Thursday, August 31, 2017

It Will Take More Than Tesla - Follow The Money to 2040 - Part 2

The UK’s current strategy for the transition to EV and, beyond there, to autonomous vehicles isn’t yet integrated:

  • Defra's announced strategy of no more petrol and diesel sales from 2040 (see Part 1), accompanied by some £1.4bn of investment (there's an additional £1.2bn announced in this same strategy related to air pollution reductions)
    • £1bn – Ultra low emissions vehicles. This includes investing nearly £100m in the UK’s charging infrastructure and funding the Plug In Car and Plug In Van Grant Schemes.
    • £290m – National Productivity Investment Fund for reducing transport emissions which includes £100 million for new buses and retrofit, £50 million for a Plug In Taxi programme and £80 million for ULEV charging infrastructure.
    • £11m – Air Quality Grant to help local authorities improve air quality
    • £89m – Green Bus Fund to help bus companies and local authorities in England to put over 1200 new low carbon buses on the roads.
    • £27m – Clean Bus Technology Fund and Clean Vehicle Technology Fund to retrofit almost 3,000 of the oldest vehicles (mainly buses)

  • Within the National Infrastructure plan, Highways England has an Innovation Strategy, where they will:
    • Carry-out trials of driverless cars on the Strategic Road Network by 2017
    • Launch a consultation on reducing regulatory barriers in summer 2016
    • Establish a £15 million ‘connected corridor’ from London to Dover to enable vehicles to communicate wirelessly with infrastructure
    • Trial truck-platooning on strategic roads
It’s good, but it’s not yet good enough.  What do we need to do to make sure that:
The UK is the best place to develop, build and test EVs and all of the associated components, software, local and macro infrastructure that will provide the environment to support autonomous vehicles faster than any other country does
It’s early days for EVs - there is much to play for whilst the EV equivalents of Intel, Microsoft and, indeed, Facebook, Google and Amazon establish themselves. One or more of those could be headquartered in the UK. But not if we don’t get moving - many of those names already have a significant lead on any UK competition.

In September 2016, the DfT published their annual survey of Public Attitudes to Electric Vehicles. One of the areas reported on was likelihood of buying an Electric Vehicle.  Note that a peculiarity of most government documents is that the source data is often months older than the publication date of the report - this is February 2016 data published in September, so getting close to 2 years old now:

The same survey said:
In 2016, those with a driving licence reported that the most important factors they considered when buying a car or van were costs (83%), reliability (82%), safety (74%) and comfort (64%). Only 6% of respondents said they considered whether the vehicle was electric to be an important factor.
I think it's reasonable to assume that cost will still be uppermost in the minds of people if they were to be surveyed in October 2017.  Which is why it's important to follow the money.


Let's look at the other side of the money balance - taxation revenue - given that there are potentially significant benefits to EV owners through payment of less tax (and, as a consequence, high revenue gaps for government)

In the last tax year:

  • £27.6bn of tax came from fuel duties
  • A further £5.5bn came from Vehicle Excise Duty (tax discs as they used to be)
  • There's also around £5bn in tax from the premium levied on car insurance - something to think about in a world of self-driving cars
  • In London, a further £280m comes from the congestion charge

For now, purchasing an electric car exempts you from fuel duty, the congestion charge (in London) and VED (other cars, that are low emission can also receive some or all of these benefits). With only 1,000 fully electric cars being sold a month, the tax take isn't getting hit yet.

We could, though, plot a relatively simply graph that would show the route from 1,000/month to 160,000/month and see just how tax will be affected. A conservative straight line graph would suggest that government has plenty of time before it needs to worry about it - but if my inflection point thinking is right, it will go from not being a problem to being a problem very quickly.
It's interesting, of course, that when it becomes a problem for government - i.e. when government sees it's losing too much tax because people are buying EVs - it also becomes a problem for the consumer, because government will look to them to replace that lost revenue, removing incentives or, indeed, further punishing owners of petrol and diesel cars (or both).
Government, therefore, needs to think, now, about how and when it will make changes to tax policy - starting with the electric car era rather than the self-driving era. For instance:

  • Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) - incentives for electric vehicles could be phased out. Or changed so that only the most efficient - longest range on lowest charge, say - receive the benefit. Given an electric car is likely to be able to talk to the cloud all the time, a distance based tax could be introduced with the information coming directly from the car rather than from overhead gantry cameras.
  • Fuel Duty - this would appear to be going the way of the dodo, but at nearly 4% of the total tax take, that's too much to lose. This feels like the most obvious candidate to replace with a distance based road tax. That is interesting though as today, in effect, you pay less Fuel Duty if you have an efficient car (the further you can go on a tank of petrol, the less petrol you need and so the less fuel duty you pay); if it becomes a straight tax on distance, then the more you travel, the more you will pay - which could penalise taxi drivers, salesmen, delivery drivers and so put up costs for them and so increase charges to consumers which would have the perverse affect of creating inflation (all other costs being equal).  "Filling" an electric car costs roughly 1/4 of what a petrol car does - a significant economy for a high mileage driver - closing that gap to replace the tax loss would make for a significant dent in the business case for buying an EV given their current costs.
  • There's another angle on fuel duty which relates to whether tax will be levied when you re-charge your car battery away from home. Let's say you use a fast charger at a motorway service station - and that costs you, say, £5 with tax taking it to £10. It would be weird, of course, to be taxed for electricity, but the lost revenue from fuel duty will need to be replaced.
  • Congestion charge - much like VED, EVs will need to begin paying this at some point, once the revenue hit to Transport for London gets too large to ignore. There may be ways to soften that blow and perhaps that will be discounts or annual purchase options for EVs
These tax changes need to be telegraphed long in advance. No one will say "thank you" if we have a repeat of the solar panel subsidies being withdrawn at short notice because there was too much take up. Publish a number of vehicles sold at which point the subsidies will be removed, or changed and let everyone see the clock ticking down day to day and week to week.
This could encourage an interesting market in EV call options - you buy a car now for delivery in 2020, but somehow preserve the benefits you would have got if you bought it today. That would allow car manufacturers to plan capacity, government to see what take up looked like and give a view to those putting the infrastructure in place of what was needed.

Going back to the vision
The UK is the best place to develop, build and test EVs and all of the associated components, software, local and macro infrastructure that will provide the environment to support autonomous vehicles faster than any other country does
We can see that government is working hard at "the inputs" - scattering money to various programmes to support the development of EVs, but that it isn't integrating and co-ordinating that funding together with wider R&D investments to stimulate development of the other components of an EV strategy either in startups or in existing companies - mapping, sensors, autonomous software.  We see day to day headlines about self-driving cars from Google (through their subsidiary Waymo), Apple (more speculation than actual news), Uber, Lyft and many, many others.

We also don't, yet, see any thinking on the taxation side of the government equation - how current incentives might be withdrawn or changed as take up increases.  The overall tax position of EVs is likely to be neutral versus petrol and diesel at some point - including subsidies for purchase, subsidies for installation of home charging units and so on.  The journey from overt subsidy to neutrality is interesting.

And what worries me, as it did in Part 1, is that this is an obvious programme.  This is the Crossrail of the roads - a huge piece of work that will unfold over up to two decades with complicated engineering, heavy lifting and strategic thinking as well as an untold universe of problems that will pop up as progress is made.

The transition from overwhelming petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles to purely electric (via perhaps a mix of hybrids) is a programme that requires:

  • Investment in local and macro infrastructure (charging points in public places as well as at the home as well as thinking about at home batteries and changes to the grid and home electrical environment to support charging)
  • Funding for technology and innovation - if we want the Google of EVs to be British, we need to seed and support potential companies.  This will need to cover not just cars but trucks, agricultural vehicles and other petrol/diesel vehicles
  • Trials and then full production of technology and infrastructure to support self-driving vehicles (including roadside sensors as well as software and hardware in the cars themselves
  • A plan for subsidisation and the subsequent withdrawal of those subsidies
  • The co-ordination of public and private sector partners to bring the necessary components together ahead of the expected need.

There's a lot to do.  2040 is seemingly far off.  But 2040 will be 2060 if this isn't seen as, and staffed as, a programme.  And 2040 could be 2030 if it is.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

It Will Take More Than Tesla - The 2040 Vision - Part 1

Copyright: <a href=''>welcomia / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

On 26th July 2017, Defra published their strategy for dealing with roadside emissions.  The big story is:
"The Government confirmed today that it will end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, as it unveiled new plans to tackle air pollution … We are taking bold action and want nearly every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050"
Contrast this with GDS' vision for anything beyond 2020
"Nobody can predict what the world of 2020 will look like. Technology moves quickly and changes constantly. However we do expect what we call ‘digital’ currently to be largely mainstream by then”

Interesting, no?  Defra are prepared to think 20+ years out and GDS, our government's lead technology organisation, can't quite comprehend the world more than a few months out.

