Monday, July 03, 2017

GDS Isn't Working (Part 2 - The Content Mystery)

In Martha Lane Fox's 2010 report, that, in effect, led to the creation of GDS and that set out its mission, there were a series of recommendations.  These seem like a reasonable place to start in assessing GDS' delivery track record.  The recommendations were:

1. Directgov should be the default platform for information and transactional services, enabling all government transactions to be carried out via digital channels by 2015 ... must focus on creating high-quality user-friendly transactions ... scaling back on non-core activities.

2. Realign all Government Delivery under a single web domain name ... accelerate the move to shared web services.

3. Learn from what has been proven to work well elsewhere on the web ... focus on user-driven and transparent ... implement a kill or cure policy to reduce poorly performing content.

4. Mandate the creation of APIs to allow 3rd parties to present content and transactions.  Shift from "public services all in one place" to government services "wherever you are"

5. Establish digital SWAT teams ... work on flagship channel shift transactions

Not surprisingly, I agreed entirely with this list at the time - nearly a decade beforehand I'd produced the picture below to represent the e-Delivery team's (eDt) e-government vision - eDt was a part of the Office of the e-Envoy when the late Andrew Pinder was in charge.  I think it captures Martha's recommendations in a page:


In slide format, the picture evolved to this:



Now, nearly 7 years after Martha's report, we have a new flagship website (whilst Martha's report was strong on making use of the direct.gov brand name, given the investment in it over the previous 6 or so years, a decision was made to use a different brand - you'll see that we had suggested that as a possible name in the 2001 picture above; it's in the very top left).

Here are 3 pictures showing the journey we have made over the last 13 years:

1) Direct.gov's home page in May 2004


2) The same site, in January 2007

3) Gov.uk in June 2017



Thirteen years of user needs, iteration, at least three different content management tools and, branding and size of search bar aside, do you notice any major difference?  Nope, me either. 

Interestingly and both encouragingly (because admitting the problem is the first step to solving it) and depressingly (because it's not like there haven't been plenty of opportunities before)  GDS, after I'd written this post but before I'd published it, have noticed the problem too and seem, at last, to be taking recommendation 3, "kill or cure", to heart.

When we envisaged the second iteration of UKonline.gov.uk (the first was run under a contract let to BT and was run by CITU, before OeE was really in existence, though it did go live on OeE's watch), we saw it as a way to join up important content across government, creating a veneer that would buy time for the real engineering join up to take place behind the scenes - something that would result in joined up transactions and a truly citizen-centered approach to government.  

Life events - important interactions with government - were synthesized from across all departments and brought together, by skilled content writers, in a way that meant the user didn't need to traverse multiple government websites - the aim was to give them everything in one place.  We (OeE as a whole) continued that approach through successive iterations of UKonline and on into its successor, direct.gov.uk (which started life as the Online Government Store, or OGS - a shopfront where all of government content could be accessed).

Thirteen years after the launch of direct.gov.uk, it looks like there have been successive iterations of that approach along with a wholesale migration of much of government's content to a single platform.  But there hasn't been any of the real heavy lifting done to join up the content and the transactions.  This is shown by the very existence of all of those other government websites, albeit as sub-domains on the same platform as gov.uk.  That wasn't the vision that we were after and, based on the recent GDS blog post, it seems not to be the one that GDS are after either.   But we had around 7 years before GDS and we've had nearly 7 years since.  So clearly something isn't working.

My guess is that the lessons that we learned from 2002-2010 have been learned again from 2010-2017.  Sure, some new lessons will have been learned, but they will be largely the same - many of the new lessons will have been technology and methodology related I suspect. Despite everything, it all looks the same and that, when poking behind the front page, all that's revealed is more design changes - bigger fonts, simpler questions and cleaner lines.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again
The creation of gov.uk has been a massive job - huge amounts of content have been moved, sorted, consolidated, re-written and, doubtless, re-written again.  It all feels like marginal change though - more of the same.  Heavy lifting, yes, but more of the same, incremental changes, with some big parts still to move, such as much of HMRC and still no real home or consistency for business-related content
The real mystery, though, is where are the transactions?  The new ones I mean, not the ones that were online a decade ago.
Looking back at Martha's recommendations:

(1) Single platform and transactions - is at least partly done, but transactions have advanced little in a decade.

