Wednesday 29 June 2016

Communicating via the walls

Good culture evolves from the bottom up, Stephen Foreshew-Cain told us the other day. So does bad culture. And culture can be influenced from the top, for good or ill.

Mr Foreshew-Cain is the executive director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), where "we don’t always get it right, but one thing we’ve found that does work is communicating via the walls", he says. "Communicating via the walls" means pinning posters up, reminding the staff to be bold, for example.

There always has been a thriving industry in motivational tea towels. But that's not GDS's raison d'être. They're meant to be there in Whitehall to accomplish the digital transformation of government.

That's not about computers, Mr Foreshew-Cain says. What is it about then?

In a nutshell, "digital means applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations".

That definition of "digital" comes from Tom Loosemore, deputy director at GDS until his internet "jibba jabba" caused him to be ejected last September. The internet, or at least the web, has been used to distribute pornography in industrial quantities. Presumably that isn't the culture Messrs Foreshew-Cain and Loosemore want to emulate but nothing in their definition of "digital" prevents that interpretation – "the digital transformation of government" means making pornography easily available to everyone everywhere?

Mr Loosemore doesn't advocate pornography. He's far more interested in the government compiling a single source of truth, registers of everyone's personal information, a pre-internet delusion suffered most notably by the Stasi.

Disappointingly, Mr Foreshew-Cain just seems to advocate whatever Mr Loosemore advocates. Him and Mike Bracken and Martha-now-Lady Lane Fox.

Even more disappointingly, so does the editor of Computer Weekly magazine, please see After Brexit, we have a legacy government - so let's build a new one based on digital technology: "let’s approach the post-Brexit government IT world like a tech startup wherever possible. Eliminate silos from day one. Integrate systems and processes under a common digital architecture. Start from citizens’ needs, not the needs of the Whitehall machine. Build a common data platform and make that data open. Develop a government ecosystem built on open standards and APIs ...".

Most disappointing is the case of Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, who has just published 5 ways we are putting data in the driving seat: "Comparing individual data against population data will help managers predict and prevent patterns of infection in hospitals, or incidents of violence or self-harm in prisons. You will all be able to think of similar examples ... Could we go further, and replace human decisions about people’s lives with machine learning and predictive analysis?".

The funny thing is that GDS aren't actually all that good at digital. Their batch application system for voter registration fell over when too many people tried to use it. Ditto their petitions system. Their payments system for farmers had to be abandoned. And so it goes, on. Quite why Whitehall would listen to GDS's walls or read their tea towels is not clear. Nor is it clear what GDS have to offer local government.

Unlike the rest of Whitehall and unlike our local authorities in the UK, GDS aren't steeped in the business of government. Their chosen special subject is front ends. They're interested in the user interface between people and websites. That's all.

And that's a problem ...

... a problem laid bare in Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation (hat tip: David Chassels), a paper written by two academics at Brunel, Paul Waller and Professor Vishanth Weerakkody (pp.7-8):
We argue that there are (at least) three delusions associated with this approach to deploying digital technology in government and public administration. These delusions are that:
  • it is about slashing administrative costs: in fact it raises needs for resources for development, maintenance, security, cyber-defence, dealing with scam imitations (UK HM Revenue and Customs acted to shut down 1,740 illegal sites in 2013), extension/redesign to meet new channels e.g. mobile platforms, and complete redevelopment every 5-10 years,
  • everything has to be user-focused: but not much of a government or public administrative function directly involves citizens so a focus on the interface misses the point about “transforming government processes”,
  • technology can “rationalise” government and public administration: but both are rooted in nations’ constitutions, in policy and in law, and are in constant flux.
Messrs Waller and Weerakkody are adamant. The nature of public services has been misunderstood by the internet jibba jabberers. Government departments are not commercial firms. Social and political science is "a strange land for many e-government academics". Government is different (p.22):
Always, the next technological fashion — be that big data analytics, algorithmic regulation, platform government, co-creation or whatever — must be critically assessed against the distinct context of politics and government.
It's quite hard work reading the Waller and Weerakkody paper. But useful.

Easier to read one of GDS's tea towels. But why bother?


Updated 30.6.16

The DMossEsq blog uses Google's Blogger platform on which, when someone kindly submits a comment, a copy is emailed to DMossEsq and the comment is displayed on the blog ...

... unless it's too long, in which case it isn't displayed ...

... as happened this morning – David Chassels submitted the following comment at 11:27 a.m. today, 30 June 2016 [24.11.166: Google updated Blogger the other day. Longer comments are now supported and Mr Chassels's comment is now displayed below]:
The hard working folk at GDS have had very poor support from their leaders who have failed dismally as described to truly understand “digital”. Politicians like most business people are understandably confused and this ignorant of underlying complexity in building and delivering an end to end service; and wow the vendors take advantage of that! Hence the need to be the ”intelligent customer” as articulated by Bernard Jenkin chairman of PASC which reported in 2011 on Good Governance: effective use of IT and its follow up in 2013 “Public Procurement: capability and effectiveness” (link)

Reality is that driving a “digital service” is as indicated much more that a web form it is about the whole business operation to deliver effectively. Users internal and external should be the drivers and in fairness to the “IT” industry this was recognised over 15 years ago and tagged “BPM” as the required “discipline” see this forum (link).

However sadly the supporting software remained in component complexity. This was the very challenge which was recognised by many we took on in the 90s! Yes real R&D to deliver a working solution with early adopters taken over 20 years. But you know what it worked! In effect we opened that door and given the recognition of the importance of Government buyers understanding what they are actually buying, we thought now is our time! So we embarked up trying to attract attention from ”our” Government when ICT Futures was created by the then new Government and quickly followed by GDS.

Just to put into context the effectiveness of what we created we had a Government agency UK Sport as early adopters which handles the end to management of grants to support our elite athletes. Now over 15 years supporting constant change recognised as the most efficient grant body - see here in 2011 (link). Total cost including original build less than £2m yet doing the same maybe even more complex than the grant system to farmers under RPA which seems to be on second attempt with total costs over £400m and as noted GDS contributed to that failure! Just this year UKSport converts to web from client server over half of the 500 UIs converted total cost less that £50K! That is what is called “disruptive” and in UK that represents a huge challenge…..!

Now you would think all this would excite Government as proof of very significant savings and GDS with its CTO who was also responsible for ICT Futures seeking “..on how government can use innovative new technology to deliver better, cheaper solutions” . Well not so we were ignored so many times as were many invites to visit UK Sport to see just how. GDS leaders had their own agenda with a fixation on open source and doing it themselves (and sticking bits of paper on walls!) Well now we know the result as GDS failed. Time for accountability…….?

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