Thursday, 18 December 2014

Matt Ridley and the GDS PR blitz

"It is not just me who is starstruck
by what Mr Maude and Mr Bracken are doing"

Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, DL, FRSL, FMedSci (born 7 February 1958), known commonly as Matt Ridley, is a British journalist who has written several popular science books. He is also a businessman and a Conservative member of the House of Lords ... Ridley was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007, during which period Northern Rock experienced the first run on a British bank in 150 years ...
That's the Matt Ridley who writes weekly comment pieces for the Times newspaper. Comment pieces like Monday's To avoid big IT catastrophes, follow Darwin.

Why do big IT projects fail? Because they're like creationism, says Matt Ridley – he takes the example of the BBC's digital media initiative which was cancelled after five years with nothing to show for £100 million invested. The analogy with creationism fails. Creationism is quick. One week to create the entire world including a day of rest. But let's pass over that.

How can big IT projects avoid failure? Matt Ridley says:
... it may surprise you to hear that I think a genuine success story of this government is that it has finally learnt how to prevent such problems and design new systems so that they work. In essence, it has begun to adopt the principles of evolution, rather than creationism.
That certainly will surprise you. What do you know about evolution? It takes millions of years. Random mutations are tested against nature, most of them fail, a few survive, one step has been taken forward and a few hundred thousand years later the eye has evolved.

Is Matt Ridley suggesting that the government's alleged success consists in employing millions of people to make random mutations to IT systems, which may as a result work some time after 102014AD? Surely not. The analogy with evolution fails. But let's pass over that.

If we overlook the popular science components, what is there left in Matt Ridley's article? Answer:
Largely unheralded, the government digital service is one of the current administration’s success stories. Tirelessly championed by Francis Maude, as minister for the Cabinet Office, egged on by Baroness Lane-Fox, and run by Mike Bracken, brought in from outside, the GDS is not just trying to make government services online as easy as shopping at Amazon or booking an airline ticket. It is also reshaping the way the public sector does big IT projects to make sure cost and time overruns are history.
What we're left with is another uncritical regurgitation of the Government Digital Service PR briefing:
  • Applying for state benefits isn't remotely like buying a book on Amazon or an airline ticket. Another analogy fails.
  • Cost and time overruns are the present as well as history. Identity assurance is GDS's only big IT development project, it's years late and it doesn't work. No wonder their success is unheralded.
"One-click government at last" – that's the last baffling line of the Times article. More like one-click PR. Hook, line and sinker:
  • Matt Ridley dutifully does waterfall v. agile.
  • Then he does user needs v. supplier needs.
  • Followed by CIOs v. CDOs and small IT suppliers (heroes) v. big ones (villains, apart from GDS's friends – Apple, of course, and Google and Facebook and Amazon).
  • GOV.UK won an award.
  • We should be more like Estonia.
  • The civil service needs to be taught by GDS how to do their job – apparently it shouldn't take more than 12 weeks to get started on developing new IT systems for the UK tax code.
  • He's won the Hayek prize for economics and yet Matt Ridley serves up: "Mr Maude reckons he will have saved £4 billion a year by 2019-20".
It is not just me who is starstruck by what Mr Maude and Mr Bracken are doing ...

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