Wednesday 20 November 2013

Routing round Whitehall

Last year, you will remember, Tim O'Reilly and Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America (CfA) came over to the UK and kindly told our Government Digital Service (GDS) how marvellous they are. That was 12 November 2012.

In an act of reciprocal diplomacy, returning the compliment, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken went over to the US last month to speak at the CfA Summit 2013, 16 October 2013, so that he could tell them how marvellous GDS are.

The Americans have a lot to learn it seems.

At 32'46" long, the speech he gave – Redesigning Government – is astonishing, ranging as it does over big subjects, and even bigger subjects:
  • Government isn't big, says the man, not really big, not if you look at it. (Apart from the fact that the UK government's Total Managed Expenditure accounts for well over 40% of gross domestic product according to Her Majesty's Treasury, who could disagree?)
  • Government faces a "delivery crisis", he says, and risks becoming irrelevant. There would be riots in the streets but for GDS. (That's the implication.)
  • With all due humility, he says, we're the show, GDS is government. (Maybe it's a joke. But is it funny?)
  • On-line security is irrelevant, usability is all that counts. ("This is the BBC news. In an entirely predictable security breach yesterday, the banking details of everyone in the UK were stolen by a 14 year-old in Peoria. Luckily GDS's identity assurance system is very usable, so no harm done. In other news, a programmer at GDS who used Helvetica instead of Tahoma has been charged under the usability laws and remanded in custody for her own protection.")
  • Technology is a fourth-order priority, he says. Sort out the user requirements first, then the policy, then the operational needs, then and only then the technology, if necessary. (A good point, but an odd one from the executive director of GDS, whose job it is to implement digital-by-default – technology decision taken first, then everything else.)
  • Documenting your requirements is a waste of time. (Parliament, legislating away, writing down the law, wasting their time?)
  • Don't bother working out your strategy ... (In the special case of GDS, at least four professors agree.)
  • ... just deliver something. (Like an identity assurance system, for example? First promised for autumn 2012, there's still no sign of it.)
  • With reference to the ObamaCare website – big organisations are rubbish. (Apple? Google? eBay? Amazon? Facebook? Rubbish? And how about small organisations?)
  • Let them eat cake. (Seriously. He says that. And hang bunting from the ceiling and give everyone a sticker.)
If you want to be like GDS, concentrate on those jobs that only government can do. Like operating student loans, suggests ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken. But that doesn't require government. Any bank could do it. And will, just as soon as the student loan book is privatised.

Anyone trying to emulate GDS's success in government will encounter obstacles. Don't confront them. You'll lose. Instead, "route round" them, he says, without saying what that means in terms of accountability and openness, not to mention co-operation/team-playing with GDS's colleagues in Whitehall.

GDS's success? What success? He gives an example in the clip below (taken from the full speech, starting at 9'36"):

Listeners may be left with the impression that GDS's Identity Assurance Programme (IDAP) already provides proof of identity for 45 million users. It doesn't. IDAP doesn't exist.

"The first services run out with our tax system this month [October 2013]" – no IDAP services were made available to the public by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) then, none such have been mentioned in GDS's subsequent weekly diaries or anywhere else and, despite all GDS's routing round, the transformation dashboard continues to show only one "exemplar" live – student loans, exemplar #6. The tax exemplars ##15 and 16 are still in beta. That statement about running out with our tax system is either false or meaningless.

"We're at the very early days yet", he says, having previously said "we're rolling this service out right now". Which is it?

"We have about eight or nine companies already providing identity to us". GDS have told us that they recently signed contracts with five companies. Not eight. Not nine, see Identity Assurance: First delivery contracts signed, 3 September 2013. The ID hub required has yet to be unveiled, let alone commissioned, so it's hard to see how these five/eight?/nine? so-called "identity providers" (IDPs) can provide anything to GDS or how 45 million people can provide anything to the IDPs. That statement about already having companies providing identities to GDS is either false or meaningless.

"We've changed 20 years of thinking about identity in the digital space in government". No. That thinking was changed when Whitehall finally admitted that their antediluvian plans for government-issued ID cards had failed – flaky biometrics, cards no use on-line. Back in 2010. At least. Probably earlier. Long before GDS existed.

That's just one minute out of the 32.

One minute of listeners being misled.

During the other 31, the claims to have made £500 million of savings (13'20") and £10 billion of savings (25'00") merit particular attention. Route round reality like GDS if you will, CfA, but remember – GOV.UK may have won all sorts of awards, it may be a work of art, but without identity assurance, that's all it is.


Updated 21.11.13:

At around 25'00" into his speech, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken claims without support that the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) have saved about £10 billion of Whitehall costs and tells CfA that this figure represents about 4% of the UK's gross domestic product (GDP).

According to the latest figures from the UK's Office for National Statistics, GDP in the four quarters to 30 September 2013 was, in £billions – 376.5, 377.5, 380.2 and 382.8. That's £1.517 trillion in all.

Which means, if you look at the reliable facts, that £10 billion is about 0.6% of GDP and not 4%.

Updated 30.1.14:

In a speech to Whitehall's IT corps yesterday Rt Hon Francis Maude MP said:
Digitalising public services could save citizens, the Exchequer and businesses £1.2 billion over the course of this parliament, rising to an estimated £1.7 billion each year after 2015.
These are the same figures which have been mentioned ever since 6 December 2012 at least, over a year ago. It's strange how, in this agile world, they never change. And how they never add up to Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE's £10 billion.

Updated 18.8.14 #1

Back in October 2013, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE told CfA that ERG had saved about £10 billion and that that represented about 4% of UK GDP. In fact, it represents only about 0.6%.