In my experience, it’s rare for such ground-breaking, multi-Parliament promises to be made.  Realising this vision will involve working across the whole of government as well as with the private sector.  The interesting thing about this vision is that it could happen by itself - so it's not necessarily a daring vision - but it will be a lot quicker and easier if government is pushing rather than blocking. As it starts to unfold, though, government will need to be thinking and planning hard - there is plenty at risk including tax revenue and jobs.

Defra are, it seems, out in front of the rest of government by setting out this policy. There is, though, so much more to it than this. To make this work we need other parts of government to come alive and for them to spell out more of the “why” and “what’s it for”.  Government has announced an outcome (no more petrol and diesel cars), along with a series of funding inputs, but we need more - and we need a lot of different people to play their part.

So here's my attempt to fill in the gaps and say what the announcement should and could mean.  This post will come in a few parts and this is part 1.

What’s It For
  • Establish the UK in a leadership position on electric vehicles and, by extension, self-driving vehicles
  • Begin a programme of road upgrades that will support self-driving cars through establishing standards and ensuring that all changes to roads comply
  • Funnel R&D into electric and self driving. 
    • UK government spends £4.6bn on R&D each year - significant chunks of that can, and should, be diverted to emerging industries where we can move ahead 
  • Begin the restructuring of the UK manufacturing economy in support of electric and self-drive
    • There will be fundamental changes in the entire supply chain as the number of parts needed to build a car falls by as much as 60-80% (with increasingly standard components made to work more effectively by software)
  • Support the development of new national champions
    • If it’s not about internal combustion, new players can, and will, emerge.  Design champions, software leaders, battery technologists, sensor pioneers, and who knows what else
  • Pioneer new technology in eg fast charging
  • Leverage the work on cars to provide new trains, agricultural vehicles and, eventually, planes 
  • Aim to become a major exporter of electric cars and related technology
  • Begin planning for a restructuring of the tax base
  • Support the development of an app store, and applications, for electric cars
  • Start readiness planning for self-driving to be universal 
    • This could include restructuring the auto-insurance industry, taxi companies, driving instructors, road haulage ete

    Current UK Car Sales

    On average, 165,000 cars are bought each month in the UK, across petrol, diesel and "alternative fuels.  There is some recent uncertainty in these figures with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) seemingly getting its numbers wrong, but the average seems about right.

    In the year to end July, nearly 1.6m cars have been registered, with the breakdown of electric and hybrid vehicles, based on SMMT, looking like this:

    Whilst the numbers are moving up, they're not moving up very fast, despite the incentives available, including contributions of up to £4,500 against the purchase price and free road tax (saving another £200-300/year).

    We produce around 135,000 cars/month in the UK already, exporting roughly 100,000 of those.    Most of the capacity is already there, then, to build the cars we need, albeit for internal combustion engine models, if we didn't export any. 
    There will be re-tooling and re-skilling, re-balancing and re-thinking.  Lots will need to come together.  But it could.  It will need leadership.

    The Inflection Point

    Sometime before 2040, this vision becomes self-fulfilling.  The infrastructure will be in place, there will be wide choice of electric cars, incentives will be signposted as going away and the decision will suddenly move, for every buyer, from “why buy an electric car” to “why not buy one”.  For a small number of people, that decision is already made - but if you live in the country, drive great distances, have a large car that needs lots of towing power or stowage space, you’re not there yet.  But you will be and pretty soon I expect. 

    Significant change is coming, but it's going to take a lot of work for it to happen and a lot of rethinking about how our economy works, how tax to do with cars is calculated and levied and how we balance the phasing in of new economic models as we try and phase out the old models.

    It's going to be interesting what the take up curve looks like - recent diesel scandals coupled with likely increased charges for such cars entering city boundaries mean that diesel sales will continue to fall.  

    Thinking ahead:

    We don't have Tesla making cars here ... but we do have McLaren and Aston Martin 

    We don't have Google Maps ... but we do have Improbable

    We aren't Australia or Chile, the world's top lithium producers, but we might have lithium in Cornwall that can be mined

    We don't have Tesla batteries ... but we are investing in batteries

    Copyright: <a href=''>kasto / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

    There's a lot more still to think about and to bring together to make this happen.  The UK should now be aiming to be a leading player in both the electric car market and in self-driving technology.

