Friday, 30 December 2016

@gdsteam & HMG's digital transformation strategy


Sir Jeremy Heywood is the Cabinet Secretary and the Head of the UK's Home Civil Service ... He published his review of calendar 2015 in a series of 54 tweets between 23 December 2015 and 3 January 2016 ...
That's what we wrote on 24 January 2016.

No such review of 2016 is being tweeted at the moment by Sir Jeremy.

Perhaps nothing much has happened this year.

We noted on 8 February 2016 that Sir Jeremy has linked his fate to the fate of the Government Digital Service (GDS): "Sir Jeremy can't keep away from the importance of the digital transformation of government by GDS".

GDS were given a budget of £450 million in the Spending review and autumn statement 2015. That was 13 months ago on 27 November 2015. GDS have never explained what they're going to do with the money. In that sense perhaps nothing much has indeed happened this year.

The department that Sir Jeremy depends on to transform government digitally has operated for more than a year with no published strategy. And the published strategy before that had no academic support.

GDS keep promising to publish their new £450 million strategy. As late as 14 December 2016 ex-Goldman Sachs man Kevin Cunnington, GDS's director general, was telling Civil Service World magazine that the strategy would be published before Christmas: "A new strategy is due out before Christmas which will set out our priorities for digital and a really ambitious transformation agenda for government".

Two days later, 16 December 2016, Computer Weekly magazine were telling us Government delays release of digital transformation strategy until new year. That's not how a smoothly-run publicity machine operates.

The director general says the document will be published before Christmas. Two days later, egg on face, he turns out to be wrong. It's unsettling to see such an about turn.

A GDS strategy document does exist. Derek du Preez, our favourite banshee, told us so on 12 December 2016 in Leaked Government Transformation Strategy leaves lots to the imagination. Why not publish it?

There has to be a good reason to endure the embarrassment of saying you're going to publish a document that's already been divulged to journalists and then not doing so. What is that good reason?

Not just one. There are several good reasons you might suggest.

Before considering those good reasons, note that the delay in publication of the GDS strategy could be a good sign. It could indicate that responsible mandarins are finally looking at GDS's actual skills and not the supposed skills puffed in GDS's PR – reality could be getting a look-in:
  1. Transforming government requires original thought. It requires innovative imagination. There has been no sign of that at GDS in the five years of their existence. GDS always say that it's no good just changing the front end of government services, public administration needs to be thoroughly re-engineered. Then they change the front end and leave it at that. That is the opinion of GDS's first deputy director, Tom Loosemore, now at the Co-op:


  2. Edgy? Revolutionary? Restlessly and tirelessly in search of solutions? No. Slaves to fashion, bound by convention, GDS has already retreated into the comfort of process. They keep doing the same thing. Even when it doesn't work.

  3. Transforming government requires considered experience of public administration and GDS don't have it. As Stephen Foreshew-Cain said when he was briefly executive director of GDS, it's the other departments and their suppliers who "understand their users and services better than we ever will ... They know the policy, the intent of that policy, and the legislation that sits behind it ... They know their users better than anyone. They are by far the best people to meet those user needs".


  4. Transforming government requires some ability to work professionally with the departments of state, their agencies and local government. GDS got off to a bad start with the Electoral Commission, who blamed them for causing delays to the 2012 confirmation pilot for individual electoral registration. Relations broke down with DEFRA's Rural Payments Agency, please see Government Digital Service “hindered delivery” of rural payments programme, Public Accounts Committee says. GDS have been witheringly dismissive of local government for years. That has changed now that GDS find themselves in need of local government. Mike Bracken, GDS's first executive director, told the Americans three years ago that his job was not to collaborate with Whitehall but to route round it. As late as 5 July 2016, he was still saying of Whitehall that it is set up for nothing more than "an intellectual pissing match". Stephen Foreshew-Cain, Mr Bracken's successor at GDS, said that he recognised the need for collaboration but promptly accused other government departments of "decades of inaction and inertia". There are bridges to mend.

  5. Transforming government is held by GDS to involve getting rid of the established "oligopoly" of suppliers (Capgemini, HP, BT, IBM, Fujitsu, Atos, CSC, Capita, ...) and replacing them with small and medium-sized enterprises (20.11.14) on short contracts (not that the SMEs always agree). GDS lack the data processing skills to design, build and maintain large complex computerised systems. Or even small simple ones. After five years, there is barely a dent in the armour of Capgemini, HP and the rest.

