GDS's visions of the future

Master of ceremonies, Mike Bracken

I must admit, I was a bit surprised to receive an invite to what was billed as the launch of the Government Digital Service – but was, more accurately, the housewarming party for its new offices at Holborn. I consider myself a ‘critical friend’ of the project, but it’s clear that some people focus on the ‘critical’ part. I had visions of one of those American police sting operations, where they tell all the local fugitives they’ve won the Lottery.
Looking back at the tweets afterwards – from people who were there, and those watching from afar – I was surprised at quite how big a deal people were making of it. I observe these matters more closely than most, I admit; but I didn’t hear a lot I hadn’t already heard before. Some of it several years ago.
What was more important, by far, was who said it. And where.
Francis Maude in casual mode

Leading off the sequence of rapid-fire speeches and presentations (slides now on the GDS blog) was Cabinet minister Francis Maude: note the open-neck shirt, the relaxed saloon-bar lean against the side of the podium. This was not your typical Address By The Minister. Citing his pride that this was happening on his watch, Maude made a somewhat unexpected statement: ‘where a service can be delivered digitally, it should be, and only digitally.’ That sounded like a step beyond the notion of ‘digital by default’. Had I taken that down correctly? Yes I had; helpfully he said it again. And again. Fair enough…
The honour of following the Minister fell, perhaps unexpectedly, to Ryan Battles from Directgov. In fact, this was a recurring theme throughout the morning: it felt like every opportunity was taken to credit Directgov, how much it had achieved, how strong its satisfaction ratings had been.
Tom Loosemore

Tom Loosemore’s slot was probably the most eagerly anticipated: a first public sight of screens from the Single Domain ‘beta’ build. He opened with a tribute to Directgov, and said he now appreciated how difficult it was to get things done in government. And via an extended jigsaw metaphor, he demonstrated some of the new site’s key principles – most notably the use of ‘smart answers’ javascript-based forms which asked specific questions, and gave specific answers. (I’ve got a story of my own to tell about such approaches… another time.)

But for me, Chris Chant’s comments may prove the most significant of all. He described how the GDS’s IT had been set up, using the kind of instant-access, low-cost tools you’d expect of a technology startup. Mac laptops, Google Apps, the open-source Libre Office software suite, and no fixed telephony. (OK, so maybe the Mac laptops wouldn’t be low-cost to buy initially; but they’re more developer-friendly, and almost certainly lower-cost to support.)
I think that’s when it all fell into place for me. The day wasn’t about demo’ing the current work-in-progress on the websites. It was about presenting GDS itself as a vision of the future. It’s an office space which looks and feels like no government office I’ve ever been in: and for many, it’ll come as quite a shock to the system. (Not least the ceiling-height photos of Francis and Martha.)
It’s taking a pragmatic, rather than the usual paranoid and overbearing view of IT security; and a modern approach to ‘desktop’ computing. Which of course is the only sensible thing to be doing in this day and age… although that hasn’t been enough to encourage government to do so in the past.
Ian Watmore

Ian Watmore’s comments confirmed this: one of the first things Mike Bracken had asked for upon his appointment was ‘a building’ – and this was it. Perhaps appropriately, Watmore observed, it’s a former church. As might be expected of a Permanent Secretary, his remarks seemed the best-prepared – although, as he freely admitted, the previous night’s football results must have been quite a distraction for an avid Arsenal fan.
Some visionary remarks from Martha Lane Fox, about technology providing a route out of poverty, brought the procession of Big Names to a close. It’s hard to imagine a more illustrious lineup of speakers for such an event; (almost) all of them speaking without notes, and with conviction. These were the people at the highest levels of the department in overall charge of public services, all speaking as converts to the benefits – to the user, to the civil servant, to the taxpayer – of the new tech-led approach. There’s absolutely no questioning the backing for it.
And by their very mode of operation, GDS is setting precedent after precedent, about what is allowed, and can be done in a Civil Service environment. Others can point to it as an example, and ask difficult questions of their own IT and facilities managers. If they can do it, and apparently save something like 82% by doing so – why can’t we? Or more to the point, how the hell can we justify not doing so?
Things are changing.

