Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Government Digital Service... Love 'em or hate 'em?


Geeks in jeans are the Treasury's new heroes, is the title of an article in The Times today by Rachel Sylvester .... and IMHO it is very good.
We hear all manner of horrors about 'GDS' - the provenance of which, though often unknown, is almost certainly located in the heart of 'the establishment' or 'career civil servants'. However, assessing this as a citizen looking in I cannot help think how admirable are the aspirations and how it has been a long time coming in government.

By natural disposition I always like the 'move fast and break things' approach in certain areas....and this is one of those areas. 

It's by no means a done deal, and certain politicians have staked their Cabinet, if not political, careers on 'success' , but credit to them for actually finding a parapet and sticking their head above it!

Obviously I recommend you buy the Times, preferably 'digitally' and look at 'Opinion' on pg 21.... but failing that, here's the article:

A digital revolution, masterminded by a team of dress-down civil servants, could save the taxpayer billions.......
A quiet revolution is under way in government. It is being engineered from a modern open-plan office in Holborn, halfway between Whitehall and East London’s so-called “Silicon Roundabout”. This is the headquarters of the Government Digital Service, an outpost of the Civil Service that is all water coolers and break-out zones. Here nobody wears a suit. Teenagers in hoodies type furiously at Apple Macs, under the motto: “Be consistent, not uniform.”
On one side, the work programme for the creation of an online public sector is set out on an enormous whiteboard known as “the Wall”. It is covered in fluorescent Post-its and scattered with pictures of the Ant Hill Mob from Wacky Races — stickers, a note explains, which show proposals that have “not come through approvals board”. In any other part of the Civil Service machine, bypassing the system in this way would be frowned upon but at the Government Digital Service such creativity is encouraged. Staff like to quote Facebook’s slogan “Move fast and break things” to describe the culture change that is under way.
Sir Humphrey Appleby would be horrified but the hero in Holborn is the Apple founder Steve Jobs. The average age of staff here is eight years lower than in the rest of Whitehall and the youngest software developer was hired straight out of school when he was only 17. In Downing Street they talk of the clash of “the geeks and the grandees”.
For years, government IT has been a nightmare of spiralling costs and incompetent contracts for super-computers that never worked. Now it is seen by the coalition as a huge opportunity that could save billions of pounds for the taxpayer over the next ten years, as well as dramatically improving the delivery of public services. Last year £500 million of savings were announced and the annual cost reduction is predicted to rise to £1.2 billion by 2015, creating what Francis Maude, the minister responsible, likes to call “pain-free cuts”.
As if to prove the point, the computers at the Government Digital Service cost at least two thirds less than those in other departments. At the same time the average cost of a digital transaction is 20 times lower than using the phone, 30 times lower than the post and 50 times lower than a face-to-face arrangement. There are implications for every part of the public sector. By introducing digitalised construction programmes across Whitehall, the Cabinet Office believes it can save 40 per cent on the cost of building secondary schools.
This is not, however, just about saving money; it’s also about catching up with the internet age, which has transformed the balance of power between politicians and the public. People who are used to ordering books on Amazon in a few seconds or arranging supermarket deliveries from the train on their iPad, are no longer happy to wait in line and follow a bureaucratic paper trail when it comes to dealing with the Government in the Google age. “We are redesigning the relationship between citizen and State,” says Mike Bracken, the head of the service. “There’s a conceit at the heart of Whitehall which is that you should know how government works in order to deal with it. In fact, it should be about what does the user need?”
The gov.uk website recently won the Design of the Year award, beating the Olympic cauldron and the Shard. Now, slowly but surely, the geeks are working their way through the departments, transforming the way they operate. A team from the Government Digital Service has just been sent into the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that the complicated technology required for the implementation of the new Universal Credit scheme actually works.
Already, a foot-high pile of documents required to set up a Lasting Power of Attorney has been reduced to an online form that requires a few clicks on a keyboard. The Rural Payments Agency IT system has been completely redesigned to enable farmers to apply for grants using Google maps rather than relying on inspectors in wellies. Not only is this easier to use, it is also more reliable — since 2005 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has had to set aside £600 million to pay for fines as a result of errors generated by the old system. “When some big policy doesn’t go completely to plan in Whitehall, people say ‘that’s damaged trust in government’,” says Mr Bracken. “But in fact every time someone has a failed transaction or calls a contact centre and can’t get through, that damages user trust much more because it meaningfully affects their lives.”
What is fascinating is that while other parts of Whitehall are looking to privatise services, the Government is bringing technology back in-house. More than 250 people work at the Holborn HQ. Mr Bracken says that “an 18-year-long period of aggressive outsourcing of technology skills . . . is now at an end”. To the Treasury, the benefits are clear. One outside contractor was going to charge £30,000 to change a logo on a department website — the job was done in 15 minutes by one of the Government Digital Service’s teenagers in jeans.
Mr Maude talks scathingly of an “oligopoly” of large IT contractors whose time is up — until recently 70 per cent of the money went to only seven large contractors. Indeed, the Office of Fair Trading has launched an investigation into whether there is a lack of competition in the supply of technology to the public sector, with the biggest companies earning about £10.4 billion from the State.
The Government is now actively seeking to renegotiate more than 100 contracts and the aim is to get out of as many as possible altogether. Half of Whitehall’s IT contracts are coming up for renewal in the next two years and Stephen Kelly, the Government’s chief operating officer, is playing hardball. “Our message to the oligopolies is: ‘Change and you can have a long-term future, but if you can’t then tough’,” he told me. “The Government had thrown the keys of the castle over to industry and we want them back.” Mr Kelly says he will be sending “emergency SWAT teams” of negotiators into every department over the next few months to “wear the badge for the taxpayer” and ensure that no more expensive dud deals are done. There is a deliberate drive to use small British start-ups rather than large global corporates if outside help is required. Ministers say that they want to be on the side of the insurgents rather than the Establishment.
There could be trouble ahead. The large contractors have already started grumbling to their Whitehall friends. The mandarins are not happy about the attack on their power bases. But the geeks are relishing their fight with the grandees. As Steve Jobs once said: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

