Wednesday 18 April 2018

GDS & the banshees 4 – in defence of silos

The system is not set up to do stuff.
It’s set up, frankly,
to have an intellectual pissing match
around how its things should be.

Easter 2018 will be remembered briefly for the epic querulous caterwauling of the banshees when data was taken away from GDS and given to DCMS.

The passionate tweet alongside was emitted in response to a 29 March 2018 announcement on the machinery of government by the Prime Minister: "This written statement confirms that the data policy and governance functions of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will transfer from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The transfer includes responsibility for data sharing (including coordination of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act 2017), data ethics, open data and data governance".

No surprises there:
  • The Department for Culture Media and Sport changed its name to "The Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport" back in July 2017.
  • 18 months before that, in December 2015, DCMS issued a consultation document on the UK's digital economy making it clear that it was in their remit and not GDS's.
Nine months before that, in March 2015, there was a real surprise when GDS acquired responsibility for data in some unspecified way but they didn't do anything with this responsibility and their attempt in May 2016 to produce an ethical framework for data science confirmed that they had nothing to offer.

Nevertheless, in solidarity with Mr Bracken, Stephen Foreshew-Cain dutifully feigned indignation at the loss of power to DCMS, please see the tweet alongside.

You should know that Mr Foreshew-Cain took over as Executive Director of GDS in September 2015, replacing Mr Bracken. Also, that he only lasted 10 months, after which he was replaced by Kevin Cunnington, ...

... who has remained silent on the DCMS issue, no public wailing from him, no gnashing of teeth and not a single garment has been rended (rent?).

No such restraint from Mr Bracken. He was back on banshee duty on 4 April 2018 in the New Statesman magazine: "To elicit government-wide institutional reforms in a digital age, one needs three levers – digital, data and technology – to be in one place aligned to the financial levers of government ...To take data policy out of the centre and move it without mandate or clear explanation to a weak departments with no track record of delivery or cross-Whitehall power ... doesn’t make sense ... Last weekend, the UK seems to have made government a little bit slower, more siloed, harder to reform and more complex. Without a clear statement of motivation, you have to ask: what is the user need?".

It all sounds quite plausible at first but you have to ask how does Mr Bracken know that digital, data and technology have to be in one place, that's a rule he's just made up, suppose he's wrong. They were in one place in GDS and nothing was happening. After no time at all the argument starts to degenerate into what he himself refers to as "an intellectual pissing match". GDS has a poor track record of delivery and suffers from much-diminished cross-Whitehall power. And its claims to be driven only by user needs do not stand up.

Sometimes these banshees spoil it by wailing just a bit too much. Take a look at "last weekend, the UK seems to have made government a little bit slower, more siloed, harder to reform and more complex". Whitehall departments as currently established are "silos", in his language, and Mr Bracken doesn't like silos.

Nor does Mr Foreshew-Cain as we discovered two years ago, please see the tweet alongside.

The suggestion is that a collection of reactionary old permanent secretaries sit around Whitehall defending the entrenched entitlement of their departments against all-comers, standing in the way of internet era progress offered to them by the enlightened likes of Messrs Bracken and Foreshew-Cain.

Well that won't wash, will it – "one needs three levers – digital, data and technology – to be in one place" is exactly what you'd expect a selfish and benighted silo-defender to say, followed by the threat that change would make "government a little bit slower, ... harder to reform and more complex".

The comparison isn't exact. The long gone Messrs Bracken and Foreshew-Cain never were permanent secretaries and and they don't have the decades of public service behind them that normally go with the job. But the petulant cry from the sidelines that disruption is all very well for other departments but keep your hands off GDS sounds pretty authentically reactionary. Some silos are more equal than others?

Silos in Acatlán, Hidalgo, Mexico.


Updated 12.6.18

Major government initiatives are announced on television, on the radio and in the national newspapers and periodicals. There are people who remember when they were even announced on the floor of the House of Commons.

Minor matters like medical reports on the latest ailments of the Government Digital Service (GDS) used to merit a press release. There was a time when GDS would write endless self-congratulatory blog posts and carpet bomb Twitter with their awesome news.

Long gone now. The GDS blog posts have all but stopped. Their Twitter timeline is like one of those ghost towns in cowboy films – tumbleweed, a hyena or two, and the odd crazed old gap-toothed prospector.

Last March saw the nadir of this PR curve, with news being whispered to a few selected journalists in the margins of a conference, please see above.

Except that now the nadir has sunk even lower, with the briefing involving apparently just one single journalist, Bryan Glick, the editor of Computer Weekly magazine. GDS loses digital identity policy to DCMS, he told us yesterday, 11 June 2018: "The Government Digital Service (GDS) has lost responsibility for digital identity policy, with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) taking over".

An 1861 painting of Mary Celeste
(named Amazon at the time),
by an unknown artist
Apparently "GDS will still be developing Verify [RIP], its in-house digital identity assurance system, but wider policy now rests with Matt Hancock, secretary of state at DCMS. The move took place last month, without any public announcement, but was revealed by Hancock during a press briefing last week".

Mr Glick is the only journalist known to have reported this move. Was he the only journalist at the press briefing? That's what it looks like.

All the hot air has escaped. The party's over ...

... and all that's left of GOV.UK Verify (RIP) is a wrinkly old dusty bit of a deflated balloon while GDS comes to resemble nothing more than the Mary Celeste.

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