Saturday 9 April 2016

"Where we’re at, and where we’re going"

You never know where you are with the Government Digital Service (GDS). Except you do.

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Stephen Foreshew-Cain, their executive director, published a blog post the other day vaguely on the subject of GDS's mysterious strategy.

GDS's job is to transform government. Digitally. And how are they going to do that? By "working together" with other government departments, "doing things [?] with departments, and helping departments to do things [?] with one another".

Mr Foreshew-Cain's predecessor, Mike Bracken, had a similarly dismissive opinion of his benighted colleagues in Whitehall: "traditional policy-making is largely broken"
It's all about harmony and collaboration, you'd think ...

... but Mr Foreshew-Cain promptly accuses these other government departments of "decades of inaction and inertia". Have you ever tried inspiring harmony in someone by calling them "inert"?

It's not obvious that Mr Foreshew-Cain has grasped some of the more recondite elements of this collaboration lark.

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But at least he's clear that the job Whitehall must collaborate on is digital transformation. Except that he also says, in bold: "It’s not about computers ... The important thing that's changing here isn't the IT, it's the people. It's us".

Mr Foreshew-Cain's predecessor, Mike Bracken, had a similarly ambiguous relationship with digital-by-default"
The old GDS strategy was called "digital by default". Have they acknowledged failure and given that up now? "It's not about computers" ... Are they changing their name to "GPS", the Government People Service?

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"We're where the buck stops", he says, referring to GDS. Which may be news to several other government departments, currently labouring under the delusion that they, too, exercise a certain amount of responsibility.

Mr Foreshew-Cain's predecessor, Mike Bracken, also thought that GDS is the government.
While claiming that the government transformation buck stops with GDS, Mr Foreshew-Cain modestly acknowledges at the same time that GDS knows nothing about government. It's the other departments and their suppliers who "understand their users and services better than we ever will ... They know the policy, the intent of that policy, and the legislation that sits behind it ... They know their users better than anyone. They are by far the best people to meet those user needs".

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He says "it’s a mutually beneficial, two-way relationship" but there's no telling what GDS brings to the inert party. "We've got your back", apparently. What if anything does that mean?

Before you try to answer that, be aware that, having said it, Mr Foreshew-Cain "realised afterwards that the reverse is true: everyone else, all the departments and suppliers we deal with every day -- they've got our back too".

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"The unit of delivery is the team", as GDS have said for years and as Mr Foreshew-Cain repeats, unnecessarily, you might imagine, because it still makes no sense. But don't get the wrong impression.

Like his predecessor, Mike Bracken, thank goodness that Mr Foreshew-Cain is firing blanks.
You may entertain the notion that by "team" is meant some small sub-set of dedicated Whitehall people, expert in delivery. Not a bit of it – "the team I'm talking about here isn't GDS, it's all of government. It's the suppliers we deal with too. Transforming government, together". Everyone's got everyone else's backs and there's no telling who will be holding the buck when the music stops.

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An inveterate crowd-pleaser, Mr Foreshew-Cain tickles everyone's tummy with "digital" and "transformation" and "delivery" and "learning" and "putting the users first" and "agile" and "iterated" and "silo" and "ecosystem" and "registers" and "platform" ... but what does it amount to? How are GDS going to transform the relationship between people and the state? And when? And why?

Like his predecessor, Mike Bracken, and other senior members of GDS, Mr Foreshew-Cain should beware jibba jabba. There are limits.
He has the answer. GDS's one and only register. The register of countries. With 199 records on it. And 204 entries (?).

"To the casual observer, it doesn't look like much", he admits, "but it's a big deal". Is it? How big?

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Unlike Mr Foreshew-Cain, his predecessor, Mike Bracken, thought that strategy is a waste of time.
It is thought that GDS's new advisory board has its first meeting the day after tomorrow on Monday 11 April 2016. If they're meeting for anything more than the free sandwiches their first demand may be for a new GDS. Given "where we're at", that could be "where we're going".


Updated 12.5.16

Mr Foreshew-Cain promised to tell us Where we’re at, and where we’re going and, after reading the post above, you may be forgiven for still not knowing where the Government Digital Service (GDS) is going.

Hardly suprising, as Mr Foreshew-Cain told us himself yesterday in What government might look like in 2030:
I don’t claim any special ability to see the future, and I think predicting specific technological advances is probably a fool’s errand ...
Nevertheless, he's made another brave attempt at foreshewing the future. He says both ...
... when I think about government in 2030, I don’t think about what it will passively become, but what we will actively make it.
... and:
... the biggest problem we face is re-shaping ourselves so that we’re better placed to change as rapidly as the world around us.
Which is it? Is he proposing to actively make the future? Or is he more inclined to be event-driven?

