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.”