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:

WE HAVE NO VISION


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."