Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Cloud computing, and GDS's fantasy strategy

For some time now, the Government Digital Service (GDS) have made the meaning of their digital-by-default agenda clear – they want the UK to be like Estonia.

It is thanks to the fact that practically every service in Estonia is delivered over the web that, back in 2007, Russia was able to bring the country to its knees in a matter of days. If GDS succeed with their "modernisation" plans, there will be nothing to stop that happening here in the UK.

GDS are in awe of the financial success and popularity of Apple, Amazon, eBay/PayPal, Google and Facebook. With no experience of government behind them, the over-promoted software engineers at the head of GDS want to bring their heroes' tricks to the delivery of public services in the UK.

Sensible people will see Facebook et al as latter-day Pied Pipers of Hamelin – sensible people, including the tens of thousands of public servants who will be laid off and replaced by GDS's computers when government is, as they say, "transformed".

Many of these organisations are famous for avoiding tax on their UK profits and for using their near-monopolies to tyrannise their suppliers and to milk their customers. But GDS somehow maintain their naïve veneration and on 6 November 2012 they published their Government Digital Strategy.

This fantasy strategy is an elaboration of Martha Lane Fox's ideas, set out in her October 2010 letter to Francis Maude, Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution. Ms Lane Fox is the Prime Minister's digital champion, she's a historian, and when she says "revolution" she means it.

Her revolutionary fervour is carried over into last week's GDS strategy, which Sir Bob Kerslake – head of the home civil service, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and previously the chief executive of first the London Borough of Hounslow and then Sheffield City Council – has greeted with a post on GDS's blog, Welcoming the Digital Strategy:
Our reform plan also made a clear commitment to improve the quality of the government’s digital services, and to do this by publishing a Government Digital Strategy setting out how we would support the transformation of digital services [how does publishing a wishlist improve the quality of public services?].

We fulfilled that commitment yesterday with the launch of the Government Digital Strategy, Digital Efficiency Report and Digital Landscape Report and I very much welcome their publication.
But why? Why does Sir Bob "welcome" this emmental cheese of a strategy? It's full of holes. Consider cloud computing for example.

The Executive summary of the Government Digital Strategy tells us that:
Government is improving the way it provides information by moving to a single website, GOV.UK. Transactional services now present the biggest opportunity to save people time and save the government money [the writers mean "save the people money", the government doesn't have any money, only the people do].
GOV.UK is the implementation of Martha Lane Fox's dream, a single government domain, one website, on which all government information is to be published, and on which we will all communicate with the government via "transactional services".

Every central government website is in the process of being re-written and subsumed in GOV.UK. No more HMRC.gov.uk, no more Education.gov.uk, etc ... One day there will just be GOV.UK. Why? What's the point of all this energetic and agreeable re-writing of what has already been written? The answer has never been made clear.

How many government transactions will GOV.UK need to carry out every year? According to the Government Digital Strategy:
There is a huge volume of transactions with government. There were around 1 billion individual transactions a year with central government departments in 2011/12. This number rises to nearer 1.5 billion when other governmental organisations such as local government are taken into account ...
Clearly GOV.UK is intended to be a remarkably important national asset. It will act as the gateway or hub through which personal and corporate tax returns are made, passports are applied for, the electoral roll is maintained, benefits are paid, student loans are granted, vehicle excise duty is paid, licences are applied for, and so on – 1½ billion transactions a year.

Further on in the Government Digital Strategy we find:
Principle: Broaden the range of those tendering to supply digital services including more small and medium sized enterprises
and
The ICT Strategy stressed the need for government to procure its technical infrastructure - its servers, internet hosting, etc - as commodity services. The CloudStore framework is an example of this shift, with over 300 suppliers offering cloud-based solutions on a pay-as-you-use basis, with a maximum 12 months contract. The learning from the development of the CloudStore framework will be fed into other digital procurement and commissioning reform.
So-called "cloud computing" is being championed by Whitehall's G-Cloud team (government cloud) and they have provided an on-line shop, the CloudStore, making it easy for central and local government to buy IT services. It's just like using Amazon. There's even a little supermarket trolley to fill up.

GDS have elected to host GOV.UK in the cloud. And elected to do so, with a company called Skyscape Cloud Services Ltd whose wares are for sale on CloudStore.

Skyscape is a startup so young that it has yet to file any accounts with Companies House. It has filed an Annual Return, though, according to which Skyscape has no company secretary and only one director, a Mr Jeremy Robin Sanders, who is also the only shareholder in the company, holding all £1,000-worth of ordinary shares issued and fully paid-up.

GDS have decided to entrust an important national asset and 1½ billion transactions a year to Mr Sanders, a decision described in an open letter as "dangerous, imprudent, ill-advised, unprofessional, wrong-headed, unbusinesslike, undignified and irresponsible". No response has been received from GDS.

HMRC also have contracted with Skyscape, to store all the data currently held at their hundreds of local offices around the country – presumably all our personal and corporate tax returns and correspondence. In future, Mr Sanders will be responsible for the lot.