    Some day soon, drivers of petrol and, especially, diesel vehicles will be like smokers today.  They won't be welcome at parties, will not be allowed to drive within a mile of a school and will see their health insurance premiums climb, not to mention their driving insurance premiums.

    More in part 2.

    Friday, August 11, 2017

    GDS Isn't Working - Part 5 (No Vision, No Ambition)

    Credit:  Roger Hooper

    Efforts to transform government have been underway for more than 20 years.  Despite that, government has remained firmly as the catalyst - the part of the reaction that remains unchanged - throughout each iteration.    We need to understand that Government isn't the subject of the transformation, it's the object.   The citizen is the subject.  It's their experience, their life, that we want to improve.

    Whilst I have a strong disliking for the word "transformation" - because it implies a sudden, dramatic shift from what we used to call "as is" to "to be" and because it means different things to different people (one person's transformation is another person's incremental change) - it's the word that is used to describe current change efforts in UK Government.

    To get a sense of the level of ambition and vision for today's programme,  I looked at the Beyond 2020 Strategy. It contains a couple of extraordinary statements.

    Here's the first:
    "Nobody can predict what the world of 2020 will look like. Technology moves quickly and changes constantly. However we do expect what we call ‘digital’ currently to be largely mainstream by then"
    This is both true and false.  More importantly, it's entirely irrelevant in this context.

    It's true because we all know that there is a new iPhone coming out in a month or so and yet no one outside of Apple HQ knows how it's all going to come together.    We don't know what products will be released next year, let alone in 2019 and 2020.  So far so dull.

    It's false because we know how technology is moving and what there will be more of and less of.  In 2001, one of our first demos of the Gateway to the then Minister of the Cabinet Office, Ian McCartney (the original sponsor of the Gateway), showed a VAT form being completed on a Compaq iPaq, sent over GPRS and acknowledged by HM Customs as being complete and valid.  We didn't know it would be 6 years before the iPhone would come along and that it would be longer still before mobile access to the Internet was common, but we could see it coming. We don't need to know which products are coming along to set a direction for how we want our online government experience to look for the citizen.  Technology in government, once deployed, can stick around for decades - ask HMRC how long the CHIEF system has been around, or the Home Office about the Police National Computer, or Cabinet Office, for that matter, about the Gateway.  We don't need to harness the latest and greatest product capability to make a difference.

    And it's irrelevant because:
    In these days of driverless cars, missions to Mars, rocket stages that no longer fall uselessly into the sea, artificial intelligence engines that get the maximum score on Ms Pacman, augmented reality and more ... 
    ... we are still talking about digital government as paving the cowpath, that is, putting forms online.

    And here, in that context, is the second extraordinary statement:
    "We want to make the best possible preparations for the post-2020 period. We will use current and emerging sources of data so that we can understand what is working well for the current transformation programmes and combine this learning with emerging macro-trends to make the best possible plans for the period after 2020."
    I challenge you to tell me, in simple words, what that means.  I suspect you can't, so let me translate as best I can:


    Instead, the so-called Transformation Plan for the period from 2017 to 2020 simply repeats the mistakes of the past, focusing on linear transactions, ticking them off one by one, without dates, ambition or any sense of rationale.  For instance, here are some of the "deliverables" picked at random from the document (I'd like to call it a "plan" but there are no dates or details):
    • continue to deliver world-class digital services and transform the way government operates, from front end to back office, in a modern and efficient way
    • make better use of data - not just for transparency, but to enable transformation across government and the private sector
    • broaden the definition of users, for example to reflect that some users will interact with government through third-party services that use government APIs (application programming interfaces
    • design and deliver joined-up, end-to-end services
    • we will build a framework for the best way to deliver transformation across government
    • building a national data infrastructure of registers (authoritative lists that are held once across government) and ensuring they are secured appropriately
    • building shared components and platforms, extending the use of the ones that we have and onboarding more services

    Are you any the wiser?  Do you see the vision?  Do you see the ambition? Do you know what's coming and when and are you palpably excited for how it might change your life for the better?