Chant's warning to multinationals and client-side IT

Video from
Chris Chant has given an interview to, expanding on the shift to a product-centric, off-the-shelf model for government IT. SMEs, he says, are ‘absolutely front and centre to what we need… and it’s that market we’re really encouraging.’ It will be a bit challenging, he concedes – probably more than SMEs would like; but says they’re trying to make it as easy as possible.
Are we ready for ‘cloud’? ‘No, I don’t think we are at all. I think we’re quite a way away from that, and that’s something that we need to apply ourselves to. I think we are very well positioned to operate in a world where our IT is delivered by large multinationals, but that’s the way things have been. Now it’s a very different world. For a lot of what government does, it’s about commodity products, and we need to get people in who know how to handle that.’
‘We must bear in mind that we’re here for the citizens,’ he declares, ‘not starting from a departmental or systems standpoint. It comes to a very different model, and that means we’ll need to change the way we do things, we’ll need some new people I suspect, and we’ll need to do a lot of retraining. But above all, we’ll need a lot fewer people working on the client side of government IT than we’ve seen in the past.’
Inevitably, he’s asked about the recent ‘unacceptable’ speech. ‘IT is supposed to be an enabler,’ he says, ‘and quite often, in my experience in government, it’s actually a barrier to getting things done. And that’s no way to use IT. IT is supposed to support what we’re doing; we’re getting more dependent on it every day. And there’s no excuse to do anything other than get that right.’

DWP signs 'unacceptable' £420,000,000 contract

Chris Chant, at the Institute for Government, Thursday 20 October 2011:

I think it’s completely unacceptable at this point in time to enter into contracts for longer than 12 months. I can’t see how we can sit in a world of IT, and acknowledge the arrival of the iPad in the last two years, and yet somehow imagine that we can predict what we’re going to need to be doing in two or three or five or seven or ten years time. It’s complete nonsense.

Reported by Guardian Government Computing, Wednesday 2 November 2011:

The Department for Work and Pensions has awarded a seven year application services contract worth £50m to £70m annually to Accenture, for work including the software needed to introduce its universal credit system.

Or to phrase it another way: something between £50,000,000 and £70,000,000 each year – let’s split the difference, and call it £60,000,000 – for 7 years. A grand total of £420,000,000.

Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable

Even a few days after their initial publication, I’m still slightly stunned to read the comments of Puffbox’s best pal Chris Chant, now back in his role as Programme Director for the G-Cloud initiative, at the Institute for Government earlier this month.

It is unacceptable at this point in time to not know the true cost of a service and the real exit costs from those services: the costs commercially, technically and from a business de-integration standpoint. So, how do we untangle our way out of a particular product or service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the discussion that says, we need to get away from that, and we can’t because of the complexity of getting out from where we are, and of all the things that are hanging on to that particular service, that we can’t disentangle ourselves from.
I think it’s completely unacceptable at this point in time to enter into contracts for longer than 12 months. I can’t see how we can sit in a world of IT, and acknowledge the arrival of the iPad in the last two years, and yet somehow imagine that we can predict what we’re going to need to be doing in two or three or five or seven or ten years time. It’s complete nonsense.
I think it’s unacceptable, not to know how many staff that we have in government working on the client side of IT. I’ve not yet met anybody who knows what that figure is. People know about small areas, but overall, we don’t know what that figure is.
And equally, it’s unacceptable that we don’t know what those people do. So we don’t have any idea of the breakdown of that number that we don’t know either, surprisingly, and I think that’s outrageous in this climate – and actually, in any climate.
It’s completely unacceptable not to know what systems we own, how much they cost and how much or even if they are used. I know there are organisations that have turned off tens of thousands of desktop services, merely to discover if they’re used any more. And when they do that, they discover maybe 1% of those are still being used. That’s completely unacceptable.
It’s unacceptable not to know when users give up on an online service. And it is unacceptable not to know why they give up. Of course it’s unacceptable that they have to give up, because the service doesn’t fulfil their needs.
And it’s unacceptable to have a successful online service that sends out reminders to use that service through the post. OK? It goes on. Millions of times. And linked to that, it’s completely unacceptable not to be able to communicate with customers securely, electronically, when technology clearly allows that to happen.
It is unacceptable not to be able to do our work from any device we choose. That’s possible, and has been for some time, and it’s outrageous we can’t do that.
It is unacceptable to pay, and these figures are PAC figures, up to £3,500 per person per year for a desktop service.
It is unacceptable for your corporate desktop to take 10 minutes to boot up, and the same amount of time to close down. But that’s the truth of what goes on every day in government IT, and I suspect public sector [sic] too.
It’s unacceptable for staff to be unable to access Twitter or YouTube when they use those services for what they do; and it’s unacceptable for call centre staff not able to access the very service they are supporting in the call centre. These all sound funny, but when you think of the consequences of that, it’s truly dreadful.
And I think it’s unacceptable in this day and age to ensure people are working by restricting their access to the Internet. If truly we can’t measure people by outputs, where on earth are we?
It is unacceptable that 80% of government IT is controlled by five corporations. It is unacceptable that some organisations outsource their IT strategy in government.
And it’s unacceptable that, to change one line of code, in one application, can cost up to £50,000.
It is unacceptable to wait 12 weeks to get a server commissioned for use. And that’s pretty commonplace. When you think in terms of using a service like Amazon, the most problematic thing on the critical path is the time it takes you to get your credit card out of your wallet and enter the details on-screen.
And above all, and at the heart of a lot of this, it is unacceptable not to engage directly with the most agile, forward thinking suppliers that are in the SME market today, and not in the suppliers that we’ve been using.
Things have changed, and we haven’t.

