Monday 4 February 2013

Douglas Carswell – where will power end up?

Douglas Carswell's latest book, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, diagnoses several problems with the way we are governed in the UK and prescribes a single remedy – the web.

Mr Carswell is talking about politics. Which means he's talking about power.

Politics will end at about the time the sun burns out.

Mr Carswell foresees not the end of politics but the transfer of power, from today's government, to the public, via the web.

There are already several powerful forces fighting for domination of the web. The public are not among them.

It is at least possible that power will be transferred to some cocktail of these rival forces and that we the public will simply find ourselves with different rulers, and not necessarily better off.

Mr Carswell does not explain how the transfer of power from today's government to the public could take place.

Everyone recognises that there is something exceptional about the web. Everyone, including Whitehall.

And unlike Mr Carswell, Whitehall do have a plan.

Martha 'digital by default' Lane Fox CBE, 14 October 2010:

Make Directgov [= the Transformation cluster/GOV.UK] the government front end for all departments' transactional online services to citizens and businesses, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens' experience of key transactions.

Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels ...

Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.

I strongly suggest that the core Directgov team concentrates on service quality and that it should be the "citizens' champion with sharp teeth" for transactional service delivery.

Directgov 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.

Directgov 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.

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

Ultimately, departments should stop publishing to their own websites, and instead produce only content commissioned by this central commissioning team.

Ultimately it makes sense to the user for all Government digital services to reside under a single brand ...

... leadership on the digital communications and services agenda in the centre is too fragmented. I recommend that all digital teams in the Cabinet Office - including Digital Delivery, Digital Engagement and Directgov - 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 ...
They want to make public services digital by default. That is, they want public services to be delivered over the web and, to the greatest extent possible, only over the web.

They have set up the Government Digital Service (GDS). The chairman of the GDS advisory board is Martha Lane Fox, the Prime Minister's digital champion. She wrote the terms of reference for GDS and, in theory:

  • GDS is to have control of all government spending on IT. Central government departments and their agencies are meant to yield that financial control to GDS.
  • All public services will be delivered through one website, (GOV.UK for short). This process has started. The Ministry of Defence, for example, no longer has its own website – the old has been replaced by ministry-of-defence, part of GOV.UK. By the end of 2013, there will be no departmental websites left, they will all have given up their distinctive identity and been subsumed by GOV.UK.
  • Central government departments will only be able to publish through GOV.UK. Among other things that means that GDS will be responsible for publishing all government news.
  • GDS is to have a veto over departmental policy. If GDS feel that a particular policy would impair the user experience of GOV.UK, then that policy will be sent back to the department, who will have to think again. (So far, "user experience" is undefined.)
  • GDS's Government Digital Strategy provides for a network of so-called "digital leaders", individuals installed in each of the departments to advise on and enforce GDS's will.
  • GDS's Digital Efficiency Report estimates savings of about £1.8 billion a year thanks to digital-by-default. These savings will be gained by making about 40,000 public servants redundant. There is no question of handing these savings back to the public – the money is to be retained by Whitehall.
  • In aid of the Individual Electoral Registration Bill (IER), the idea is to cross-reference the records of several departments of state to try to create a complete and accurate electoral roll. That cross-referencing (or "data-sharing") is currently illegal according to the IER impact assessment. But GDS is to have a veto over legal constraints just as much as policy of which it disapproves and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister and GDS's political boss, describes these constraints as nothing more than "muddled myths". Once these muddled myths are removed, GDS estimate that "savings" and redundancies among public servants will be much higher.
  • In order to provide public services over the web, the public must be identified – Whitehall need to know they are paying benefits, for example, to the right people. GDS are responsible for the pan-government Identity Assurance programme (IDAP), which will see us all furnished with electronic IDs. GDS have appointed eight contractors to be the UK's so-called "identity providers". If you want to claim the department for Work and Pensions's Universal Credit, by default you will need one or more electronic IDs from these identity providers. Without that, you run the risk of being excluded by default. The same applies to any individual – or company – who needs to transact with government for any purpose.
  • Supposedly in order to make the economy grow, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), with the assistance of the Behavioural Insights Team, are promoting an initiative called "midata". The idea is that we should all use a personal data store (PDS) which records our identity and our transaction data (purchases, health records, employment records, educational attainment, travel history, ...). The PDS would be maintained on the web, in the cloud, with a so-called "trusted third party". Only one "trusted" third party is ever named, and that is Mydex, one of GDS's eight identity providers.
  • Individuals and companies have had a fairly secure way to do business with the government for the past ten years or so – the UK Government Gateway. GDS propose to dispense with the Gateway and replace it with some sort of hub system, linking the public, the identity providers and the public service providers and using protocols designed by or approved by an organisation no-one in the UK has ever heard of, the Open Identity Exchange (OIX). The Gateway is hard to use. The idea is that the OIX hub should be as easy to use as Facebook, say, or Google or Amazon or Twitter or PayPal or ... It seems likely that the difficulty of using the Gateway is precisely what lends it its relative security. And that Facebook, Google, etc ... are easy to use precisely because their security is weak.
  • GDS propose to host GOV.UK "in the cloud". That is, the website will be stored on a third party's servers at a third party's data centre and operated by a third party's staff. Cloud computing is a recipe for losing control of your data. (In this case, our data.)
  • ...

  • Mr Carswell has no plan for how power could be transferred from the government to the public via the web. Whitehall does have a plan. But it's a plan that will ensure that control remains with the Executive at the centre. Same tool, but the opposite result from Mr Carswell's preferred reintroduction of localism and the city-state.

    GDS ignore the risk of identity theft posed by storing our personal data on the web. They ignore the human need for privacy. They have no experience of public administration. All they have is a reverence for the web.

    The web is a powerful and virtuous tool in the right hands. In the wrong hands, it remains powerful.

    It is a mistake to revere the web. If you need any further confirmation, read Al Gore: US democracy has been hacked in the Guardian yesterday. Al Gore? The prosecution rests its case.

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