  6. Transforming government is held by GDS to involve getting rid of the established "silos" of data maintained by the separate departments of state and replacing them with "canonical registers" shared all across Whitehall to support government as a platform. In their Walter Mitty imagination, GDS would have "domain control for the register.gov.uk domain", i.e they would have control over a new single source of truth super-silo-of-all-the-silos, please see Smash the silos. The departments of state might in the circumstances be imprudent to abrogate their constitutional duty in this way.


  7. "Digital transformation" is held by GDS to mean putting public services on the internet: "digital means applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations". The caravan has moved on since the internet's hippy innocence of 1995. In addition to the beneficial culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era, people now consider also fraud enabled by the internet, and espionage and surveillance and paedophilia and terrorism and pornography and the monetisation of personal information. But GDS are still in 1995, they promise unqualified security that they can't deliver and they promise privacy/confidentiality that ditto.


  8. The digital transformation of government requires universal identity assurance services to support transactions between people and public services. There was no progress in 2016, nothing happened, GDS's GOV.UK Verify (RIP) is still not up to it. No identity assurance, no digital government transformation.
There are more but that's enough good reasons to delay the publication of GDS's strategy for many a Christmas yet. It behoves us all to support Sir Jeremy and Whitehall's other mandarins if they have finally spotted that it is a delusion to suppose that GDS is the obvious centre for government transformation.


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Updated 2.1.17

Data at GDS (the Government Digital Service) is "a blog about the tools and techniques used by GDS for data analysis" and back in November GDS told us about how they use artificial intelligence to automate the assessment of user feedback, please see Understanding more from user feedback.

GDS use topic modelling: "In machine learning and natural language processing, a topic model is a type of statistical model for discovering the abstract 'topics' that occur in a collection of documents". A human being reading a piece of user feedback knows what it's about, it's obvious what the topic is. A computer program has to "abstract" it. How?

Answer according to GDS, by using techniques like "Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) ... and Non-negative Matrix Factorization (NMF)". Using Kullback-Leibler divergence with LDA allows GDS to "find the statistically optimum number of topics" so that, if the words "find" and "contact" for example occur in a piece of user feedback, then "we can see that users are trying to complete the task of finding a way to contact a service".

"This approach can also be used", GDS conclude, "to tackle a range of text analysis challenges ... such as quickly understanding policy consultation responses".

That's quite a leap. One minute GDS are telling us how hard it is to work out algorithmically what a piece of text is about. Next minute we're supposed to believe that natural language processing could assess the merits of a tax expert's response to a consultation conducted by Her Majesty's Treasury.

How close are GDS getting to artificial intelligence that can grasp the semantics of documents written in natural language?

Just before Christmas GDS published Using machine learning to classify user comments on GOV.UK. They're looking at three features of user comments: "the ratio of upper case characters to total characters, the total number of characters entered in the text box, and the ratio of exclamation marks to the total number of characters".

So, not close. You may have been hoping for something sophisticated. Something transformative. In the event, in the name of data science, they're counting exclamation marks.


Updated 7.2.17

Privacy groups urge dropping entire Digital Economy Bill data clause – thus Neil Merrett yesterday, "read him early, read him often", as we always say.

His latest article isn't just about the ghastly Digital Economy Bill. It also covers GDS's dance-of-the-seven-veils national digital transformation IT strategy:
The Cabinet Office has said that the publication of the new GDS strategy was expected to be unveiled by Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer this week.
All the top performers have left the GDS stage now. Ditto the senior members of the chorus.

There's almost no-one left at GDS to support Mr Gummer as he comes out from behind the curtain and, blinded by the footlights, makes his way to the front of the stage to entertain a packed house wearing nothing more than version 107f, or whatever, of the aforementioned national digital transformation IT strategy. There's ex-Goldman Sachs man Kevin Cunnington, Director General of GDS. And after that, no-one. They've all left.

Support could be provided by drafting in some of the GDS talent of yesteryear.

Maybe it would help to have some razzmatazz from the US or Australia.

GDS could call on the bottomless pool of talent at the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy.

John Manzoni or Sir Jeremy Heywood could assist at the unveiling of the long-awaited strategy.

It's going to be lonely. Good luck, Mr Gummer.


Updated 20.2.17

Neil Merrett promised us the publication at last of the long-awaited government transformation strategy please see above and, lo, it finally came to pass a year late on 9 February 2017.

Next day, Computer Weekly magazine served up Government digital strategy ticks the boxes - but real transformation needs more radical ambition. That cool reaction was followed on St Valentine's Day by GDS, HMRC and Verify: so much for cross-government digital collaboration and on 15 February 2017 we got HMRC ID vs Gov.uk Verify [RIP] – what’s the difference, and why it matters.

