back to article No 10's online EU vote signup crash 'inevitable' – GDS overseer

MPs have taken the Government’s digital masters to task for their inability to handle online voter registration for this month’s European Union referendum. Members grilled Cabinet Office minister for Government Policy Oliver Letwin after the Government Digital Service’s EU voter registration site crashed under "unexpected" …

  1. D Moss Esq

    Why Oliver Letwin?

    Has Matt Hancock finally refused to speak his lines?

  2. D Moss Esq

    Let's "discover" some facts

    "The Gov.uk voter registration site ... is one of many websites and online services run by GDS."

    Is that true?

    Or are Computer Weekly right when they say that the site is run by the Foreign Office?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Let's "discover" some facts

      If my information is still current:

      - It's "overseen" by GDS

      - Development and Operation of the site is provided under contract by a third party

      - Hosting (as in the place the website lives) is with FCO Services (https://www.fcoservices.gov.uk/our-organisation/) which might explain why you heard it's run by the Foreign Office

      Posting anonymously, for $reasons

  3. IHateWearingATie
    Headmaster

    Extensible architecture

    I usually defend Gov IT as its bloody tricky and the private sector screw up just as much, you just don't hear about it.

    However, in this case it's a pretty simple case of not sorting the architecture properly, and getting some short term extra horsepower to cover the spikes. I thought all these new shiny .GOV sites were created using DevOps, or whatever new buzzword methodology that's come out of Silicon Valley recently - surely that would have been anticipated?

  4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Welcome to the land of continual surprise. You get here by not making any attempt at a realistic estimate of demand. For extra guidance speak to the experts, HMG.

  5. D Moss Esq

    The Government now believes a “large proportion” of applications may be duplicates.

    Not many people know this but someone issued a warning exactly two years less 10 days ago about the duplicates problem. That message is presumably still on its way from the dinosaur's stubbed toe to its brain.

  6. D Moss Esq

    The strong silent type

    GDS's apply-to-register-to-vote platform is not communicative. You submit your application. And you wait. Some applications will be successful, i.e. the Electoral Registration Officer adds you to the electoral roll. And some will fail. You don't find out you've failed until you find out you can't vote.

    Prediction: more newspaper headlines about all the people, whose applications have failed, being silently disenfranchised, followed by Oliver Letwin explaining that that's inevitable.

    1. BebopWeBop

      Re: The strong silent type

      Well I do have a counter example. When registering to vote (about 3 months ago having moved countries within the UK), I received a letter asking for additional information (in my case I supplied a copy of my passport), and lo and behold a polling card arrived for the Scottish elections and more recently one for the EU referendum. So there is at least some 'catch' function.

      1. D Moss Esq

        Re: The strong silent type

        I'm pleased to hear that there are counter-examples. But most people get no notification. We await GDS's GOV.UK Notify.

        We await also their GOV.UK Verify (RIP), which is supposed to provide adequate proof that we are who we claim to be. Which is what the EROs need.

        Of course, if GOV.UK Verify (RIP) worked, we wouldn't need the EROs. We wouldn't even need to register to vote. GDS could decide our entitlement to vote for us using attribute exchange and all the non-existent open data registers which support the non-existent GaaP, government as a platform.

        All we would need to do is vote.

        Or would we? Could GDS use data science to work out for us what we should vote?

        Soon we won't be needed at all. GDS can cater to all our user needs.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: The strong silent type

      I'm pretty sure they send you an email (or text?). A friend of mine received one yesterday confirming that he was now registered to vote.

  7. D Moss Esq

    "... the Government Digital Service’s EU voter registration site crashed under "unexpected" demand."

    There was a major campaign to get people to register to vote. When they tried to register to vote, that was unexpected. Or unprecedented, according to GDS.

    Just how unexpected or unprecedented?

    Cast your mind back to 21 April 2015 and the BBC's More people register to vote 'than ever before':

    A record-breaking 469,000 people registered to vote online in one day for the 2015 general election - as the deadline closed on 20 April.

  8. Telford dave

    Inevitable by design

    GDS should look at themselves.

    Because GDS actively discourages transaction pricing it discourages suppliers to provide horizontal scalability for service like this. They much prefer the predictability of fixed service capacity scalable in more traditional ways.

    In this instance the supplier can say it performed to capacity as can the department. As usual the poor public suffers from poor IT policy and solution design.

  9. localzuk

    Still don't understand how this happens

    We now live in a world of cloud hosting everything. Scaling a site like this should be as simple as spinning up more instances for the front end and database. You should even be able to automate it "if demand reaches X, spin up Y new instances".

    Ok, that's a vast over-simplification, but it is still how it should work!

