Monday 12 May 2014

GDS's achievement

That was GDS's proud claim made at the Sprint 14 celebration this year – "we've achieved so much". But is it true?

GDS is the Government Digital Service and their mission is to transform government by making public services digital by default – "we are the show", said their executive director, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE, in a speech (17'39") to the Code for America conference last October. Is that true? Are GDS the show?

Do you have a 91 year-old mother-in-law? DMossEsq does and he had to help her to submit the form to renew her Blue Badge. (The national Blue Badge Scheme provides a range of parking and other motoring concessions for people who are registered blind or have severe mobility problems.) There's the form, on the web, completed, off it went and some time soon she should have a new Blue Badge. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Do you have a car? DMossEsq does and he had to renew his tax disc. There's the form, on the web, completed, off it went and soon the new tax disc arrived in the post. Pretty efficient. The on-line service has been available since 2006. Nothing to do with GDS.

Have you ever had a parking ticket? DMossEsq has. He got one at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night when he parked in a side street in a bay reserved for car clubs, whatever they are. £55. Painful. But at least he was able to pay on-line. There's the form, on the web, completed, off it went and soon DMossesq was £55 lighter. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Have you ever had to submit a planning application? DMossEsq has. There's the form, on the web, completed, off it goes and soon all the neighbours are having a look on-line and thinking to themselves they don't like the look of those windows, why can't the Mosses get anything right, what a stupid shape for a kitchen. Pretty efficient. All on-line. Nothing to do with GDS.

Are you the trustee of a pension scheme? DMossEsq is and he has to submit an annual return to the Pensions Regulator. There's the form, on the web, completed, off it goes and soon the Regulator is £30 richer. Pretty efficient. All on-line. Nothing to do with GDS.

Incidentally, not many people know this but the Pensions Regulator has sent DMossEsq 227 emails since 6 February 2008 15:28. Normally an unrelieved pleasure, of course, you can sometimes have too much of a good thing when it comes to on-line communications.

Do you run a company? DMossEsq does and once a year he has to send a return to Companies House. Sometimes he has to appoint a director, sometimes he has to issue some new shares. You can do it all on-line. Been able to for years. Some people even do it in Welsh. Using the Government Gateway. And what's more, "to help combat company fraud, Companies House has introduced the PROOF (PROtected Online Filing) scheme". Proof. Geddit? Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Do you have to pay VAT to HMRC, Her majesty's Revenue and Customs? DMossEsq does. Four times a year. For two companies. And eight times a year there's the form, on the web, completed, off it goes and in a trice HMRC are thousands of pounds richer. This has been going on for years. Using the Government Gateway. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Ditto when it comes to paying PAYE income tax and National Insurance every month via HMRC's RTI system, real-time information. All on-line. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Ditto when it comes to submitting the companies' annual corporation tax return, together with the statutory accounts all rendered into iXBRL, in-line extensible business reporting language. All on-line. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Ditto when it comes to an individual's self-assessment tax return. All on-line. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS.

Have you ever had to complete a Voter registration form? DMossEsq has and you can do the whole thing on-line. There's the form, on the web, completed, off it goes and back comes the right to vote in local and national elections. Even EU elections. The on-line service is provided via electoral registration officers (EROs) by Halarose Ltd and others. All on-line. Pretty efficient. Nothing to do with GDS – in fact, the Electoral Commission have harsh words for GDS.

(Halarose have the unpleasant habit of storing their data – our data, more properly – in the cloud on Amazon web servers in the Republic of Ireland which DMossEsq wishes they wouldn't do but that's another story.)

The list could be extended. Have you ever applied to renew your passport? You can do it on-line. DMossEsq did. As long ago as 2003. Eight years before GDS existed. But so what?

So that's what DWP and DVLA and the London Borough of Merton and the Pensions Regulator and Companies House and HMRC and the Electoral Commission and the Home Office among others have achieved by way of on-line services. Often years before GDS was invented. Often using the 14 or 15 year-old Government Gateway. Often without making a song and dance about it and without fantasising that they are the show and that if it wasn't for them there'd be riots all over the country. Often they pay due attention to security. Unlike some people.

And what have GDS achieved? According to their own reckoning, they've got 24 public services still under development and they've managed to release one. One. Just one. While HMRC have got iXBRL and RTI up and running, just one GDS public service has gone live.

Meanwhile, GDS can't even keep CloudStore up and running. It had two outages each lasting several days last October and November. That's their shop window for buying dependable, resilient cloud services.

GDS created GOV.UK, the on-line face of the UK government. They even won awards for it. They claim that it "replaces Directgov and BusinessLink". It doesn't, as we've seen – try renewing a Blue Badge or a road tax disc. You'll find yourself on Directgov. Check the government Contracts finder service. You'll find yourself on BusinessLink. The claim is false.

GDS promised to have the prototype of an on-line identity assurance service (IDA) available by the end of 2011. It wasn't available then and well over two years later it still isn't. And they've promised us an "identity hub" to replace the Government Gateway. No sign of that either. Consequently, next month, when individual electoral registration starts in England and Wales, it will start without IDA (RIP).