Did he really say all that? Yes, he did. Alan Mather got a rough transcript up last week – which I’ve used a basis for the above. I wanted to get a searchable, indexable record of the exact words used. And I’m glad I did: it turns out, Chris used the words ‘outrageous’ and ‘completely unacceptable’ much more than Alan had recorded.
And now, for the removal of any doubt, courtesy of the Cabinet Office’s own digital engagement blog, here’s definitive audio proof.

Guardian man is government's new digital director

I have it on very good authority indeed It’s now been confirmed that the new (£142k pa) Executive Director Digital, filling the post currently held by Chris Chant on an interim basis, and advertised back in April, is to be Mike Bracken – digital director at The Guardian until last week.
Computer Weekly makes some interesting – and quite exciting – observations about the management culture he built up:

While GNM has outsourced some IT roles, the company has brought in information architects, analytics and product development managers as a discipline. GNM uses an agile environment for developing web applications and has scrapped project management and business analyst roles to replace them with product managers.

In fact, he sent a tweet to Steph Gray yesterday which seemed to suggest he sees a similar role for ‘product managers’ in government:
[blackbirdpie url=”!/MTBracken/status/71234171762262016″]
To get a flavour of what to expect, fasten your seatbelt and watch this five-minute breakneck presentation on innovation, which he gave to a WPP event last year:

… or this slightly more corporate presentation on deriving benefits from social media, at a Gartner symposium in October. (Fast forward eight minutes to skip the extended intro.) You’ll like what you hear.
Interestingly, in both presentations, he uses the same quote from Simon Willison. How exciting is it to have a new digital director who actually appreciates that:

You can now build working software in less time than it takes to have the meeting to describe it.

Those who know Mike are very complimentary about him: I note William Heath’s description of him last week as ‘one of the UK’s very best new-style CIOs’. On the downside, though, he’s a Liverpool supporter.
Mike’s personal website is at – and he’s done a post formally announcing the appointment. He runs a couple of Twitter accounts: you’ll probably want to follow his ‘work’ account, @MTBracken.
He starts on 5 July.

Alphagov 'real deal' (with added local) to go live 'in about a year'

Some interesting comments from (interim) government digital chief Chris Chant, speaking at the SOCITM spring conference this morning:

(Alphagov) is not perfect and it could be significantly different when we go live with the real deal, which will probably be in about a year… We want to make clear the infrastructure we put in place is available for local authorities to use.
Guardian Government Computing

We will work out what the appropriate branding is in due course… We won’t ask for any money from departments and we’ll still save money… (Local authorities would be invited to use the infrastructure) probably at no cost or marginal cost… (The permanent head of digital will be appointed) in the next couple of weeks.

I’m only going by the quotes in those articles – but that seems like much more than ‘let’s see how the alpha is received’. But for those who were asking if it would be a replacement for Directgov – no answer yet, but definitely maybe.