He doesn't answer those questions but of one thing he is sure. By 2030:
The way that the law is made will have changed. Today we are often blocked by the stuff written on the faces of bills about which we have limited understanding of feasibility, but by 2030 we will have legislation that supports service delivery, not blocks it.

White papers & green papers would be replaced by public prototypes of new or iterated services ...
Parliamentary government will be a thing of the past. No more silly old bills, white papers or green papers.

Government is all about power. And if Parliament doesn't have that power, someone else must. Who?

Mr Foreshew-Cain thinks power will reside in the data:
Data-driven government

In 15 years from now, the work we’ve already begun in the government data programme will be having far-reaching effects.

Better use of government data will change the world for business, for government itself, and for citizens ...

We will have transformed the relationship between citizen and state ...
In that case, anyone who can change the data can influence policy. Power will move away from Parliament and citizens will have a new relationship with whoever can access GDS's registers, their "single source of truth" in the cloud.
If we get all this right, public services will be so easy to build, they could become almost disposable.

Imagine being able to create a new service in hours, not months. Imagine being able to create two slightly different versions of a service, and see which one works best. And then, having done the research and iterated and improved the better one, simply killing off the one that didn’t make the cut.

Imagine being able to do that at negligible cost.
You can imagine all you like but on the evidence so far GDS take not hours but years to create new services like basic payments for farmers and identity assurance for us Brits and even then they don't work.

You may agree with Mr Foreshew-Cain that that will all change in the future:
... we’re building, or helping departments to build, new common components that make services easier to assemble - a shared digital infrastructure ...
We were made exactly the same promise by the object-oriented prophets in the late 1980s if not earlier and it didn't happen – according to Mr Foreshew-Cain, the work is still outstanding.

You have to have a good reason to believe that services-assembled-from-components will happen this time. Do you?

GDS won't have changed. Mr Foreshew-Cain promises us that:

In 2030, and in the years that follow, we shall still be iterating. We shall still be doing the user research, doing the hard work to make things simple.

There’s no definition of done. We’re never done ...
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We have been quoting from Mr Foreshew-Cain's speech delivered to TechUK’s Public Sector 2030 event the day before yesterday.

The funny thing is that he was so busy telling the congregation that we will all be governed by the cloud service providers in 2030 – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple – that he forgot to tell them what's happening this month, May 2016.

For that, you need to read an article in, Verify to go live by end of month.
The GOV.UK Verify [RIP] identity assurance service will hopefully go live by the end of this month, according to the head of the Government Digital Service.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain told UKAuthority at the techUKPS2030 conference that the platform is currently in its live beta phase and undergoing a service assessment. He said he expects it to move into live in the next couple of weeks.
It didn't happen last month when it was meant to. Is GOV.UK Verify (RIP) "on track" to go live this month?

Predicting specific technological advances is probably a fool’s errand ...

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But GOV.UK Verify (RIP) has not escaped everyone's attention. Certainly not the cloud service providers' attention. At yesterday's session of the European Identity & Cloud Conference 2016, guess who won an award:
The European Identity & Cloud Award for the category Best Innovation in eGovernment / eCitizen went to UK Government Digital Services (GDS) which has added a new verification service called GOV.UK Verify [RIP]. This service is a simple [says who?] way for UK citizens to access an increasing [says who?] range of UK government services online. UK GDS is awarded for its continued [if unavailing] efforts for enabling citizen IDs for access [which we already have via the Government Gateway] to a variety of services.

Updated 18 October 2016

The Digital Economy Bill is currently at the Committee stage. There was a consultation. There have been debates in the House of Commons. Written evidence has been submitted by interested parties and is being considered by the 19-member Committee (p.2). Anyone can submit written evidence to the Committee until 27 October 2016. The Committee is hearing oral testimony in 12 evidence sessions, televised and open to the public. If the Bill survives this stage, there are seven more stages to get through before, in more or less amended form, it is enacted by royal assent.

No doubt this time-consuming and detailed scrutiny procedure majoring on public exposure can be improved but this is the painstaking state of the art of producing legislation successfully after several hundred years of democracy here in the UK.

It gets results. The drafting of the Digital Economy Bill, particularly Part 5 (p.28ff), has been quickly and publicly unmasked as deficient, slapdash and slovenly and will need to be heavily amended.

Compare that success with the alternative proposed by Stephen Foreshew-Cain, chief executive of the Government Digital Service (GDS) at the time, May 2016, in What government might look like in 2030:
By 2030 policy making will be minimally designed and built as a framework which allows flexibility and feedback, not as a fait accompli.

The way that the law is made will have changed. Today we are often blocked by the stuff written on the faces of bills about which we have limited understanding of feasibility, but by 2030 we will have legislation that supports service delivery, not blocks it.