    I wasn't quite being honest when I declared that there is no vision.  The document does state one.  It says:
    We will transform the relationship between citizens and the state - putting more power in the hands of citizens and being more responsive to their needs.
    Which to me is a lot like saying "Our washing powder will wash even whiter than the last one that washed whiter."

    We have forgotten about the citizen - the ones who we truly want to see changed for the better.  We have instead labelled them "users" and decided that if we work closely with them we will design better services.  That's backwards.

    The citizen's interaction with government needs to be about them, not about government.  We need to think about what we want them to become, what power we truly want to put in their hands and how we will make that happen.  Going through the list, form by form, is not how that will come alive.

    Here is an excerpt of the Transformation Programmes underway as of November 2016:

    Those programmes, inevitably, translate into some online forms:

    Transformation?  No.   Not even close.

    All the way back when this began in the late 90s and early 00s, we declared that we wanted to harness the potential of the web, initially, to layer a veneer on top of government - to mask it's complexity from the citizen by presenting a joined up and citizen focused front end; we knew that the transactions underneath that would start off point to point.  We thought that would buy us time to engineer some truly joined up capability and we designed the Gateway to allow that - it could take in a single schema, split it up and send to different parts of government, get the responses, join it all up and send it out again.  That capability remains unused.

    A slide from a 2003 conference

    It's time to move away from the point to point nature of efforts so far and to imagine, instead, what we want our citizens to be able to do when we have delivered a successful digital capability.  For instance:

    - We want to encourage new startups and make it easy to create a company with, say, 10 lines of information and 3 clicks?  Company registration, payroll, VAT, R&D credits etc. What will it take to achieve that?  How will we know we are doing it right? What will the impact be on accountants and other professionals as well as on potential startup founders?

    - We want to make it so that there is no need for anyone to ever phone HMRC to resolve a problem?  How many people who could use the Internet make a phone call now?  How many problems could be moved to an Internet channel meaning a call wasn't necessary?  How many result from mistakes made by HMRC that we could correct before the citizen knew and how many can we prevent from occurring at all?    How would we make all of those changes?  How can we move the entire relationship a company has with HMRC to online interactions?  How can we do the same for a company employee?  For a retiree?  Not everyone wants to be online all the time, but if they want to be, we should give them a way.

    - We want to make the administration post loss of a loved one simple and effect, cutting by 80% the amount of paperwork and the time it takes to handle all of the different pieces - inheritance tax, pensions, council tax and so on.  Can Tell Us Once help?  Why is Tell Us Once not available everywhere?  What else would we need to do?

    We need to flip the thinking away from what do our departments do and how do we put that online to the problems that our citizens have and how we can solve them through smart use of technology.
    This isn’t about user needs. It's about a vision of how we want our citizens to lead their lives in relation to government services.  This is Henry Ford territory, that is, it's not about faster horses.
    As Paul Shetler says, "we can't kumbaya our way through this."  We need to get concrete.  Assumptions, plans, deadlines, delivery focus.

    To make this happen, we'll want to lay out some assumptions

    1) The shape of government isn't going to change materially in any way that would help our efforts.  Departments are still going to be departments.  We aren't going to split them into horizontal layers focused on citizens.  We aren't going to join up the machinery itself, we're going to have to do that through our own capabilities - we are going to have to pretend that it's joined up through use of technology.

    2) We have all the technology that we need.  We don't need to wait for flying, driverless cars.  We don't need to see what's around the corner, or what's going to launch in 2020.  The technology that we launched in 2001 and that we have today is all that we need to pull this off.

    3) We have all of the capability and capacity today.  If it's not already in the public sector, it's in the private sector.  We shouldn't bolster one at the expense of the other, in either direction.  It's all there today and we need only to focus it.

    So what we have is what we need and vice versa.  It's time to lay out a true, specific vision and to back that up with plans.
    We then need to be transparent - about those plans, about the financials and about our progress.  Delays will be forgiven if they are telegraphed early along with the true reason.  Whilst we have what we need, it won't be easy to create this level of change and so we need to bring people along for the ride, explaining what is and isn't happening and why. 
    Rule #1 - No surprises

    Rule #2 - See rule 1

    Wednesday, August 02, 2017

    GDS Isn't Working - Part 4 (Verify)

    The conclusion to Part 3 (The Reboot) was:

    • 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 20m users in the next couple of years, least of all if HMRC are going their own way.  The real reason for letting it go, though, is that it doesn't solve the real problem - identity is multi-faceted. I'm me, but I do my mother's tax return, but appoint my accountant to do mins, 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 are, by far, the biggest user of the Gateway.  They need citizen and business (big business, sole trader, small company) capability.  Let them take the lead - they did on the Gateway and that worked out well - and put support around them to help ensure it meets the wider needs.

