Be transparent, says Bracken

Tech businesses and the UK government alike must be more open on data if they are to be trusted and fit for purpose, Co-operative digital chief Mike Bracken said last week, as he explained his organisation’s commitment to ‘radical transparency’ and digital change. Julian Blake reports.

Oli Barrett and Mike Bracken, Co-op (right)The arrival of new digital platforms for personal services like taxis may be useful, but they are pulling apart our social fabric and there is little transparency over how they use our data, one of Britain’s most senior digital business figures, Mike Bracken, said last week.

Bracken, the ex-chief of the Government Digital Service now heading up digital at the Co-operative Group, questioned the “social dislocation and atomisation of the individual” created by the new tech platforms – though he was careful not to name any platform by name. And he criticised the emergence of low-wage modern slavery into our society.

Speaking at DigitalAgenda’s Impact Awards in London, Bracken said: “The new platform services give great utility to the individual – you can get a car outside this event for instance – but they are pulling the fabric of our communities aside. What if we did that which was supportive of the community rather than extracting from it?”

At an event that was a celebration of the best of technology for good, Bracken was asked for an example of tech for bad. “It’s what you can’t see that I don’t like,” he said. “We are in an age where most people don’t understand what’s happening to them, their data, the information that others hold about them and the fact that they are the product. I think it’s about time organisations just said this is what we do. I am not saying who is good and who is bad, but just be transparent.

“At the Co-op we have a commitment to radical transparency,” he said. “We are owned by our members and we are run by our members. Whenever we do something with their data we are open about that.”

Bracken arrived at the Co-op in 2015, having led a process of digital transformation across UK government for four years. At GDS he revamped paper-based services like taxation and driving licensing, and rolled out a programme of change that used digital to put service users first.

He has instituted a similar transformation process at the Co-op, helping an organisation to go ‘back to the future’ by combining digital tools and a philosophy that goes back to its foundation in 1844.

“The co-operative model is still very strong more in the UK and globally, but it’s not been particularly fashionable over the last 25 years,” he said. “We are hopefully bringing that back. Its time has come again because the co-operative model of doing business differently is actually something people are realising has got legs and is more important than ever in the digital era.”

Bracken said the co-operative model could be applied to the new digital platforms. “There is no reason that that two-sided model cannot also provide huge amounts of revenue and funds back into the community and also bring people together. At a time of great social dislocation led by some of the great technologies we have, the model is as profoundly important now as it was in 1844.”

Bracken said the Co-op was trying to increase the value of membership, including 5% discounts and a 1% good cause payback. And he pointed to the digitisation of the Co-op’s wills service that combined automation with expert advice.

He said the Co-op would give £100m to community causes in 2018.

Looking back at his time at GDS, Bracken said he was proud to have brought in more digital skills into government. But, “as Nick Clegg said recently it is an analogue Whitehall in a digital economy. The problem is one of a Victorian infrastructure battling for control in a digital age.”

Asked to offer practical advice for Theresa May, Bracken said: “I would say prime minister you should consider looking very long and hard at the structure of data and how it moves around government. Concentrate on sorting the data structures out to clear registers of data that are open and have value and trust built into them rather than opaque systems of departmental squabble.”

And he added: “Please start to institute a review of the institutional makeup of our government Because if we don’t do that, the democratic and social ties that hold this country together will start to fray and I think recent events show that they are fraying.”