(2) Single domain - looks initially to be a success (and one that I do not underestimate the huge effort it's taken and that it continues to take), but there isn't much else in the way of shared web services (I'll be coming on to Verify and other common platform technologies soon).

(3) User driven and transparent / Kill or cure - I'm going to score as strong effort, but not nearly enough of an advance on what was done before.  We have a huge amount of content piled on a single technology platform.  Disentangling it and ensuring that there's only one place to find the most relevant content on any given topic is not well advanced.  If you're a business, things are even more confusing. And if you're a sole trader, for instance, who hops between individual and business content, you're likely more confused than ever.

(4) APIs - beyond what was done years ago, I don't see much new.  I would love to be pointed at examples where I'm wrong here as I think this is a crucial part of the future mission and it would be good to see successes that I've missed.

(5) Flagship transactions - I'm not seeing them. The tax disc is a great example of a transaction that was started years ago and that has been successively iterated, and I don't want to undersell the monumental shift that getting rid of the disc itself, but it's an outlier.  Where are the others, the ones that weren't there before 2010?

The critical recommendations in Martha's report - the ones about flagship channel shift transactions, creating APIs (other than in HMRC, most of which was completed in 2000-2004) and "government services wherever you are" are still adrift. 
Martha's goal of "enabling all government transactions to be carried out via digital channels by 2015" seems as far away as it was when, in 2001, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, exhorted us to put joined up, citizen-focused services online by the end of 2005.
The real mystery is why we are tinkering with content instead of confronting the really hard stuff, the transactions.  As I said in 2012:
GDS' most public delivery is "just another website” - those who know (and care) about these things think that it might be one of the sexiest and best websites ever developed, certainly in the government world.  But it isn't Facebook, it isn't iTunes, it isn't Pirate Bay.  It's a government website; perhaps “the” government website. Once you've packaged a lot of content, made wonderful navigation, transformed search, you end up with the place where government spends the real money - transactions (and I don't just mean in IT terms).
 
And now we have a Transformation Strategy that promises it will all be done by 2020.  I'm not seeing it.  Not if we follow the current approach.  That sounds snarky and perhaps it is, but it's really the fundamental point of centre's digital efforts - joining up what hasn't been joined up before.  Content, as has been well proven for the last 15 years, is the easy bit.

Transactions are definitely the difficult bit, and they're difficult in two ways - (1) the creation of an end to end service that goes all the way from citizen possibly through intermediary (everything from PAYE provider to accountant to Citizen's Advice Bureau to me doing my mother's tax return) and (2) the rethinking of traditional policy in a way that supports government's desired outcome, meets user needs and is also deliverable.  From 2001, we started putting transactions online and, for the most part, we put online what was offline.  At the time, a good start, but not one that fits with current thinking and capabilities.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Emperor And His Clothes Revisited - GDS Isn't Working (Part 1)


In October 2012, I questioned whether the Emperor had any clothes on; somewhere in that piece I said:
The question is really how to turn what GDS do into the way everyone else does it.  In parallel with GDS’ agile implementations, departments are out procuring their next "generation" of IT services - and when you consider that most are still running desktop operating systems released in 2000 and that many are working with big suppliers wrapped up in old contracts supporting applications that often saw the light of day in the 80s or, at best, the 90s, “generation” takes on a new meaning.  To those people, agile, iterative, user experience focused services are things they see when they go home and check Facebook, use Twitter or Dropbox or have their files automagically backed up into the cloud.  Splitting procurements into towers, bringing in new kinds of integrators, promising not to reward "bad" suppliers and landing new frameworks by the dozen is also different of course, but not enough to bridge the gap between legacy and no legacy.
and then
The question is whether the GDS model is the one that achieves scale transformation right across government, or whether it is another iteration in a series of waves of change that, in the end, only create local change, rather than truly structural change.
My sense, now, is that it's the latter - another iteration, but one that hasn't created as much change as the inputs would suggest and that, today, is creating far less change than it did early on in its life when charismatic leadership, a brilliant team, an almost messianic zeal and bulletproof political support were in place.

