Monday 12 November 2012

Whitehall governance, 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 the governance of Whitehall for example.

In 1952 Professor GW Keeton published his book The Passing of Parliament. Keeton was Dean of the Faculty of Laws at University College, London, and according to him:
The relentless growth in size and functions of the Department of State and the relatively high level in calibre of those who staff them, coupled with the steady decline in importance of and function of MPs, has led to a gradual transfer of power and influence from the floor of the House of Commons to the private rooms of permanent civil servants.
60 years later, there are still Whitehall outsiders who believe that politicians make policy. Mainly political journalists, deeply conservative people with a love of tradition and an antique belief in the supremacy of parliament. No-one else believes it.

A few outsiders, unpleasant cynics, the awkward squad, are convinced that policy is made by the European Commission or big business or the trades unions or the US military or the Church of England. But the nice outsiders, the majority, have caught up with Keeton and Yes Minister and for them, policy is made by Sir/Dame Humphreys with a First in Greats.

Apparently the nice outsiders are wrong. Apparently the tail is wagging the dog and policy is made by GDS website designers, who also control the purse-strings and to whom the rest of Whitehall defers.

Back in October 2010 Martha Lane Fox wrote:
[GDS] should own the citizen experience of digital public services and be tasked with driving a 'service culture' across government which could, for example, challenge any policy and practice that undermines good service design ...

It seems to me that the time is now to use the Internet to shift the lead in the design of services from the policy and legal teams to the end users ...

[GDS] SWAT teams ... should be given a remit to support and challenge departments and agencies ... We must give these SWAT teams the necessary support to challenge any policy and legal barriers which stop services being designed around user needs ...

I recommend that all digital teams in the Cabinet Office - including Digital Delivery, Digital Engagement and [GDS] - are brought together under a new CEO for Digital.

This person should have the controls and powers to gain absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services ... and the power to direct all government online spend.

The CEO for Digital should also have the controls and powers to direct set and enforce standards across government departments ...
Last week's Government Digital Strategy says:
Cabinet Office will help departments to recruit suitably skilled individuals. Newly appointed Service Managers will be supported by Cabinet Office through a specialist training programme run by the Government Digital Service. This will include the hands-on process of designing and prototyping a digital service ...

Government digital services are inconsistent and often do not meet the standards that users expect. To ensure that users receive a consistently high-quality digital experience from government, Cabinet Office will develop a service standard for all digital services. No new or redesigned service will go live unless they meet this standard ...

Cabinet Office will lead in the definition and delivery of a range of common cross-government technology platforms, in consultation with departments to ensure they meet business needs. These will underpin the new generation of digital services. Departments will be expected to use these for new and redesigned services, unless a specific case for exemption is agreed ...

The guidance and tools supporting the [digital by default] standard will help service owners to design trusted, cost-effective government services that are embraced by users and meet their needs first time. Government Digital Service will ensure there is a common understanding across government of what outcomes are required to meet the standard. This understanding must be shared by everyone involved in the development and life of a new or redesigned digital service ...

A new Digital Leaders Network was established in early 2012 to drive forward the digital agenda across government. The network is run by the Government Digital Service ...
Who, in GDS, as a matter of interest, is responsible for the nation's education policy? Or transport policy? What rank do GDS-trained "Digital Leaders" enjoy at the MoD?

Will we soon see GDS SWAT teams patrolling the Ministry of Justice and terrorising its denizens into standardisation? Will HM Treasury ring ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken and ask permission every time they want to spend a bob or two? Will the Department of Health really trust GDS to recruit staff for them? (No.) Will HMRC really hold up a web enhancement to their tax-farming implements because GDS tell them to?

The Home Office have a ruinously expensive contract with CSC to develop and maintain the nation's passport application website. What is GDS's locus there? How can they intervene? They don't have the contract – CSC do.

Suppose that GDS actually had all the power suggested by Martha Lane Fox and the Government Digital Strategy. Are they ready to accept the responsibility that comes with it? There are three references to accountability in the strategy document. But what do they amount to? Will anyone be fined? Or demoted? Or fired? Or is "accountability" just a word?

Whitehall departments were meant to co-operate with the Home Office on the ID cards scheme. They said they would co-operate. But according to BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme on the subject, July/August 2007, when it came to it, either the departments sent someone too junior to the meetings or they sent no-one at all.

"Silo government" they call it in the BBC programme, and something similar put paid to the Cabinet Office's 2005 Transformational Government plan. Co-operation evaporated. GDS's digital-by-default agenda is Transformational Government MK 2 and the same outcome must be expected – co-operation will evaporate.

To us outsiders, Whitehall looks like a set of independent, powerful satrapies with no emperor in control in the centre. The engaging Sir Richard Mottram effectively said as much in his review of the handover from Sir-Gus-now-Lord O'Donnell to the new dispensation.

The repeated attempt to take control of the satraps has always failed, Sir Richard suggests. What reason is there to believe that the time has come now for the empire of the website designer?

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.

1 comment:

Abel Pillins said...

What makes people mad is the lack of freedom of information. They don't show where the budget is going and we all know that we have the right to know that. Thanks for by the way.

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