Monday 18 January 2016

UK Digital Strategy - the next frontier in our digital revolution

It was the eve of the eve of New Year's Eve 2015 when the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) challenged the public to challenge the department:
Challenge us
Come 2020, undoubtedly the UK landscape will have changed to be firmly in the digital age. But how do you want to shape that? Government has ideas and ambitions but as Tech City UK back in 2010 shows, the ideas are out there. So challenge us - push us to do more. Let’s show the rest of the world how it’s done.
They gave us until 19 January 2016 to submit our responses.

They asked for it.

Someone had to tell them:

From: David Moss
Sent: 18 January 2016 12:49
To: ''
Subject: UK Digital Strategy - the next frontier in our digital revolution

1. This is a response to the DCMS request for comments on the Secretary of State's 29 December 2015 press release [1] which we can be sure was written by his officials and not by him. Wrong. Please see note below.

2. "In 2010, a revolution began", we are told. Why 2010? Computerisation started in the 1950s, the internet in the 1960s, micro-computers in the 1970s, graphical screens and relational databases in the 1980s, the web and mobile phones in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s. What revolution occurred in 2010? None. Where it isn't simply false, much of this press release is excitable. It sounds credulous, ingenuous and childish, unconvincing and confidence-sapping.

3. "... we want the UK to be synonymous with digital". Synonymous? Are you sure?

4. "Matt Hancock is ... driving a transformation", it says, "to create what he calls a 'smartphone state' ...". Why? What is a "smartphone state"? Who wants one?

Unlocking digital growth
5. To the extent that the UK's digital strategy affects the private sector, best practice is well-established – minimum regulation and a government that keeps out of the way. That seems to be the message being sent by BIS in their UK Government Response to EU public consultation on Digital Platforms [2]. It would be coherent/joined up for DCMS to send the same message and not to pretend that they can pick winners or that they are better than the market at allocating resources.

Transforming government
6. To the extent that it affects central government, a lot can be usefully learned by re-reading the last report on the UK's digital strategy written by people who know what they're talking about, January 2013's A Perspective on the Government Digital Strategy (GDS): Balancing agility and efficiency in UK Government IT delivery [3].

7. The four professors who drafted that report demolished the proposed strategy. Using agile software engineering methodologies, iterating and calling on open source software is not enough. National IT strategies need to be devised by people who know a lot more about IT, a lot more about public administration and a lot more about commerce and inducing cultural change.

8. The professors were right. The former deputy director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) describes years of his own hard work trying to implement that strategy as no more valuable than putting lipstick on pigs [4]. That is no platform for a UK digital strategy.

Transforming day to day life
9. The 2015-20 Spending Review doubled the GDS budget to £450 million to cover the next four years. It is not clear why.

10. Interviewed by[5], their executive director said that GDS would be "going wholesale" in 2016, "iterating" and working on "Government as a Platform". At a 12 January 2016 conference on government IT/ICT in 2016, he tweeted[6]:"Awesome morning at Government ICT 2016 speaking about recasting the relationship between citizens and the state". The day before that, the Cabinet Secretary published a blog post, Civil Service priorities - what we’ve achieved, and what’s ahead [7], in which he said that one of those achievements is that: "at the Spending Review, an additional £1.8 billion investment in digital transformation, as well as £450 million specifically for GDS, was announced". The uses to which that £450 million is to be put remain unclear.

11. Unclear or not, the allocation has been made. In that sense the strategy has been decided upon and it's too late for DCMS or anyone else to be asking for comments. Unless DCMS can force the Cabinet Office/GDS and other departments to change their mind. Can it? Does DCMS have the weight to force a re-think?

12. That seems unlikely. £450 million over four years is more than 50 times as much as DCMS's budget for Tech City UK [8]. GDS's "going wholesale" has got nothing to do with DCMS and neither have the NHS's "amazing doctors and nurses", nor the "MOOCs" referred to in the press release, the driverless cars and the drones. What has the national IT strategy got to do with DCMS? And, given their interest in our quotidian existence, why aren't they asking us about the post-revolutionary survival of newspaper- and book-publishers?

Building the foundations
13. DCMS: "As more of our lives are conducted online, the need to keep ourselves safe from criminals and terrorists increases ... That’s why we’re spending £1.9 billion over the next five years through the National Cyber Security Programme". There goes another £1,900 million. Roughly what JP Morgan have spent on cybersecurity. Not that it did them much good, please see JPMorgan's 2014 Hack Tied to Largest Cyber Breach Ever [9]. That's according to Bloomberg. Who were also hacked [10]. Like Sony[11] and everyone else. Including cyber security experts and defence contractors, please see "When it comes to cyber security QinetiQ couldn’t grab their ass with both hands" [12].

14. GDS say[13]:"We want departments across government to adopt GOV.UK Verify increasingly as it progresses from beta to live because it’s secure, straightforward and meets the needs of their users". Such an unqualified promise of security is unrealistic, impractical and not deliverable. DCMS could usefully promote a cultural change in the understanding of the unavoidable risks of living in a "smartphone state". DCMS will have succeeded when the public read that promise of GDS's, assume that it's a joke and laugh.

