Why did Steven Cox include those quotations in his 6 July 2015 blog post, A welcome disruption? And who is he?
“Every industry and business constantly needs to adapt its internal processes and governance to accommodate digital disruption. We are no different in government.”
- Mike Bracken, GDS Blog 14 March 2013
In blogs, interviews and articles during Mike Bracken’s time at the helm of GDS, the theme of disruption has been at the heart of the GDS approach to government ...
As Mike Bracken said in Civil Service World in February this year “be innovative, experimental, and disruptive” ...
Fujitsu is one of the giants of the UK public sector IT outsourcing oligopoly and Mr Cox is Executive Director for Public Sector, Fujitsu UK & Ireland.
Fujitsu sponsored the recent Policy Exchange seminar about digital government which we mentioned the other day, The Future of Digital Government: What's worked? What's not? What's next?.
Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO CDO, executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and senior responsible owner of the pan-government identity assurance programme now known as "GOV.UK Verify (RIP)", gave the main talk and then four people responded briefly, including Mr Cox, before the concluding question and answer session.
You can watch the proceedings on YouTube and there's a transcript available. "You should get out more", said DMossEsq's friend L_____. Unlike L_____, some of you will recognise a tense battle being fought.
GDS expressly set out to disrupt the current settlement whereby Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Capgemini, Accenture, Capita, Tata and their peers oligopolise UK government IT. That's what Mr Cox is reminding us about in the blog post quoted from above, A welcome disruption?.
In his talk, Mr Cox complimented GDS on their disruptive powers. He also accused GDS of a lack of follow-through/delivery, he suggested that GDS must now make its mind up whether it's a supplier to government or a consultant, he questioned GDS's grasp of security and he wondered whether GDS could scale up. Five minutes with Mr Cox or 500 blog posts on DMossEsq? Take your pick.
The effect was to provoke the response from Mr Bracken quoted alongside.
There is a wealth of material to mine in that response. "Today GDS is delivering … if you voted we delivered that ..." will remind some of you of Mr Bracken's claim after the 7 May 2015 UK general election: "It was great to see GOV.UK handle the change of government so smoothly".
But let's leave that mining for another day and concentrate here on Mr Cox's reservations about GDS's ability to scale up.
Let's take as our benchmark HMRC's Aspire contract with Capgemini which provides the IT needed to raise around £650 billion a year from taxpayers. Aspire cost HMRC £7.9 billion between 2004 and 2014 of which £2.8 billion was spent with Fujitsu, Capgemini's main sub-contractor.
Mr Bracken said "what we've been disrupting is a previous arrangement which has been delivering shocking value for money and shocking services in some cases" after talking about "really poor contracts that are not fit for purpose".
Fine. As far as it goes. But what would GDS follow through with and deliver instead? Suppose that HMRC do not renew Aspire with Capgemini and Fujitsu. What then?
Digital transformation? GDS gave themselves 400 days to transform 25 exemplar public services. After 760 days of the transformation programme just eight of these services had been transformed and GDS's Transformation Programme Director announced that: "Now the programme’s ended ... We’re only just beginning". Not confidence-inspiring for HMRC.
One of GDS's transformation targets was DEFRA's rural payments application. The GDS exemplar collapsed in March 2015 and farmers have had to go back to using paper application forms for their payments. What was the problem? One explanation offered was: "the complex guidelines for the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) runs to 84 pages". What are HMRC supposed to make of that? The UK tax code is around 15,000 pages.
Do GDS grasp the scale of the problem? When they started at HMRC one of their first complaints was about submitting VAT returns: "Plain English is mandatory for all of GOV.UK. This means we don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do ... For example, we normally talk about sending something ... rather than ‘submitting’ it ...".
Will HMRC be reassured by learning that GDS "communicate in an open forum, with daily stand-ups for 15 minutes every morning in front of our wall ... This is the continuously iterative process known as agile delivery"? That was back in 2013, only 43 years after the world was warned about the dangers of relying exclusively on the continuously iterative process known as agile delivery. Perhaps the lesson has been learnt now? Perhaps not:
Design in an #Agile Environment Periscope with Ben Terrett
There's more to transforming HMRC's services than just adopting agile methodology. According to GDS's head of service design:
It's questionable whether GDS have been transforming public services or transforming the way they're accessed. The menu in a restaurant may be attractive but, if you're hungry, it's the food you need.
And then there's the question how GDS staff should comport themselves, a matter addressed by their boss at the recent Digital Leaders 100 awards ceremony:
1. Say no to get to yes
2. Hierarchical management techniques are largely bunkum
3. Use words to weaponise change agents
4. [lost to history]
5. [lost to history]
6. Try to get fired daily [next to impossible for a civil servant?]
The same man told the Policy Exchange seminar that: "We’re not rule breakers; we’re rule makers. We’re civil servants".
It's up to the hierarchical management of HMRC to answer Mr Cox's question and to decide whether GDS can scale up from re-writing the 10 year-old on-line car tax renewal application to implementing yesterday's UK Budget changes to our 15,000-page tax code.
In HMRC's eyes, GDS's cause may or may not have been advanced by two of their staff who still haven't been fired staying up all night to render the Red Book into HTML:
Despite all the weaponised change agents, Capgemini and Fujitsu's position may still not be appreciably disrupted.
Can you help?
Can anyone help?
It's odd how much Steven Cox's biting reference to disruption, please see above, seems to have stung.
Mr Bracken's latest post on the GDS blog, Hire the head and the body will follow, continues to scratch at it and ends with:
It remains unknown what GDS have to offer gigantic IT applications such as HMRC's and the NHS's. How would GDS replace the work of Capgemini and Mr Cox's Fujitsu? "Government as a Platform" is four words and no answer.
As you can see, digital thinking is no longer a disruptive thing. It’s becoming part of the fabric of government. Through the services and platforms we build and, as vitally, through people.
Publishing the words in bold doesn't alter the fact that digital thinking has been a growing part of the fabric of UK public administration for 50 years. There's nothing new there and nothing new in the claim that public administration requires people – no-one in their right mind would ever suggest that it didn't.
Hire the head and the body will follow sounds like a viable precept but we know that it's false. GDS had to call in human resources management consultants to try to sort out the morale problems of its own body.
"Hierarchical management techniques are largely bunkum", says the non-disruptive Mr Bracken above, and "traditional policy-making is largely broken", but what does he have to replace this alleged bunkum? Nothing. He has to tweet for ideas: "Help me pls. Ideas for governance model for digital&tech at very top of my organisation".
Mr Bracken is not just the UK's Chief Digital Officer (CDO) but also our Chief Data Officer (CDO), in pursuit of which his latest post is strewn with numbers, "120 senior digital and technology professionals ... 90 senior interims who have worked on digital transformation ... 172 service managers ... 125 Digital and Technology fast streamers".
No doubt these numbers are meant to speak for themselves. But what are they saying? "Try to get fired daily"?