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.