Sunday, 18 September 2016

Ruminating about process

It's over two years since we looked at the achievements of the Government Digital Service (GDS). It looked to us then as though the big achievers digitalwise were not GDS at all, despite their noisy claims, but Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

GDS aim one day to deliver something called "Government as a Platform (GaaP)". They have a publishing platform and a performance platform already up and running. They're working on at least three other platforms:
  • GOV.UK Verify (RIP) is meant to be a standard cross-government platform for identity assurance.
  • GOV.UK Notify is meant to be a standard way for government to send texts, emails and letters.
  • GOV.UK Pay is meant to be a standard way for government to collect payments.
GOV.UK Notify
Five days ago GDS published From pounds to pennies and months to minutes. They make a vague claim there to the effect that GOV.UK Notify could reduce central government costs and reduce the time taken to make changes. There's no guarantee that these reductions will be made. Just a claim.

"GOV.UK Notify now has 8 service teams sending texts and emails as part of our private beta", GDS tell us. That was 13 September 2016. Three days later, we learnt that it's not just government departments communicating with each other, government departments are communicating with some suppliers, too – Using GOV.UK Notify to communicate with suppliers. Presumably government departments and their suppliers have always communicated with each other. Is GOV.UK Notify an improvement? In what way? GDS don't tell us.

Back in July 2016, Civil Service World (CSW) magazine told us that GOV.UK Notify has "now begun sending messages to people applying for student finance and UK visas as part of the government’s invite-only public beta testing". There has been no update on the progress of this beta testing.

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer is quoted in the same CSW article as saying: "In GOV.UK Notify, we have developed an impressive, cost-saving product that can be used across any government department for lots of different services – making it easier for the public to interact with government and keep track of their applications and requests". There is no evidence to support these claims of his.

That's GDS.

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph newspaper announces that HMRC have tested text messages with over 13,000 taxpayers and found that they increase tax payment rates by up to 7%. That looks like a properly constructed case in support of using texts, unlike the GDS claims.

What's more, there is no sign that HMRC are using GOV.UK Notify. They seem to have their own text-generating system. Bang goes GDS's hope of providing the single platform for government notifications.

GOV.UK Pay
"On Friday 2 September we took our very first live payment on GOV.UK Pay ... This is the first time we’ve processed a payment using a real card". That was GDS, in GOV.UK Pay is ready for business.

Would you describe a payments system that has processed one single solitary payment as "ready for business"?

Is that lonely only child of a payment enough evidence to support GDS's claim that "we're making it easier for citizens to make payments, and more efficient for civil servants to process these payments"?

GDS have four "beta partners" in the development of GOV.UK Pay – Companies House, the Environment Agency, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. HMRC isn't one of them.

According to GDS's UK government performance platform, HMRC received about 63 million payments in the year to September 2015. Quite why the statistics stop then is not clear.

What is clear is that we're talking about a lot of payments. HMRC have to think commercially and responsibly about how they collect these payments.

HMRC publish the methodology by which they calculate the cost of collecting each payment, 19p on average. GDS provide no methodology and no unit cost.

It would be worrying if HMRC entrusted their 63 million receipts p.a. to GOV.UK Pay on the basis of GDS's hot-headed claims about a single payment. But they haven't. Neither has anyone else.

GOV.UK Verify (RIP)
GDS's foray into the world of identity assurance is a disaster.

Meanwhile, HMRC added millions of users to their new personal tax accounts service this year, using the old Government Gateway.

And that's not their only on-line service by any means. HMRC processed 1.19 billion stamp duty reserve tax (SDRT) transactions, for example, in the year to September 2015 (digital take-up = 100%). Who is paying this SDRT? GOV.UK Verify (RIP) doesn't tell HMRC the answer because GOV.UK Verify (RIP) isn't involved.

Then there are the 412 million PAYE transactions (95.8%) and the 146 million customs transactions (100%) and the 63 million payments HMRC receive every year, please see above, etc ...

That's a lot of users and they all have to be identified. GOV.UK Verify (RIP) involvement? Nil.

HMRC v. GDS
It was an embarrassing mistake for Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, to promote GDS as the organisation to deliver government transformation. As GDS themselves put it, "this page is no longer being updated".

It was a mistake for Matt Hancock, the previous Cabinet Office minister, and it's a mistake for Ben Gummer, the current one, please see above. It was a mistake for Stephen Foreshew-Cain, GDS's last executive director, and it would be a mistake for Kevin Cunnington, its first director general ...

... but he hasn't made that mistake. Instead, with John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, he's taking GDS in another direction, GDS promised 'national presence' as it takes over DWP's Digital Academy and leaves Aviation House.

That may be more up GDS's street. They are obviously happy ruminating about process – please see Using Activity Theory to build effective personas, for example, or 100 rounds of user research on GOV.UK Verify [RIP].

There's no doubt two years after the previous review that HMRC remain the great achievers when it comes to delivering on-line government transaction systems.

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