It looks as though the government wants to go into the next general election, May 2015, using GDS as a symbol of its success. They might do better to trumpet the success of HMRC.


Updated 26.5.14
CloudStore update

Tony Singleton, 23 May 2014 ...

G-Cloud 5 is now live with 1132 suppliers. This brings the total number of suppliers on CloudStore to 1518 and over 17,000 services. 88% of these are SMEs ... we are not able to bring the store up today.

We apologise and are very disappointed to not have the store available. The team are working on this over the weekend and aim to have it back up first thing on Tuesday morning.
Updated 22.7.14 #1 of 2

Updated 22.7.14 #2 of 2

Student loan system is almost financially unworkable, say MPs. That's what it says in the Guardian today. And in the Times. Vince Cable has had to call off the privatisation of the loan book until after the next general election. The rate of recovery is embarrassingly low. The taxpayer would feel fleeced. Again:
In their report, the MPs questioned whether the sale of the loan book would lead to a good return for the taxpayer, since the government's own analysis has now found it would raise only £2bn rather than the £12bn originally expected by the government with "an unusual and potentially costly deal made to protect the private investor".
So what? What's that got to do with the DMossEsq blog? It's completely off topic. Isn't it?

Maybe. See what you think.

GDS claim to be transforming UK government. "We are the show", says Public Servant of the year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE.

This is what GDS's head of transformation wrote a year ago:
Transforming government services

... we helped eight of the biggest transactional departments to select 25 ‘exemplar’ services. These first appeared in the departmental digital strategies last December. Delivering the exemplars to become live services is the work of the transformation programme.

By ‘transformation’ we don’t mean making websites. We mean everything: examining the whole business process involved in a transaction to make it consistent, high-quality and digital by default.
When GDS move in to a department, they don't just do the easy bit. They don't just re-write someone else's code and make a prettier front end. Anyone can do that. No. They transform the whole business process.

One of their four live exemplars is Student Finance, exemplar #6:
If you have, or are applying for, student loans and grants you’ll be able to manage them using an improved online service
Either GDS have helped to re-engineer the entire business process, in which case they are complicit in losing £10 billion of taxpayers' money and embarrassing Vince Cable to boot.

Or GDS have simply done the trivial job of tarting up the front end student loan application form.

Which is it?

Updated 20.11.14

All those cursed with a good memory will remember Skyscape, the company which came from nowhere to win major contracts with the Home Office, the MOD (Ministry of Defence), HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) and GDS (the Government Digital Service).

Very grand, they've become now:

There was a time when Skyscape were in no position to congratulate government departments on passing their own assessment tests.

DMossEsq asked GDS what on earth they thought they were doing awarding contracts to unknown entities when there were plenty of suppliers with a substantial track record to choose from. The same question was posed to HMRC.

Phil Pavitt of HMRC answered. Twice. Two years later, we have yet to hear from GDS.

As we were saying above, six months ago: "It looks as though the government wants to go into the next general election, May 2015, using GDS as a symbol of its success. They might do better to trumpet the success of HMRC". HMRC show progress on digital transformation, while GDS keep just telling us about it. The government may have plighted their troth to the wrong liege.

Phil Pavitt left HMRC to join first Aviva and then Specsavers. So why was he interviewed recently in Government Computing?

Answer because, within the bounds of discretion, he has a lot to say about government computing and the demonstrably successful track record to make his words count.

What precisely have GDS achieved?
There is much more online in government because Mike Bracken and GDS have been there and are doing their thing. Without them, I don't think it would have happened. But I also think because they are obsessed with the front end, they've missed the whole legacy back end.
You may have read that the Crown Commercial Service recently had to pay Microsoft to continue providing support for a 12 year-old operating system that, despite Microsoft giving several years' notice that support was going to be withdrawn, Whitehall still depends on. But that's not what Mr Pavitt is talking about.

He's talking about the 30 year-old operating systems on 30 year-old ICL computers that Whitehall still depends on.

Some of you won't recognise the name "ICL". That was a British computer company taken over by Fujitsu in 1990. You may see pretty lipstick on her public face but, hidden away in the sty, the dear old Empress of Blandings ICL is still wheezing away, keeping the wheels of public service turning.

HMRC had a "decommissioning strategy", Mr Pavitt tells us, to escape the support burden for their "legacy" systems. Other departments may have attractive web front-ends but, unmentioned, they're still lumbered with their old government digital services maintained by the dreaded SIs, the systems integrators.

The SIs will all be replaced by SMEs, small- and medium-sized enterprises. Everything will become nimbler/more agile and cheaper and more efficient and trusted and greener as a result – that's the Cabinet Office line. Mr Pavitt disagrees:
You ask SMEs today, despite the G-Cloud, and they still say the cost of doing business with government is prohibitive. A lot of SMEs that have brilliant technologies for government won't go near it. Too scary. Very few SMEs do business with government apart from G-Cloud, and even that is expensive. 1,200 companies on it is ridiculous. So procurement is a huge barrier.

