Sunday 18 September 2016

Ruminating about process

It's over two years since we looked at the achievements of the Government Digital Service (GDS). It looked to us then as though the big achievers digitalwise were not GDS at all, despite their noisy claims, but Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

GDS aim one day to deliver something called "Government as a Platform (GaaP)". They have a publishing platform and a performance platform already up and running. They're working on at least three other platforms:
  • GOV.UK Verify (RIP) is meant to be a standard cross-government platform for identity assurance.
  • GOV.UK Notify is meant to be a standard way for government to send texts, emails and letters.
  • GOV.UK Pay is meant to be a standard way for government to collect payments.
GOV.UK Notify
Five days ago GDS published From pounds to pennies and months to minutes. They make a vague claim there to the effect that GOV.UK Notify could reduce central government costs and reduce the time taken to make changes. There's no guarantee that these reductions will be made. Just a claim.

"GOV.UK Notify now has 8 service teams sending texts and emails as part of our private beta", GDS tell us. That was 13 September 2016. Three days later, we learnt that it's not just government departments communicating with each other, government departments are communicating with some suppliers, too – Using GOV.UK Notify to communicate with suppliers. Presumably government departments and their suppliers have always communicated with each other. Is GOV.UK Notify an improvement? In what way? GDS don't tell us.

Back in July 2016, Civil Service World (CSW) magazine told us that GOV.UK Notify has "now begun sending messages to people applying for student finance and UK visas as part of the government’s invite-only public beta testing". There has been no update on the progress of this beta testing.

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer is quoted in the same CSW article as saying: "In GOV.UK Notify, we have developed an impressive, cost-saving product that can be used across any government department for lots of different services – making it easier for the public to interact with government and keep track of their applications and requests". There is no evidence to support these claims of his.

That's GDS.

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph newspaper announces that HMRC have tested text messages with over 13,000 taxpayers and found that they increase tax payment rates by up to 7%. That looks like a properly constructed case in support of using texts, unlike the GDS claims.

What's more, there is no sign that HMRC are using GOV.UK Notify. They seem to have their own text-generating system. Bang goes GDS's hope of providing the single platform for government notifications.

"On Friday 2 September we took our very first live payment on GOV.UK Pay ... This is the first time we’ve processed a payment using a real card". That was GDS, in GOV.UK Pay is ready for business.

Would you describe a payments system that has processed one single solitary payment as "ready for business"?

Is that lonely only child of a payment enough evidence to support GDS's claim that "we're making it easier for citizens to make payments, and more efficient for civil servants to process these payments"?

GDS have four "beta partners" in the development of GOV.UK Pay – Companies House, the Environment Agency, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. HMRC isn't one of them.

According to GDS's UK government performance platform, HMRC received about 63 million payments in the year to September 2015. Quite why the statistics stop then is not clear.

What is clear is that we're talking about a lot of payments. HMRC have to think commercially and responsibly about how they collect these payments.

HMRC publish the methodology by which they calculate the cost of collecting each payment, 19p on average. GDS provide no methodology and no unit cost.

It would be worrying if HMRC entrusted their 63 million receipts p.a. to GOV.UK Pay on the basis of GDS's hot-headed claims about a single payment. But they haven't. Neither has anyone else.

GOV.UK Verify (RIP)
GDS's foray into the world of identity assurance is a disaster.

Meanwhile, HMRC added millions of users to their new personal tax accounts service this year, using the old Government Gateway.

And that's not their only on-line service by any means. HMRC processed 1.19 billion stamp duty reserve tax (SDRT) transactions, for example, in the year to September 2015 (digital take-up = 100%). Who is paying this SDRT? GOV.UK Verify (RIP) doesn't tell HMRC the answer because GOV.UK Verify (RIP) isn't involved.

Then there are the 412 million PAYE transactions (95.8%) and the 146 million customs transactions (100%) and the 63 million payments HMRC receive every year, please see above, etc ...

That's a lot of users and they all have to be identified. GOV.UK Verify (RIP) involvement? Nil.

It was an embarrassing mistake for Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, to promote GDS as the organisation to deliver government transformation. As GDS themselves put it, "this page is no longer being updated".

It was a mistake for Matt Hancock, the previous Cabinet Office minister, and it's a mistake for Ben Gummer, the current one, please see above. It was a mistake for Stephen Foreshew-Cain, GDS's last executive director, and it would be a mistake for Kevin Cunnington, its first director general ...

... but he hasn't made that mistake. Instead, with John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, he's taking GDS in another direction, GDS promised 'national presence' as it takes over DWP's Digital Academy and leaves Aviation House.

That may be more up GDS's street. They are obviously happy ruminating about process – please see Using Activity Theory to build effective personas, for example, or 100 rounds of user research on GOV.UK Verify [RIP].

