back to article What should America turn to for web advice? That's right: GOV.UK – says ex-Obama IT guru

It's not the most obvious place you would expect a Silicon Valley-ite to point to as the future of the America, but Jennifer Pahlka is a big fan of the UK government's website. Pahlka heads up Code For America, an organization helping the public sector make better use of IT. She's just finished a stint in Washington DC as …

  1. James 51

    "the message was so full of lengthy legalese that many people couldn't understand it and so were kicked off the program"

    Which was probably the point.

    1. the spectacularly refined chap Silver badge

      "the message was so full of lengthy legalese that many people couldn't understand it and so were kicked off the program"

      Which was probably the point.

      Personally that's my main criticism of the site - the detailed legalese isn't there, all you have is executive summaries that simply don't allow you to make any definite determinations of your own. Before they started to centralise everything if you had an issue with e.g. your tax you went to the HMRC site. There you could find the usual public information leaflets for the issue in question but critically they also linked directly to the appropriate legislation and regulations as well as the technical and procedural manuals used by the staff administering whatever it is.

      If you had any kind of issue you could easily look up the exact rules, not just for the common stuff affecting most people but also the niche provisions covering particular circumstances or professions that affect tiny numbers of people. You could then see if it had been handled correctly or not and in the event of error you have some authoritative ammo to take to them to get the issue sorted out. is completely hopeless for that kind of detailed study, so you either need to take what you are told at face value or you have a lot more work finding out what the precise rules are.

      1. D Moss Esq

        This is the example an "ex-Obama IT guru" recommends for the US?

        1. The UK Constitutional Law Association certainly weren't too impressed at the advent of GOV.UK.

        2. There was some internal dissent on the GOV.UK development project, please see this blog post by the brilliant Jeni Tennison. (Brilliant? She produced this – a genuine example to follow.) How was that internal dissent handled? She became external. She left and is now at the Open Data Institute.

        3. Who doesn't wish they'd been a fly on the wall at the offices of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when the crack team of experts from GOV.UK arrived with the future in their hands and told the taxmen they couldn't ask people to "submit" VAT returns any more (Value Added Tax/Sales Tax). "Submit" is too long and formal apparently and in future people will simply "send" their VAT returns.

        4. And now there are hints that GOV.UK will be the model for all local government websites in the UK as well. Consolidate. Centralise. Standardise. States' rights? There's a model to follow.

        1. the spectacularly refined chap Silver badge

          Re: This is the example an "ex-Obama IT guru" recommends for the US?

          Brilliant? She produced this – a genuine example to follow.?

 is certainly one of the more information-rich government sites but given it's importance I'd say it is still short of the context that could reasonably be expected of it. I appreciate that you do not want to surround official documents that have the force of law with too much editorialising, but if you ever try to refer to legislation for the kind of issue I raised above you quickly see the shortcomings.

          Locating the primary legislation that introduces for example a given tax or benefit is generally easy enough - even if the tax or benefit is not mentioned in the title of the act determining the correct one is usually a matter of a quick Google or even looking at Wikipedia. However, the acts are generally very pithy and lacking in a lot of low level detail. Towards the end of each act you'll see a paragraph starting "Regulations may:" followed by a long list of things that can be set in secondary legislation. It's in those where a lot of the fine print actually resides. In some cases it might be a mundane matter such as specifying which form needs to be completed but in others it might set a rate or tax or set a income threshold that is described but not set in the primary legislation.

          However, although regulations, statutory instruments and so on are also up on the site locating them is frequently difficult and simple title searches are often not revealing. Since any regulations will themselves detail which piece(s) of legislation they are enabled by it would be a fairly simple matter to add another index to the site so that for each act you see another section along the lines of "These are the regulations in force enabled by this act:... and these are the former regulations that have since been repealed:..."

          That wouldn't be a huge amount of work but at a stroke it would make the site a lot more usable. This isn't just for resolving problems or dispute - I would argue that that site in particular needs to be easy to navigate given its importance for political debate, and indeed since ignorance of the law is no excuse everyone is effectively expected to be fully aware of it.

  2. James 51

    It's frightening to think how bad things must be in the US if they're looking to the UK goverment for IT advice.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Oh, I don't know... there's many, many lessons to be learned from the UK government's handling of IT projects.

      1. James 51

        Aye but the suggestion was that these are guys/gals that should be emulated.

  3. Turtle

    Emulating the UK.

    "Pahlka's solution while back in the Bay Area is to try to push a sense of civic duty onto Silicon Valley's best and brightest: 'There has been an economic boom but it's not benefiting everybody. The idea is to get people to think that it's your duty to go into government, even for a short time, in order to fix things.'"

