Tuesday 28 May 2013

GDS? Who?

Whitehall has a pitiful record when it comes to investing public money. Think of the National Programme for IT, the NHS black hole into which £6 billion of our money disappeared without trace. Or possibly £12 billion. No-one seems to be sure.

Mindful of which, we now have something called the Major Projects Authority (MPA), a Whitehall unit which keeps tabs on where the money's going and how likely we are to see any return. The MPA issues red-amber-green verdicts on our investments. Green is good news. Red means kiss goodbye to the money.

These verdicts have been kept secret until now but following lobbying, not least by Tony Collins, in the spirit of open government, the MPA have recently published their verdicts on 191 major government projects with a combined lifetime value of £353.7 billion.

The verdicts are categorised by department. Looking at the Cabinet Office projects:
  • We see for example that the Electoral Registration Transformation Programme gets an amber light.
    – An old friend on this blog, this is the programme which seeks to compile a national identity register, which is the opposite of the Coalition government's stated policy.
    – It seeks to ensure that the register is complete and accurate by illegally matching electoral records against National Insurance Number records, among others. N [please see update below]
    – The data-matching pilots were a complete failure – in one ward in Ceredigion, only 18% of electoral records could be matched (Table C1, p.31).
    – There will nevertheless be a value-for-money illegal national data-matching exercise carried out this summer and apparently a new electoral register in time for the next general election. N [please see update below]
    – Lifetime budget: £218 million. MPA verdict? Amber.
  • We see also that another old friend, G-Cloud, gets an amber/red signal.
    Strange. Only the other day, G-Cloud won an award, the prestigious public cloud project of the year award.
    – Cloud computing, remember, is the quickest way of losing control of our data yet discovered.
    – It's not as though there's a lack of customers for G-Cloud – public bodies are pretty well being ordered to use it, through the Cloud First policy. It's unlikely that the project can fail for lack of take-up, so why the amber/red?
    – Any sign of a lack of spending on G-Cloud, and the programme director, Denise McDonagh, can simply buy something herself as she happens to be IT Director at the Home Office and disposes of a considerable budget. Only the other day (it may have been the same other day), she did just that and bumped up the sales figures by handing Skyscape the £1.5 million contract to host the heir to the Criminal Records Bureau.
    – That's Skyscape, the one-man band that barely existed a year ago but somehow beat the long-established competition in a completely fair selection process.
    – Lifetime budget, according to the MPA: £0.58 million. MPA verdict? Amber/red.
  • Which brings us to our oldest friend, the Government Digital Service (GDS).
    – They've got their award-winning GOV.UK project. 24 ministerial departments have been pointlessly and only partially transferred to GOV.UK and several hundred other government bodies are yet to be pointlessly and only partially transferred.
    – They're working on Individual Electoral Registration. Illegally. See above. N [please see update below]
    – They promised to have identity assurance fully operational by March 2013 for 21 million benefit claimants and failed. That leaves DWP's Universal Credit flailing and ditto the BIS midata nonsense.
    – We have eight "identity providers" in the UK with nothing to do as a result.
    – GDS's digital-by-default plan is holed below the waterline (fatally according to four professors) not least because millions of us Brits have never used the web.
    – On 28 July 2011, GDS promised to sort this out with their assisted digital sticking plaster. The best part of two years later, on 23 May 2013, they finally got round to starting to chat about the problem.
    – 56 members of parliament have signed an early day motion to debate digital-by-default.
    – GDS are also meant to replace the cumbersome-but-functional Government Gateway at some point, although what with, they've never said.
    – The mandarins keep expressing their support for GDS, Lord knows why.
    – But what about the MPA verdict, you ask? There isn't one. There just isn't one. None of these GDS projects is major? Or maybe GDS doesn't exist? Or the MPA ran out of colours? One way and another, if you're looking for openness, hard cheese.

Updated 29 May 2013 12:35
N Data-matching was illegal. With the passing of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act on 31 January 2013, it is assumed to be no longer illegal. The suggestion that it is illegal is now presumably false and misleading. Please see SCOOP? IER, sackcloth, ashes and Rip Van Winkle.

Updated 28.5.14

The other day, the MPA, the Major projects Authority, published their second report, for 2013-14.

Projects don't come much more major than GDS's mission to transform the UK government. GDS (the Government Digital Service) are the show, they tell us, the only solution to the delivery crisis and if it wasn't for them there'd be riots in the streets.

In the interests of openness, what is the MPA's verdict on GDS? How are GDS getting on? Red? Surely not. Amber? Green? That's more like it.

Sadly, no. There's not a mention of GDS. HS2, yes. GDS, no.


Anonymous said...

Re: <>

Yes - well spotted. When reading reports I always look for what is MISSING rather than what is there! The case of the dog that didn;t bark etc.

My take on the MPA report here:


David Moss said...


Have read your good-day-to-bury-bad-news post.

And thank you for your comment.

Why do the MPA omit any mention of the digital-by-default projects?

I think the answer lies in Major projects: transparency policy and exemptions guidance. It looks as though GDS are taking advantage of the exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act.

So much for open government.

So much for the GDS claim that they're not different, there's nothing special about government.

So much for "big data", the Shakespeare Review and the Open Data Institute.

Anonymous said...

Yes - I had a look at the MPA report on Cabinet Office (here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-major-projects-portfolio-data-for-cabinet-office-2013) and the GDS webification project is not there...

Keep up the good work - as much fun reading your blog as reading Private Eye!

David Moss said...

Having read Private Eye for 44 years now, your comment provokes a lot of responses. I'll limit myself to two.

When Richard Ingrams gave up the editorship in favour of Ian Hislop, Auberon Waugh wrote in the Spectator that the Eye had done more to influence the way people think in the UK than any other institution. Agree.

The defence of privacy is a good cause. In the hands of politicians, that cause is corrupted. The Eye warned us all in advance and, lo, it came to pass – parliament managed disgracefully to use privacy as a reason to try to impose regulation on the press.

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