Thursday 14 March 2013

GDS's misplaced faith and the governance of Whitehall

Today we announced some small but important changes in governance. The detail is here but the upshot is: we won’t have a cross-government Chief Information Officer (CIO) any more, nor a Head of Profession for Information and Communications Technology (ICT). We are moving responsibility for these capabilities to the Government Digital Service and we are closing some cross-government boards in various technology areas and reviewing the rest in order to make sure we are set up as efficiently as possible.
Thus ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken writing today in a post on the Government Digital Service (GDS) blog, Of the web, not on the web. He's the executive director of GDS and the senior responsible officer owner for the pan-government identity assurance programme (IDAP, failed).

Take a look at the quotation above:
  • We won't have either a cross-government CIO or a head of the ICT profession any more, he says. False, because he goes on to say that responsibility for these capabilities is moving to GDS. So we will have a cross-government CIO and a head of the ICT profession and they will both be GDS.
  • Some cross-government technology boards are already being closed down, he says, and the future of others is being reviewed. GDS looks like having more and more of the field to itself, the competition is being wiped out.
  • These changes in governance are described by the ex-Guardian man as small. Clearly false. Healthy plurality is dwindling. More and more power is being centralised in GDS. That is a big change.
It's unfortunate timing, given that the death of IDAP was announced on the same day, RIP – "the challenge now is not about information technology, but about designing, developing and delivering great, user-centred digital services", a challenge which GDS could not rise to.

Alarm bells may ring. Is GDS the right place to centralise power?

They may ring even harder when you read this:
... the people and organisations with which we work must be imbued by the culture and ethos of the web generation.

... we have to put digital leaders and Chief Operating Officers (COOs) in the driving seat across government.

... we are not just on the web, but of the web. And our culture and governance must reflect that.
This quasi-religious worship of the web is a recurring theme. Think back to 17 October 2012 when the ex-Guardian man published Why GOV.UK matters: A platform for a digital Government including his meaningless bon mot:
GOV.UK is not Government on the Internet, but of the Internet.
GOV.UK is neither government on the internet nor government of the internet. GOV.UK is a website. And nothing more.

This GDS religion/culture/ethos with its digital leader apostles and its veneration of Lady Lane Fox has already failed. Despite the blessing given by Tim O'Reilly, it has failed to provide the identity assurance service that was needed to support digital by default.

Since that was its only job we had better look elsewhere for salvation.

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