Thursday 24 January 2013

GDS and the new world

The previous post on this blog was written overnight, 22/23 January 2013, and published at 9:30 yesterday. The closing paragraphs read as follows:
GDS's new world
Martha Lane Fox describes her digital-by-default project as a revolution. Those of us who were born yesterday will have no trouble believing that we are living in a new world. First we believed that UC would be fully operational in 37 days time. Then seamlessly we believed that the target is 400 days.

And in 400 days time?

What will GDS have us believe then?
Later that same day, 16:02, Computer Weekly published Kathleen Hall's article Interview: Cabinet Office chief operating officer Stephen Kelly.  The closing paragraph reads as follows:
“This world won’t automatically switch to the new world, which is why I want to elevate the CTO [chief technology officer] role – to strengthen our core direction of travel. The new world is where we are going and we are putting a lot of resource and focus behind that.”


If we live in a new world, then the old rules no longer apply. The Constitution has to be torn up and the Executive has carte blanche to write a new one. Indeed, the Executive has a duty to write a new Constitution. A new Constitution suitable for the new world. The post-revolutionary world.

It really is carte blanche. The historical constraints on the Executive – the old Constitution – have been removed. The new world starts with no memory. We may as well have been born yesterday.

If we the public once agree that this is a new world, then we grant unconstrained freedom to the Executive to make up the new rules. Which seems like a good reason not to agree. And a good reason to hold to the manifest truth that, actually, we still live in the same world we woke up in yesterday and the day before.

An engraving of Robespierre
guillotining the executioner
after having guillotined
everyone else in France
Martha Lane Fox is a historian. Most revolutions – if you remember – lead to Terrors. She must know that. It's surprising that she should call for a "revolution" in Whitehall and in the governance of the UK, isn't it?

Surprising or not, Terrors are not good for people. Any doctor will tell you. To avoid Terrors, avoid revolutions. And to avoid revolutions, beware of politicians and anyone else declaring new worlds.

"new worlds", incidentally, is deliberately plural. If the Executive don't like the way things are going in the first new world they have declared, they can always declare a second new world and start again. And a third and a fourth etc ... Another old Constitution unwritten. Another new Constitution promulgated. Everything is different again. Except for one thing – the unconstrained power of the Executive.

Do you notice a pattern here? The new-world argument is a tool to conjure the oldest trick in the book.


Most revolutions can clothe themselves in high-minded rhetoric.

Cromwell is the obvious winner in those stakes. Assisted by a monarch who claimed to rule by divine right, Cromwell was able to counter-claim that the revolution was his interpretation of the will of God, no less.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, never before has a revolution been launched for so inane a purpose as the desire to implement government by the web.

That said, even if the stated purpose is feeble, a revolution is still a revolution and power is transferred. In the case of the UK and Martha Lane Fox's rallying cry of "digital-by-default" – not a patch on the Marseillaise – power would be transferred to Google and Facebook and Amazon and PayPal.

Is there really a revolution in prospect? In which case this is a timely blog post.

Or is Martha Lane Fox simply using the word "revolution" loosely? In which case it will look over-blown.

There are some signs of real revolution. In Martha Lane Fox's world:
  1. There are repeated calls to ignore or repeal the laws on data-sharing wherever they stand in the way of the brave new digital-by-default world. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, describes these constraints as "muddled myths".
  2. There are repeated calls to locate all policy-making powers in the Government Digital Service (GDS).
  3. All government news is to be published by GDS only, and not by the separate departments of state.
  4. The identity of the separate departments of state is to be obliterated, on the web at least, so that the public will see just one face of government, GOV.UK.
  5. And then, of course, there's the casual lying:

  • GDS say repeatedly that they don't want to create a national identity register (a "national, central scheme") while at the same time scheming to create just that, via Individual Electoral Registration, in the consolidated national electoral roll to be stored with the credit referencing agencies.
  • They say that they understand the dangers of keeping personal data on the web and the importance of privacy while at the same time inveigling us all into using Personal Data Stores – on the web, in the cloud, with strangers – and inveigling us all into opening up our personal data so that we stupid people can have rational decisions made for us by apps.
  • On paper at least, GDS are still promising to deliver identity assurance to support Universal Credit "by March 2013", 35 days away, when they know that they can't.
  • And so routinely on.
It'll all peter out. Probably. This is England, after all. The mother of parliaments. In the end, even dear old Cromwell gave up trying to interpret the will of God, couldn't think of any alternative, and reinstated the monarchy.

But just in case the petering out looks like taking too long a time, remember – resist all appeals to the putative new world. There isn't one. And if you feel your spine weakening, take out the following text and re-read it – it's an edited version of Gordon Brown's October 2007 speech supposedly on liberty:
... a new chapter in our country's story of liberty ... new issues of terrorism and security ... new frontiers in both our lives and our liberties ... new challenges ... new rights for the public expression of dissent ... new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations ... new rights to access public information ... new rights against arbitrary intrusion ... new technology ... new rights to protect your private information ... new provision for independent judicial scrutiny and open parliamentary oversight ... Renewing for our time our commitment to freedom ... a new British constitutional settlement for our generation ... the new tests of our time ... we meet these tests not by abandoning principles of liberty but by giving them new life ... a new generation ... new challenges ... new measures ... the new rules ... the new rules ... New rules ... What is new about 21st century ideas of privacy ... new powers of access to information ... new opportunities to use biometrics ... the opportunities of new technology ... a new and imaginative approach to accountability ... new laptop computers ... new powers ... the new information age ... new threats to our security ... a new British Bill of Rights and Duties ... a new chapter in the British story of liberty ...

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