GDS has done some brilliant and world-leading stuff but has also failed to deliver on its mission.   Simply, GDS isn't working.  We need to think again about what it's going to take to deliver the vision; something that has been largely consistent for much of the last two decades but still seems far away.  This is tricky: we don't want to lose the good stuff and we clearly want to get the huge pile of missing stuff done.  The current approach is a dead end so we need to do something different; with the appointment of a new minister, now could be the time for the change.

Every few years for at least the last two decades, HM Government has revised its approach to the co-ordination of all things IT. Throughout that time there’s always been a central function to e.g. set standards (govtalk for example), engage with industry to get the most done at the best price, co-ordinate services, do some direct delivery (ukonline.gov.uk, direct.gov.uk, gov.uk etc) and also teach government what to do and how to do it - the art of the possible.

It started with the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), followed by Central Information Technology Unit (CITU), then the Office of the e-Envoy (OeE), the e-Government Unit (eGU), the Office of the Government CIO (OCIO) and, most recently, the Government Digital Service (GDS). Some of these - CCTA and CITU for instance - overlapped but had slightly different roles.

After each revision, there was a change of leader, a change of approach and a change of focus - some were for the better, some not so much. Nearly 7 years after the Martha Lane Fox report that brought GDS into being, it’s time for another one of those revisions.

We should, of course, celebrate the successes of GDS, because there have been some big results, learn the lessons (of GDS and all of its predecessors) and shutter the failures. So let’s first laud the successes. GDS have, in my view, been responsible for four big changes at the heart of government.

1) User focus and an agile approach. GDS has shown government that there is another way to deliver projects (not just web projects, but all projects), through focusing on user needs, building initial capability and then iterating to bring on successive functionality. Whilst this wasn’t new and still isn’t yet fully adopted, there isn’t anyone in government who doesn’t know about, and have a view on, the topic; and every department and agency across the board is at least experimenting with the approach and many have taken it completely to heart. The two dozen exemplars showed departments that the new approach was possible and how they might go about it, infecting a new generation of civil servants, and some of the old guard, with an incredible enthusiasm. Assess user needs, build some and ship, assess results, build a bit more and ship again (repeat until false) is understood as a viable approach by far more of government than it was even 5 years ago, let alone 15.

2) Website consolidation. What was just an idea on some slides nearly 15 years ago, as seen in the picture below, is now close to reality. The vast bulk of government information sits on gov.uk, a site that didn’t exist in 2010. Gov.uk receives some12-14 million visitors in a typical week. We’ve gone from a couple of thousand websites to a handful (not quite to one, but near enough to make little difference).  Bringing together the content and giving the citizen the impression that government is all joined up is a necessary precursor to achieving lift off with transactions.


3) Spend Controls. Before the Coalition Government came in, departments spent money however they wanted to, despite the best efforts of various bodies to impose at least some controls. There’s now a governance process in place that reviews projects at various stages and, whilst the saves are likely not as big as has been claimed, the additional review focuses departmental minds and encourages them to look at all options.  Controlling and, more specifically, directing spend is the mainstay of changing how government does IT and will support further re-use of platforms and technologies.

4) Openness, transparency and championing issues. Government blogs were few and far between before 2010; official ones didn’t really exist. GDS staff (and, as a result, departmental people too) blog incessantly, to talk about what they are doing, to share best practice, to lay down gauntlets (e.g. championing the issue of necessary diversity on panels through the “GDS Parity Pledge”) and to help recruit new people from inside and outside of government to the cause.  Working in the open is a great way to show the outside, as well as the inside, world that things really have changed.