    Clever. She's appealing to the very people who are themselves the "root cause" of why any economic booms are not benefiting everyone. In fact those are the people who set up their own bus services for their employees only. And who are pushing low and even middle income people out of that very Bay Area where she evidently gave her harangue. Their idea of how to "fix things" (as exemplified in the Hargreaves aka the Google report) is to give themselves every greater freedom of action at everyone else's expense. When they're not burning through venture capital they're evading taxes. That's what they're best at. There's a reason that Libertarianism is so popular in Silicon Valley - they want everyone to work for semi-starvation wages, in a world where you can either drive for Uber or work in an Amazon warehouse. We could have more people like Andrew MacLaughlin - working for the White House by day and illegally consulting with his former comrades at his former employer, Google at night. And in the day, too. Well whenever he damn well feels like it.

    And emulating the UK is exactly what we don't need for fuck's sake! Do we *really* need more boondoggles like smart meters, or forcing everyone to share their medical records, or teaching kids how to code to insure a larger (and therefore lower paid) cohort of programmers for their future employers in the tech industry? Do we need to expropriate all our photographers and make sure that Google can use all the IP it wants both at no cost and at the expense of those who created it?

    Stuff like this scares me, it really does.

    1. James 51

      Re: Emulating the UK.

      I think someone who worked on is downvoting us :P

    2. Jean Le PHARMACIEN

      Re: Emulating the UK.

      "or teaching kids how to code to insure a larger. ..... cohort of programmers "

      Rather than go to Aviva or similar - use a comparison site for insurance.

      Think you meant to say "ensure"....

  4. Andy The Hat Silver badge


    "one that gives primacy to policy processes and the civil service to one that puts users and delivery first."

    Call me old fashioned, and maybe I'm reading between the lines too much, but isn't that the IT industry equivalent of doing a massive u-turn, nay perhaps even a j-turn with full burn-out? For years users have been, and are, the last to be consulted about anything. And as for government considering the great unwashed, isn't that tantamount to heresy?

  5. returnmyjedi

    I had to fill out a US tax return once and it was the language was akin to that incomprehensible scene with the aged chap at the end of The Matrix Number Two (as it should have been called).

    In comparison the UK self assessment is as simple as a Mr Men book (Mr Nosey, mayhaps?)

    1. phil dude

      that's because..

      In the UK they take your money before you see it, they just want to make you feel as if you have a choice.

      In the US you declare what you earn, and you are permitted to not pay any tax until filing date.

      The 1040EZ is very simple.

      The 1040, not so much...


      1. Otto is a bear.

        Re: that's because..

        Well, not really, normal employed people are taxed through PAYE, which taxes you based on your income as you earn it, based on your employers statement of your annual salary and benefits. If your circumstances change, and you need pay more or less tax, the system works it out at the end of the year, and will either pay you back or increase your tax for the following year. If however you tell the tax office at any point your circumstances have changed, they will make the changes immediately. There are a limited number of deductions you can claim. PAYE is actually in arrears, not in advance, but only just, and the vast majority pay this way. The nasty bit these days is that HMRC now assume that if you get a bonus or have investment income one year, you are going to have it the next year and charge that in advance monthly/prorata.

        The self-employed pay differently, it used to be in arrears, but I think its now six months in advance, I can't remember why though. They have lots of things they can claim for that the rest of us don't.

      2. noominy.noom

        Re: that's because..

        Not true. Your tax is estimated and paid to the government before you get your share. If you are self employed you pay quarterly estimates and if you are wrong on your estimates you pay a penalty.

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "They are written in plain English and ask only the most pertinent questions. By contrast, the US system contains dozens of mind-boggling questions designed to cover every eventuality."

    Plain English & simplicity are good goals. But as they probably can't cover every eventuality there needs to be a good escalation procedure to get a human into the loop quickly to deal with the corner cases. And that needs to be a knowledgeable and empowered human, not a script-driven hell-desk worker who can do no more than web-site does. And escalation needs to be built into the system by design not added on when everything starts to fall apart.

    I think most customer service failures result from a lack of this; if at first you don't succeed try and fail again.

    1. justincormack

      Well you have to be able to simplify and change the product too. The legislation needs to be sanely implementable in a simple way. No one who thinks about the user interface of government would, say, implement the bedroom tax, which is blatent political point scoring, and not what anyone has asked for, and clearly an extra 0.001% on income tax would raise the same amount of revenue more effectively.

  7. Frankee Llonnygog


    "The reason that Bracken is able to have an influence on UK government policy (and he has hit a number of brick walls as we have covered in the pages of The Register) is because he keeps bringing in the results."

    Under the cover of writing plain English web pages, he has centralised all formerly impartial government online content under the control of a highly politicised unit. He has claimed credit for initiatives delivered without his team's help. And he has consistently failed to deliver any of the transformational projects that were promised.

    He's good at PR though

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward is almost useless. It only gives out trivial information that you probably already knew

    1. justincormack


      So you already knew how to get a license to operate a space object under the Outer Space Act of 1986?

