Friday, 31 October 2014

Changing the organising principle of Whitehall

"Hello. I'm Mike Bracken. I'm from the Internet."
Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO, executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), has made another one of his astonishing speeches.

En passant, please note that "CDO" doesn't mean that he's become a collateralised debt obligation. He's a chief digital officer.

The last speech of his that caught our eye was delivered a year ago on 16 October 2013 to the Code for America Summit 2013.

That's when he gave the impression that GDS had 45 million Brits using his digital identity assurance system (IDA). In fact, IDA didn't exist then and it still doesn't now.

He also claimed that the Efficiency and Reform Group, of which GDS is a part, had saved costs equivalent to 4% of the UK's GDP. The arithmetically correct figure is actually 0.6%.

Most of the savings have been achieved by making public servants redundant and by negotiating better prices with suppliers. GDS's contribution to the savings amounts to 0.0138% of GDP.

He twice suggested, in some of the more Walter Mittyish passages of his speech, that (GOV.UK) is the only thing standing between the UK and riots in the streets. GOV.UK isn't there to enable government, he said, it is government, we (GDS) are the show.

Last year's speech was called Redesigning Government and was all about "routing round Whitehall", the opposite of team-playing.

On 20 October 2014, he returned to the fray, delivering a speech entitled From policy to delivery – changing the organising principle of the Civil Service to the Institute for Government.

"Let me start by defining terms", he says. Good idea but unfortunately he fails to define either "policy" or "delivery".

Which means that when he says "I believe delivery to users, not policy, should be the organising principle of a reformed civil service" and when he refers to "the needless separation of policy and delivery" and to "this false binary of policy and delivery" the effect can only be confusing.

After all, delivery to users is a policy. If you don't have a policy, how do you know what to deliver? If there's no need to separate policy and delivery, if the binary is false, how can one be the organising principle of the civil service and not the other?

"Traditional policy-making is largely broken", he says. He rejects the premise that "policy is fundamental" and adds "I fully expect the Internet will reject that premise, too". Is that the sort of thing the internet can do? Reject a premise?

He disparages the "archaic legalese", which happens to be the law of the land, but he is happy to embrace any amount of impenetrable computer jargon, laced with all the most fashionable and mystical marketing and managementspeak for mooncalves: "the demand for digital transformation is not a policy option. It’s a delivery crisis. And, if you’ll pardon the meme, it’s because Internet".

His real objection isn't the primacy of policy – it can't be, not in the natural language meaning of the word – but the alleged failure of Whitehall to pay sufficient attention to its parishioners' needs.

Some of his routed round colleagues might complain that no, not guilty, they reject his premise, actually the satisfaction of their parishioners' needs is the sole object of their entire, long careers in Whitehall. They are not without their successes.

These operators of the largely broken (ex hypothesi) traditional policy-making machine might also point out that Mr Bracken is trying to implement digital-by-default, the effect of which on the 16 million Brits who can't or won't use the web will be to make them excluded by default. Trying, and failing, in that GDS has failed so far to deliver IDA, without which digital-by-default can't work.

If they're not guilty of ignoring user needs, his useless colleagues in Whitehall and local government and the US administration are at least guilty of ignorance of digital technology: "those impartial advisers don’t know enough". But they do, as Mr Bracken himself acknowledges, because they all use digital in their private lives.

They use it in their professional lives as well and have done not for the 25 years Mr Bracken suggests but more like 60 years – central government was among the early adopters of digital, along with the banks, the airlines and the military.

Mr Bracken is exercised by the lurid failures of big government IT projects over the decades. So are we all.

His messianic proposed solution is to "flood your organisation with digital people and let them lead". Preferably, "agile" digital people.

That's all very well, but you need some qualifications to lead. What do these digital people know about foreign affairs? Or energy sources? Can they run the UK economy? How much expertise do they have in regulating banks? Or teaching 12 year-olds?

We're back to policy, aren't we. You do need it. It's a "solemn obligation", like delivery, as noted by Mr Bracken, but of a higher order.

And you do need people to work together, not route round each other.

First he says: "Civil servants do brilliant work all over the country. In my opinion, too humbly and without enough recognition". And then: "to succeed we must be humble in the face of messy reality". Which is it?

A little more humility, perhaps, on GDS's part, would not go amiss.

And a little more realism. Digital, he says at one point, "means starting again ... Starting from the beginning to build the services we need will prove quicker, cheaper, and more responsive ...". God knows what the Institute for Government made of that – they know even more about government than Mr Bracken – but likely they'd agree that we're in this messy world and only children think we can have a new one.


