Whitehall at war: Govt’s webocrats trash vital digital VAT site

'Not invented here'

Wait a minute. How well is GDS 'delivering'?

The public disparagement of a well-functioning vital service may backfire by increasing scrutiny on GDS's own “delivery” record. So far, it has received glowing press.

"Geeks in Jeans are the Treasury's new heroes,” claimed the Times' Rachel Sylvester (behind paywall) last year, quoting a claim by GDS chief Mike Bracken (recruited from The Guardian newspaper) that “an 18-year-long period of aggressive outsourcing of technology skills ... is now at an end”.

And they don’t just wear jeans - they have mascots.

A visiting BBC reporter was told that the Platform Team had adopted an otter. "'His name is Jerry,' one woman explains, pointing to a brown and white soft toy with a rather sad expression on its face".

But critics point out that much of the adulation is based on wishful thinking rather than tangible results. If the government employs people with web skills, it will make things better - because the web makes things better. So how well is it doing, really?

“Delivery” is the justification for the rapid expansion of the Cabinet Office over the past 15 years: it now functions as the Prime Minister’s personal department – in practice this means the whims of the PM’s personal advisors, say insiders.

The Cabinet Office, remember, was responsible for setting up the Nudge Unit, and it is also the department which gave £200,000 to millionaire supermodel Lily Cole for her whimsical ghost site Impossible.com, even though she had failed to meet the stated criteria.

“Jordan

GDS pin-up Jordan Hatch wears jeans in the Evening Standard. He blogged about joining GDS on the GDS website and also featured in the Mail, The Times and on the BBC

Created from a blueprint (PDF) drawn up by Martha Lane Fox, the government created the Government Digital Service (GDS) to “revolutionise Government IT”. It’s part of the ever-expanding Cabinet Office, and sold policy makers on a vision of Agile development as a panacea for government IT problems. However, the skills base appears to be weighted down with a preponderance of web front end designers and service manual creators.

Four years into the “revolution”, GDS's real achievements look threadbare. GDS has produced a huge quantity of "service manuals”. A mere handful of projects are in “beta”. The identity system vital to underpin many government services, now rebranded as “Verify", is years late. GDS claims 25 projects are in beta, but some are mere “reskinnings” of websites, and one is Universal Credit: a large project in which GDS was only briefly (and unhappily) involved.

"GDS are several years late starting a small beta test of their [identity] offering. The users are finding it hard. No alternative, non-digital registration system is provided. And GDS are breaking their own rules,” digital identity expert David Moss wrote this week. "Meanwhile, they are providing us with re-written front ends to services we already had, but with no identity assurance, and without re-designing the services first. Culture change? Hardly. The promise of government transformation is not being delivered."

Experts across several departments have confirmed such concerns, but fearing the career consequences of publicly being seen to criticise GDS. One senior Labour figure privately described GDS to us as “cult-like”.

The Cabinet Office, of which GDS is a part, did not respond to our questions.

Ironically, GDS is part of the "Efficiency and Reform Group” within the Cabinet Office. In July, spending watchdog the National Audit Office said the Group had hugely exaggerated the savings made by GDS – for the second year running. ®

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