Friday, 19 July 2013

GDS – an open and shut case

The case
Ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's Government Digital Service (GDS) is "pivoting", he says.

First GDS pioneered the concept of governments publishing data by creating the award-winning GOV.UK website. Now GDS is "pivoting", which means that it's moving on from mere publishing and it's going to pioneer two-way communication with the mob, the mobile vulgus, who are going to be allowed to undertake on-line transactions in the digital-by-default new world.

There are about 650 types of transaction between government and the public, according to GDS, and they've chosen 25 of them for starters. "Exemplars", as they call them, GDS will show the rest of the world how to do it.

We’ve started work on redesigning 25 of the biggest and most-used transactional public services – we call them exemplars, leading the way for others to follow.
There's no telling what ye Mighty think about GDS's first attempts at transactions but four professors who reviewed the Government Digital Strategy were left less than optimistic:
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)

[on the subject of (a) open source and (b) web platforms, as 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 [Government Digital Strategy] must address, but right now it has little meaningful to say. The [Government Digital Strategy] must avoid falling into the trap of an overly-simplistic response that one approach is poor and the other is better. (p.6)
And a fifth professor gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, who are keeping an eye on Whitehall's digital-by-default project, to the effect that GDS are wasting their time. Despite "heroic" amounts of testing, they won't know if their transaction systems work, it's impossible to measure the quality of software systems unless you use formal methods, and GDS don't.

Open
Undismayed, GDS are pressing ahead. "Onwards", as ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken always says. What's more, everything is out in the open:
People are seeing the live, working software that’s already making government services Digital by Default.

We are running this programme of continual iteration in the open. You can follow our progress at www.gov.uk/transformation, where we’re regularly publishing information about every exemplar. You’ll see performance data, screenshots and status reports of where each service is at, and we’re going to add more to it as each service progresses ...

Reporting in public
It’s important that we continue to publish these updates in public, that we report on the services we’re transforming, and that we blog about our progress. Publishing this means more of our colleagues can see what’s happening and what part they play in the process. It’s also the best way to make sure that we’re accountable for the things we build. As our design principles say, if we make things open, we make things better.
Shut
Take a look at https://www.gov.uk/transformation. Exemplar #1 is Electoral Registration – "rebuilding trust in our electoral system and making voter registration more convenient and secure".

Making things open makes them better. It's all about accountability. Click on the link, and what do you find?

"Live, working software that’s already making government services Digital by Default"? No.

"Performance data"? No.

"Screen shots"? No.

Dig a little deeper, click on "our original strategy statement", and you find:
To support IER [Individual Electoral Registration] and make it simpler for users, a new digital channel will be created and a method for confirming identities will be introduced.
What "new digital channel"? They don't tell us.

What "new method for confirming identities"? They don't tell us.

Will voter registration be more "convenient" and more "secure"? Who knows?

Will trust in our electoral system be "rebuilt"? An important question. And GDS aren't helping us to answer it.

For an organisation dedicated to openness and accountability, GDS are remarkably tight-lipped.

The next general election in the UK is round the corner and we're relying on GDS to provide the electoral register. Why?

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Updated 24 July 2013
The post above was published last Friday, 19 July 2013.

The day before yesterday, Monday 22 July 2013, the following comment (#42377) was submitted on ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's post, The pivot: from publishing to transactions. The comment has been deleted. There have been no answers from GDS by way of response:
What GDS say
GDS say in the post above that: “People are seeing the live, working software that’s already making government services Digital by Default … We are running this programme of continual iteration in the open. You can follow our progress athttp://www.gov.uk/transformation, where we’re regularly publishing information about every exemplar. You’ll see performance data, screenshots and status reports of where each service is at, and we’re going to add more to it as each service progresses”.

Under the heading ‘Reporting In Public’, GDS add: “It’s important that we continue to publish these updates in public, that we report on the services we’re transforming, and that we blog about our progress. Publishing this means more of our colleagues can see what’s happening and what part they play in the process. It’s also the best way to make sure that we’re accountable for the things we build. As our design principles say, if we make things open, we make things better”.

What GDS do
Take a look at https://www.gov.uk/transformation. Exemplar #1 is Electoral Registration – “rebuilding trust in our electoral system and making voter registration more convenient and secure”. What do you find?

“Live, working software that’s already making government services Digital by Default”? No.

“Performance data”? No.

“Screen shots”? No.

Dig a little deeper, click on “our original strategy statement”, and you read: “To support IER and make it simpler for users, a new digital channel will be created and a method for confirming identities will be introduced”.

What “new digital channel”? GDS don’t tell us.

What “new method for confirming identities”? GDSdon’t tell us.

Will voter registration be more “convenient” and more “secure”? Who knows?

Will trust in our electoral system be “rebuilt”? An important question. And GDS aren't helping us to answer it.

For an organisation dedicated to openness and accountability, GDS are remarkably tight-lipped.

22/07/2013

Reply

Updated 27 July 2013
The following comment (#42539) was today submitted on ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's post, The pivot: from publishing to transactions:

Please Note: Your comment is awaiting moderation.

QUOTE
People are seeing the live, working software that’s already making government services Digital by Default … We are running this programme of continual iteration in the open.
UNQUOTE

GDS may believe this but it is simply not true, please see GDS – an open and shut case.

The behaviour of GDS, which describes its 25 transactions as “exemplars”, needs itself to be exemplary.

27/07/2013

2 comments:

BrianSJ said...

There is a fair amount of information on their process, but not enough to see if it meets good practice, even that of a decade ago e.g. http://collection.europarchive.org/tna/20040722012352/http://cabinetoffice.gov.uk/e-government/resources/quality-framework.asp
If we look at the Discovery phase, it is not clear that they identify who the users are, or examine their context of use, though the 'introduction to user research' is hopeful so far as it goes.
My fear that it is intended to be trivial is supported by the statement that this stage is supposed to take 4-8 weeks.
The need for evidence at this stage is stressed but it isn't on the site. For example, UC is supposed to be at Beta, but there is nothing on what happened at Discovery. Given the fuss over Cumulative Impact Assessment, the user analysis at the Discovery stage is crucial. "Defining a user need must be strict and honest" is what they say.

David Moss said...

Thanks for that, Brian, and yes the fear is trivialisation. Most first-year software engineering students would be embarrassed, I suspect, to submit such a shallow essay on discovery/analysis, prototyping and design, maintenance and change control.

Or at least, one of the fears.

How can GDS claim with a straight face to be open while actually revealing nothing?

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