Each of those is a significant achievement - and each has been sustained, to at least some degree, throughout the time GDS has been active which deserves additional celebration. Having an idea is the easy bit, it’s getting it done that’s the hard bit - the latter is where most people turn around and give up. Each of these achievements does, however, come with a succession of buts which I will explore in later posts.


In the world of agile, failure is inevitable.  The point, though, is to fail fast and at a lower cost, correct the errors and get it right the next time.  Getting the next phase of the online agenda right requires some significant rethinking, an analysis of the failures and the setting of a new direction.

This is not to say that what GDS has done to date isn't good - the successes outlined above should rightly be lauded.  It is, though, to say that it was not and is not enough to create the necessary change.  Transformation is an overused word and one that is rarely delivered on, least of all in an agile, iterative world; but a step change in the way citizens interact with government is still possible.

So, to create that necessary level of change, we need to put in place a different approach, one that ratchets up the pace of delivery with departments, one that integrates tightly with the outside world and one that doesn't repeat the past but that embraces the future.
 
I plan to publish a succession of posts looking at this with the aims of constructively challenging what's been done so far and providing a framework for setting things up successfully for that next phase.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

5 Years After 10 Years After - The Emperor's New Clothes

With today's launch of the Government Transformation Strategy (not to be confused with this Government Transformation Strategy from 2006, or this one from 2005), my timing for taking a look at where we've been and what's left looks reasonably good.

In October 2012, I took a look at GDS, just as their first delivery, gov.uk, was about to go live.  I called it "The Emperor's New Clothes." My aim was to compare and contrast with earlier efforts specifically from the e-Delivery team which ran from 2001 through 2005/6.  The piece generated a lot of feedback at the time including whole Twitter conversations as well as lots of questions to me offline.  I noted that, during my time running eDt, I was never sure whether it was me who had no clothes on or whether I was the little boy.

Given my running theme that history might just be repeating, I've pulled out the main points from The Emperor's New Clothes here - and then, in future pieces, will catch up with where we are today and where we might go:
Change needs new ideas, new people and new ways to execute. This kind of change is very hard to get rolling and many times harder than that to sustain.   I watch, then, with fascination wondering if this is change that will stick and, especially, if it is change that will pervade across government.  Or whether its half-life is actually quite short - that when the difficult stuff comes along (as well as the routine, mind-numbing stuff), things will stall.  Perhaps the departments will rebel, or the sponsors will move on, or delivery will be undermined by some cockups, or the team will tire of bureaucracy once they move into the transaction domain.
The question is really how to turn what GDS do into the way everyone else does it.  In parallel with GDS’ agile implementations, departments are out procuring their next "generation" of IT services - and when you consider that most are still running desktop operating systems released in 2000 and that many are working with big suppliers wrapped up in old contracts supporting applications that often saw the light of day in the 80s or, at best, the 90s, “generation” takes on a new meaning.  To those people, agile, iterative, user experience focused services are things they see when they go home and check Facebook, use Twitter or Dropbox or have their files automagically backed up into the cloud.  Splitting procurements into towers, bringing in new kinds of integrators, promising not to reward "bad" suppliers and landing new frameworks by the dozen is also different of course, but not enough to bridge the gap between legacy and no legacy.
One of the strengths of the approach that GDS is adopting is that the roadmap is weeks or maybe months long.  That means that as new things come along they can be embraced and adopted - think what would have happened if a contract for a new site had been let three months before the iPhone came out? Or a month before the iPad came out? 
It is, though, also a significant weakness.  Departments plan their spending at least a year out and often further; they let contracts that run for longer than that.  If there is – as GDS are suggesting – to be a consolidation of central government websites by April 2013 and then all websites (including those belonging to Arm’s Length Bodies) by April 2014 then there needs to be a very clear plan for how that will be achieved so that everyone can line up the resource.  Likewise, if transactions are to be put online in new, re-engineered ways (from policy through to user interaction), that too will take extensive planning.
During the time of the e-Envoy we had four Ministers and, if you add in eGU, nine.  I suspect that my experience of the Cabinet Office is more common than the current experience where there has been stability for the last 2 ½ years.  GDS will need a plan B if Mr Maude does move on to something new.  There will also need to be a 2015 plan B if power changes hands.  Of course, if your roadmap goes out only weeks or months, then no one is looking at 2015.  That’s a mistake.
GDS have succeeded in being wildly transparent about their technology choices and thinking.  They are not, though, transparent about their finances.  That should change.  The close association with politicians seems to mean that GDS must champion everything that they do as a cost save – witness recent stories on identity procurement costs, website costs comparing direct.gov.uk and gov.uk and so on. Let’s see the numbers.
Given the inhouse staffing model that GDS is operating, changes are really represented only by cost of opportunity.  That makes comparing options and, particularly, benefits difficult.  In a beta world, you make more changes than you do in a production world – once you’re in production, you’re likely to make incremental changes than major ones (because, as Marc Andreessen said long ago, interfaces freeze early – people get used to them and are confused by too big a change).
Soon GDS will tell departments that their top transactions need to be re-engineered from policy through to service provision with a clear focus on the user.  At that point we move away from the technologists who are attracted to shiny new things and we hit the policy makers who are operating in a different world – they worry about local and EU legislation, about balancing the needs of vastly differing communities of stakeholders and, of course, they like to write long and complicated documents to explain their position having evaluated the range of possible options.
Tackling transaction is both fundamentally necessary and incredibly hard, though most of that isn’t about the shiny front end – it’s about the policy, the process and the integration with existing back end systems (which absorb some 65% of the £12-16bn spent per year on IT in government).  There is a sense of “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”
The question is whether the GDS model is the one that achieves scale transformation right across government, or whether it is another iteration in a series of waves of change that, in the end, only create local change, rather than truly structural change.
It seems unlikely that GDS can scale to take on even a reasonable chunk of government service delivery.  It also seems unlikely that enough people in departments can be trained in the new approaches to the point where they can shoulder enough of the burden so as to allow GDS to only steer the ship. If we add in the commercial controls, the supply chain and the complexity of policy (and the lack of join up of those policies), the challenges look insurmountable.