There's no doubt two years after the previous review that HMRC remain the great achievers when it comes to delivering on-line government transaction systems.


Updated 5.3.17

A triumphant Government Digital Service (GDS) announced the other day on 1 March 2017 that GOV.UK Notify is now open for use.

"Back in May last year GOV.UK Notify sent its first messages as part of our invite-only beta phase", they said. "Now - after 9 months, 3.5 million messages, 32 live services, 850 code deployments, and 500 hours of user research — we’re making Notify available to all of central government".

GOV.UK Notify is a GDS service for central government departments to "send emails and text messages to [their] users". About time, too, you may say. What took them so long?

It's not quite like that.

It may have taken GDS until now to make a notification service "available to all of central government" but DVLA, for example, the driver and vehicle licensing agency, have been sending emails for more than 10 years now:
From: Vehicle Licensing Online []
Sent: 19 April 2006 17:12
To: <DMossEsq>
Subject: Confirmation of Tax Disc Application


Confirmation of Tax Disc Application

Thank you for using DVLA Vehicle Licensing Online. Your application for a new
Tax Disc has been successful.

Reference Number: 1031 0163 9722 1190
Application made on: 19/04/2006 17:08:02
Tax Disc Period: 12 months
Tax Disc Duty: £175.00

The Tax Disc and receipt should arrive in the post within 5 working days.

Should your tax disc not arrive after 5 working days, then please phone us on 0870 850 4444 and choose option 4 then option 1 and be prepared to quote the Reference Number.
GDS tell us that "we expect to start offering Notify to local government by late 2017, once we’ve sorted out the pricing model". But even the dear old London Borough of Merton have been sending emails for at least the past four years:
Sent: 22 January 2013 13:05
To: <DMossEsq>
Subject: Payment Confirmation

This is an e-mail from London Borough of Merton.

Your payment has been processed successfully. The details of your payment are :

Payment Reference : 28040
Permit Number : RPP11937
Amount Paid : 65.00 pounds
Date Paid : 22-Jan-2013

This message has been generated automatically. Please do not reply.
Neither Merton nor DVLA are likely to share GDS's excitement about GOV.UK Notify.

Nor Companies House. Here's a notification they sent over 13 years ago:
Sent: 02 January 2004 10:41
To: <DMossEsq>
Subject: Companies House WebFiling Service

This message has been generated in response to your request for a Security Code for use on the Companies House WebFiling service.

Your Security Code is <security code>.

This code will be automatically linked to the e-mail address <DMossEsq>, and any company transactions received under this code will be confirmed to this address.

Additional security codes can be requested for alternative e-mail addresses.

Thank you for visiting the Companies House Website. Contact Centre tel: 0870 33 33 636 or e-mail:
GDS list 33 central government services currently testing GOV.UK Notify on their performance dashboard. Guess who's not on the list.

That's right.

Her Majesty's Customs and Excise Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The big one.

Just how big is made clear in an interview given to Derek du Preez, please see HMRC Digital Chief – ‘This transformation is the biggest in our history’: "Hardik Shah, Deputy Director, Chief Digital and Information Officer group, HMRC, ... explained that £536 billion of revenue is collected by HMRC every year and that this is the amount that flows through its IT systems ... HMRC processes more than 2 billion transactions every year and Shah said that 90% of those happen online already ...".

HMRC have had automated notification operating for years. Here they were last year for example telling DMossEsq that it's time to submit one of his VAT returns:
Sent: 24 July 2016 02:30
To: <DMossEsq>
Subject: Reminder to file your VAT Return

Hello Subscriber

You need to submit a VAT return for the period 01.05.16 to 31.07.16 for <Company name>, VAT registration number <VAT no.>.

To submit the return go to the HMRC Services: Sign in or register page on GOV.UK to sign in.

Alternatively, if you use accounting software, in most cases you can use it to quickly prepare and submit your VAT return directly to HMRC.

You'll need to pay your VAT bill by the deadline shown on your VAT return. You may have to pay a surcharge if you don't pay on time.

For details of the due date for returns and payments go to the VAT Returns guide on GOV.UK.

The easiest way to avoid missing a payment deadline is to pay by Direct Debit.

Don't reply to this email as it's an automated reminder.

HM Revenue and Customs
HMRC send texts as well as emails, as noted in the Daily Telegraph article referred to above and in their guidance note on how to recognise phishing attacks. GDS will have to produce similar guidance for their users when GOV.UK Notify finally goes live. (The service is currently still in beta.)

HMRC don't need GOV.UK Notify. Or GOV.UK Pay – they're already used to collecting hundreds of billions of pounds p.a. Famously, they don't need GOV.UK Verify (RIP) either. That's three platform services for GDS's Government as a Platform strategy that HMRC aren't using (excluding a bit of grudging use of GOV.UK Verify (RIP)).