      1. Crisp

        Re: Outer Space Act of 1986

        I'm applying right now. I'll let you know how I get on.

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          Re: Outer Space Act of 1986

          How much does 60 million euros of third party liability cover cost anyways?

  9. Nick London
    Unhappy Hutber's Law Better is Worse

    I agree about; there is a lot of useful information on the archived departmental pages but they don't appear to be updating them.

    Patrick Hutber of Daily Telegraph had two rules

    If he got a press release saying a service/product was better or improved it would be worse for the consumer and if a company built a spanking new HQ office it was time to sell the shares.

  10. chrisf1


    Why is the metric for a government site how many people that use it?

    Sure if it's use that channel in preference to non online systems fine but it could easily mean more problems with other systems (PAYE, health, local issues etc) and most transactional services are local.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: KPIs

      "Why is the metric for a government site how many people that use it?"

      Not people, just visits.

      On a par with Iain Duncan Smith's claim

      that nearly half a million jobs were available every week on UJM.

      Actually only 45,000 adverts,

      80% of which duplicates of original,

      with a published duration of at least 4 weeks,

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lucking Faughable......

    Claiming to be a success based on increased domain traffic figures,

    that were f*ck all to do with the GDS implementation,

    but rather DWP staff lying to claimants,

    stating that & UJM signups, plus daily logon & useage, were mandatory.

    1.46 billion hits alone from the 2 million officially unemployed x 365 off daily accesses = ( 0.73 billion hits x 2 years ).

    Plus a further 0.5 billion hits probably, for those not officially unemployed, i.e. those on "The Work Programme" and similar.

  12. D Moss Esq

    Where should America turn for advice? Not GDS. Not if it's the truth you're after

    She show the audience a table showing the cost and reach of the new GOV.UK website which replaced the old (as well as numerous other services run by different government departments).

    That seems like as good a place to start as any.

    Miss McCarthy has been misled. So has Miss Pahlka. Certainly it says on that "this website replaces Directgov and Business Link". But that's not true. It didn't replace these two websites two years ago when GOV.UK was launched and it still hasn't today.

    It's safe to try this at home.

    Start at GOV.UK, search for "jobseekers allowance", click on "claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) online" and you're taken straight to Directgov. Ditto if you try to log in to "universal jobmatch". Or try applying for a provisional driving licence.

    Directgov is still there and so is Business Link. Search for "contracts finder" on GOV.UK, click on "start now" and you'll find yourself on

    GOV.UK "replaces Directgov and Business Link"? That is just one claim made by GDS, the UK's Government Digital Service, which is not to be trusted.

    The same goes for GDS's claim that digital transformation has saved £10 billion or 4% of the UK gross domestic product. £10 billion is only 0.6% of UK GDP. Most money has been saved by laying off staff or negotiating better prices from suppliers. The saving attributed to GDS is only 0.0138% of UK GDP.

    That 4% claim was made by GDS at Ms Pahlka's Code for America Summit 2013. She was misled. And now she has misled Ms McCarthy, no doubt inadvertently. And now Ms McCarthy is misleading her readers.

    But before this falsehood is passed on into folklore as an unquestioned truth, let's nip it in the bud, shall we.

    And let's try to correct the impression anyone at the CfA Summit might have got that GDS was already operating an identity assurance scheme (IDA) for 45 million Brits. It wasn't then and it still isn't.

    IDA has already taken longer to develop than the much-maligned US Healthcare system and, despite all the fashionable agile development methodologies being used, it still doesn't exist.

    1. Frankee Llonnygog

      Re: Where should America turn for advice? Not GDS. Not if it's the truth you're after

      The indefatigable Moss. Keep up the good work!

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Where should America turn for advice? Not GDS. Not if it's the truth you're after

      Thanks for the feedback; this is the reason why we have a comments section – we report on what's happened, or said, and people can weigh in with their opinions. Like reader letters in Private Eye.

      I've tweaked the ––> GOV.UK section with extra context: you're right to point out that chunks of still hang around.

      FWIW we didn't repeat the GDS's claim it's saved 10bn quid nor the GDP stuff. I wouldn't touch that with a barge pole. And The Register has previously covered the MIA ID system. Also Kieren McCarthy, the article author, is a bloke. So I don't know where this Miss McCarthy comes from.


      1. D Moss Esq

        Re: Where should America turn for advice? Not GDS. Not if it's the truth you're after

        Yes, I thought her picture looked funny when I tweeted her just now. Then it occurred to me that maybe ...

      2. D Moss Esq

        Re: Where should America turn for advice? Not GDS. Not if it's the truth you're after

        Thank you very much for your fast response tweaking. Very impressive.

  13. Zangetsu

    Jennifer Pahlka needs to put down the crack pipe.

    her idea that we should look to as an example is insane

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