"Building on the work we have already done", GDS say on pp.11-12, "our priorities for government up to 2020 are ... making better use of GOV.UK Verify [RIP] by working towards 25 million users by
2020 ...".

A fortnight before the publication of GDS's strategy, HMRC had already announced that they were proposing not to use GOV.UK Verify (RIP). Both DWP and the NHS have in the past expressed reservations about using GOV.UK Verify (RIP). Scotland has its own identity assurance scheme, the private sector has several and has no need of the under-performing GOV.UK Verify (RIP) and neither does local government.

The question arises therefore how on earth GDS could possibly achieve 25 million GOV.UK Verify (RIP) users in three years time.

They can't ...

... unless they cheat ...

... in connection with which, cast your mind back all the way to 1 February 2017 and the GDS blog post Growing Verify: services that need less proof of identity. The proposal there is to go back to "basic accounts", GOV.UK Verify (RIP) unverified accounts, self-certification, level of assurance 1 accounts.

Perhaps GDS could get 25 million people to self-certify. The basic accounts created would be of no use whatsoever to relying parties like DWP, the NHS, et al. But GDS would have achieved their strategic target – 25 million sort-of-users.


Updated St Patrick's Day 2017

Neither of them is employed by GDS any more but according to Tom Loosemore and Stephen Foreshew-Cain "digital means applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations". GDS haven't advanced any other definition of the word "digital" and we may assume that they are still happy with it.

We have pointed out certain problems with that definition based on the culture of the internet era. The culture includes large dollops of pornography and fraud and it involves the mass destruction of any notion of privacy. GDS surely don't approve of that but they haven't yet distanced themselves from those aspects of the internet era by providing a new definition of "digital".

They probably should do. Today we learn that Gov.UK pulls plug on its YouTube ads amid extremism concerns. Inadvertently, Her Majesty's Government have been paying for advertisements to appear on extremist websites, thereby funding extremism. This discovery is all thanks to an investigation mounted by The Times newspaper, please see for example Taxpayers are funding extremism.

It's time for GDS to provide a serviceable definition of "digital".


Updated 27.3.17

We noted a month ago that the chances of the Government Digital Service (GDS) increasing the number of people registered for GOV.UK Verify (RIP) accounts to 25 million by the year 2020 are nil. If they're lucky.

2074 maybe. Or even 2425. But not 2020.

GDS could cheat. They could count unverified accounts as though they were verified. But that would be cheating. It wouldn't convince anyone. Certainly not the ladies and gentlemen of the UK financial sector who, GDS hope, are looking for a way to use GOV.UK Verify (RIP).

That hope may be in vain but it's all GDS have left. As noted in an interview they gave to Government Computing. Talking about the inability of GOV.UK Verify (RIP) to match the Government Gateway, ex-Goldman Sachs man Kevin Cunnington, director general of GDS, says: "It would be nice if they become a citizen brand called Verify".

"It would be nice". Hope. Wishful thinking. Sad but that's all there is ...

... or not quite all. There's also a plan. A plan for how to achieve 25 million accountholders. What kind of a plan? A concrete one. A very concrete one – Cunnington: “Very concrete” plans mapped for 25m user Verify expansion. There's a "plan" and a "target" and an "ambition" and an "aim". The plan/target/ambition/aim "exists", we are told, and it's "very specific" but it's "not publicly available". So much for the GDS watchword make things open, it makes them better.

Mr Cunnington is openly planning/aiming to include basic, unverified GOV.UK Verify (RIP) accounts "because not all services require you to so formally identify yourself". The 25 million accounts will include millions of self-certifications. You don't need an identity assurance scheme to do that and you don't need to pay "identity providers" to do it for you. It's smoke and mirrors.

"The tax domain was one area Cunnington suggested where this lower level of ID assurance may be relevant to increase the number of Verify users". Really? Does Mr Cunnington really think that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will be happy to pay tax refunds to someone whose identity hasn't been verified? We looked at this last November. It's self-deception.

Wishful thinking. Unverified verifications. Smoke. Mirrors. Self-deception. This isn't a strategy. Goldman Sachs wouldn't put up with it. Neither should Whitehall. Nor should we.


