Has the Government Digital Service shown the rest of Whitehall how to develop & launch something successfully?

Summary

Yes

I was with Puffles & friends at UKGovCamp 2012 when Mike Bracken, Executive Director of the Government Digital Service gave us a sneak preview of what he and his team had lined up for the new web estate across Whitehall. Today saw the first set of results of that overhaul with the replacement of DirectGov & BusinessLink with Gov.UK. A much leaner portal put together from a citizen’s or user’s perspective rather than an institutional one.

Wasn’t this all about cost savings?

Money was certainly a driver, but given the amount of money wasted in the past on all things IT, it doesn’t surprise me. Many criticisms have been thrown at DirectGov, but for me it was inevitably hamstrung by the lack of control and consistency it had over the rest of Whitehall. Just as with the Fast Stream, this was one area where Cabinet Office really needed to get a grip and take ownership – rather than letting everyone go off and do their own thing. The reason being that where you have a single brand, people expect some sort of consistency. If different parts of the brand behave in different ways, people understandably start getting confused and things start to go wrong.

Future-proofing the web estate from restructures

This is something that has not been in the headlines, but has been an essential pillar that has driven this project. In my eyes anyway. Back in 2006 I witnessed the farcical scenes outside what was the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) when John Prescott was stripped of his departmental duties following tabloid scandal. The branding was peeled off the sign outside Eland House without anyone having any idea what the department was called. Officially it was still ODPM – just without a DPM at the top. It wasn’t until a few days later that it was rebranded the Department for Communities and Local Government. That in itself meant lots of rebranding and digital legwork to get the various domains changed, hyperlinks updated and staff & stakeholders used to what the organisation now was.

The new setup potentially does away with most of that. The most important things for citizens will still remain where they are, irrespective of future back-of-the-envelope reshuffles – who remembers the Department for Productivity and Enterprise?

There’s also the significant reduction of the amount of otherwise useless or meaningless information up on central government’s website. Mike showed us some of the worst examples – such as: ‘If it’s cold, put on some warm clothes’ and the like. Nanny state types would have had a field day. Yet in a sense it comes back to the debate about what the state should and should not do, and on the former, which bits of the state should be doing what things. Culturally we still have a centralised state. In other parts of Europe things that are the responsibility of local government often fall under the remit of central government. Local hospitals are a classic example. One of the questions that was asked around content was: “Do we really need to be doing/publishing this?” Do you need a central government website to tell you to put on warm clothes if you’re feeling cold?

Why all the good publicity?

For me, a culture of openness played a huge role – this and other things I go into detail on in a previous blogpost in praise of the GDS. By involving lots of interested people with knowledge and expertise in the field over an extended period of time, and by not locking people out of the process, a significant well of goodwill was built up. As a result, I cannot recall a single negative article that’s passed across Puffles’ Twitter feed. This is the complete opposite of taking a few key stakeholders into a room, thrashing out what was going to be done, doing it, launching it and getting a few of those key stakeholders (more often than not the usual suspects depending on the policy area) to provide a few positive quotations.

With the launch of Gov.UK the GDS didn’t need to go down this road at all. Expectations had been managed all the way throughout. People had an idea of what was coming and why. There were no nasty surprises. Not only that, with so many people involved along with sound project and programme management (from people who knew how to do it), and the political backing alongside it, the GDS team were able to get the best out of their very wide digital network while at the same time minimising the otherwise very substantial risks associated with this programme.

The risks were huge

Had the whole transition gone badly wrong, the passports fiasco of 1999 would have looked like a walk in the park. This was a major IT and systems failure that resulted in hundreds of people not being able to go on holiday. The roasting that the officials and contractors got in front of the Public Accounts Committee is legendary in civil service circles – the questioning from Charles Wardle in particular to Sir David Omand, then of the Home Office is painful – the like of which I’ve only seen matched by the utter shambles that was Nick Buckles’ performance in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee in the run up to the Olympics. Disgracefully, Buckles kept his job.

Sometimes we forget just how risky some projects are, or how ambitious they are when everything seems to go to plan. This is one thing the GDS may want to go public with in future – what were the risks, how did they manage them and how were incidents prevented, or handled when they did arise? There are a significant number of positive lessons to be learnt here – not just from Whitehall but from the rest of the public sector, and the private sector too. Imagine the boost that the UK IT sector could get if the private sector adopted a similar method of working – i.e. in partnership with the best talent small but incredibly talented firms could provide.

Consistency across local government

By this I don’t mean centralisation. Centralisation and consistency are not the same thing. Ben Proctor discussed what all things GDS meant for local government. One of the things I’d be interested in exploring sometime in 2013 is what the lessons of Gov.UK are for local public services – in particular in a Cambridgeshire/East Anglia context. Something for a future Teacambs perhaps?

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