None of that is an argument for not trying.  Direct.gov.uk is old and tired and needed a massive refresh; transactions are where the real potential can be unlocked and they need to be tackled in a new way.
Much of this has been tried before, painful lessons have been learned and it would be more than a shame if the latest effort didn’t achieve its aims too.  The trick, then, is to pick the battles to fight and create the change in the right areas with the aim of infecting others.  Taking on too much at once will likely lead to failure.



Friday, February 03, 2017

10 Years After 10 Years After


Strictly speaking, this is a little more than 10 years after the 10 year mark.  In late 2005,  Public Sector Forums asked me to do a review of the first 10 years of e-government; in May 2006, I published that same review on this blog.  It's now time, I think, to look at what has happened in the 10 years (or more) since that piece, reviewing, particularly, digital government as opposed to e-government.

Here's a quick recap of the original "10 years of e-government" piece, pulling out the key points from each of the posts that made up the full piece:

Part 1 - Let's get it all online

At the Labour Party conference in 1997, the Prime Minister had announced his plans for 'simple government' with a short paragraph in his first conference speech since taking charge of the country: 
“We will publish a White Paper in the new year for what we call Simple Government, to cut the bureaucracy of Government and improve its service. We are setting a target that within five years, one quarter of dealings with Government can be done by a member of the public electronically through their television, telephone or computer.”
Some time later he went further:
"I am determined that Government should play its part, so I am bringing forward our target for getting all Government services online, from 2008 to 2005"

It’s easy to pick holes with a strategy (or perhaps the absence of one) that's resulted in more than 4,000 individual websites, dozens of inconsistent and incompatible services and a level of take-up that, for the most popular services, is perhaps 25% at best.