Updated 4.4.17

Last week the National Audit Office (NAO) published a new report, Digital transformation in government. They say: "This report examines the role of Government Digital Service [GDS] in supporting transformation and the use of technology across government":
  1. It is not yet clear what role GDS will play in relation to the [Transformation Peer Group] ... (13)
  2. GDS has also struggled to demonstrate the value of its own flagship initiatives such as Verify, or to set out clear priorities between departmental and cross-government objectives (20)
  3. ... there continues to be a risk that GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities (21)
  4. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role (21)
  5. ... we recommend that ... GDS, departments and other parts of the centre of government should clarify responsibilities for transformation ... (22a)
  6. ... we recommend that ... Roles, responsibilities and plans for delivering the new transformation strategy are more clearly defined (22a)
  7. GDS should undertake a further phase of planning with clear costs, timescales and monitoring arrangements (22a)
  8. ... we recommend that ... GDS improves the clarity, relevance and consistency of guidance and technical standards (22c)
  9. It should make clear the relative status of guidance documents ... (22c)
  10. It should track performance against clear technical and programme measures ... (22d)
  11. It is not yet clear how GDS will measure the [Government Transformation Strategy]’s progress ... (1.13)
  12. ... we examine Government Digital Service’s (GDS’s) role in setting strategy and consider its recent experience of ... developing a clear strategy for government (2.1)
  13. GDS’s experience over the last five years highlights challenges relating to the clarity, completeness and interpretation of the [2012 Government Digital Strategy] (2.3)
  14. It is not yet clear how GDS will prioritise its activities over the next few years, or how it will develop a plan to support its new approach (2.5)
  15. GDS’s role in supporting transformation is not set out clearly in the new Government Transformation Strategy (2.7)
  16. We found that responsibilities between GDS, the [Infrastructure and Projects Authority] and departments are not clearly defined (2.7)
  17. It is not clear who is responsible for driving business transformation in government ... (2.7)
  18. It is also unclear how they will do this (2.7)
  19. In an internal review in 2015, GDS found that there was a lack of clarity about the purpose of the Performance Platform (2.10)
  20. The minutes for four months from September 2016 noted that the Digital Group (which covers Verify and other common services) had to ask [GDS's Advisory Board] to clarify current priorities ... (2.17)
  21. In the new Government Transformation Strategy, GDS has restated the importance of using data to support transformation in government ... It is not yet clear how GDS plans to take forward its work in this area (3.15)
  22. Overview of GDS’s activities to support data transformation ... No overall data strategy to provide clarity of overall purpose (Figure 9)
  23. Lack of clear framework for [Technology Code of Practice] (4.9)
  24. GDS has had to clarify its guidance in response to confusion about requirements for adopting different contracting models (4.12)
  25. It is not clear how new platforms are meeting the greatest need ... (4.16)
  26. Lack of clarity of purpose and a poor understanding of wider government requirements can lead to unanticipated problems ... (4.18)
  27. It is not clear how or when GDS will determine whether continuing with Verify will achieve projected benefits (4.26)
  28. ... the business case is highly reliant on assumptions about savings in departments, and it is not clear whether these are reasonable (4.27)
  29. GDS’s estimate of savings is heavily dependent on avoided costs in departments ... it is not clear that these are good benchmarks (4.31)
  30. It is not yet clear whether Verify will be able to overcome the limitations that have prevented its widespread adoption across government ... (4.33)
  31. GDS has also struggled to demonstrate the value of its own flagship initiatives such as Verify, or to set out clear priorities between departmental and cross-government objectives (Figure 15)
  32. ... there continues to be a risk that GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities (Figure 15)
  33. ... GDS needs to be clear about its role ... (Figure 15)
After a while, you get the point. The NAO were looking for clarity. And didn't find it.

Hardly surprising. GDS have little or no experience of public administration.

If the NAO wanted to learn about digital transformation in government, they'd do better to study HMRC, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

The NAO report will give both local government and the private sector occasion to re-consider the prudence of their involvement, if any, with GDS's identity assurance platform, GOV.UK Verify (RIP). And central government, too: "... this means that departments face weak incentives to adopt Verify" (4.30).

The NAO add nothing to anyone's confidence in GDS's payments and notifications platforms, GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Notify. Confidence in GDS's performance platform is further undermined.

Relations between the data.gov.uk team, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and GDS will be strained by the NAO report. What do GDS have to teach data.gov.uk and the ONS about data analysis (3.13-15)?

The NAO are silent on GDS's contributions to the discipline of machine learning ...

... but voluble on the failures of GDS's exemplars programme (3.5).

Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, has previously reposed his trust in GDS to improve the public's trust in Whitehall. The NAO report suggests that he may be disappointed.

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