"The second observation ... was to get as many SMEs as possible in. Because they believed that if SMEs come in, systems integrators (SIs) go down. And I sat in front of the government and I said, "You know what? It goes up." And they thought I was bonkers. But who is going to guarantee that two men and a dog if they decide not to do business anymore... who's going to guarantee that having built our critical service on them that someone's going to do it? Who's going to make sure that when the dog is not well, someone's going to do it? Well actually, you need a proper SI.
It's all very well to criticise the SIs, he's saying. Of course it is. Too often, the government gets appallingly bad value for money out of them.

But that doesn't mean you can dispense with them.

Not if you're operating highly complex public services which have to be permanently available to everyone. Your job then is to get better value out of the SIs. Or to grow your own in-house department so that you become your own SI, which is what Mr Pavitt is doing at Specsavers.
Now whether the government itself is the SI or the department, or an SI is the SI, more SMEs need a bigger layer of SI - or there's a fundamental power problem. My last two years in government they were trashing the SIs. Sometimes like they deserved it. More often than not it was a crazy mantra.
This "crazy mantra" which alienates the people government depends on crops up earlier in the Government Computing interview. The recent elevation of CDOs (Chief Digital Officers) over CIOs (Chief Information Officers) may seem an arcane matter to the outside world. It isn't:
"The GDS mantra, which I've been on record talking about before, is very good in that it has brought digital into the conversation of the civil service. The downside is it makes digital the only thing talked about.

"It's made CIOs think they can never do it and there has been this brushing away of all the CIOs, and appointing other people - it's actually thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I know many government CIOs who are very capable digital people, but they are not being given that opportunity, and I think that's a failure and a mistake."
How did we get into a position where Whitehall can be patronised by the likes of Skyscape?

We've been in need of an update on the four professors' review of the government digital strategy for some time now – it's two years since they reported. Mr Pavitt's interview is that update. We're getting alienation. But not the promised transformation.

Updated 1.1.15

"We’ve said before, and no doubt we’ll say again: transformation means more than fixing websites. It goes deeper than that, right into the organisations behind the websites" – so said the Government Digital Service (GDS) a fortnight ago on 17 December 2014, please see Revealing the hidden side of transformation.

Two days later we read Finishing what we started – transition to GOV.UK: "A huge programme of work, transition has seen over 300 agencies and arm’s length bodies move their content to GOV.UK. This has been no cut and paste job".

Which takes us back to 12 December 2014, when the executive director of GDS told us in A big week for Companies House that "it was my birthday on Wednesday, and Companies House sent me a present: they moved to GOV.UK that day".

Only in the very loosest sense can the Companies House website be said to have "moved to GOV.UK", the award-winning on-line face of UK government designed by GDS.

Back in May 2014, Companies House's website was at and it looked like this:

Now all freshly transformed its website is at and it looks like this:

It's not obvious that this transformation is a birthday present for the rest of us.

Click on Find company information, for example, and pretty soon you find yourself at, which is not GOV.UK and where you use exactly the same facility Companies House has always provided to find company information. No change there.

File your annual return? As luck would have it, DMossEsq had to do precisely that.

Has GDS provided him as promised for several years now with an on-line identity which proves that he is him? No.

Has the company he was making a return for been provided with a GDS on-line identity? No.

Was authentication for the annual return conducted over GDS's identity hub? No.

No, no and no. GDS's identity assurance system – GOV.UK Verify – remains elusive. Company annual returns still rely on the venerable Government Gateway. No change there.

It's one thing to say that "transformation means more than fixing websites. It goes deeper than that", but you have to prove it. In the case of the Companies House website, case not proven.

"This has been no cut and paste job". In the case of the Companies House website, that's exactly what it looks like – a cut and paste job.

Updated 4.2.15

It's that time of the year again. This blog post began with Sprint14. Yesterday Sprint15 was celebrated. Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Cabinet Office minister and political head of the Government Digital Service delivered a morale-boosting address to the congregation in which he enumerated all their righteous achievements.

Among other matters he addressed government procurement:
... We’ve also changed the whole approach to how government buys and supports IT. Government contracts were too long, too big and too opaque. Now they’re smaller, shorter and more open, and that’s only the beginning. It’s our hope that by 2020 the remaining outsourced legacy technology contracts that are still in place will have gone ...
Big contracts bad, small contracts good – that's one article of the GDS faith.

Later in his homily Mr Maude turned to Netflix and what that company has to teach Whitehall:
… You sometimes hear civil servants saying that for every 1 person trying to do something, there are 4 trying to stop it…I see some nodding in the audience. I saw in Netflix how teams were empowered to make immediate changes. I asked them how many times they released new code – they said about a dozen times a week.
That's a second article of the faith – agile software engineering.

Actually it's a third article as well – government is like retail, if you can sell TV subscriptions you can run the Department for Education.