Thursday, 28 February 2013

33% into Lent Challenge

OK, notwithstanding the obvious difficulties in really experiencing this challenge when you live in hotels and work as a CEO,  I still find myself hit by certain 'realities' that are completely outside my comfort zone or experience. A challenge this week....as ever about my 'attitude'.... was when I was packing for the week, which I knew involved two flights. I try only ever to fly with just hand luggage as I hate waiting at airport carousels, so packing for 4 days away with only a mid size rucksack is a challenge. This is especially so when it involves a laptop and tablet in your 6kg weight allowance.....My immediate though when packing was just pack the two shirts etc you will need for the period covering the flights then just buy stuff (shirts, ties etc) when you need them!! I know, hardly an attitude that aligns with the spirit of the challenge....Anyway, I am now an even better luggage packer and lighter traveller than I ever was, and I was pretty good. However, it's the coffee thing that gets me most often. I have a couple of hours to kill before a meeting so I would normally just find a nice coffee emporium (that sold nice cakes) take up residence and buy what I wanted. But,again, although justified by my job its not the spirit of the challenge. Then the thought struck me about those who have every waking hour 'spare' but without sufficient money to even consider a single trip to such a place let alone anything else....so I really am drinking less coffee and eating less cake (which isn't a bad thing). I did buy a glass of wine last evening which blew 40% of my weekly spending, and it was a cheap wine. So, Thursday and have got £3 left for week.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Over 1 week in . .

Well, in some ways not doing bad - only spent £1.20 last weekend (on a piece of cake - luxury)- although this week I have had to spend £4 on some cough medicine, I was gutted. Today I spent £1.50 (on a piece of cake), but someone else paid for coffee :)

I can't help thinking about how false my job makes this challenge and how lightly I am 'getting off', but it is a real eye and mind opener. Four and a half weeks to go.....