After all, in a world where most people have 10-12 sites they visit regularly, it’s unlikely even one of those would be a government site – most interactions with government are, at best, annual and so there's little incentive to store a list of government sites you might visit. As the count of government websites rose inexorably – from 1,600 in mid-2002 to 2,500 a year later and nearly 4,000 by mid-2005 – citizen interest in all but a few moved in the opposite direction.

Over 80% of the cost of any given website was spent on technology – content management tools, web server software, servers themselves – as technology buyers and their business unit partners became easy pickings for salesmen with 2 car families to support. Too often, design meant flashy graphics, complicated pages, too much information on a page and confusing navigation. 
Accessibility meant, simply, the site wasn’t.
In short, services were supply-led by the government, not demand-led by the consumer. But where was the demand? Was the demand even there? Should it be up to the citizen to scream for the services they want and, if they did, would they - as Henry Ford claimed before producing the Model T - just want 'faster horses', or more of the same they’d always had performed a little quicker? 
We have government for government, not government for the citizen. With so many services available, you’d perhaps think that usage should be higher. Early on, the argument was often made (I believe I made it too) that it wasn’t worth going online just to do one service – the overhead was too high – and that we needed to have a full range of services on offer - ones that could be used weekly and monthly as well as annually. That way, people would get used to dealing online with government and we’d have a shot at passing the 'neighbour test' (i.e. no service will get truly high usage until people are willing to tell their neighbour that they used, say, 'that new tax credits service online' and got their money in 4 days flat, encouraging their friends to do likewise).

A new plan

 • Rationalise massively the number of government websites. In a 2002 April Fool email sent widely around government, I announced the e-Envoy’s department had seized control of government’s domain name registry and routed all website URLs to UKonline.gov.uk and was in the process of moving all content to that same site. Many people reading the mail a few days later applauded the initiative. Something similar is needed. The only reason to have a website is if someone else isn’t already doing it. Even if someone isn’t, there’s rarely a need for a new site and a new brand for every new idea.

• Engage forcefully with the private sector. The banks, building societies, pension and insurance companies need to tie their services into those offered by government. Want a pension forecast? Why go to government – what you really want to know is how much will you need to live on when you’re 65 (67?) and how you'll put that much money away in time. Government can’t and won’t tell you that. Similarly, authentication services need to be provided that can be used across both public and private sectors – speeding the registration process in either direction. With Tesco more trusted than government, why shouldn't it work this way? The Government Gateway, with over 7 million registered users, has much to offer the private sector – and they, in turn, could accelerate the usage of hardware tokens for authentication (to rid us of the problems of phishing) and so on.

• Open up every service. The folks at my society, public whip and theyworkforyou.com have shown what can be done by a small, dedicated (in the sense of passionate) team. No-one should ever need to visit the absurdly difficult to use Hansard site when it’s much easier through the services these folks have created. Incentives for small third parties to offer services should be created.

• Build services based on what people need to do. We know every year there are some 38 million tax discs issued for cars and that nearly everyone shows up at a post office with a tax disc, insurance form and MOT. For years, people in government have been talking about insurance companies issuing discs – but it still hasn’t happened. Bring together disparate services that have the same basic data requirements – tax credits and child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit etc.

• Increase the use of intermediaries. For the 45% of people who aren’t using the Internet and aren’t likely to any time soon, web-enabled services are so much hocus pocus. There needs to be a drive to take services to where people use them. Andrew Pinder, the former e-Envoy, used to talk about kiosks in pubs. He may have been speaking half in jest, but he probably wasn’t wrong. If that’s where people in a small village in Shropshire are to be found (and with Post Offices diminishing, it's probably the only place to get access to the locals), that’s where the services need to be available. Government needs to be in the wholesale market if it's to be efficient – there are far smarter, more fleet of foot retail providers that can deliver the individual transactions.

• Clean up the data. One of the reasons why government is probably afraid to join up services is that they know the data held on any given citizen is wildly out of date or just plain wrong. Joining up services would expose this. When I first took the business plan for the Government Gateway to a minister outside the Cabinet Office, this problem was quickly identified and seen as a huge impediment to progress
More to come.