Article #4, public administration in Mr Maude's new world is like Hollywood:
Kevin Spacey tells a great story about how he and the other producers pitched the idea to the US networks. Traditional networks wanted to see a pilot episode first. But Spacey felt the story was too complex to encapsulate in a single episode.

Netflix was different. From their customer data they could tell that enough viewers would watch so they commissioned 2 entire series outright. What’s more, they released each complete series at once, giving the customer complete control over how and when they watch.
"Forget the boring old pilot-episode-one-series-at-a-time approach", Netflix apparently said, "if you really want to give customers control, commission two entire series at a time, sight unseen".

But that parable teaches exactly the opposite lesson to the first article of the faith above, keep the contracts small.

And that's a fourth fifth article of the faith – self-contradiction is acceptable and doesn't imply that GDS haven't got a clue what they're doing.

Postscript – excommunication
Troll along to this link and you'll see Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO's Twitter timeline.

You can take communion with the executive director of GDS who is also the senior responsible owner of the Identity Assurance Programme (RIP). Not DMossEsq, though. He can't. Purgatory. The text he sees is:
You are blocked from following @MTBracken and viewing @MTBracken's Tweets. Learn more

Updated 5.2.15

Tim O'Reilly is the high priest of digital government. Its adherents seek his absolution.

For years Mr O'Reilly has preached the doctrine of Government as a Platform, or GaaP. He was in the pulpit again at Sprint15 the other day and GDS dutifully answered the call:

Equally dutifully, the media are now full of GaaPs, see for example Sprint 15 confirms plans for government as platform in yesterday's Computer Weekly.

There's nothing new about GaaP, of course. It's the centuries-old idea of not re-inventing the wheel. That is the DMossEsq exegesis.

What wheels does Whitehall need? It's not a new question. It's exercised great minds for years and even the Cabinet Office held a convocation about it and published the results of their deliberations in January 2010, please see G-Digital Market Investigation – High Level Analysis & Findings, particularly p.9 – Objective 4 – To determine any gaps in our Business Services.

The wheels/business services that should be available across all of government, developed once and reused many times, include services like case management, for example, and complaint-handling.

Page 9 from G-Digital Market Investigation High Level Analysis & Findings
In the Computer Weekly article already referred to, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO, executive director of GDS and senior responsible owner of the Identity Assurance Programme (RIP) suggests that it would be useful to have a standard pan-government facility to book prison visits. He may not be wrong.

There is one interesting business service that he doesn't mention even though it appears on the January 2010 list and will have been instantly spotted by the hawk-eyed millions of DMossEsq's readers – Adserver (just under E-Mail Alerts).

If Whitehall embraces GaaP, how long before the award-winning GOV.UK carries advertisements?

How useful will it be then that GDS have signed up Verizon as a prospective "identity provider" for their GOV.UK Verify identity assurance scheme? Remember that according to Verizon:
Ultimately, we don’t see ourselves as a data provider; we see ourselves as an ad platform that helps brands and consumers connect
And what could possibly go wrong? This time, remember Experian, another of GDS's "identity providers" – Experian Sold Consumer Data to ID Theft Service.

The GaaP doctrine. The clergy are convinced. But we mere parishioners should realise that it's not without risks, our faith may be sorely tested.

Updated 6.2.15

Ruling the world, no less

Let's take another look at that Jennifer Pahlka enconium:

Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO, executive director of the Government Digital Service and senior responsible owner of the Identity Assurance Programme (RIP) was bound to try to lift the hearts of the assembled multitude.

But is it true that his flock has improved people's lives? How many people? And in what way have their lives been improved?

And have they saved billions? Billions of what? Souls? Pounds? How many billions? When? Where are these billions now? And have his figures been audited by the National Audit Office? Or approved by the Office for National Statistics?

True or not, the miraculous claims were believed ...

... even if the question wasn't answered – but then GDS never answer.

Tim O'Reilly, high priest of the digital government religion, chose another way to teach their sacred mission to the congregation ...

... but similar questions arise. Shouldn't that be "who sets the gauge rules 60 percent of the world"? And come to think of it, did Stephenson rule the world at all?

At least answers were forthcoming this time. Engineers are important. So is standardisation. Which assists implementation. Which is more important than policy-making – shades of the mystical revelation, the strategy is delivery, not to mention the even more gnomic don't procure, commission.

But it's all a bit Confucian.
The only thing that's clear is that this religion is something to do with ruling the world.

Updated 14.2.15

GDS set themselves the target of transforming government by deploying 25 new front-ends to digital public services even if those services already had perfectly good front-ends. They gave themselves 400 business days to complete the task and in the end they have got just eight of them up and running. That is a "great success" according to That was 400 days of delivery:
Last week, we held an event: Sprint 15. It marked the culmination of the two-year transformation project that began with Sprint 13, when we made our plan clear: there were 400 days to transform government.

Here we are, 2 years and roughly 400 (working) days later. What have we achieved? Let’s make a list ...

