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.
  • Gov.uk, whilst a triumphal demonstration of political will to drive consolidation and a far greater achievement in presenting a joined up view of government to the citizen than achieved before, is still a patchy consolidation 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
  • Gov.uk 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 Gov.uk.  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:
  • Gov.uk development - Personally, I'm in favour of using companies to do build work.  They can maintain a bench and keep their teams up to date with evolving technologies.  They can locate wherever it makes sense and call on disparate teams, around the globe if necessary.  They can call on experience from other clients and use relationships with partners and the big vendors to do the heavy lifting.    The in-house project managers will keep the suppliers in check and will manage scope, cost and time to bring projects home.  This is contentious I know - 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 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.