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GDS isn't working (part 3): The reboot



Guest blog: Alan Mather asks what the Government Digital Service is for and outlines a proposal for it to take a new direction

What is GDS for? It's a question that should be asked at a fundamental level at least every year for an organisation that set out to be agile, iterative and user led.

It's easy to be superficial when asking such a seemingly simple question. People inside the organisation are afraid to ask it, doubtless busy being busy at what they're doing and afraid of the consequences. They don't want to touch the question in case it bites  ̶  the electric fence that prevents introspection and, perhaps more importantly, outrospection.

There are several reasons why this question should be asked, but one that I would take as important right now is because GDS don’t know themselves.

As the NAO highlighted recently: "GDS has found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown ... initially, GDS supported exemplars of digital transformation ... major transformations have had only mixed success ... GDS has not sustained its framework of standards and guidance ... roles and responsibilities are evolving ... it is not yet clear what role GDS will play (in relation to transformation)."

If there was ever a time to ask what GDS is for it's now ... to help understand these numbers: The budget is £150 million for 2016-17 and 2017-18 (though it falls over coming years to £77 million in 2019-20) and it has around 850 staff today (again, falling to 780 by 2019-20).

Big question

Let me ask again, what is GDS for?

When those 850 staff bounce into work every morning, what is it that they are looking forward to doing? What user needs are they going to address? How will they know that they have been successful? How will the rest of us know?

Given a budget, says Parkinson's Law of Government, the department will expand to absorb that budget.

GDS has demonstrated this law in action:

- The exemplars have finished, with varying degrees of success. No more are planned. The organisation has only grown.

Major digital projects have stumbled badly and, in some cases, failed entirely, for instance:

  • The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) Common Agriculture Policy Delivery Programme, specifically re-engineered by GDS early in its life and then directly overseen by senior staff, failed to deliver. The lessons from the previous RPA project, seven years earlier, were not learned and the result was the same  ̶  a system that was late, produced high disallowance costs and a poor experience for the real users, the farmers.
  • Digital Borders is progressing slowly at best, even allowing for the tuned and optimistic language in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority report.  Seven years after the last programme was terminated in difficult circumstances, the first, less aggressive than planned, rollout of new capability is starting now.

- Nearly five years after Department for Work and Pensions was ready to complete its identity procurement and around three years since its replacement, Verify was about to enter public beta. The Government Gateway is still there, 16 years old and looking not a day older than it did in 2006 when the user interface was last refreshed.Verify has garnered around 1.4 million users, a very small fraction of that for HM Revenue & Customs’ Self-Assessment service, let alone overall Gateway users.

The Government Gateway is slated for replacement soon, but Verify is clearly not going to replace it. It doesn't handle transaction throughput and validation, it doesn't handle nomination (e.g. please let my accountant handle my Self-Assessment), and most obviously it doesn't handle business identity.  

Given the vision that we laid down for the Gateway and all of the work that was done to lay the foundations for a long term programme that would support all aspects of identity management, Verify is nothing short of a fiasco, as demonstrated by the increasingly vocal war about its future, with HMRC seemingly building its own identity platform.  Others far more able than me, including Jerry Fishenden and David Moss, have exposed its flaws, muddled thinking and the triumph of hope over ability.

Even now, instead of bringing departmental transactions on board, addressing true user needs and massively improving completion rate from its current low of less than 50%, the Verify team are talking up their prospects of getting 20 million users by lowering identity standards and getting the private sector on board. They blame lack of take-up to date on slow delivery of digital services by departments, according to the IPA report.

Patchy website consolidation

- GOV.UK, whilst a triumphal demonstration of political will to drive consolidation and a far greater achievement in presenting a joined up view of government to the citizen than achieved before, is still a patchy consolidation. Its formats and styles change as you move from level to level, departmental websites still have their own separate space (compromising, as soon as you arrive in a departmental domain, the sense of consolidation), PDFs abound, and of course it lacks major transactions (and those that are available often have a very disjointed journey  ̶  follow the route to filing a VAT return for instance).  The enormous early progress seems to have lapsed into iterative tinkering.