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Still don't understand how this happens

      This stuff shouldn't go out to AWS or any other commercial cloud provider. G-Cloud should be able to offer the same. And if it doesn't, why not?

      1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

        Re: Still don't understand how this happens

        This stuff shouldn't go out to AWS or any other commercial cloud provider. G-Cloud should be able to offer the same. And if it doesn't, why not?

        Because the scalability of cloud services is largely a result of serving a lot of different clients with varying load requirements. A government facility isn't a cloud in this sense, it's just a web server scaled to what is thought to be the maximum likely demand.

        The odd thing is that the sites always crash when they're overloaded. If overload is likely it would make sense to throttle access through a proxy that is sufficiently lightweight to have little risk of overload. It wouldn't solve the deadline problem, but it would reduce the problem where slow response makes people queue up numerous retries and open several clients, thereby increasing the overload.

        I accept that the use of a commercial provider might be inappropriate, but I should have thought that the information being processed isn't super-sensitive, and it ought to be possible to devise an arrangement that respects security requirements in a commercial environment.

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: Still don't understand how this happens

          I think between all government websites - national, regional, county, and local - it could be done. Almost all have their deadlines and all have their quiet periods.

        2. jonathanb Silver badge

          Re: Still don't understand how this happens

          We didn't have a tax return deadline at that time, so in a sensibly designed system, the capacity that isn't being used to receive tax returns could be used for voter registrations.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Still don't understand how this happens

      Recent history is littered with stories of companies (usually online retailers) who go TITSUP during peak buying periods (Christmas, Black Friday) etc.

      The cause? Idiots in Suits Making Bad Economic Calculations. AKA as corporate airheads who won't listen to or seek expert advice.

      They generally do this once or twice, losing millions each time. Eventually people start screaming and they hire a consultant or supplier who actually knows what they are doing. Gov IT seems to be the exception to this rule, I wonder why?.

      Of course, the organizations getting it right the first time never make the headlines. Education is sorely needed, but there are always some those who will insist on learning the hard way.

      1. D Moss Esq

        Re: Still don't understand how this happens

        You may be right about these unnamed companies but GDS are meant to be different. They're meant to have the digital future coursing through their veins. They speak it like a native. Others may make a mistake digitalwise but GDS can't, almost by definition. GDS are in Whitehall, where no-one understands the first thing about digitisation according to the current and previous executive directors of GDS, precisely because they know everything about it. And they don't wear suits.

  10. Keith Langmead

    Government procurement methods don't help

    Many government style procurement processes tend to be very strict, and want to assume that everything has a definitive cost. I can well imagine them being offered a properly scalable setup which would cope with everything, but of course the cost of that depends on usage, and the accounts department can’t cope with that. So they take a guess on usage, set a hard limit, and cross their fingers. The guys maintaining it aren’t just going to scale things up without prior authorisation, since they know there’s a good chance they won’t get reimbursed without a valid PO for the cost.

  11. David Pollard

    "I am not a technical expert ..."

    That rather sums up one of the main problems of parliament: people like Oliver Letwin who appear either not to have the capacity to understand the areas over which they have responsibility or to be intent on deceit as a means to further their agenda.

    Checking out what he studied post-Eton - philosophy at Cambridge - a search brought up a speech he made this April to the UN.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/we-must-redouble-our-efforts-to-meet-the-challenge-of-new-psychoactive-substances-to-bring-the-most-harmful-substances-under-international-control

    His claim that the UK "is delivering a modern, balanced, evidence-based response to drugs within the UN conventions" is unconscionable. Professor David Nutt and his team were quite clear, before their forced retirement, about what a genuine evidence-based policy on recreational drugs should be.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    incapacity of the system

    I propose a new system to measure the incapacity of a given system (units would be "brexits", what else? - mega, giga, etc.) Inversely proportional to, say, un-expectancy of a projected incapacity event?

    In lieu of more scientific methods, I estimate my own current system incapacity at 1.2 GBS (gigabrexits), cause it's Friday, totally unexpected.

  13. Mike Pellatt

    Unsung triumph?? Yeah, right.

    PM David Cameron.. says: “I believe the creation of the Government Digital Service is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament."

    Because you'd want to sing about the great triumph of the payments system for the Dartford Crossing being in alpha state over a year and a half since it went live, wouldn't you ??

    Every time the latest GDS farce happens, I go off and look. Still alpha ?? Check.

    1. Allonymous Coward

      Re: Unsung triumph?? Yeah, right.

      AFAIK, many GOV.UK services stick in "beta" (not sure about alpha) because it saves the developers having to do an extra round of GDS service assessment.

      1. Mike Pellatt

        Re: Unsung triumph?? Yeah, right.

        Because if they went through that service assessment...... they might not crash when there's a peak in activity.