Our exemplar programme is a great success, with 17 out of 25 projects now live or in public beta phase. The transformed services have already seen 5.8 million user transactions.
Eight is not 25. Neither is 17. So 400 days of partial delivery more like.

The first item on GDS's bold list of achievements is:
We transitioned 350 websites to GOV.UK. A single website on a single domain, meeting thousands of user needs.
Again, progress is partial. Take a look at Companies House, for example. Click on Find company information, then Start now and you're straight back to the old Companies House Company Information screen, nothing has changed. Or transitioned.

"This year", GDS tell us, "a massive 11,000 people filed their self-assessment returns using GOV.UK Verify". Is that a success? 11,000 people have allowed GDS or its agents, the "identity providers", access to their credit history. Is that wise? 5.8 million user transactions have already been seen. So what? Are public services any better as a result? GDS haven't asked the question, let alone provided an answer. All they do is scatter numbers around.

What they do claim is that thousands of user needs are being met.

Thousands of user needs were already being met before the advent of GOV.UK and still are being met without it. There can't be a single government department or agency or local authority that doesn't claim to be dedicated to meeting user needs. The attention to user needs doesn't distinguish GDS nor grant any significance to GOV.UK.

And what is a "user need"? We've been told before that:
Starting with the needs of users has led to a radical shift in the way we build and provision government services. That’s a huge thing. It means an end to big IT, it means smarter and cheaper services which meet users needs, and it means digital sitting at the heart of teams all around government
Users have a need for "smarter and cheaper services" – that was then. Now users need Government as a Platform:
In their 400 days of partial delivery blog post GDS say:
We have built some great services, we've started building great platforms – our new goal is government as a platform ...

“Users first” isn’t just a throwaway catchphrase: it’s the core around which all this change has begun. Users are why we’re here.
On the contrary, in GDS's hands, it's looking more and more precisely like a "throwaway catchphrase" capable of meaning anything and nothing.

Like "agile":
We've learnt such a lot in the last 2 years. We know that focusing on user needs works. We know that we can work in an agile way, even in government.
Working in an agile way has seen eight out of 25 exemplars completed – a failure predicted by WW Royce 45 years ago. That's eight front-ends, the easy bit, the bit the user of a public service sees. What about the difficult bit at the back end? Have GDS used agile software engineering methods to transform HMRC's tax systems? No. So they can't "know that we can work in an agile way, even in government".

GDS lay claim to transformation and revolution – we live in a new world, apparently. They claim to be routing round Whitehall and that they are the show. They claim to be changing the organising principle of Whitehall. They claim that local government is easy – as easy as running a dating website. Their achievement sounds exciting.

Look behind the throwaway catchphrases, though, and perhaps their achievement is more pedestrian. And perhaps it's not the case that all other routed round public servants are quite as useless as GDS believe.

Updated 2.3.15

Can GDS, the Government Digital Service, ever be wrong?

The mere possibility has thrown one journalist into a lachrymose tumult of anxious self-examination: "When you've trained as a news journalist, some of the most interesting stories to write are those that involve criticising someone or something that has mostly received widespread praise ...".

He goes on: "In that identity, it’s part of our job to pick at things and to try and strip away the PR crap ..." ...

... and on: "Again if you've trained as a news journalist, the instinct is to be quick to give everyone a hard time ...".

What's this all about? "Just to clarify, I am largely referring to the Government Digital Service in this case".

They had a bad time a few weeks ago – "Yes, GDS has cocked up the Digital Services Framework" – and it's hit this man hard but GDS are listening now and "if GDS learns from this Digital Services Framework debacle and handles government-as-a-platform [GaaP] differently, where it openly discusses challenges and lets the community help by sharing details amongst an open network, I genuinely believe we can get this right and have the UK as a world leader in digital government", so that's alright.

"Some will probably say I'm sucking up to GDS with this piece, which is fine [is it?]. But those who follow me regularly will know that I've got no problem giving people a hard time – in fact, it comes rather easily to me".

On 24 February 2015, only four days after the poor chap found solace in GaaP, would you believe it, some professor at Newcastle University Business School only goes and publishes Government as a Platform: opportunity or oxymoron?.

The professor's conclusion is that it's neither. GaaP isn't an opportunity. And it's not an oxymoron. It's ignorance:
"Government Computing" is a much more complex discipline and practice than that of commercial computing and we really should stop assuming that commercial and social media approaches contain all the answers if only Government could understand and apply them properly. It is clear that Government needs a platform, and that this platform needs to support the formation and governance of federated partnerships. But the idea that governments are platforms and the necessary corollary that platforms are, or can become, in some sense sovereign, is, I suggest, a deeply troubling one.
How dare the professor say that?

That's what Simon Wardley wants to know.

Mr Wardley is one of GDS's cheerleaders. And he's spitting:

GDS aren't above a bit of briefing themselves. Please see here, here and here, for example. That's acceptable. Other people briefing isn't – that amounts to mere trolling.

GDS can heap scorn on other civil servants in the US and the UK, in central government and local government. Please see here, here and here for example. That's acceptable. Other civil servants criticising GDS isn't – that amounts to an insidious conspiracy.