    Instead, GDS appear to be doubling down, based on this article in Computer Weekly:

    • GDS speakers at the event encouraged suppliers to use the GaaP tools in their own products, in the hope of widening their use. However, according to guests at the event that Computer Weekly talked to – who wished to remain anonymous due to their ongoing relationships with GDS – GDS was unable to give any guarantees around support or service levels.
    • GDS has now developed a new feature for Verify that allows “level of assurance 1” (LOA1) – a reduced level of verification that is effectively a straightforward user login and password system, which offers “minimal confidence in the asserted identity” of users for low-risk transactions. In effect, LOA1 means the government service trusts the user to verify their own identity.
    • The government has committed to having 25 million users of Verify by 2020, and offering LOA1 is seen as a key step in widening the adoption of the service to meet this target.
    This is, though, to miss the point of "What is Verify for?":

    • The goal isn't to have 25 million users.  That's a metric from 1999 when eyeballs were all that mattered.  25 million users that don't access services, or that sign up for one and never use another service isn't a measure of relevancy
    • A government authentication platform is instead for:
      • Giving its users a secure, trusted way of accessing information that government holds about them and allowing them to update it, provide new items and interact with government processes
      • Allowing users to act as themselves as well as representatives of others (corporate and personal) with the assurance that there is proper authorisation in place from all necessary parties
      • Putting sufficient protection in the way so as to ensure that my data and interactions cannot be accessed or carried out by people who aren't me.  In other words, "I am who I say I am" and, by definition, no one else is
    What then, if we took away the numbers and the arbitrary measures and said, instead, that the real purpose is to:
    • Create an environment where a first time user, someone who has had no meaningful interaction with government before, is able to transact online and need never use offline processes from that moment on
    • Sixteen year olds would begin their online interaction with government by getting their National Insurance numbers online
    • They would go on to apply for their student loan a couple of years later
    • With their first job they would receive their PAYE information and perhaps claim some benefits
    • Perhaps they would be handling PAYE, or VAT, or CT for their own employer
    • Health information and records would be available to the right people and would move them as they moved jobs and locations
    • Perhaps they would be looking at health information and records for others
    • They would see the impact of pension contributions and understand the impact of changes in taxation
    • Perhaps they would be helping other people figure out their pension contributions and entitlements
    • They might decide whether they can afford an ISA this year
    • In time some would pay their Self Assessment this way
    • Or maybe they would be completing Self Assessments for others
    A 2002 Slide

    Instead of spot creating some transactions that are nearby or easy, we would seek to change the entire experience that someone has who doesn't know about government - they would never know that it had been broken for years, that paper forms were the norm for many, or that in 2010 people had to go from department to department to get what they needed.  They would take to this the way a baby learns that you swipe an an iPad screen - it would never occur to them that a magazine doesn't work the same way.

    Along the way, those who were at later stages of life would be encouraged to make the move online, joining at whatever stage of the journey made sense for them.

    This wouldn't be about transformation - the bulk of the users wouldn't know what it was like before.  This would just be "the way government is", the way it's supposed to be.  Yes, in the background there would have been re-engineering (not, please, transformation), but all the user would see is the way it worked, fluidly, consistently and clearly, in their language, the language of the user.

    Progress would no longer be about made up numbers, but about the richness of the interaction, the degree to which we were able to steer people away from paper and offline channels, and the success with which we met user needs.  The measure would be simply that they had no need, ever, to go offline.

    Verify isn't the way into this journey.  Verify started out trying to solve a different problem.  It isn't seen, and wasn't conceived, as part of a cohesive whole where the real aim is to shift interaction from offline to online.  In its current form, it's on life support, being kept alive only because there's a reluctance to deal with the sunk costs - the undoubtedly huge effort (money and time from good people) it's taken to get here.  But it's a "you can't get there from here" problem. And when that's the case ... you have to be brave and stop digging.

