back to article Memo to Mark Sedwill: Here's how to reboot government IT

The new Cabinet secretary and head of the British civil service, Mark Sedwill, has a chance to rethink how the UK government does IT. And this means deciding what to do with GDS, the Government Digital Service. Although the kids-in-jeans-in-Whitehall era is now a distant memory, GDS remains, in name at least, the go-to expert …

  1. HmmmYes

    Hmm.

    Hey kids! Lets put a record o nthe jukebox and dance on the table ...

    The issue with GDS and its 'wunderkinds' is that a bunch of Web front end 'pogrammers' are just that - a bunch of people who are contantly dicking around wrtiing and re-writing javascript libaries.

    Total waste of time.

    What you need is a stripped down webgui front end, customed to whatever service, an encryped trasnports and a tranactional backend.

    And then those services have to be released, tested and updated in a controlled, managed way.

    The bulk of the that work - the tranport and the tranaactional backend - are mind numbingly hard and skills you are unlikey to find in a shoreditch cereal bar. Or a bunch of Guardian reading HTML under 25yo bullshitters.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Facepalm

      "But like, I could literally, like do all that in node.js in literally, like, one day" said every wispy bearded Web-barista-child everywhere. The children just don't get it, do they?

  2. 0laf
    Childcatcher

    GDS was full of overconfident sharp suited little boys that like to play with tablets.

    I really enjoyed watching one shit himself when a world weary MoD manager took exception to being told to stop worry about storing his secrets in the cloud.

    Yes, Gov did a kick in it's digital balls but it did not need it from children who were straight out of school with no experience of the real world, who implicitly believed eveything Google told them and who had no idea of how to use or protect high assurance systems.

  3. this

    DVLA

    "(DVLA) brought all of its IT services in-house, pulling in know how that had been at the system integrators. The techies were then closer to the problems they were trying to solve"

    I have always wondered why the DVLA online system worked so well, considering they were .gov

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin

    Prima-donnas + spivs = GDS

    >GDS remains, in name at least, the go-to expert in Whitehall.<

    Nurse! My sides are splitting.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Simple solution.

    Don't let any civil servant use anything more technologically advanced than tracing paper and crayon.

    1. BebopWeBop

      Re: Simple solution.

      Surely a pencil will be less messy - although there is the pencil in eye question to be resolved.

    2. SVV

      Re: Simple solution.

      We'll need to set up a working group to decide on the allowed types of tracing paper and crayons for each role in each department, within budget constraints. Then we announce the bidding process to create the centrally used Crayon Procurement System, with an initial £300 million budget, to be based on the latest agile continuous variable trend methodology, with it's own Government Crayon Cloud hosting, which every user can access with a unique CrayonId.

      1. $till$kint
        Pint

        Re: Simple solution.

        I think you must have written the Outline Business Case that's just been put in front of me...

        Have a pint and an upvote.

    3. Santa from Exeter

      Re: Simple solution.

      ODFO

      Tired of every tech Civil Servant being painted with the GDS/Crapita brush.

      Read TFA and you'll find it specifically says that when the actual techies are involved it works.

    4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Simple solution.

      "Don't let any civil servant use anything more technologically advanced than tracing paper and crayon."

      As far as the Civil Servants in GDS were concerned I though that was about the level of technology they were suited to. It looked as if that's what they'd used & then turned it over to a few kids to convert into HTML etc. The real Civil Servants were, I suspect, a good deal frustrated with all this and probably capable of doing a much better job. Make no mistake - this thing was driven by politicians for whom tracing paper and crayon might well have proved too challenging.

  6. Andy 73

    Hmmm....

    Though GDS was a disaster in so many entertaining ways, I'm a tad cynical that letting the academics at the problem is going to make it any better.

    From the point of view of an outsider looking in, the three things you need for 'digital transformation' are a team willing to stand on a few toes, who are capable of delivering rock solid systems and who have enough authority to make changes in the legacy (people and services) that they are meant to be transforming.

    It seems GDS had the remit to be bold, did not have the experience to deliver large scale robust systems (at which point, experience with the likes of Amazon is probably more useful than experience of IBM, SAP and the other treacle-mongers), and met with the gordian knot that is a government department being asked to do something remotely different.

    I'm sure the government came up with every reason to limit change (it's always been done this way; we're a service, not a shop; there's no legal remit to do this; it's above/below my pay grade; you need approval for that pencil...), and will have been mightily dismissive of something as radical as Agile - and you can guarantee that enough defensive strategies were put in place to ensure that GDS would stumble. Without rock-hard implementation to fall back on, the process and people can be blamed for internal intransigence and clueless dithering when being asked to commit to delivering something new.