Updated 16.3.15

Big and meaningful

What would it look like if a brand new Whitehall properly led by a flood of digital people had its organising principle changed in the delivery-heavy/policy-light manner adumbrated by GDS as per the post above?

We should have known the answer on 4 March 2014. The now departed government Chief Operating Officer Stephen Kelly blogged about 400 days to transform government on 28 January 2013 and if you add 400 to the latter you get the former.

But no, it turned out that GDS meant 400 business days or January 2015, whichever came later, and so it was that on 10 February 2015, 743 days after Mr Kelly's post, the GDS blog published That was 400 days of delivery, explaining that eight of their 25 exemplar services have gone live, which means that 17 exemplars haven't been delivered.

That can't be what the users need. Everyone needs digital systems and 17 of them are missing. So something has gone wrong and the only possibility allowed for by the GDS dynamic is policy – there was too much policy.

That must hurt and Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO, executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and senior responsible owner of the non-existent identity assurance programme, gave a rueful interview to Computerworld UK ("The Voice of IT Management"), Mike Bracken: ‘we have a one-time chance to change government’. Talking about GDS:
“We are not a small bit of the state that just goes around fixing the slightly-less-fixed bits. That’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here to do something that’s big and meaningful,” he says.
"It’s almost four years since he joined government as its reforming digital director, yet many Whitehall agencies seem to be only just starting to enter the internet era", it says woundingly in the article. Something big and meaningful was needed and hasn't happened.

GDS's efforts have been met with "resistance from some quarters". Not just resistance. "Inertia" and "exceptionalism", too. "Some organisations", he thinks, "are stuck in a ‘state of learnt helplessness’ ...". Maybe. But that was the brief, transform the government, you have one chance, 400 days, 743 if you like, and it hasn't happened.

Why not? What's the problem? "I don’t even know what we’re doing next week", he says, "it’s just ridiculous".

But it's not just himself he blames. It's also Whitehall's unforgivable habit of procuring things: "The word procurement is the problem – ‘we buy once’. We’re in a different world. We commission, we rent, we chop and change services".

Etc ...

Back in this world the question remains what it would look like if GDS's dream came true. And the answer comes strangely from the report recently published by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Current and future uses of biometric data and technologies.

The Government Office for Science has specifically declined to rule on biometrics (para.27). The old Biometrics Assurance Group no longer exists (para.32) and the Biometrics Experts Group has evolved into the Biometrics Working Group, which is an entirely informal body (ibid.). And the Forensics and Biometric Policy Group suffers from "a lack of transparency" (para.33) and never publishes any minutes.

Which means what?

It means no policy. Policy-light. Just what GDS ordered.

And that in turn means what?

It means delivery. Delivery-heavy. And just as GDS foresaw, that's exactly what's happened. The police take photographs of people held in custody. They have uploaded all these photographs, 12 million+ of them (para.96), onto the Police National Database (PND). That's delivery. That's what users need.

The High Court has ruled that this delivery is illegal and gave the police a few months to regularise matters. That was 2½ years ago and the photographs are still there on the PND (para.98). Perfect. Just what Martha-now-Lady Lane Fax ordered for digital-by-default (p.4): "We must give these SWAT teams [GDS] the necessary support to challenge any policy and legal barriers which stop services being designed around user needs".

The idea is to use biometrics technology to match suspects against these images on the PND. The police claim that they don't actually use the biometric matching facilities, not least because they don't work (para.95):
Chief Constable Chris Sims, ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers], clarified that he was "not aware of forces using facial image software at the moment ... from my perspective the technology is not yet at the maturity where it could be deployed".
That doesn't detract from their success in uploading all their custody photographs. You can almost see the GOV.UK performance dashboard now, No. images uploaded 12,000,000+, indicating success.

And that, surely, is what GDS would have liked to bring about with their "one-time chance to change government". That is the Whitehall that beckons if its organising principle is changed to be unhindered by any policy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sadly all this bs from Mr Bracken is distracting from the real issues of focusing on improving for the frontline civil servants and public interactions with government "systems" to use and create new information that enable the right decisions and actions.

Digital is about business operations where that include the user interface and the directly linked in real time to back office needs that orchestrate requirements. Producing the former with out the latter just creates a superficial result and that’s what GDS do. They have failed to understand and thus do research to advise on “how” capabilities in software can address the total picture. Misfeasance in any language so who is responsible for a civil servant making misleading statements and failing to execute on responsibilities?

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