No criticism of GDS is acceptable. Presumably because approbation is GDS's achievement. Take that away, and what is left?

Updated 5.3.15

More bad news.

Is it a consequence of the upcoming general election? Are there sinister forces at work? Can it be put down to professional naysayers?

Or is Private Eye simply reporting the truth in its latest edition – #1387, 6-19 March 2015, p.12, Eye tech – when it brings attention to GDS's failures with GOV.UK and with GOV.UK Verify (RIP)?

No clickable link to the Eye story is provided, by the way, because that esteemed organ continues to inhabit the pre-revolutionary world of paper – you'll have to go out and buy a copy.

There is mention in the article of GDS chaos-and-nightmare-emails being "leaked" to ElReg. If it's based on the evidence of a reliable mole, it's always possible that the Eye's take on GDS is accurate and that none of Mr Wardley's exciting and self-aggrandising conspiracy theory of career trolls making power plays before the election is required to explain it.

Why did Francis Maude think that a team of website designers with no experience of public administration should be put in charge of the Government Digital Service?

Why did the team accept the commission?

How did they expect that alienating everyone else in Whitehall and local government, not to mention the US administration, would help them to succeed?

And are the US and Australia prudent to follow the UK's example?

Updated 28.3.15 #1

There's a general election coming up in the UK on 7 May 2015 in advance of which the Civil Service goes into purdah, which begins this time round on Monday 30 March 2015.

Whitehall and the local authorities have to keep the machinery running in the period between purdah and a new government being sworn in but they must not be seen to do anything overtly party political.

There is always the possibility that the new government will cancel some of Whitehall's favourite initiatives. Unlikely. But it's possible. So during purdah the best the civil servants can do is to leave their wares on view in the shop window – "look how good we are", the shop window can say for them, "cancel someone else's programme if you must, not ours".

Which brings us to the astonishing case of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Remember, they were going to transform government in 400 working days. They had a dashboard displaying their putative progress to date:

As at 12:31 p.m., 14 February 2015, 743 days after they started
And with purdah just round the corner what have they done?

They've only been and gone and deleted it.

Mike Beavan is GDS's Transformation Programme Director and in a blog post yesterday, Looking back at the exemplars, he says: "We used the transformation page on GOV.UK to track the progress of the exemplars. Now the programme’s ended we’re archiving that".

They've pulled down the shutters and there's nothing to see in the shop window.

Updated 28.3.15 #2

To anyone born yesterday, this will seem like ancient history but actually it was less than two years ago:
It’s important that we continue to publish these updates in public [i.e. the transformation dashboard pictured immediately above], that we report on the services we’re transforming, and that we blog about our progress. Publishing this [is] ... the best way to make sure that we’re accountable for the things we build. As our design principles say, if we make things open, we make things better.
Now, only four days after Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO CDO was appointed the UK government's chief data officer, responsible for making government more open, the data has been deleted.

Updated 1.5.15

Here is one example among many, over several months, of the adulation induced by GDS's tax renewal service:

That was yesterday.

Nothing changes.

See for example My DVLA online vehicle registration experiences:
The Vehicle Licence Application form for the Golf turned up in the post today, however since the last time we taxed a car, it seems that the DVLA have taken a step forward. Rather than have to go and queue up in a local post office to get a tax disc, the envelope and renewal form were plugging the chance to pay your car tax online.
That was 15 September 2005, six years or so before GDS existed. (See also 15 November 2005.)

Credit where credit's due?

Updated 14.4.16

Digital by Default News, Wandsworth goes digital and doesn’t look back, "find out more about Wandsworth’s journey below":

Who could resist?

Certainly not the DMossEsq news desk.

And what do we see?

We see that Wandsworth are using Agilisys to transact with their parishioners. And Agilisys are agile. And they have a framework. And they have platforms. And they do transformation. They may even have standards.

Just like the Government Digital Service (GDS) really. Except that the Agilisys products actually exist and are actually being used.

While GDS are busy working out Where we’re at, and where we’re going and wondering whether they're Giving clear presentations  and looking at the different ways to test content and Building the service manager community and writing An open letter to our new Advisory Board and expatiating on An open address register and telling us they're Getting from data to registers and expounding the Digital principles for a better GDS and explaining their policy on GDS and gender diversity at conferences and events and building a digital standard for local government and ...

... while GDS are rushed off their £450 million feet doing all that, according to their blog, and they've only got until September this year to produce a strategy, ...

... local government is out there actually doing it, delivering services, you know, governing, locally and Agilisys among others actually have some products local government can use.

GDS's achievement

That was GDS's proud claim made at the Sprint 14 celebration this year – "we've achieved so much". But is it true?

GDS is the Government Digital Service and their mission is to transform government by making public services digital by default – "we are the show", said their executive director, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE, in a speech (17'39") to the Code for America conference last October. Is that true? Are GDS the show?

