Saturday 4 May 2013

Four professors review the Government Digital Strategy

Alan W. Brown is the Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Surrey Business School, University of Surrey.

John A. McDermid is the Professor of Software Engineering at the Dept. of Computer Science, University of York.

Ian Sommerville is the Professor of Software Engineering at the Dept. of Computer Science, University of St Andrews.

Rob Witty is the Professor of Information System Engineering at the Dept. of Informatics and System Engineering, Cranfield University.

They have written a paper, A Perspective on the Government Digital Strategy (GDS): Balancing agility and efficiency in UK Government IT delivery. The paper is dated 7 January 2013, it is marked "draft" and it is a review of the Government Digital Strategy published on 6 November 2012 by the Government Digital Service.

Speaking about the Government Digital Strategy (GDS), the professors say:
Success is defined as bringing more people to use online services rather than other channels, with the goal of bringing online access to UK Government services in line with online access to commercial services for banking, shopping, and utilities. It should be noted, however, that many government services are more complex, and may require different forms of user authentication, so it is not clear how realistic this ideal is. (p.3)
The GDS document itself is rather brief ... a brief document could be adequate if supported by appropriate references. However, brevity cannot be an excuse for lack of detail, explanation, and precision ... (p.4)
It is impossible with the detail provided to form any reasonable view of how this key activity [service transformation] will be performed. Similarly in Annex 3 the proposed transactional service standard is outlined. Again, in the few pages provided there is far too little to make any assessment ... (p.5)
... no standards are approved, none are listed in the pipeline for approval, and the “progress report” shows no activity for over a year. These failings are deeply disheartening ... If openness and longevity is an aim, then there is an urgent need for standards to be developed and agreed. (p.5)
We were recently in discussion with the head of IT services for a large UK county council and we asked him about his reading of the GDS. His comments were clear: as it stands he had no practical understanding of how to use this strategy to have positive impact on his team’s work; We suspect he is not alone in this view. (p.5)
... there are many discussions on the need for better architectural insight to resolve challenges in understanding core service properties, there are frameworks for investigating the unpredictability of ultra-large-scale systems behaviour, and there are studies highlighting the challenges that arise at the sociotechnical boundary of where systems thinking meets system usability. The GDS shows no evidence that it is aware or has taken account of the impact of such thinking ... (pp.5-6)
[on the subject of two alternatives to the current practice of using ponderous and expensive IT contractors] ... we would strongly argue that neither case offers a direct, clear model that applies to this UK Government context: A technologically-diverse, long-lived set of transactional services to be executed in a complex cultural, political, and regulatory environment. How the lessons of these alternative models can be brought to bear on the current UK Government’s IT systems is a core question that the GDS must address, but right now it has little meaningful to say. The GDS must avoid falling into the trap of an overly-simplistic response that one approach is poor and the other is better. (p.6)
Previous government approaches have been an overly-cautious disregard for open source solutions on the grounds that they cannot be effectively managed. However inadequate that answer, the solution cannot be the equally sweeping statement that “open source is free” and therefore proprietary solutions are an unnecessary expense to be avoided. Open source solutions are neither free to administer and support, nor are they the most cost-effective answer in all situations. (p.7)
The fact that software developers quickly create new capabilities is only helpful if there are ways to organize, manage, deliver, and support such an approach. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case. Hence, adopting agile development methods must also be accompanied by changes in the broader delivery practices. For most projects this is a much more complex area to address. Further, there are risks that rapidly changing services will deter the takeup of digital services, not encourage it ... (p.7)
... a large project delivered by a network of SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] will still require significant effort to coordinate and manage tasks and deliverables ... Certainly many of the inefficiencies in larger organizations cannot be justified nor condoned. However, some of that effort is required to organize and manage the team or teams ... without this the UK Government will end up with a set of disconnected elements ... The GDS is remarkably (perhaps alarmingly) silent on the issue of how to coordinate SMEs in project delivery ... (p.8)
... the GDS does not provide you with the reassurance that it is prepared to invest in the massive cultural change this strategy will require. If we look at the guidance of change management experts, there are clear steps, practices, and milestones that need to be established before any cultural change can be attempted. We see little discussion of a concrete and practical change management process to support the “digital by default” strategy in the current GDS. We view this as a potentially fatal omission. Put another way, trying to drive cultural change via technology (IT) is highly risky and almost never succeeds. (p.8)
However well-intentioned the current GDS, the comments here make the point that the principles on which the current GDS is based centre on too narrow a view of how to attain those benefits, and lack focus on the major adjustment in culture, processes, and technologies that must underpin such a move.

It is appealing to hope that a radical change in digital service delivery can be accomplished simply through adoption of open source technologies, introduction of agile development practices, and contractual support for encouraging more SMEs with their high-levels of energy and diversity. However, this view is much too simplistic and highly risky. (p.10)
[Talking about the digital-by-default strategies produced by 18 government departments] ... Primarily the UK Government department responses make a number of straightforward statements in support of the need for further digitization, particularly about the importance of online access, greater input from citizens, creating a more open process, etc. However, at this stage there is very little detail about how such goals will be achieved, or the broader cultural impact those changes represent.

The breadth of ... the responses demonstrates the diversity of UK Government department priority, intent, and skills in this area, and illustrate[s] a lack of consistency in interpretation of how to enact the GDS.

The variety of responses also highlights the challenges that will be experienced in trying to evaluate each department’s commitment, approach, resources, timeline, etc. It is not clearly stated in the GDS who is managing the execution process across the 18 UK Government departments to coordinate and assess progress. (p.11)
(With thanks to Philip Virgo for bringing the paper to everyone's attention.)

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