GDS are trying to get government departments to stick all their applications and all their data in the cloud. That's the strategy. There's a long way to go. But not for HMRC. They're already well on the way, as they told Mr du Preez:
When we started our transformation in 2015, we realised our IT infrastructure was not suitable. That’s when we started our virtualisation programme. Some 50% of our IT estate is already virtualised, and given the size of our estate, that’s not a small thing. And we did that in less than 2 years.

Almost 90% of our SAP estate is virtualised, in a private cloud. It wasn’t easy, technologies were developing, security isn’t easy, so we had to do a lot of work with our partners to get the right solution. But it’s now 90% virtualised. All of our SAP apps were virtualised in about 9 months.

We are now in the final stage of database virtualisation, and we only have three databases left. Hopefully by the end of the financial year we will be 100% virtualised on our SAP estate.
Who is leading whom here? You can notify whoever you like with your answer by email, text, tweet or letter, but from where we're sitting it looks as if GDS aren't so much devising the government's transformation strategy as trying breathlessly to keep up with HMRC.

Updated 13.4.18

The Government Digital Service's job is to transform government. Instead of doing that, they ruminate about process.

Katy Arnold, the head of user research at the UK Home Office, posted a tweet yesterday morning about storing and sharing the results of user research.

User research is one of the processes government transformers are meant to go through to achieve their objectives.

Lorna Wall is the user research lead for GOV.UK Verify (RIP), the inanimate pan-government identity assurance scheme still being promoted hopelessly and pointlessly by GDS.

Ms Wall commented (or ruminated) on Ms Arnold's tweet. Not once. But twice.

There have been about 150 rounds of user research into GOV.UK Verify (RIP) and it's a "challenge", she says, to store the results accessibly.

This research has been going on for nearly five years she says in her second tweet and, what with changes in personnel, it's hard to keep track of which research findings led to which design decisions. That, too, is a "challenge".

You'd think that the user research profession might have solved this problem by now. Apparently not.

At GDS, they continue to conduct user research into GOV.UK Verify (RIP), they've done it about 150 times, they've been doing it for nearly five years and they're still "struggling" to maintain the relevance of all this work. Meantime, GOV.UK Verify (RIP) has failed.

That was the real challenge – to make pan-government identity assurance work. They've failed. But work continues to be done on cataloguing their user research results.

Have you ever seen a clearer example of missing the point? Of continuing the process because the process must be continued even though it's not working?

What was GDS's objective?

To deliver an identity assurance scheme?

Or to maintain an accessible set of research results?

Neither has been achieved.

In this instance, GDS have lost the plot.

Let that be an example to others, who are supposed to be guided in their attempts to transform government by the syllabus taught at GDS's academy. 5 years. 150 iterations. No cigar.

Updated 17.4.18

According to the Autumn Budget 2017 (p.5) the UK government expects to receive payments of about £769 billion in 2018-19:

The Government Digital Service's payments platform, GOV.UK Pay, collected its first payments on 13 November 2016 – £170. During fiscal year 2017-18 it collected a total of £38,653,834.

That's 0.005% of the 2018-19 figure. At this rate 99.995% of all receipts will not involve GOV.UK Pay.

On 31 March 2016 GDS described GOV.UK Pay as a "greenfield project". They provided a link explaining that "the term greenfield project is used in many industries, including software development where it means to start a project without the need to consider any prior work". Two years later, the result of not considering any prior work is a system which collects 0.005% p.a. of the government's receipts.

How did GDS get into this ridiculous backwater?

Their March 2016 blog post says that "user research showed us how frustrating payment pages can be". Good old user research. GDS's favourite process. It doesn't seem to have helped GOV.UK Pay any more than it helped GOV.UK Verify (RIP), please see above.

The blog post says also "we’ve had the freedom to make good technical choices that address user needs". Good old user needs. GDS's lodestar. But they're not the only ones, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and others must be quite good at working out user needs, perhaps better than GDS are, given that 99.995% of receipts don't rely on GOV.UK Pay.

The natives are getting restless about claims to be uniquely guided by user needs, please see the tweet alongside.

"... we’ve built a consistent and reliable user experience hosted securely on GOV.UK", GDS say. Maybe. But 99.995% of the time that experience is irrelevant.

Nowhere in their March 2016 blog post do GDS say how much money will be saved by using GOV.UK Pay nor when the savings can be expected to start. That's no way to mount a business case.

But of course GDS aren't trying to mount a business case. They're trying, ineffectually as it turns out, to bring about a callow vision they have of government as a platform. It's ideological. An "intellectual pissing match", as Mike Bracken would say.

How much longer will GDS be allowed to ruminate? When will they be expected to deliver something?

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