Saturday, 16 February 2013

4 days into the benefit lent challenge...fair to middling

In some ways not a lot to tell, although I am venturing out on 2 wheels (with no engine) today...  I also feel the need to say, and it won't be for the last time, that I am extremely aware that what I am doing doesn't even come near to the real thing which is reality day after day for, sadly, an increasing number of people.

I like coffee. I like nice coffee. I have, for four days at least, actually avoided  just poping into Costa or Nero, or, for tasteful Londoners, Fleet River Bakery on a whim. I have been counting though, and on Thursday, without thinking, I found myself on seven, yes seven, occasions about to stroll in and order goodies...OK, I didn't, but it was only day 2!!
Anyway, the coffee has a more serious point... Today, at breakfast, I went straight for the nice coffee, which was in the house so that's OK (but when it's gone it's gone.. . ) and then remembered we have sachets of instant, filched from hotels, - what to do?  Well, it wasn't the outcome that got me (I am drinking the nice coffee as I type this - but when it's gone.. . ) but the thought process.

The speed with which thoughts such as 'why shouldn't I?', 'I deserve some nice coffee' and so on leaped into my mind was quite startling. Now, if I really was going through the hardship of actually having to survive on benefits I absolutely know that, because the situation would not have been my own doing and I would be seriously looking for a job, I would very soon be thinking, not that I 'deserve' something, but definitely that 'I don't deserve this'!

And that would be the first step to accepting the undeclared cash in hand job, or the looking for ways in which one could 'leverage' (hate that word, but it fits the purpose) extra benefits. That is said without any judgement whatsoever simply an acknowledgement of the reality of a situation and what you would do for yourself and your family.

It may well be that people of stronger character would not follow that path whatever the circumstances, but the purpose of this challenge was to gain just a glimpse of what it is like to 'walk a mile in someone elses shoes' and, on reflection, what the experience teaches me about myself.

It looks like rain, should I go out on the bike?....or not?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The benefit challenge begins

Well, it's the start of Lent so it's time to get going, although i'm not sure where as I can't afford the petrol. (:-D )...so I will be asking a friend if I can 'lend' a bike when I get home (I realise the correct word is borrow, but I am from the NE so was using the vernacular)..anyway, HC can expect a call.

Good news, I have found an extra £3.50 per week spending money, downside is that it has cost me my last remaining life insurance policy... so i'm worth nothing dead anymore (I feel safer already!!!...)

So, in this new view of the world, its amazing what the prospect of an extra £3.50 means.... if I am really disciplined during the week, at the weekend I may ( possibly) be able to choose between a nice latte (small) or a bottle of Aldi wine... or maybe, as its cold, have the heating on an hour longer, or supplement the £35 p wk food budget. I didn't realise I would have so many choices as part of this challenge (please note the irony), although they are somewhat different to the choices I am used to regarding how to spend money.

Because my job is somewhat different to many of my friends there are some challenges about how things will work when I am at work, but I think I have ways to deal with that in terms of 'lifestyle'. I'll only be drinking very skinny drinks - and they will be from a tap! unless I find the odd benefactor.

It is somewhat strange that my first meeting on the first day of the challenge is a lunch in Whitehall....but I promise to have small portions and no pud....

Time to head into the day.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The benefits journey continues before its even started

I am in London the weekend before I am going to lose my job, which of course I don't know is going to happen yet. But I do for the sake of this exercise because it needs some planning! Come on, keep up..... We are here (yep, me and my wife) as part of a Christmas present that involves indoor sky diving, theater, meals out and the usual London stuff,which of course we wouldn't do if we knew we were both losing our jobs on Wednesday. However, before we started this challenge (which hasn't really started yet) I would have said, in fact did say, that you don't actually need to experience something in order to understand it...but I was wrong, and Iwas right! You see, I am intellectually capable of appreciating (at arms length) how difficult it must be trying to survive on benefits. I can do the maths, I can grasp the difficulty, but I have never actually been required to have the mindset that actually has to face the choices and decisions that are actually at the heart of the difficulties and pressures of living on lor below the poverty line.... I have never actually had to face those scenarios that have the effect of stripping you of some sort of dignity, of robbing you of the most basic aspects of so called 'free choice' of making you feel somehow 'less' than other people..I am realising, as I mentally gear up for the challenge, that I am already thinking differently.