15. A related cultural change, DCMS could usefully warn the public that downloading "apps" is synonymous with deliberately inserting viruses into our computers/tablets/phones. Also related, DCMS could work to make the public understand that they should be wary if there is no provision for compensation when cyber security is breached, whether in the case of government systems like GOV.UK Verify or "apps" from Tech City UK start-ups. The banks offer compensation. That keeps their noses clean, securitywise at least. By contrast, the compensation GDS and its "identity providers" offer when GOV.UK Verify is hacked is derisory.

Government as a Platform
16. DCMS's postbag in response to their press release will be full of "agile", "iterate", "pivot", "recast", "transform", "revolution" and "ecosystem" but the highest-frequency buzzword is likely to be "Government as a Platform"/"GaaP".

17. If all the departments of central government used the same payments platform, for example, that would be better than them all having their own. It would be cheaper, less risky and easier for us users. That's the GaaP pitch. It's just obviously right, isn't it.

18. No. How much cheaper? Suppose it's more expensive? When will the benefits start to accrue? Tomorrow or in ten years time? What problem would be solved? Just how difficult is it for users to use different payment systems? Is it more secure to put all your eggs in one payments platform or less? Why has Whitehall starved the pre-eminent platform we already have – the Government Gateway [14]? Starved it of resources, that is. For years. Can GDS be relied on to deliver new platforms? GOV.UK Verify, the identity assurance platform, is already years late, it is still not live, it can't assure anyone of the identity of a company or a partnership or a trust, only people and even then not all people, and it appears to be breaking all its own rules on privacy[15]. GOV.UK Notify may or may not soon be released for initial testing and GOV.UK Pay is still no more than a gleam in the ancien régime's eye.

19. There may be convincing arguments in favour of the massive centralisation, standardisation and personal information-sharing that are built into GaaP. The former deputy director of GDS paints a fantastic picture of public administration in the "smartphone state" based on a "single source of truth" [16, 20'50"-21'00"]. That's the weird biblical language of a bewildered prophet who may have spent a little too much time on his own in the desert.

20. DCMS could make the point that the virtues of GaaP are not obvious and that GaaP is the opposite of today's popular cultural moves towards more localism and more choice.

21. From the DCMS press release: "Every part of the UK economy and our lives has been digitised ... This digital fever exploded from the [Tech City UK] cluster in east London, and has spread to every part of the country, making the UK truly a ‘Tech Nation’ ...". This is simply fatuous. It may sound exciting in a juvenile way. But there's so much of this thoughtless vapourware about these days that what would truly be exciting is to read a realistic contribution that takes the UK's public administration and its economy seriously.



Updated 23:00
Para.1 in the post above is wrong in that the press release was issued by the Minister of State, Ed Vaizey MP, and not by the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP. It remains the case that the press release will have been written by officials and not by either politician.

Updated 16.1.17

It seems like a whole year since we wrote the blog post above but actually it's only 364 days.

The next frontier in our digital revolution needs a UK digital strategy according to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). You'd think that was pretty obvious and pretty important but 364 days later we're still waiting – there's no strategy.

Having described the DCMS consultation on a UK digital strategy as "simply false ... excitable ... credulous, ingenuous ... childish, unconvincing and confidence-sapping ... simply fatuous ... exciting in a juvenile way ... thoughtless vapourware ...", DMossEsq can face the absence of this strategy with equanimity.

Not so the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. They're getting a bit fed up. Their chairman isn't pleased and he's written to Matt Hancock MP at DCMS to ask what's going on:

"Our disappointment over such a long delay is compounded by the continued absence of the Government's long-promised 'Digital Strategy' ..." – ouch.

Mr Hancock must be getting used to this sort of wigging. His previous berth before DCMS was at the Government Digital Service (GDS) where – guess what – there's no strategy.

His replacement at GDS is Ben Gummer MP, an expert in the Black Death.

Given any organisation plagued with a lack of strategy, will it be known in future as a "gummer" or, more likely, a "hancock"?

Updated 22.1.17

20 January 2017: "The Government's digital strategy was due last summer, six months later than expected, and we are still waiting. I hope this means that it will coincide and be consistent with the wider Government Industrial Strategy, but I'm not going to hold my breath on that one.".

Is that Stephen Metcalfe MP speaking? The chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee? Once again expressing his dissatisfaction with the government?


It's Iain Wright MP, the chairman of another select committee, the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

29 December 2015, the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) said: "Early next year, we’ll set out a new Digital Strategy for the UK". It's now early 2017, a year later than early 2016, and still no strategy. Not at DCMS. And not at the Government Digital Service.

Back in 2015, DCMS said "challenge us - push us to do more. Let’s show the rest of the world how it’s done". The select committees are challenging DCMS and GDS and pushing them. The rest of the world remains mystified.

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