      2. Allonymous Coward

        Re: Unsung triumph?? Yeah, right.

        Why the downvote? This actually does happen; I've seen it.

    2. D Moss Esq

      Re: Unsung triumph?? Yeah, right.

      Far from unsung, as the Prime Minister well knows, GDS were long ago immortalised in Agile People's rollicking JFDI. All together now, it's fun to iterate, J-F-D-I ...

  14. Crisp
    Boffin

    “I am very surprised that it crashed” - Liam Fox MP

    I'm not.

    But then I would have hosted it in a proper cloud environment that would have brought more resources to bear as demand increased.

    1. Nick Kew

      Re: “I am very surprised that it crashed” - Liam Fox MP

      I take it you're not one of the many reg commentards who would've screamed loudly about UK citizens' personal data being outsourced to a commercial entity and to servers in jurisdictions lacking our level of data protection?

      There are a lot of people who care about that kind of thing, and would take a dim view if it happened. They might very well seek and get a court order declaring it illegal.

      Anyway, a sufficient DoS attack can bring any server down for a while (see my post below for thoughts on who might've expected to benefit from that).

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        Re: “I am very surprised that it crashed” - Liam Fox MP

        It is a relatively quiet period for HMRC, their busiest times are the deadlines of 31st January for Income Tax, 31st December / 30th September for Corporation Tax, 7th February, May, August & November for VAT, and the days that employees receive their salaries for employment taxes, usually the last Thursday or Friday of the month. The rest of the time, that is a lot of spare capacity that could be used for other things.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Confirmation emails ?

    don't be so sure. I have just completed an online Blue Badge application

    (well, to be precise I *tried* to complete an online Blue Badge application. The website crashed 5 times in exactly the same place (obviously right at the end). Then the email address I was advised to use turned out to be wrong ...)

    and they don't issue a confirmation.

    Neither did the Lloyds share offer website.

    I suspect they are trying to recreate the snail mail service, which allowed the "didn't receive it" excuse as a starting point for any fuckups.

  16. Troll.the.trolls

    Keep taking the tablets Mr Moss

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Legal challenge to extending the deadline

    I'd like to understand what grounds the Exiteers are proposing to make that legal challenge. "But m'lord we think these people who want to register to vote are not our supporters ..."

    1. Down not across Silver badge

      Re: Legal challenge to extending the deadline

      The whole deadline is bit silly. If you're eligible to vote, why couldn't you be able to register until right before the vote with the caveat that if you leave it too late you might not be able to exercise your right to vote as you might not be included in the lists at your polling station.

      Surely if both sides are truly behind the concept of letting people decide, then enabling as many as possible eligible voters to vote should be in their interests.

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        Re: Legal challenge to extending the deadline

        If you want certainty that your name will be on the polling list, you have to draw a line somewhere.

  18. Nick Kew
    Alert

    Conspiracy?

    Can we say one way or the other whether anyone might have deliberately DoSed the system? Cui bono?

    The alacrity with which a minority of "out"ers jumped on it with cries of Judicial Review tells us someone thinks they may have something to gain from what happened: they're preparing the ground for a "vote again until you get it right" scenario. If the deadline hadn't been put back, they exclude a bunch of voters who everyone supposes to be predominantly-young, predominantly-in. A win-win for a DoS attack.

    If it was regular cockup - lack of capacity - it would seem more than likely it should've gone down again before the extended deadline. As noted on Wednesday (before the event), whether it survived Thursday would provide cockup-vs-conspiracy evidence.

    1. Steven Raith

      Re: Conspiracy?

      Or, you know, someone saw the state things were in, and just upped the number of apache processes allowed to run/threw more RAM in/split the DB across more, faster disks/whatever. IE what normally happens when a service shits itself due to load and needs more resources, and needs them at short notice.

      Which is rather more likely than a shadowy cabal wanting to throw a referendum.

      Steven R

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I registered to vote 12 months ago and never recieved any contact to tell me if successful. I reregisted 51 weeks ago still with no confirmation and 50 weeks ago and just about every damn week since and still don't know if I am registed to vote in this cock up.

    Hardly any wonder the server crashed when there seems to be no way to check if you are already registered.

    1. jonathanb Silver badge

      I already have my polling card, it arrived just after the council elections last month.

  20. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Why all the hubbub?

    Oliver Letwin is absolutely correct.

    With the GDS "overseeing" the endeavour, the crash of the site truely was inevitable.

  21. Wolfclaw

    Servers fal flat on there faces and Cameron congratulates the people responsible, can he more of a pr1ck than he is now ??

  22. Medical Cynic

    Why should we bend over backwards to accommodate people who have already broken the law by failing to register in the first place?

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022