Wednesday 27 November 2013

GDS and international relations

GDS, the Government Digital Service, is always written about as though it's a young organisation, practically new, but actually it's been around for long enough now to have missed deadlines, annoyed people, faced criticism and to have acquired all the other attributes of any mature organisation, including a nostalgic past.

They're a gregarious lot, GDS. They're always welcoming delegations from overseas or attending functions abroad.

And in the good old days they used to employ someone to stick pins in a map showing all the places they'd dealt with. Too sad, it's just a distant memory now, but like the holiday snaps in the attic, the faithful old map is still there on the web. They don't make 'em like that any more. You had to be there:

GDS visitors map
There was sometimes a bit of a write-up on these meetings on the GDS blog. After a trip to Estonia, for example, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's postcard said: "We came to see how a small country of 1.3 million has developed a culture and system of Governance and public service provision using the Internet and transparency as core principles ... Whilst we met dozens of people at breakneck speed, many of whom we hope to see in the UK soon, over the next week I will be explaining the wider points we have uncovered which reflect directly on our challenge to make public services in the UK digital by default, and how the Estonian experience links to our core principles".

You go to Estonia and what happens? You find that your core principles are linked.

Korea comes to you and what happens? According to Liam Maxwell, Her Majesty's Government's Chief Technology Officer: "As demonstrated in last month’s Conference on Cyberspace in Seoul, we have much in common with Korea, but we also have much to learn from each other. Yesterday’s signing commits both of our countries to creating digital public services that put the needs of the citizen first, and I'm excited that we’ll be working more closely together".

The list goes on. But you get the gist. There's no need to multiply the examples.

It's uncanny. Travel broadens the mind and makes people aware of their similarities, it reveals their shared experience and exposes their common interests which, in the case of Bulgaria, is "digital leaders".

When DMossEsq goes abroad what does he talk about? Digital services. Like you and, no doubt, like GDS. We know that without being told.

But GDS aren't like us. They're part of government. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) can use them to send messages discreetly to overseas administrations and those administrations, in turn, can communicate with the British government via GDS. A trip abroad is an opportunity. An opportunity for diplomacy.

Until recently we ordinary members of the public have had very little idea how this diplomacy business works. Now, thanks to the filming of ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's speech to the Code for America conference, we at last have some insight.

Who knows what the US made of it, or the scores of other countries who have heard it through GDS, but the FCO's message to the audience in the first three minutes of the speech is that the UK government is out of date and needs to be re-designed in order to overcome the "delivery crisis" which it faces.

That's central government.

Around the five-minute mark, the message is that local government is no better.

All branches of the UK government are useless except GDS ("we are the show", 17'39") because they know how to "route round" (18'46", 20'17" onwards) the obstacles created by their colleagues and the useless consultants and contractors they retain, and if it wasn't for GDS's success with GOV.UK we'd be back to the riots we had in the summer of 2011 (21'08").

The clip below is taken from the last two minutes or so of the FCO message.

Democracy faces "profound pressures" (31'07"), picture of the riots again, governments face an existential threat (31'23"), they could become irrelevant (31'30"), people could "route round" them (31'33"), picture of the Reichstag (31'36"), GDS's website isn't there to enable government, it is government (32'00"), government redesigned for survival in the modern world, let them eat cake:


Updated 25.8.15

Diplomatic to the end, Why are senior staff fleeing the Government Digital Service?:
"Diginomica ... has the full scoop on why senior staff are fleeing the organisation", says Mr du Preez, "Manzoni [Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service] just didn't get it" and "it would be useful to have someone running the civil service that understands why a platform approach makes sense for public services".
Perhaps Mr du Preez is right that Mr Manzoni is just too stupid to understand.

But just suppose that he's wrong. Maybe Mr Manzoni looked at GDS's record and correctly decided that behind the bluster too little has been achieved.

GDS promised to get rural payments working. Mike Bracken spent time every week on the system, praised it for its adoption of agile methods, asserted that it was going to be an early example of GaaP and vaingloriously predicted that the new system would change the UK's relationship with Europe.

In the event, despite his personal involvement in the project, the computer system has had to be withdrawn and farmers are using paper to make their claims.

If GDS can't even get rural payments up and running, Mr Manzoni may have thought, what use are they going to be helping HMRC with the ASPIRE contract on which the UK depends for raising £500 billion in tax every year? And what chance do they have of making GaaP a reality?

He may not be as dim as Mr du Preez suggests.

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