HMRC are a sensible lot, you may say to yourself, so perhaps GDS's GOV.UK hosting decision isn't so dangerous, imprudent, ill-advised, unprofessional, wrong-headed, unbusinesslike, undignified and irresponsible, after all? Maybe. Or are HMRC being dangerous, imprudent, ill-advised, unprofessional, wrong-headed, unbusinesslike, undignified and irresponsible, too?

The matter was taken up with HMRC. And they responded. They say that:
The G-Cloud was created by the Cabinet Office and the Government Procurement Services (GPS) ... In order to deliver services through G-Cloud, all suppliers on the Framework, Skyscape included, were required to meet a set of mandatory criteria set out by GPS including their financial standing and Experian risk assessments. Additionally, HMRC carried out its own standard taxation and financial compliance checks  before awarding the contract and Skyscape passed the standard set by the G-Cloud Framework and HMRC.
To which, all one can say is that there must be something wrong with the Cabinet Office, GPS and HMRC procurement criteria if they determine that it is safe to store all our records with a one-man startup with no track record.

The Skyscape contracts are subject to review by CESG, the information assurance arm of GCHQ. There is that one hurdle still to jump. Given that Skyscape's landlord advertises the address of the Skyscape data centre on its website and even provides a map how to get there, it's hard to see how Skyscape can pass CESG's security tests.

If CESG veto Skyscape, well and good. If not, that's another organisation to add to the dangerous, imprudent, ill-advised, unprofessional, wrong-headed, unbusinesslike, undignified and irresponsible list.

Suppose that the GDS and HMRC contracts weren't with Skyscape but with a bigger company – would that make them better?

No.

For several reasons.

The biggest supplier of cloud computing services in the world is Amazon. Reason #1, you will have noted Amazon's appearance in front of the Public Accounts Committee yesterday:
Andrew Cecil, head of public policy at Amazon, was lambasted by Mrs Hodge for avoiding the Committee’s questions. She said she would “summon” Amazon’s most senior executives as a matter of priority to make up for Mr Cecil’s “unacceptable nonsence.”
Amazon are in the dock, along with Google and Starbucks, for tax avoidance and one member of the Committee, Charlie Elphicke, was moved to suggest that:
The tax abuse can be stopped. We can tighten UK tax presence rules, we can stop the 'expenses' used to cut business tax bills in the UK and we should refuse Government contracts for companies that don't pay a fair share of tax in the UK.
We the public all have to pay our taxes, so should Amazon and Google and all of GDS's friends and Starbucks. If moral indignation gets us nowhere, perhaps a ban on government contracts would do the trick.

Reason #2, cloud computing is normally described as being like a utility, you only pay for the services you use, you don't have to pay for any overhead. It's a "no-brainer", as GDS put it.

It certainly is. No brains at all. Someone must be paying for the overhead. Whether Amazon or Skyscape. And they're going to pass the cost on to their customers. Whether HMRC or GDS – ultimately, us.

We've just had a month of daily news about how expensive our utilities are, gas and electricity, about how there's nothing even the prime Minister can do about it and, just yesterday, there was an allegation of utility price-fixing à la LIBOR. The utility model is not an attractive one. Which may be why GDS have taken to describing cloud computing as "commodity services" rather than the previously more conventional "utility services".

Reason #3, "cloud computing" means losing control. You don't own the computers. You don't own the buildings. You don't vet or train or manage the staff. The staff can be anywhere in the world, as can the computers, and your data with them, beyond your control, beyond the reach of English law. Ask the G-Cloud team about that, and they haven't got any answer. They're just following the latest fashion.

GDS have a weaselly argument that Whitehall is no different, they don't have to have secure data centres staffed by their own people, they can be just like all the other organisations in the world – and they use cloud computing. It sounds modest, doesn't it, and realistic.

But it's utterly mendacious. Some organisations do use cloud computing, some don't.

Ask a lawyer. Ask a lawyer about the legal problems. The data protection issues. The jurisdiction problems. The compliance problems. The commercial problems – what do you do if your supplier goes bust or is taken over by Huawei? Most of all, though, ask your lawyer if his or her firm uses cloud computing. Lawyers have to keep their clients' data under control and confidential. They can't do that if they haven't got a clue where in the world the data is or who's taking what backups. They'd go out of business the day after signing up with a cloud computing services supplier.

Whitehall also has a duty to keep control of our data and to keep it confidential. Cloud computing is an abrogation of that duty.

Reason #4, what does Larry Ellison, the President of Oracle, all $41 billion of him, have to say about cloud computing?
Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?
What do you know that Larry Ellison doesn't?

Where there should be answers to these questions in the Government Digital Strategy there are just holes. Revolution is proposed with no justification. And yet Sir Bob, the head of the home civil service, welcomes this fantasy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Strange... pretty sure I posted a fairly detailed comment an hour or so ago, and now it's disappeared...?

Care to comment, DMossEsq?

David Moss said...

Please see Every blogger's dream comment.

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