    If my original take on "What is GDS for" was:
    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. It's job is to remove the obstacles that stop government from championing the user cause.
    Then what if GDS took the vanguard in moving government to cater for the user journey, from a user's first interaction to its last.  A focused programme of making an online government available to everyone.  A way of assessing that "I am who I say I am" is an essential part of that - and starting with a 16 year old with minimal footprint is going to be challenging but is surely an essential part of making this work.  This would be a visionary challenge - something that could be laid out step by step, month to month, in partnership with the key departments.

    It can be dull to look backwards, but sometimes we have to, so that we move forward sensibly.  The picture above shows the approach we planned at the Inland Revenue a long time ago.  We would take on three parallel streams of work - (1) move forms online, (2) join up with some other departments to create something new and (3) put together a full vertical slice that was entirely online and extend that - we were going to start with a company because our thinking was that they would move online first (this was in 2000): register the company, apply for VAT and tax status, send in returns, add employees, create pensions etc.

    It feels like we've lost that vision and, instead, are creating ad hoc transactions based on departmental readiness, budget and willingness to play.  That's about as far away from user needs as I can imagine being.

    As a post-script, I was intrigued by this line in the Computer Weekly report:
    GDS was unable to give any guarantees around support or service levels.
    On the face of it, it's true.  GDS is part of the Cabinet Office and so can't issue contracts to third parties where it might incur penalties for non-delivery.  But if others are to invest and put their own customer relationships on the line, this is hardly a user needs led conversation.  Back in 2004 we spent some time looking at legal vehicles - trading funds, agencies, JVs, spin-offs - and there are lots of options, some that can be reached quite quickly.

    My fundamental point, though, is that GDS should be facilitating the re-engineering of government, helping departments and holding them to account for their promises, not trying to replace the private sector, or step fully into the service delivery chain - least of all if the next step in the delivery promise is "you will have to take our word for it."

    Friday, July 28, 2017

    GDS Isn't working - Part 3 (The Reboot)

    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 they're busy being busy at what they're doing.  They're 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 it's 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 is GDS for?", it's now ... to help understand these numbers:
    The budget is £150m in 16/17 and 17/18 (though it falls over coming years, to £77m in 19/20) and GDS has around 850 staff today (again, falling to 780 by 19/20).
    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, Parkinson's Law of Government, says the department will expand to absorb that budget.
    GDS has demonstrated this law in action:
    • The exemplars have finished, with varying degrees of success.  There are no further exemplars planned.  The organisation has only grown.
    • Major digital projects have stumbled badly and, in some cases, failed entirely, for instance:
      • The RPA Common Agriculture Programme, specifically re-engineered by GDS early in its life and then directly overseen by senior staff, failed to deliver.  The lessons learned in the previous RPA project, 7 years earlier, were not learned and the result was the same - a system that was late, 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 IPA 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 5 years after DWP were ready to complete their identity procurement and around three years since its replacement, Verify design to save millions, 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 UI was last refreshed.  Verify has garnered around 1.4m users,  a very small fraction of even Self Assessment users, 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 20m 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.
    •, 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 with formats and styles changing as you move from level to level, departmental websites still having 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.  And yet here we are, after 7 years of GDS, being asked to believe that transformation can be achieved in the next 3.  There is a Jerry Maguire feeling to this, not so much "show me the money" as "show me the plan"
    • 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 2002/3, but that were turned off for some reason.
    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. It's job is to remove the obstacles that stop government from championing the user cause.

    Within that the main jobs are:
    • Standards and guidelines for IT across government.  This could get dangerously out of hand but, as the NAO note, 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 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
    • publishing team - joined up content will best come from the centre.  This team will control what to publish and how to publish and how to ensure consistency across  They will rationalise the content is there, doing what Martha originally set out - kill or cure - to make sure that the user is getting what they need
    • 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
    • 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 and 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.
    • 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, they will 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.
    • 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:
    • 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 - 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, me, 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 20m users in the next couple of years, least of all if HMRC are going their own way.  The real reason for letting it go, though, is that it doesn't solve the real problem - identity is multi-faceted. I'm me, but I do my mother's tax return, but appoint my accountant to do mins, 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 are, by far, the biggest user of the Gateway.  They need citizen and business (big business, sole trader, small company) capability.  Let them take the lead - they did on the Gateway and that worked out well - and put support around them 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.

      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 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)'s home page in May 2004

      2) The same site, in January 2007

      3) 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 (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, (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, 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  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 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.