Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The unqualified success of the Government Digital Service

Comment submitted to the UK Constitutional Law Group in response to a post on their blog about the perils of GOV.UK:
When links are broken, a bit of history is lost. This vandalism is always happening on the web. We know that. The web is inimical to scholarship in that way.
The advent of GOV.UK was exceptionally vandalistic. The Government Digital Service (GDS), whose baby it is, left behind a trail of destruction. Or rather, they didn’t. They eradicated it.
They did so under the terms of reference of a project called "the single government domain".
They are prone now to congratulating themselves on completing the transfer of all central government departmental websites to the single government domain, GOV.UK, and several non-departmental sites. Their congratulations are premature. hmrc.gov.uk, for example, lives on, thank goodness. A rare case of GDS’s discretion being the better part of valour.
There was internal dissent to the policy-centric GOV.UK approach identified by Liz Fisher. Jeni Tennison argued that destroying departmental identity involved losing something valuable. Judging by the comments on her thoughtful blog post, her objections were slapped down, rather than refuted, and she left GDS.
Who grants the licence for GDS’s vandalism?
The answer may interest Constitutional lawyers. Martha Lane Fox.
Now a peer of the realm, Lady Lane Fox of Soho, it is she who first called for GOV.UK in a letter dated 14 October 2010 where she wrote:
A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.
The "new central commissioning team" is GDS. And the departments of state are to be reduced, in Lady Lane Fox’s view, to waiting to be commissioned by GDS to publish their policy.
She didn’t stop there. GDS should be able to countermand the law as well as the expertise of policy-makers wherever "user needs" are adversely affected as judged by GDS:
[GDS] SWAT teams … should be given a remit to support and challenge departments and agencies … We must give these SWAT teams the necessary support to challenge any policy and legal barriers which stop services being designed around user needs.
We all used to get emails from the individual departments bringing their press releases to our attention. Now those emails all come from GDS, GOVUK@public.govdelivery.com.
Unprecedented power is being centralised in GDS, whose qualifications – they are a team of website developers – are questionable. It’s a new world.

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