Monday 5 May 2014

David Gauke MP and the UK's tax revolution 1

Literally millions of DMossEsq's readers have responded to his post about the plans to sell taxpayer records and implored him to read HMRC's 17 July 2013 consultation document, Sharing and publishing data for public benefit. Which he now has.

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the document reminds us at p.32, is governed by the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 (CRCA):
HMRC was created by the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 (CRCA) and its functions are governed by that legislation. HMRC has no common law powers. HMRC’s functions include managing and collecting tax and paying benefits, and matters ancillary to those functions such as employing its staff.
CRCA makes it a criminal offence for HMRC to disclose taxpayer records "except in limited circumstances":
CRCA prohibits the disclosure of information held by HMRC in connection with its functions except in limited circumstances set out in legislation. This prohibition applies to all information held by HMRC in connection with its functions and reflects the importance placed on 'taxpayer confidentiality’ by Parliament when the department was created. There is additional protection for information that relates to an individual or legal entity whose identity is specified in the disclosure or can be deduced from it (‘identifying information’), in the form of a criminal sanction for unlawful disclosure.
"Criminal sanction"? That's serious. It's the law. Quite properly, CRCA establishes confidentiality as an important principle in the operation of HMRC.

But not the only principle. There are exceptions. Or "gateways", as HMRC call them:
HMRC shares information through legislative gateways with a range of public bodies including other government departments, agencies, the Devolved Administrations, Local Authorities and tax authorities in other countries.

The terms of each information gateway are specific as to the type of information that can be disclosed and the purposes to which it can be put.
CRCA is not obtuse. It recognises that there may be occasions when the confidentiality principle crashes into another admirable principle, e.g. sharing and publishing data for public benefit. On those occasions, the crash must be judiciously untangled and the verdict may go against confidentiality and in favour of a new "information gateway".

Each case must be decided on its merits – "The terms of each information gateway are specific as to the type of information that can be disclosed and the purposes to which it can be put".

Does that examination of specific requests for research data work? Yes:
1.16 Within the framework of its existing legislation, HMRC already makes a lot of useful data available for broader use.
HMRC have published statistics for decades, they make data available on the excellent, they have an open data strategy and a tax transparency sector board making decisions what to publish, and they have a so-called "Datalab":
This initiative allows researchers to have access to anonymised data under strictly controlled conditions to undertake projects that contribute to the department’s objectives, such as measuring and improving tax compliance.
But that's not enough according to David Gauke MP, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, writing in the Foreword to the consultation document. He wants to stand CRCA on its head:
Last month, the Government took two major steps towards realising [significant public] benefits. First, the Government published its response to the Shakespeare Review of Public Sector Information, setting out a framework for pursuing this agenda in the public sector. Secondly, the UK helped secure the G8’s Open Data Charter, which presumes that the data held by Governments will be publicly available unless there is good reason to withhold it. (p.4)
Mr Gauke starts from the settled position where HMRC holds taxpayer records confidentially by default and only discloses information in exceptional circumstances if a case can be made for doing so ...

... and he wants to change that so that taxpayer records are available to be disclosed by default and are only withheld in exceptional circumstances if a case can be made for doing so.
    That's a revolution. It's dangerous. And HMRC know that. The "willing cooperation" of the taxpayer could be forfeited:
    1.15 Maintaining confidence in the core principle of ‘taxpayer confidentiality’ and the related safeguards is essential to the effective operation of the tax system, because it supports compliance and willing cooperation. This consultation does not seek to disturb that core principle.
    Confidentiality is a "core principle". It is one of the safeguards which is "essential" to HMRC's tax farming job. That's what HMRC themselves say. Change the attitude to confidentiality, and you change the essence of HMRC's job. It becomes a different job. Confidentiality is definitive. It is necessary.

    Two questions, to which we shall return:
    • Why does Mr Gauke want to take the risk of defying that core principle?
    • If a safeguard was at one stage "essential", how can it consistently become optional at a later stage?

    David Gauke MP and the UK's tax revolution 1

    Literally millions of DMossEsq's readers have responded to his post about the plans to sell taxpayer records and implored him to read HMRC's 17 July 2013 consultation document, Sharing and publishing data for public benefit. Which he now has.

    Monday 28 April 2014

    NLGN report findings – GDS are wonderful and local government is useless

    Like all award-winning internationally popular rock combos, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has a fanzine – in this case Digital by Default News – and they've just published a collector's edition article, Local government is being left behind by the digital revolution.

    It's the usual riff. GDS are great. Everyone else is an idiot – the US government, the UK government and all big IT companies (the "oligarchy") except Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook and, natch, Apple.

    Lead singer, Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken MBE, takes GDS on tour all over the world, insulting people and patronising them, while manager Francis "JFDI" Maude entertains flocks of adulatory fans back at the band's Aviation House studios in Holborn with the same everyone-else-is-an-idiot message.

    It's hard to remember in all the excitement that GDS have only released one track so far – Student Finance exemplar #6 (catchy, or what?) – with the other 24 they've been rehearsing still in the edit suite.

