7 ways government digital chief Mike Bracken will change the Co-op

This week involved a shock move in the technology industry, as the lead of all things digital at HM Government announced his decision to swap civil service for retail.

Mike Bracken's move to become the Co-op's chief digital officer (CDO) will hopefully see the grocer's digital efforts ramp up when it comes to online, data and leaner ways of working with technology.

Bracken's four year stint in government involved a digital transformation in the way the public sector uses technology. As the executive director for the Government Digital Service (GDS), head of digital at the Cabinet Office, and more recently chief data officer, he was involved in the development of Gov.uk, creating online public services, as well as championing the use of open data in government.

When his appointment was announced, Bracken wrote on his blog: "There are many parallels between Government and the Co-operative: The opportunity to work at scale, in a £10bn organisation, a chance to set a digital strategy and improve member experience; to work with inspiring colleagues all over the country; and to build strong businesses serving diverse audiences. It’s another fantastic challenge."

And a challenge it will be, like all grocers the Co-op has been struggling in recent years and 2014 was disastrous with £2.5bn of losses. But CEO Richard Pennycook has started to turn around the business with recent signs that sales are moving in a positive direction. 

Essential Retail takes a look at seven ways the Co-op might change on Bracken's arrival in October:

1. A chief digital officer at the top table

Inviting the chief digital officer to sit on the Co-op executive board proves the grocer is taking digital seriously. The newly created position follows in the footsteps of retailers like Argos who promoted  Bertrand Bodson to the board as CDO in 2014. As the only technology executive working closely with the CEO, Bracken will be able to introduce digital change from the top down.

Founder of Tech London Advocates, Russ Shaw, said retailers are increasingly gravitating towards digital innovation. "Some of the fastest growing retail brands are actually technology companies – Farfetch, NotOnTheHighStreet.com and Asos. A relentless focus on consumer behaviour and improving services is the reason retail tech is proving so disruptive in the industry."

2. An agile mentality

The Co-op will also be gaining a new attitude. During his time at Westminster Bracken was part of the team which encouraged a change in the way government used and purchased IT. GDS has proven government is capable of creating lean, cost-saving, digital services, such as Digital Self Assessment which allows users to manage their tax affairs online.

"There’s no reason why the Co-operative shouldn’t be able to move as fast and be as agile as any digital organisation – we will do that," Bracken said in his blog post.

Before working in the public sector, Bracken was director of digital development at the Guardian News and Media, combined with his experience in government, his agile mentality will be crucial when setting up the Co-op's digital strategy. This should be welcomed with open arms in order to both save the grocer money and get digital services out in front of customers as quickly as possible in this ever competitive market.

3. Increasing digital talent

As Dafydd James, head of digital at the National Museum of Wales pointed out to Essential Retail on Twitter, Bracken's move to the Co-op, should encourage more digital-minded techies to follow suit.

Former government IT chief, Alan Mather, said talent was where Bracken made his biggest contribution to the public sector, scaling GDS from 30 to over 300 and hiring senior technologists across government.

"He can find and recruit great talent and create a brand within a brand – GDS within government, digital within co-op. That itself becomes a reason to join, because a small number of good people quickly attract more good people," said Mather, who used to run the team that built the Government Gateway and direct.gov – a predecessor of Gov.uk.

Bracken's move to the private sector has already got the industry buzzing. And combined with his influence in the developer and tech start-up community, it will be interesting to see who he recruits to help him digitally turnaround the Co-op.

4.Start-up influences

Bracken is a champion of the UK start-up community, believing young technology companies have the ability to revitalise public sector procurement.  He backed programmes like the DVLA's partnership with startup incubator Tech Hub to launch a new digital workspace in Swansea, and will mostly likely be taking some of that approach when it comes to digital procurement at the Co-op.

Shaw added: "The announcement of Mike Bracken’s appointment as Chief Digital Officer at The Co-operative is a huge coup for the consumer brand. Mike’s proximity to the startup community and understanding of how to implement an agile digital strategy that transforms processes will signal an exciting new era for the company."

5. An awareness of data

Bracken was appointed the UK government's first chief data officer and is unsurprisingly a big believer in the power of data, which could potentially revitalise the Co-op membership.

"I am convinced that [Co-op] membership, and the digital services that connect members to the Co-op, are central to the organisation’s future," Bracken said on his blog. "But what will make it special will be feeding the organisation’s commitment to community engagement into the digital relationships we build. There are new opportunities to explore in the nascent ‘data economy’, in new services and platforms for co-operation – but they will be better and stronger because they will be infused with Co-operative values."

Emer Coleman, director of development and engagement at TransportAPI and formerly deputy director of digital engagement at GDS, said the Co-op's diverse portfolio – including retail, legal, banking, real estate, insurance – makes data a really exciting issue.

"Traditionally large organisations tend to treat these areas of business as discreet and siloed concerns but that is not how data works in the digital age," she said. "What is crucially important is the ability to bring these diverse sources together in a way that respects the privacy of individuals and that seeks to give benefit back to users."

"We have seen too much of large digital companies who exploit our data for their own huge profits. Given Mike’s background in government and the ethics and values of the Co-op I see exciting developments in the data space that are governed by different principles ones of democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. We may well see new models of data sharing emerging that reshape concepts of the digital economy."

6. Understanding the customer's digital need

As executive director of GDS, Bracken led its transformation programme to digitise 25 major public services – including prison visit bookings and applying for lasting power of attorney – by making them available online.

Bryan Glick, editor-in-chief at IT publication Computer Weekly, said before digitising any of these services he helped government understand exactly what the the end customer needs. And more importantly understanding that this user need is constantly changing.

"His team at GDS do extensive, ongoing research into what users think – for 'users' read customers in retail," he explained. "He overhauled the way government develops software and the supporting technology to achieve that end, making it much more agile and responsive to change."

It will be unlikely, for example, that Bracken will allow an app to be built at the Co-op without figuring out whether there is a customer need for it in the first place. By putting the customer first not just in retail, but in the development of a digital strategy, the end products should be much more customer friendly and engaging.

Coleman added: "One of Bracken's defining characteristics is his complete focus on users. In government this was about users, in the first instance, of government services. But it was also about users in the internal sense so those civil servants working across Whitehall struggling with outmoded technology impeding their ability to do their jobs efficiently and productively. So I think we can expect to see that dual focus in his new role."

7. Online expertise

Will Bracken be the brains behind Co-op finally launching online groceries? We will have to wait and see, but we do know that when it comes to websites Gov.uk is another example of the skills he is bringing to the Co-op.

Bracken's hand in consolidating over 300 government departmental websites onto one platform – Gov.uk – will prove useful at the Co-op if the grocer wishes to launch into eCommerce or merely tighten up its website.

Shaw continued: "The impact of Gov.uk cannot be overstated. Combining high quality design with improved user experience demonstrated the improvement an effective digital strategy can have upon public perception and cost efficiency."

Glick added: "He believes digital is about more than just implementing technology or new websites – he will be telling the Co-op that going digital means changing business models and the way the organisation works."

"This will be about a lot more than just giving Co-op customers better websites, it will be about making the Co-op a digital organisation. Remember also that he was the digital director at The Guardian before he joined government, and he will bring the experience of digital change in the media sector to bear at Co-op as well."