Sunday 17 March 2013

GDS falls at the first fence (Software Engineering 101)

Like any religion, digital-by-default needs manuals for its adherents to follow and the lead story in the Government Digital Service (GDS) broadcast on 15 March 2013 is the publication of one such manual, the Digital by Default Service Standard:

To embrace digital-by-default is to see government as the design of so many services and the question is what makes a service a good service, what is the definition here of "excellence"? This is the question to which ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken addresses himself in the clip above and the gospel answer is given in the service standard manual.

There are four stages apparently through which you must progress in the development of a digital-by-default service:
"The discovery phase is your chance to gain an understanding of what the users of the service need ...", it says in the manual ...

which reveals further that "This information is found through: workshops ... simple mock ups ... paper prototypes ... [and] plenty of whiteboard diagrams" ...

and that "A small team will be required, consisting of your stakeholders and any core team members that have been identified, including the service manager. The phase should not take longer than a week. At the end of the phase a decision should be made whether to proceed to the alpha phase".

Click on the "small team" link above and a message is displayed saying "This web page is not available". For the moment, we can't be sure just how small a team is required. No religion is complete without its mysteries.

Still, if you click on the other links, you can follow the steps yourself from the discovery phase all the way through to the fully operational live phase, when a service is released to the users that is so excellent that they will immediately want to use it in preference to any rival – "Build services so good that people prefer to use them", as they say at GDS, that's their motto.

As we know, for GDS, "the people and organisations with which we work must be imbued by the culture and ethos of the web generation ... we are not just on the web, but of the web. And our culture and governance must reflect that". That is the central article of the digital-by-default faith.

And who better to lead in its practice than GDS themselves? Who better to exemplify its efficacy?


Consider for example the identity and assurance programme (IDAP, or sometimes just plain IDA), a service which was promised to be "fully operational" for 21 million DWP claimants "by March 2013".

Ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken, chief executive of GDS, is the senior responsible officer owner for this pan-government digital-by-default service (a fact which he modestly fails to mention in his weekly broadcasts). We may safely assume that a small team spent a week discovering the users' requirements and then proceeded to the alpha phase.

Actually we don't have to assume that, we know it – Identity Alphas was published on the GDS blog on 12 March 2013. A bit late, perhaps, given that IDAP was meant to be fully operational already, but remember, digital-by-default is ... agile.

And the acid test, do "people prefer to use" GDS's IDAP?

No. They don't:
IDA services put on ice for Universal Credit delivery

No mention was made of the use of IDA in the DWP's Local Support Services Framework ... Instead, the paper referenced the issuing of PIN numbers to users for their online accounts ...
Oh God.


Back to the whiteboard.

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