    Which brings us to the DbyDNews article putting the boot into UK local government (hopeless losers all, apparently). They're covering a report produced by the New Local Government Network (NLGN), whom younger readers may not recognise.

    Seven years ago NLGN were a vibrant young radical enquiring underground indie think tank-cum-fan club bravely supporting whatever policy the New Labour government came up with, including ID cards, please see Local Identity – the role of local entitlement cards in public service delivery:
    Successfully undertaking such a project, however, requires collaboration between local government departments. In many cases, this is curbed by concerns over information exchange under the Data Protection Act. This requires a more sophisticated and less risk-averse attitude towards information management. (p.4)
    Judging by the DbyDNews article, over the past seven years NLGN have got a lot better at sneering at local government for spinelessly obeying the law. Here's what you'll read, with notes:
    Local government’s digital development has stalled [has it? in what way? prove it.]. After a period of innovation, councils lack the skills [stupid], organisational culture [uncouth] and leadership [useless, sheep] to exploit the potential [if any] for digital transformation of its services.

    Those are the conclusions of Smart people, smart places, a study by the New Local Government Network [who's that, never heard of them]. But the problems it describes run deeper than just digital [hard to believe]. It is a window on wider local government weaknesses [draw the curtains, please].

    It describes a world in which digital development is still peripheral [omigod], with councils failing [you can say that again] to exploit the potential of digital to deliver integrated and personalised services, engage and empower citizens and create greener, more economically vibrant places [they've missed out "agile" and "trusted"].

    Perhaps the most damning criticism is that councils are failing [they've said it again] to create a culture where staff and councillors feel trusted [bingo!] to innovate with technology and have the confidence to invest in it and use it [old-fashioned as well as weak and out of their depth].

    These barriers to exploiting the potential [that's three times we've had "potential", and never once an explanation or example] of digital are undoubtedly exacerbated by the dearth of young councillors – being 40 is youthful in many authorities [antediluvian] – and the lack of movement of staff between the public and private sectors.

    But, as the report points out, there are other external resources councils can call upon. In the spirit of social media, citizens can ‘co-produce’ [what's that? sounds fun. is it legal?] digital solutions tailored to the needs of local people. An increasing number of councils have hosted hack days [so they're not all useless?], when local people bring their own ingenuity [sadly lacking among council staff] to bear on council issues, using the local authority’s data sets. Camden council’s hack day to find ways to use space in the borough more effectively [example, please] and support welfare claimants to thrive [what does "support to thrive" mean?], is just one example [looks more like two examples].

    There is also a lack of sector-wide leadership [we know, you've said that]. The report calls for a local government digital programme to attract graduate talent [uneducated as well as well as old, eh – thought so] and encourage collaboration [shouldn't that be "co-production"?].

    The NLGN report points out that local government is, unforgivably [immoral as well as old and uneducated], falling behind Whitehall [that's bad]. The government’s single website has been a striking success [really? in what way?], greatly enhancing public access to government departments and services [name an access that has been greatly enhanced], while the Cabinet Office has been pursuing a vigorous strategy around digital procurement and skills [so vigorous that the OFT failed to mention it in their report on government IT procurement, according to ... DbyDNews].

    It is ultimately attitude [slovenly, no doubt], not cost, which is holding back digital development in councils. Data from the Society of IT Management shows [warning – factoids coming up:] the average face to face contact in local government costs £8.62, compared with £2.83 for a phone call and just 15p for a web transaction [that proves something, probably]. Digital technology also offers substantial [how substantial?] efficiencies in time and money for services such as adult social care [15p is too much], with staff accessing and logging information on the move [the staff are meant to be providing social care, not logging and accessing information, or is that an old-fashioned way of thinking?]. Websites and apps do not have to be developed at great cost by blue-chip companies [no, anyone can do it]. Try going local.

    This is dangerous [oooooh!] territory for councils. If digital does not become core to their work [the core of their work is meant to be the users, not technology – that's what GDS say. NLGN need re-educating already], they risk appearing increasingly irrelevant [only true if you first assume that IT makes you relevant, as well as green and vibrant] to the lives of a growing number of citizens. Local government needs to make a big cultural [you mean they have culture? all those old uneducated immoral local council people?] shift on digital.
    You might think that writing this sort of stuff makes it hard to get on with local government, which must presumably be the point of the New Local Government Network.

    Obviously it'll go down well with GDS who, like NLGN, think GDS are wonderful and who despise local government, see PSOTYE-GM Mike Bracken MBE's speech to the Code for America Summit 2013 starting about five minutes in.

    But then GDS have their own problems co-operating with other branches of government. Sorry. Co-producing with other branches of government. Relations with DWP aren't warm. Nor with the Electoral Commission, for example.

    Even a rock combo great like GDS needs to try to fit in with the rest of the industry a bit. Otherwise – no digital government. It's a funny way to go about winning people over. Start by accusing them of being ignorant and useless.

    Let's see if GDS denounce NLGN's report.