- Alongside all of that we have the latest in a long series of transformation strategies. For many months the strapline on this blog read: "Transforming government is like trying to relocate a cemetery, you can't expect the residents to help".  

Since then I've revised my view and now believe, firmly, that in any effort to achieve transformation, government will remain the catalyst, in the true chemical sense of the word. This strategy says that by 2020 "we will":

  • Design and deliver joined up, end-to-end services;
  • Deliver the major transformation programmes;
  • Establish a whole-government approach to transformation, laying the ground for broader transformation across the public sector.

We all want to believe those words.  We know that these have been the goals for years, decades even.  We know that little has really been achieved.  

Yet here we are, after seven years of GDS, being asked to believe that transformation can be achieved in the next three. There is a Jerry Maguire feeling to this, not so much "show me the money" as "show me the plan".

Platform uncertainty

And, lastly, we have Government as a Platform. No one was ever quite sure what it was. It might include the Notifications and Payments service  ̶  oddly, two services that were available on the Gateway in 2002-03 but were turned off for some reason.

In 2015, Mike Bracken defined it initially as GOV.UK and Verify, with a shiny video to go with it, but promised much more, saying: "While the next wave of platforms has yet to be finalised, what is clear is the enthusiasm government has for the concept; taking a join-up approach to service provision that’s going to be genuinely transformational. I’m excited for what’s to come."

Just so we are clear, it's not the same as GOV.UK's Platform as a Service, because, well, because.

The foundations page outlines how we'll know what it is when we see it, but there's no sign of it just yet.

Restructure and reboot

So why not ask "What is GDS for?" and use the thinking generated by that question to restructure and reboot GDS.  Any reboot requires a shutdown, of course, and some elements of GDS's current work will, as a result of the introspection, close down.

If I were asked to answer the question, I would suggest GDS is for facilitating the re-engineering of the way government does business  ̶  changing from the traditional, departmentally led silos and individual forms to joined up, proactive, thought-through interactions that range widely across government.

It is not, in my view, about controlling, stopping, writing code or religious/philosophical debates about what's right. Its job is to remove the obstacles that stop government from championing the user cause.

Within that the main jobs are:

1) Standards and guidelines for IT across government. This could get dangerously out of hand but, as the NAO notes, GDS has, to date, not kept its standards up to date.  Some key areas:

  • Data formats  ̶  messaging standards to allow full interoperability between government services and out to third parties through APIs.  In 2000, we called this govtalk and it worked well.
  • Architecture  ̶  eventually, government IT will want to converge on a common architecture. We are likely decades away from that on the basis that it's hardly started, and replacing some of the existing systems will take more money than is available, let alone increased capacity across the user and technology community at a time when they have plenty going on.  New projects, though, should be set on a path to convergence wherever possible. That doesn't mean getting religious about open source, but it does mean being clear about what products work and what doesn't, how interactions should be managed and how we streamline the IT estate, improve resilience and reliability and reduce overall cost. This team will show what the art of the possible is with small proofs of concept that can be developed by departments
  • Common component planning - all the way back in 2003 I published a first take on what that could look like. It's not the answer, but it's a start. I'm a strong believer in the underlying principles of Government as a Platform  ̶  there are some components that government doesn't need more than one of and some that it needs just a few of. They need to be in place before anyone can intercept with them  ̶  promising to deliver and then having a queue of projects held up by their non-availability won't work. And they don't have to be delivered centrally, but they do have to take into account wider requirements than just those of whoever built them.

2) GOV.UK publishing team. Joined up content will best come from the centre. This team will control what and how to publish and how to ensure consistency across GOV.UK. They will rationalise the content there, doing what Martha Lane-Fox originally set out to do  ̶  kill or cure  ̶  to make sure that the user is getting what they need.