We have just hosted the Wikimania conference here in the UK, at the Barbican, and in his speech Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE claimed that ERG had saved about £14.3 billion last year and that that represents about 1% of GDP, please see 5'50"-6'10", including applause.

The arithmetic is getting better.

But where does the £14.3 billion figure come from?

Start with the Cabinet Office press release, Government unveils £14.3 billion of savings for 2013 to 2014. Click on the technical note link, and you get to Government savings in 2013 to 2014. Now click on End of year savings 2013 to 2014: technical note and turn to the breakdown of the £14.3 billion savings figure given on p.4.

The big ticket items are major projects (£2.479 billion), workforce reductions (£2.392 billion), pensions reform (£2.340 billion), and so on – nothing to do with the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The GDS savings, which is what you might think Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE is talking about in his Wikimania speech, amount to £0.210 billion = GDS controls savings and GDS wider savings (£0.091 billion) + GDS transformation (£0.119 billion).

For the avoidance of doubt, if the UK's GDP is about £1,517 billion, then GDS's contribution of £0.210 billion to the savings made last year amounts to about 0.0138% of GDP and not the quoted figure of 1%.

Updated 18.8.14 #2

Back in October 2013, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE may accidentally have given CfA the impression that GDS were already providing identity assurance (IDA) to 45 million people in the UK. In fact, there was no IDA then and there still isn't now.

We have just hosted the Wikimania conference here in the UK, at the Barbican, and in his speech Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE said that GDS is currently rolling out IDA, please see 2'50"-3'20".

In what sense is it true that IDA is currently being rolled out?

They're currently looking for private sector "identity providers" to join the IDA scheme. They've got five providers signed up so far – Digidentity, Experian, Mydex, the Post Office and Verizon. They need more. The Open Identity Exchange and KPMG together arranged for GDS to present to about 150 companies.

At their presentation on 9 June 2014, IDA demonstrated the Post Office's suggested dialogue for issuing people with an on-line digital identity. It's not very convincing and if that's all the progress that's been made since 31 October 2011, any one of those 150 companies would be very brave to subscribe now.

It is in that sense that IDA is currently being rolled out.

Updated 1.10.15

The Code for America Summit 2013 was followed by the Code for America Summit 2014.

Ex-Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE ex-CDO ex-CDO, ex-Chief Executive of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and ex-Senior Responsible Owner of the pan-government identity assurance programme now known as "GOV.UK Verify (RIP)", didn't speak at the Code for America Summit 2014. Instead, his ex-deputy, Tom Loosemore, spoke.

Mr Loosemore took advantage of the occasion to repeat what Mr Bracken had said in 2013:

The last section of Mr Loosemore's talk between about 17'45" and 19'20" considered GDS's digital service which allows people in the UK to apply on-line to register to vote. We have about 45 million voters here. 1,114 people took the trouble to rate the service. That is 0.002% of voters.

They were apparently 92% satisfied with the service, whatever "satisfied" means. And that is an example, Mr Loosemore told the Summit, of the triumph that awaits the US if only it follows the lead of the UK.

Mr Loosemore also spoke at the Code for America Summit 2015. He was due to speak yesterday, about Government as a Platform (GaaP).

His talk is not available yet on YouTube. Everyone is recommended to seek it out and watch it as soon as it does become available.

Updated 9.10.15

Talking of Tom Loosemore's talk given to the Code for America Summit 2015, we said: "Everyone is recommended to seek it out and watch it as soon as it does become available".

Code for America put all the Summit 2015 videos up on their YouTube channel yesterday,

No Loosemore talk. We shall never be able to see him saying whatever he said.

Updated 1.12.15

"We shall never be able to see him", we said, back in October, "saying whatever he said". Wrong. It was published on YouTube six days later.

Updated 3.6.18

The new book, Digital transformation at scale: why the strategy is delivery, by Andrew Greenway, Ben Terrett, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore explains how to achieve digital transformation in government and in big business.

How do they know? What are their credentials? What do they know about public administration? What experience have they had of designing and maintaining population-scale systems?

Answer, GDS – the Government Digital Service. "Done", as it says on the cover of the book, rubber-stamped, digital transformation, they've done it at GDS. GDS is their credentials, so to speak.

Mike Bracken spoke at the Code for America Summit in October 2013, please see above. Tom Loosemore spoke at the 2014 and 2015 Summits, also please see above.

Not sure whether anyone from GDS attended the 2016 and 2017 Summits but, this year, Code for America Summit 2018, GDS was represented by Louise Downe, "Director of Design and Service Standards for the UK Government at the Government Digital Service (GDS)", who spoke on the subject of Getting From Here to There: A Sustainable Future for Public Services.

The Summit agenda says: "The U.K. Government Digital Service (GDS) was set up 6 years ago to help government work better for users. Since then, GDS has built, delivered and supported a huge amount - from ...".

Let's stop there for a moment. Clearly the text is about to list a selection of huge digital transformation achievements after six years of strategic delivery at scale. We're looking for the end-to-end re-engineering of crucial components in the national infrastructure.

Which examples would you choose?

No idea.

Which examples did GDS/Code for America choose?

Answer: "... GDS has built, delivered and supported a huge amount - from the single government website GOV.UK to new digital services for renewing passports or registering to vote".

That's it? Six years later, that's it?

We already had government websites long before GDS's GOV.UK. We could already apply on-line to renew our passports eight years before GDS was created and we could already apply on-line to register to vote.

Digital transformation? GDS wrote the book on it.

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