Tuesday 29 October 2013

GDS – who's silly now?

A correspondent kindly sent a link this morning to an article in the US press, U.K. Official Urges U.S. Government To Adopt A Digital Core. Ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), was over there recently to talk at a meeting of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, presumably about public service IT.

The gist of the article is that what the US needs is something like GDS and someone like ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken to save them from cock-ups like healthcare.gov but the article also includes this: "Parliament ... appointed Bracken, a tech industry veteran, as the first ever executive director of digital – a Cabinet-level position".



"These journalists", you can't help saying to yourself, "they're so silly, can't they get anything right?".

Except that later in the day, a new post by ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken appeared on the GDS blog saying: "This morning I attended the weekly meeting of Cabinet ministers at Number 10 ...".


Updated 16 December 2013:

We know what ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken told the Cabinet. And we know what he told Code for America.

But what, you will have been asking yourself for the past seven weeks, did he tell the Presidential Innovation Fellows?

Thanks to a short post on DigitalGov – "Your source for new media in government" – we now know. "Citizen Needs Come First for UK Websites", says Darlene Meskell:
Starting with the needs of users, [ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken] said, the UK radically shifted the way the government provides services. “That’s a huge thing,” he said. “It means an end to big IT, it means smarter and cheaper services that meet users’ needs, and it means digital sitting at the heart of teams all around government.”
That makes it sound like a long-established change. A fait accompli. Did the Presidential Innovation Fellows ask when the "UK radically shifted the way the government provides services"? Did they get an answer? If so, could they tell us in the UK?

Did they ask whether "starting with the needs of users" really does mean "an end to big IT" or "smarter and cheaper services" or "digital sitting at the heart of teams all around government"? That's not what it says in the dictionary. Not in the English dictionary. Nor the Korean dictionary.

Did they ask how you find out what the users need? Presumably they must have done because we read that:
He advised against using focus groups or surveys for user feedback, preferring to look at user behavior and other indicators of trust in government.
So GDS don't use focus groups. And they don't use market surveys. They just know what the users need. All 60 million+ of us. At some stage we must all have indicated our trust in government. As Darlene Meskell says: "he offered a key lesson for designing and developing 'democracy' websites".

Focus groups? Market surveys? That's not all that GDS don't use. In addition:
“We just don’t outsource,” he said, referring to the UK’s Government Digital Service. “We do what we need with our skills in-house.”
This will come as news to all the suppliers signed up to GDS's CloudStore and to their Digital Services store, the purpose of which had previously been understood to be precisely that – to outsource government IT requirements. But that's our ambassador's message – don't outsource.

It will come as news to the Government Procurement Service as well. But he had a very special message, an almost mystical message, for them:
"Tackle the hard stuff by routing around" the barriers. For instance, "don’t procure, commission."
Don't procure. Commission. What?

Any elucidation the Presidential Innovation Fellows can offer to Bill Crothers will be gratefully accepted.

Updated 18 December 2013:

"Parliament ... appointed Bracken, a tech industry veteran, as the first ever executive director of digital – a Cabinet-level position" – that was Elise Hu writing on 23 October 2013.

One month later, 18 November 2013, Alexander B. Howard wrote: "political leaders acted by creating a Government Digital Service (GDS) and hiring Mike Bracken as Executive Director of Digital to run it, and putting him at the table in a cabinet-level position".

By now it's probably too late and it just is an established fact in many people's mind that ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken is a member of the British Cabinet. Even though he's not.

It is probable that both Elise Hu and Alexander B. Howard are Americans and write for Americans. They do things differently over there. They keep the legislature fairly well separated from the administration. We here in the UK have the two utterly mixed up.

How has the confusion arisen?

There couldn't be more causes of this confusion in a French farce.

Firstly, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's Government Digital Service (GDS) is part of the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is not the Cabinet. The Cabinet Office is a department of the civil service and might better be called the "Swiss army knife department" – it does a bit of everything, it picks up the jobs that don't for the time being fit into any other department.

Second, the Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office used also to be the Cabinet Secretary. That was in the days of Sir-Gus-now-Lord O'Donnell, who had a third string to his bow – he was also head of the home civil service. Since he stepped down, the three jobs are done by three different people.

Third, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken was asked to attend a Cabinet meeting on 29 October 2013 and allowed to make a presentation about GDS. He's a website designer wedded to an unproven hypothesis about the internet. That invitation is pretty well unprecedented.

Fourth, although his civil service boss is the Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, his political boss is the elected politician Francis Maude, who is the Cabinet Office Minister and who is regularly allowed to attend meetings of the Cabinet without actually being a member of the Cabinet, the members of which are listed here and which comprises almost exclusively elected representatives which is utterly verboten in the US.

The confusion is entirely venial but it is a confusion nonetheless.

Chances of getting the record put straight? Slim.

But if there is any chance, can we get another confusion cleared up at the same time?

Mr Howard writes, charmingly: "It’s not clear whether the United States will be able to follow the lead and pace set by the United Kingdom here". That makes it sound as if GDS do a lot.

It's a bit like Darlene Meskell writing on 9 December 2013: "Starting with the needs of users, [ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken] said, the UK radically shifted the way the government provides services", which makes it sound as if the way public services are provided in the UK has already been "radically shifted". It hasn't.

GDS have partially re-written some of the government websites we already had, and that's it. There are a lot of promises on the table about how this will one day improve public services. There have been a lot of problems. There's a long way to go. But for the moment, the US have no problem keeping up with the pace. Estonia might give them a run for their money. But not the UK.

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