platforms, systems and applications once again.

It didn’t help that several of his colleagues from GDS would also walk – joining him at the Co-Operative Group where he is now – just about – as chief digital officer (CDO).

His colleagues weren’t the only ones to leave GDS – many others have followed suit, and questions remain as to how well the government is faring without some of its best digital talent.

Bracken has resisted temptation to talk in-depth about GDS since he resigned, so when New Statesmen Tech asks him for his thoughts on the department, he shies away from revealing exactly what he’s thinking.

“There are some great people in GDS, and when I left, it was well-funded and had a clear programme of Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) which involved seeing those platforms run out across the government machine in order to make users’ digital experiences of government better, and I’m still hoping that we will see the delivery of that,” he says.

Having left GDS nearly two years ago, Bracken may be surprised that there hasn’t been more productivity in regards to GaaP. However, the recent Transformation Strategy has alleviated many of the fears that GaaP would move down the government’s list of priorities – but knowing Bracken, he would have wanted more to have been delivered by this point.

Going digital at the Co-Op

Bracken has since moved on to the Co-Operative Group, a British consumer co-operative, which he says has a longer legacy of IT as it was established back in 1994, while he adds that it’s bigger and slower to move than government, although it has more scale and more reach into the local community. In addition, unlike GDS, the Co-Operative Group is focused on turnover and the bottom-line. It had revenues of £9.5bn in 2016.

“I joined and brought a small team with me when the Co-Op was in a bit of a mess; it was in the middle of three stages. The crisis stage called rescue was over and we were brought in the rebuild stage by the then CEO Richard Pennycook with a view to turnaround the Co-Op,” he says.

Bracken is the first CDO at the Co-Op, and part of his job was to remove what had become an over-reliance on third parties and systems integrators, and instead create a digital centre.

He and his team have been focused on four key areas: membership, products, platforms and ventures.

A year before Bracken and his team arrived, the company lost 900,000 members – so Bracken and his team focused on relaunching its membership platform. It now has hundreds of thousands of new members, and over 4.5 million active members, and those members have given more than £9m to support local causes.

The second part of the strategy involved digitising many of the company’s core products – including its wills, insurance and funeral care services which can now be purchased online. It has paid particular attention to its food category, developing in-store apps, and it’s working with social enterprise to use Blockchain technology to help it to tell consumers exactly where its food comes from and how it gets from source to its shops.

Bracken explains that the platforms part of its strategy is effectively where the company opens up Co-Op’s data internally and to its partners by offering up services as an API.

Finally, his team has been working on ventures – what Bracken says he is most excited about.

“In September we open a new building called the Federation which is a Co-Op and a digital accelerator. However, unlike a lot of the incubators out there that put money behind SMEs and look for unicorns to sell on the market, this one is about helping to create and sustain long-term digital businesses, particularly around the north and north-west of England, and we’re hoping many of those businesses will themselves become Co-Operative,” he says, adding that the Federation will have about 65 companies when it officially opens.

As well as seeing a million more people join the Co-Op that had never been members before, Bracken says that the digital transformation has also seen the company’s brand perception rise and its demographics have started to get younger.

And this new view of Co-Op has helped it to recruit in technical positions.

“We’ve attracted hundreds of people that are interested in the Co-Op as a recognised digital brand and we’ve brought in lots of new skills – product managers, designers and data scientists for example. We’re attracting a new breed of skills which only a couple of years ago you would have been hard pushed to attract to the Co-Op,” he says.

Dedication to open data

Data forms an integral part of the company’s digital transformation programme. Bracken says that one of the key aspects he has been working on is to give users control of their data.

“Most organisations have an extractive and exploitative relationship with customer data and we hope to be the opposite of that,” he says.

“By being more transparent and by giving them control – but not exploiting their data without their consent – we won’t be doing things like putting out targeted ads that follow users around the internet. Those exploitative digital marketing techniques are the very opposite of what digital should be at the Co-Op,” he adds.

On to the next one…

But while Bracken and his team have already achieved a great deal at the Co-Op, and look to be heading towards the next phase of this digital transformation, Bracken will be leaving the organisation later this summer.

He will continue in his three non-executive positions elsewhere, while he also co-authors a book with his partners at Public Digital, his private company which helps other governments globally, including those in Peru, Canada and Uruguay. He has also been named as a visiting professor at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London, and as an advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank and the Centre for Public Impact.

He says he hopes to find more time to be part of the Independent Review Group at Google Deepmind – a panel which meets four times a year to scrutinise Deepmind’s work with the NHS.

Once again Bracken and his team have left their digital mark on an organisation.