White papers & green papers would be replaced by public prototypes of new or iterated services.
No hint of public scrutiny, it's no democratic alternative at all. What are or were – Mr Foreshew-Cain is gone now – GDS talking about?

Updated 8.12.16 1

Today is the fourth and last day of the Supreme Court's monumental Brexit Referendum hearing. Can the Judiciary make law? Can they instruct the Executive? Can the Executive act without the authorisation of the Legislature? Is the Separation of Powers breaking down? Can the Legislature park its supremacy and allow itself to be instructed by a Plebiscite? Who is supreme? How supreme? What about the European Court of Justice? And what about that EU court's fight for power against the Council of Europe's Court of Human Rights?

While our understanding of parliamentary supremacy is being re-discovered in Westminster, or even re-made, don't forget that 1½ miles to the north in Holborn there is a small band of user experience merchants whose last executive director believes that by 2030 it's UX people who will be making the law, and not MPs or the government or judges:
By 2030 policy making will be minimally designed and built as a framework which allows flexibility and feedback, not as a fait accompli.

The way that the law is made will have changed. Today we are often blocked by the stuff written on the faces of bills about which we have limited understanding of feasibility, but by 2030 we will have legislation that supports service delivery, not blocks it.

White papers & green papers would be replaced by public prototypes of new or iterated services.

Updated 8.12.16 2

Under Mike Bracken, GDS had a combative relationship with many of the departments of state. "Traditional policy-making is largely broken", he told Whitehall, please see above.

His successor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, was similar in that he, too, like Mr Bracken, had no experience of government. He called for a more collaborative approach with the rest of Whitehall but spoilt it with references to "decades of inaction and inertia".

With Foreshew-Cain now also gone, will the relationship improve under ex-Goldman Sachs man Kevin Cunnington?

The omens are not good.

GDS celebrates its fifth birthday today. Earlier, they published a draft history of the organisation, including unremitting praise for the success of the award-winning GOV.UK, the face of the UK government on-line.

And yet, if you read the Inside GOV.UK blog posts about their content operating model, you hear a different story.

Trisha Doyle, explains that there are about 3,000 pages of GOV.UK that are maintained by her team. Those pages are exemplary, unlike the 300,000 or more other pages maintained by editors in the departments. They're rubbish. "Low quality", as she calls them. Out of date, too many PDFs, badly catalogued, ... "Users' time is being wasted".

It would be premature to declare an armistice.

Updated 1.3.17

GOV.UK is the Government Digital Service's award-winning face of the UK government on-line. It has been since October 2012. Have GDS rested on their laurels since then? Not a bit of it. Only the other day, there they were telling us How we’re making GOV.UK work harder for users.

"GOV.UK is the government’s most mature digital product", they say. That can't be true, can it. Given that the government started digitising during the Second World War. While GDS concentrate on the front end only, public administration still relies on back-end legacy applications developed decades ago.

Also, "we’ve been the central publishing platform for all of government for nearly 4 years". That's not true either. Universal Jobmatch, the most popular government website, is still on Directgov (for jobseekers) and BusinessLink (for employers). Try submitting your brand new confirmation statement – what used to be an annual return – to Companies House and you won't find yourself on GOV.UK either. No, you'll be on

A month ago (8.12.16 2), GDS gave it as their firm opinion that although the 3,000 GOV.UK pages for which they are responsible are exemplary, the other 300,000 are low quality, they include too many PDFs, they're badly catalogued and their users' time is being wasted. The other departments of state are clearly rubbish at editing GOV.UK content.

They need GDS to help them, poor lambs, and with all their wealth of experience that's just what GDS are going to do: "we’ll be working with departments to help them understand how their content is used and understood by citizens".

GDS are going to provide "a supported API [applications programme interface] for content so that anyone can take a reliable feed of our content". Reliable? Says who?

GDS will "be working on site search ... This is a fundamental issue that we can’t leave any longer". Maybe. But why have they left it this long?

"We want to continue successfully working in an agile way". That didn't help at DEFRA, did it. It hasn't stopped GOV.UK Verify (RIP) being years late. GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Notify are still nowhere near going live. The other departments are developing their own alternatives in the absence of GDS services. Perhaps, like the Americans, GDS should get out of their rut and consider moving on from agile.

"We want to help transform the relationship between citizen and state ... GOV.UK ... is where this ‘relationship’ actually happens". Try telling that to a physiotherapist trying to get a 94 year-old to do her exercises.

Another day, another set of GDS's alternative facts. That's what it looks like ...

... but not to Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and head of the UK civil service. He tweeted about this GDS blog yesterday. "Good blog from @gdsteam on the work they're doing to improve the GOV.UK website for users". Goodness knows how he worked that out but he has to say these things, he's still on the hook.

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