    Now the greybeards will crash into the hole and suggest heavy handed and reassuringly expensive system integrators should do what the script kiddies could not. The projects will take just as long, fail just as often and deliver even more timorous change, but not once will the common factor in the long list of failures be identified.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmmm....

      Oh no, Agile is being thoroughly embraced, unfortunately for development environments it's totally unsuitable for. It's being forced through by managers who don't really understand it or the business areas they are developing for, on small highly skilled but niche development teams that have quite a lot of support responsibilities for business critical systems that can't just be "ignored" while the Agile project is carried out and demands all their time. Historically vastly underfunded in house teams scraping by on a wing and a prayer are having to shoehorn Agile projects in stealing 2/3rds of their development capability while frantically trying to keep existing in house developed or legacy systems going while the same managers say they can outsource the support of these customised or bespoke systems (ignoring their own experts warnings as to how difficult that will be). In the meantime, staff retention is terrible as no one will go for the low pay to make up the gradual loss of experienced staff.

      1. Andy 73

        Re: Hmmm....

        That doesn't seem to be so much a criticism of Agile or the people using it, so much as staffing and support problems. Of course there are people who believe the magic 'A' word achieves twice the work with half the staff and removes all need for support... sigh.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hmmm....

          We are so agile

          I could stay here inside and say it's all been done

          We are so agile

          Just pretend I never tried, I'll leave it up to you...

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Hmmm....

      "I'm a tad cynical that letting the academics at the problem is going to make it any better.

      From the point of view of an outsider looking in, the three things you need for 'digital transformation'..."

      I take it you didn't actually go to look at the evidence to the committee. It wasn't so much that they were doing "transformation" wrong, more that they were doing the wrong thing:

      Many public administrative functions such as assessing the needs of benefits claimants are not amenable to online self-service. Consequently, policy implementations not suited to this approach (such as Universal Credit and CAP-D – see my evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee) became highly contentious and problematic as GDS insisted on using the wrong tools for the job. Public sector bodies are not entrepreneurial businesses — almost the opposite as they must follow their founding legislation impartially and consistently. The data they collect and use is determined by their legislative base. Government departments are structured around the policy and legislation assigned to their Secretary of State by the Prime Minister. None of these entities are changeable (“transformable”) at the whim of their managers.

      Your idea of being able to "stand on toes" and "have the authority to make changes to the legacy" is exactly what they were trying to do. But the "legacy" includes legislation that only Parliament has the authority to decide and policy which is the PM & Cabinet's responsibility That, according to the Prof. is where they went wrong/

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But....

    ....we need to be "Infrastructure free".

    Stop saying a phrase that doesn't fucking exist! Digital Director my arse. Digital Bullshitter more like it.

    Bitter? No, just annoyed when a bullshitter changes everything, everyone who wants to keep their job listens to said bullshitter while a group of us are secretly having to hide in the corner and quietly object to said bullshit. The councillors won't admit their mistake in agreeing to hire said bullshitter and CEO as it will mean they'll get voted out next election. Although to be fare, said bullshitter did hire a company to that lied to them about how much it would cost, claiming it would be much cheaper than the old setup. Where in fact it's now run into the millions and is clearly MORE expensive. Yes, I don't believe he purposely hired the company to lie to the councillors but I also don't believe, when the mistakes in said public report were mentioned, nothing was ever corrected.

    ):o(

  8. David Nash Silver badge

    Wunderkids?

    Was that ad supposed to be reassuring?

    Who the hell wants to pay their council tax via a system that's been built by a 19 year-old kid with no experience?

  9. EnviableOne Silver badge

    Agile and Govenrment

    Two words that anyone with any life experience know dont deserve to be in the same sentence

    uk.gov dont know what they want from one day to the next, so in order to do your job properly you need to get a propper SoW chiseled in stone or preferably written in blood.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Departments have clawed back control of digital transformation not because they were threatened by GDS, but because they understand the needs better.

    That one sentence sums up my own experience working with GDS really well.

    The ideas were occasionally quite good. The wide-eyed "digital" optimism started to get tiresome after a while. And the one-size-fits-all "our way or the highway" attitude delayed several good projects by a year or two until GDS finally 'fessed up they couldn't deliver or it was taken out of their scope.

    Overall I think GDS mostly changed UK.Gov IT for the better. If nothing else, departments had to up their game to keep systems out of GDS' clutches. But it was a much more qualified success than the fanboys (and I still follow some on Twitter) would have you believe.