3) Agile and user needs. Perhaps the single largest achievement of GDS so far, far beyond consolidating websites for me, is getting government to recognise that there are many ways to deliver IT and that taking a user-led approach is an essential part of any of them.  I'm not wedded to agile or any other methodology, but there's a strong argument for a central team who can coach departments through this and checkpoint with them to see how they are doing, refresh knowledge and transfer skills so that everyone isn't learning the same lessons over and over again.

4) Spending controls. A team of elite people who know how to get inside the biggest projects, not waste time on the small ones, and understand what's being built and why. People who can help design the solution at a lower cost than proposed, who can help create the hooks for current and/or future common components and who can help negotiate better deals. These folks should be the best that can be found  ̶   a SWAT team sent to work on mission critical projects. Their job will be to help drive delivery, not slow it down through interminable bureaucracy and arguments about the philosophy of open source.

5) Transactions team. People who go beyond the pure publishing role into understanding how to hook users into a transaction and drive completion through smart design, innate user understanding and the ability partner with departments, not preach to them from some remote ivory tower. These folks won't make promises they can't keep, but work closely with departments to move transactions that are offline today to the online world, designing them to foster high take-up rates and better service for users. This team is the future of government: they will be a mix of people who can help rethink policy and legislation, service designers, UI folks who know how to put something slick together and technologists who can understand how to manage load and resilience and integrate with third parties inside and outside of government.

6) Project managers. A mixed team who know how to deliver small and large projects, who are comfortable managing all aspects of delivery, can work with users as well as departments and suppliers and who understand the tension that is always there between waiting and shipping.

Lastly, two areas that I think are contentious (there may be others):

GOV.UK development. Personally, I'm in favour of using companies to do build work. They can maintain a bench and keep their teams up to date with evolving technologies. They can locate wherever it makes sense and call on disparate teams, around the globe if necessary. They can call on experience from other clients and use relationships with partners and the big vendors to do the heavy lifting.

The in-house project managers will keep the suppliers in check and will manage scope, cost and time to bring projects home. This is contentious I know, as there's an increasing appetite for government to bring development in-house. Some departments, such as HMRC, have had to locate far from the usual places to ensure that they can recruit and retain staff, and I think if you're going to do it, that's more sensible than trying to recruit in Holborn or Shoreditch.

But I would give it to an up and coming UK company that was passionate about growth, entirely aligned with the user led approach and looking to make a splash. I'd then work closely with them to make an effective transition, assuming that the code stands up to such a transition.

Verify. It's time to be brave and ignore sunk costs (investment to date and contractual exit costs if any) and let this one go. It hasn't achieved any of the plans that were set out for it and it isn't magically going to get to 20 million users in the next couple of years, least of all if HMRC is going its own way.

The real reason for letting it go, though, is that it doesn't solve the real problem, that identity is multi-faceted. I'm me, but I do my mother's tax return, but appoint my accountant to do mine, but I work for a company and I do their payroll, and I counter-sign the VAT return that is prepared by someone else, and I act as the power of attorney for my blind father. Taking a slice of that isn't helping.  Having many systems that each do a piece of that is as far from handling user needs as you can get.  

Driving take up by having a lower burden of proof isn't useful either  ̶  ask the tax credits folks. HMRC is, by far, the biggest user of the Gateway. It needs citizen and business (big business, sole trader, small company) capability. Let it take the lead  ̶   it did on the Gateway and that worked out well  ̶   and put support around it to help ensure it meets the wider needs.

How many people does that make? I'm very interested in views, disagreements, counter-points and omissions.

Alan Mather has held several digital roles in central government, including chief executive officer of the Cabinet Office e-Delivery Team (a predecessor to GDS), and is now director at Ardea Enterprises. This has been republished from his In the Eye of the Storm blog and conveys his personal view. There’s scope for alternative perspectives, or agreement, through his blog page’s comment function.

We're publishing the rest of the series through this week:

Part 1 - The Emperor and his clothes

Part 2 - The content mystery

Part 4 - GOV.UK Verify

 Part 5 - No vision, no ambition

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