The system is not set up to do stuff.
It’s set up, frankly,
to have an intellectual pissing match
around how its things should be.
On 1 August 2016 one man replaced another man as head of the Government Digital Service (GDS). Kevin Cunnington came. Stephen Foreshew-Cain left. People come and people go. It's not unusual but on this occasion there was an exorbitant keening and wailing and moaning from an international class of banshees.
The banshees failed to make it clear why they were upset. What would it matter if GDS had its terms of reference changed? Transformation begins at home. Come to that, what would it matter if GDS disappeared? The banshees couldn't tell us.
On or shortly before 5 July 2016, ex-Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken MBE ex-CDO ex-CDO, ex-executive director of GDS and ex-senior responsible owner of the identity assurance programme now known as "GOV.UK Verify (RIP)", gave an interview to the Centre for Public Impact:
That's the interview in which Mr Bracken delivers himself of the opinion above, that Whitehall is set up for nothing more than "an intellectual pissing match" (around 11'16", see transcript).
On or shortly before 25 July 2016, there was another interview, this time involving not just Mike Bracken but also Francis-now-Lord "JFDI" Maude (around 8'18"), Mr Bracken's sometime political boss:
Where the banshees have failed, surely these two can explain what GDS has achieved and why it should continue to exist?
Let us for the moment resist the temptation to correct the scores of mistakes in the interviews.
The suggested answer to our questions about the value of GDS boils down to "internet era skills". Government must be reformed, it is alleged, to take advantage of the internet. Government needs more internet era skills.
What internet era skills? The ability like Google and Facebook to turn people's identity into money? Will we see GOV.UK adorned with advertisements? Will more and more government data disappear into internet era clouds, taken hostage by the likes of Amazon and Google?
Maybe. But those aren't the internet era skills Mike Bracken mentions.
What he's talking about is agile software engineering. Or even agile policy-making in Whitehall. Starting at around 19'00" in the 25 July 2016 interview, he asserts that GDS has deployed agile and that that cannot now be undone. Whitehall is henceforth agile. That won't change. It can't change. It's too late. Thanks to GDS there are now 10-15,000 people in Whitehall using agile and that's all they'll ever use, there's no going back to the bad old days.
With agile we will at last be able to make Government as a Platform work. That's the suggestion. No longer will taxpayers be "ripped off" by huge systems integrators. Instead, innovative small and medium-sized enterprises will deliver shared services cheaply and those services will meet users' needs.
Messrs Bracken and Maude are confident that GDS's agile legacy is here to stay. But Mr Bracken was ejected from Whitehall in September 2015, his successor Mr Foreshew-Cain only lasted
Never mind the fact that agile pre-dates the internet era. (To be more precise, never mind the fact that agile pre-dates the web era.)
And never mind the banshees. How about you? Do you believe that agile is the answer to everything?
Agile certainly didn't help the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), did it. Messrs Bracken and Maude argue that the RPA débâcle was the result of "sabotage" (22'31" onwards). Which implies to some people that, to make agile stick, GDS needs more power over the departments of state and their agencies. Are you happy with the idea of a centralised cadre of agile internet era persons with no experience of government having autocratic power over the rest of Whitehall?
While you're thinking about that, let's take a look at 100 rounds of user research on GOV.UK Verify [RIP], a post published on GDS's identity assurance blog on 2 August 2016:
This is agile in action. This is what the banshees are keening for. This is what you are asked to grant GDS the power to impose on central and local government.
100 rounds of usability testing is certainly a lot. Here are some numbers to put it into context:
And that’s not all: those 100 rounds are in addition to a range of other research we do: large scale remote usability testing, contextual research in users’ homes and job centres; customer support queries and feedback; analytics; A/B testing; accessibility testing ...
- 600 users
- 600 hours in the lab
- 500 hours of analysis
- 200 hours of presenting results and prioritising issues
- 30,000 sticky notes
This is process. Get some users. Bang them up in the lab. Analyse what they say and do. Present the results to anyone else who's got a spare 200 hours. Write everything in felt tip on Post-it® Notes. That way you're doing your job.
GDS have become the thoughtless exponents of process. The fact that GOV.UK Verify (RIP) is a hopeless failure doesn't matter. Success isn't the point. The point is to follow the process.
"Here’s what GOV.UK Verify looked like in December 2012, before usability testing started", GDS tell us:
Cassidian have pulled out of GOV.UK Verify (RIP). So have Verizon. So have Mydex and Ingeus. And PayPal (not shown), they've pulled out twice. GOV.UK Verify (RIP) is being trounced by the venerable Government Gateway system – given the choice, that's what people in their millions use to interact with on-line government services, the Government Gateway, and not GOV.UK Verify (RIP).
And meanwhile, there's GDS iterating away in an "intellectual pissing match", doing "contextual research in users’ homes and job centres". They've become more like Whitehall than Whitehall.
One final question for you. Would you now give GDS £450 million?
GDS's exclusive commitment to agile means that it is left with pathetically few methods to tackle the manifold diversity of the problems thrown up by the real world.
The US are said to have copied GDS when they set up USDS, "building a more awesome government through technology". Well things are moving on. “The tyranny of agile”, says Jennifer Pahlka in a not bad article, The Tyranny of Agile (hat tip: John Alty). "Never thought you’d hear me say that, did you?", she says, and she's right.
So the US has spotted the problem. So has local government in the UK, please see Socitm briefing warns over digital transformation “delusions”.
But GDS? Are they still hung up on agile? Kevin Cunnington, their new director general, is quoted in Bryan Glick's all-important 31 July 2016 Computer Weekly article as saying "we need to build services in an agile and collaborative way". Do we?
Mr Cunnington may want to put a little distance between himself and that unworldly safe space of agile when he finally addresses the public in his new GDS rôle.
Give GDS despotic power over the rest of Whitehall and they'll deliver public services quickly and cheaply. How? Using "agile" software engineering methodologies. That's what Mike Bracken said in the 25 July 2016 interview above.
Is he sure?
Yes, thousands of Whitehall staff have now been trained in agile techniques, the process has gone too far to be reversed, they will never use any other methodology. That's what Mike Bracken said.
That's why the banshees were keening. Agile. That's why GDS's terms of reference must never be changed. Internet era agile skills will perfect public administration.
An empty promise so far, it hasn't happened in the first five years of GDS. But it will. That's what Mike Bracken said. There is no alternative.
Except, what's this we now read?
Kevin Cunnington, Director General of GDS –
‘Combining waterfall with agile for genuine transformation’
‘Combining waterfall with agile for genuine transformation’
So much for no-going-back. Whitehall IT failures in the ancien régime were all caused by the use of "waterfall" software engineering methodologies. That's what Mike Bracken said. Wrong again.
"Mr Cunnington may want to put a little distance between himself and that unworldly safe space of agile", we said back in August. It's almost as though he agrees.