We went for a coffee today at a well known chain and spent, on a small cup of tea, a small cup of coffee and one piece of cake, more than a whole weeks spending money under the benefits regime. We decided not to 'eat out' in London for lunch, but took the 'cheap' option of one M&S salad and a couple of cakes between us....more than another weeks spending money gone. In two hours trying to take the cheaper options we blew 2 weeks money!

There is a considerable distance to go in 'cutural shift' and mindset before I get to grips with this on Wednesday!

It may be, probably is, true that I am capable of grasping how difficult something is for somebody whose circumstances are very different to mine BUT until I honestly try to look out on life as they are forced to look out on life and really consider the choices they have to make,I am realising there is no way I can really begin to understand their issues. And I haven't even started yet.....but even if I didn't start (I will) I already appreciate so much more than I did this time last week. Oh, and one more thing, the fact that you, or I, may have had to live on not much at sometime in our past does not neccesarily guarantee that we will understand the pressures faced by those having to do so now..... Roll on Wednesday, I just hope I can last further than Thursday.....

Friday, 8 February 2013

Living on the breadline?

We were recently issued with a challenge: Spend the six weeks of lent living on what we could get if we both found ourselves out of work and on benefits with no redundancy money or notice.....

At first it seemed as though it would be a quirky or interesting thing to have a look at......but as I looked at our finances and then realised that, in our situation, we would only get the most basic of benefit levels (£111.50 per week between us) a number of things began to dawn on me.

Firstly, this was going to be nigh on impossible and, secondly, for increasing numbers of people this is reality....

Before the meeting at which we were told the amount of benefit we would be in receipt of I did some preparation and listed all current, actual, monthly direct debit and SO outgoings - quite a shock. This was before I even began to look at 'discretionary' spend and disposable income. I didn't need to do the maths to realise the level of change was going to be measured in factors that didn't bear thinking about, which in itself was both shocking and sobering.

There was quite a rapid progression from considering the scale of changes we would need to make and the pace at which we would need to make them to putting oneself in the position of others and considering the type of decisions that need to be made: Water, electricity,gas, telephone, broadband, TV package, house insurance, car.....There's no way we can keep them all, and even then those left will have to be reduced. Any loans, credit card balances and so on would need to be renegotiated.....urgently and significantly. Expenditure on food and drink reduced by at least 60 or 70% overnight!

All other insurance policies... personal, life, terminal illness, health, loan protection, fancy add ons to house insurance, cancelled immediatley! Pension payments...... gone! The list seemed almost endless and, from this perspective, the implications catastrophic.

After (theoretically, but accuratley) calculating by how much and how quickly we could reduce our basic living expenses we faced the fact that, on the basic level of benefit to which we are entitled as a couple, we had £35 per week for food and £6 per week each to spend! (that's not a typo)

The 'as a couple' statement suddenly became very relevant when, at a certain point in the meeting, it dawned that if we were not married...but just two single people living in the same house, we would get £71 each, which would represent a monthly increase of some. £116 which at these levels is very (very) significant.

Suddenly the ease with which one can judge those who 'choose' to split in order to 'get more money' seems both harsh and unrealistic!

Although we don't actually start 'living on benefit' till next Wednesday I am already realising how blinkered my views can be.

Anyway, that's it.....I am going to blog about how I spend my £6 a week....and how long we last before 'splitting' becomes pretty much a neccessity.