Permanent Executive Director Digital post advertised

Just posted on the Civil Service jobs website: the recruitment notice for the permanent position of Executive Director Digital, as proposed in the Martha Lane Fox review. It’s the position currently being fulfilled on an interim basis by Chris Chant.
The position is at SCS2 level, worth £142,000 per year, and promises ‘a rewarding role with a great deal of public visibility’. (Well, certainly if Puffbox has anything to do with it, anyway.) They’re clearly pitching it at a serious IT level, with references to ‘a track record of leading digitally enabled change at a strategic level, in a large federated organisation with complex delivery chains.’
The job description calls for someone who will:

  • champion the citizen/end user through the implementation of the Coalition Government’s digital strategy;
  • design the organisation and recruit people to establish a successful Government Digital Service;
  • manage the budget of the central group within the Government Digital Service;
  • direct all government online spending in a way that delivers value for money, makes use of best existing technology, that is both available commercially and also free and results in an improvement of the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs)
  • reduce the cost of providing the Directgov platform itself in line with efficiency plans; and
  • work closely with the Government Chief Information Officer to direct, set and enforce standards across government departments in areas such as  technical, content, design, process and customer standards.

Plenty to get excited about in there… citizen first, recruitment into the new GDS, APIs, etc… but I’m most particularly drawn to the explicit reference to ‘existing technology available free’. With everything else around it being so serious and high-level, it’s pleasantly surprising to see ‘stuff you can just get off the interweb’ getting a look-in.
The position is open to non-civil servants, and non-UK nationals. Slightly ominously, I note the job advert says ‘Language skills required: none.’ – but let’s hope that’s a quirk of the underlying database. Good language skills are going to be absolutely essential for this.
You’ve got two weeks to get your application in.
(And thanks to various well-placed sources for tipping me off.)
Update, 11:00
I’ve been sent the full job spec, and although it doesn’t add a tremendous amount, there are some interesting titbits therein.

  • ‘The budget for the central group within the Government Digital Service, which is currently £23 million per annum falling in line with other administrative budgets to £17 million in 2014/15.’
  • It talks about website rationalisation ‘through adoption of a single URL for all online services’ – er, really, a single URL? I don’t think that’s quite what they meant. Common parlance seems to have settled on ‘single domain’, but even then, I’m not sure that’s quite how it’ll turn out.
  • The lucky individual will be based at Hercules House, with hot-desking at the Cabinet Office / Treasury offices. As a statement of intent, that’s quite interesting in itself: they clearly want the person concerned to be close to the hands-on work.
  • The recruitment process will happen pretty swiftly, with interviews scheduled for the first half of May, in front of a panel consisting of Ian Watmore, Bill McCluggage and Martha Lane Fox (plus a Civil Service Commissioner).

Reading through it, I’m struck by the differences with the Director of Digital Engagement job spec, published two years ago. Then, the wording seemed to be implying that they were particularly keen on getting someone in from outside, ideally the media – but that didn’t happen. This time, there’s no such implication: if anything, it feels like it’s angling for someone with a Big IT background – quite possibly from within government, or somewhere very like it.
Another quick update, Fri am: Chris Chant has publicly ruled himself out – which is fair enough, as he’s got a pretty big job already.

New govt IT strategy published

The new Government ICT Strategy has been published on the Cabinet Office website – and to their great credit, it’s been published:

  • primarily for web consumption, with the downloadable versions a click deeper; and
  • not just in PDF, not just in Word format, but also in OpenOffice format! The quiet symbolism is noted.

Much of the document will seem familiar, as it’s been (notionally) in place, or  certainly on the cards, for some considerable time. But I’m struck by the relatively strong language it uses, for example: ‘The Government will also put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision.’
There’s formal endorsement of Agile methodology; ‘mandation of specific open standards’; and a commitment that ‘Government will not commission new solutions where something similar already exists.’ That may sound like common sense… but the impact of such a black-and-white statement could be substantial.
The picture as regards open source specifically is somewhat disappointing, boiling down to little more than a restatement of the same ‘level playing field’ principle of recent years. Of course, as I’ve written here many times, that policy should be all that’s needed to kickstart a revolution; but it hasn’t happened. And I’m just not convinced that the creation of three new committees – an Open Source Implementation Group, a System Integrator Forum and an Open Source Advisory Panel – plus the creation of a ‘toolkit for procurers’ will do much to advance things… in themselves. But maybe that’s just how the Civil Service has to do things.
A couple of other points which jumped out at me:

  • there’s an apparent endorsement of Directgov as the ‘single domain’, along the lines proposed by Martha Lane Fox. As I wrote at the time, there are pros and cons to this; and I know there were some efforts to keep services and policy separate.
  • an explicit commitment that ‘departments will ensure an online channel is included in all government consultations’, within six months.
  • no going back on the notion of open policy formulation, including a pledge to ‘develop practical guidelines on departmental access to the internet and social media channels’.

Coincidentally, Francis Maude is just sitting down in front of the Public Adminstration Select Committee as I type this. I’ll be watching, and hope to provide notes later.

Martha's vision taking shape

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Monday saw a meeting of the ministerial working group tasked with considering Martha Lane Fox’s vision of a ‘single domain based on agile web shared web services’… resulting, as I understand it, in across-the-board approval. So it’s with commendable speed that just two days later – to prevent me revealing it first?! 🙂 – the Cabinet Office has announced the creation of the Government Digital Service, created by merging ‘Directgov and the Cabinet Office Digital Delivery and Digital Engagement teams’.
The Cabinet Office blog post states:

This new organisation will be the centre for digital government in the UK, building and championing a ‘digital culture’ that puts the user first and delivers the best, low cost public services possible. To deliver this vision and the government’s digital priorities requires a new streamlined, agile organisation and an operating structure with an integrated, flexible team of skilled staff.

According to FCO’s Jimmy Leach:
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Things are getting interesting.

Meet the new boss: Chris Chant at #ukgc11

This year’s UK GovCamp, held on Saturday, felt markedly different to those in previous years. Still the same warmth, spirit and enthusiasm as in previous years – making it the only ‘government computing’ conference worth attending. But this time, things seemed much more serious. Partly due to its sheer scale, much larger than in previous years; partly because of the impressively lengthy list of commercial sponsors. And partly because, for the first time, we had a (de facto) keynote speaker to begin proceedings.
Regular readers will have seen various posts in the past couple of weeks about the appointment of Chris Chant, the new (‘interim’) head of digital stuff for government. One such regular reader, it turns out, is Chris himself: I remember at least two namechecks for Puffbox in the course of his talk. Mind you, I didn’t exactly help by introducing myself at the start as being ‘Directgov internal comms’ – although I’m not sure everyone got the joke. 😉
On one hand, it was the perfect opportunity for Chris to meet the community most committed to the work he’s now tasked with, and get us onside early. But equally, the audience’s passion could have posed a threat: say the wrong thing, and things could have turned nasty. So it’s entirely understandable that Chris seemed to take a while to settle into his flow: the first ten or fifteen minutes were a little dry, and seemed almost scripted.
But gradually, perhaps sensing the warmth in the room, with a character very different to the IT conferences he’s more used to – he warmed up. The anecdotes became more personal, the language more emotive and ambitious – not to mention fruity.
I won’t go into much of the detail – largely because Chris was at pains to stress he was speaking in a personal capacity, and that much of what he said was provisional, pending sign-off, etc etc. Suffice to say, there’s a significant document in the works already, which should see the light of day in a month or so. His focus, as I suspected, was on technology and its management – there wasn’t a lot said about the ‘digital engagement’ side. But I’m perfectly comfortable with that: technology is where the savings are to be found, and the improvements are to be made… and that’s where his priorities should lie.
So what did I think? To be honest, I don’t think I could have been more impressed. He said everything I could realistically have hoped he would: greater use of agile methods, a restated commitment to open source, etc. And whilst he didn’t set the room on fire, he came across as a serious man with a strong track record, experience of the front line, no fear of big projects, and perhaps most important of all – measured ambition. He didn’t over-promise, but left little doubt that he was capable of delivering. (Sorry Chris, I’m sure you don’t need that pressure.)
Even better, Chris seems to have gone away with a decent opinion of us:
[blackbirdpie url=”!/cantwaitogo/status/28792749482311680″]
Chris, welcome on board. We’re friendly, we’re on your side, and we’re here to help. Yes, even Puffbox – especially Puffbox. Let’s do this.