    1. steviebuk Silver badge

      Gov.uk security

      One of the issues I have with gov.uk is the security. The password policy is shockingly shit.

  11. Long John Silver
    Pirate

    That's far too sensible

    Good sense doesn't go far with British governments. They prefer 'common sense' or, as Russell put it, the metaphysic of savages.

  12. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Customers

    I wonder if part of the issue is that government and local authority work became services and "customers" rather than "the public" or, for transport services "passengers". Which does, I suspect< tend to lead to thinking that all you need is a web site. For a start, it seems to make developers think that they can determine the questions to be asked in a drop-down menu. And god help you if you want to ask something complicated or that they haven't thought of.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Customers

      True and some don't understand that the "customers" in some areas are all old. So either don't have IT skills, don't have access to the web or have all the skills mentioned but, more importantly, just want to actually physically fucking see someone. As maybe, just fucking maybe, it's the only contact they have with people all week.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lets hire in the hipsters

    And anyone that will just agree with bullshiters. Lets purchase a low code app that has little to no validation checking so anyone can put anything in the self service boxes. None of those customers will ever just setup a script to randomly fill in the boxes with crap, filling up the database in the hope they crash it. No, that will never happen. Agile will make is so. Agile will make everything good. What? You've been working there for years and know the old setups and, although you are embrassing some of the changes, you are pointing out, constructively the negatives. What! We can't have that. You must obey the "Agile", you must ignore security so we can just get shit done, you must not be constructive, you must just blindly follow. Stop being "blockers".

    We'll also ignore the app that has been created, that is used across several authorities in the area, where all you have to do is change the query value at the end of the address to get another authorities setup. Yes, we'll ignore this.

    I give up.

    Got nothing against digital, some of it is useful, but I can't stand the blind love and the vilification of the people that point out constructive issues with it.

  14. southen bastard
    Facepalm

    IBM?

    Unlike many pundits, the professor has industry experience, as an IBM-er, ranging from programming assembler to systems analysis.

    How many IBM projects for govt have actually worked ? come in at less than 10 times the original budget ? not had to be reworked at considerable cost? not been thrown out as totally unworkable?

    1. steviebuk Silver badge

      Re: IBM?

      But he might of been in IBM when they were good.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: IBM?

        "But he might of been in IBM when they were good."

        On the other hand he might have been in IBM when they were good.

    2. ToddRundgrensUtopia

      Re: IBM?

      IBM and the University of Bradford, you couldn't make it up!

  15. John Lilburne

    Agilators are full of crap

    Let them agilate a front end to a back end database. Anything else keep them well aware unless you are expecting to abandon the thing within a year, and go do something completely different.

    The problem with 'Move fast and break things' is that the thing that they are breaking isn't a stupid website but something that is fuxoring with people's lives. Perhaps the benefit claimant can 'come back next week, when the thing is fixed', but meanwhile their rent is unpaid or they have no money for food or heating. Perhaps that operation can be put off for a few more weeks, or those test results can wait another month or so.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The awards

    The awards system do not help with this "digital" movement as well. I guess it's the same with other awards systems but when you have a new "Digital" department get several shiny baubles for their "Amazing digital apps" before they've even produced any fucking digital apps. You know the system is broken and that there must be some brown envelopes or back scratching being thrown about.

  17. strum

    A lot of commentards seem to be missing one of the Professor's main points; that the nature of government isn't compatible with 'agile' or any similar rubric.

    It isn't Amazon - it's much more complex, and it matters a lot more. If Amazon barfs, you might not get your LED lamp or your drone when you want it. If government (on-line) barfs, you could lose your job, your home, your citizenship, your freedom, your money to live on this week. These are statutory issues, not just business dealings.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "A lot of commentards seem to be missing one of the Professor's main points"

      Missed it? I can't see much evidence that they even read it.

  18. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    As the UK does not have a scheme of 'identity', its administrative law does not rely upon one, making the idea of an 'online identity verification' irrelevant as well as conceptually dubious

    Combine this with an earlier sentence in the same paragraph in the evidence:

    Setting aside debates over the nature of identity and its “proof”, the ability to assert it incontrovertibly “online” is in doubt.

    Thank goodness somebody gets it.

  19. Mark 65

    After Maude's retirement, GDS was vulnerable and the leading lights left – many decamping to the Co-Op, following Bracken there.

    That worked well then.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    User Research

    I once watched from the sidelines as GDS gassed a 6 figure budget over a year on User Research on a project where in the very first meeting I told them what the users would say.

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