Thursday 21 March 2013

Potemkin power in Whitehall

Then ...

Potemkin village
The phrase Potemkin villages ... was originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is. It is unclear whether the origin of the phrase is factual, an exaggeration, or a myth.

According to the story, Russian minister Grigory Potemkin who led the Crimean military campaign erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787.

Historical debate
Modern historians are divided on the degree of truth behind the Potemkin village story.

While tales of the fake villages are generally considered exaggerations, some historians dismiss them as malicious rumors spread by Potemkin's opponents. These historians argue that Potemkin did mount efforts to develop the Crimea and probably directed peasants to spruce up the riverfront in advance of the Empress' arrival.

According to Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Potemkin's most comprehensive English-language biographer, the tale of elaborate, fake settlements with glowing fires designed to comfort the monarch and her entourage as they surveyed the barren territory at night, is largely fictional.

Aleksandr Panchenko, an established specialist on 19th century Russia, used original correspondence and memoirs to conclude that the Potemkin villages are a myth. He writes: "Based on the above said we must conclude that the myth of "Potemkin villages" is exactly a myth, and not an established fact."

Panchenko writes that "Potyomkin indeed decorated cities and villages, but made no secret that this was a decoration."

Also, the close relationship between Potemkin and the Empress would make it difficult for him to deceive her. Thus, the deception would have been mainly directed towards the foreign ambassadors accompanying the imperial party.

Regardless, Potemkin had in fact supervised the building of fortresses, ships of the line, and thriving settlements, and the tour – which saw real and significant accomplishments – solidified his power.

So, even though "Potemkin village" has come to mean, especially in a political context, any hollow or false construct, physical or figurative, meant to hide an undesirable or potentially damaging situation, it's possible that the phrase cannot be applied accurately to its own original historical inspiration.

According to a legend, in 1787, when Catherine passed through Tula on her way back from the trip, the local governor Mikhail Krechetnikov indeed attempted a deception of that kind in order to hide the effects of a bad harvest.
... and now

Potemkin website
The phrase Potemkin website was originally used to describe folders in GOV.UK, the single government domain which was meant to replace all the separate departmental and other central government websites. It is unclear how re-writing a lot of websites that already existed was deemed to be a sensible use of money and unknown how the departments of state put up with this interference.

According to the story, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service, created these folders all over GOV.UK acting under the instructions of Lady (Martha) Lane Fox of Soho.

Future debate
Future historians will be divided on the exact nature of these Potemkin websites of GDS's.

While GDS claimed to have replaced the Department for Transport website, for example, it was clearly still there all the time behind the façade. Ditto the HMRC website, still there for all to see. These little deceptions cannot have escaped Lady Lane Fox but she described it nevertheless as a "privilege" to watch GDS crafting GOV.UK.

For over a year Bracken claimed that he would make an elaborate system of identity assurance available to all 21 million DWP claimants. It was due to be unveiled in March 2013 but in the event, a dark night for all concerned, the service turned out unfortunately to be entirely fictional.

Scrutiny of contemporary source documents reveals the claim that GDS would replace the Government Gateway with a new means for people to transact with the government. Future historians may conclude that this service, too, proved to be "exactly a myth, and not an established fact".

It is in the nature of the web, of course, in its very openness to inspection, that these lacunae could not be concealed.

And yet the promises were repeated, budgets were agreed, frameworks were discussed and conferences were addressed. The people who remained in the dark would have been mainly the public and visiting dignitaries from Estonia.

Despite which, GDS's Potemkin power over the other departments of state continued to grow and it took on more and more responsibilities, its qualifications for which were rarely questioned.

At a time when virtual gurus plaited virtual trading with virtual businesses into a virtual reality, perhaps digital-by-default was no more a "hollow or false construct" than many another Whitehall initiative. Let that be a historical warning about the difference between modish wishful thinking and evidence-based policy.

It is said that Francis Maude looked to GDS to change the way the census was conducted. And that Nick Clegg relied on GDS to bring individual electoral registration to pass. Healthy fruit both of them, but neither was harvested.

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