back to article So where's all these digital services GDS promised us?

The Government Digital Service has not been shy to boast about its perceived achievements, but in the space of its four year existence – and an increasing budget – its hard to point to any significant digital services that have yet emerged. The last few weeks have been particularly difficult for the GDS "digital transformation …

  1. Otto is a bear.

    Digital Bubble

    The general opinion of GDS is that they live in a bubble of newness, without much reference to the real world.

    Whilst the digital only channel approach is a good aspiration, the previous 1990's strategy from the Major and Blair governments was to maximise the channel availability. To allow the citizen the choice of how they communicate with government and maximise inclusion.

    Digital only does not do that, in theory, it means less civil servants, and less cost, easy and quick service for the taxpayer. As always politicians forget that we are virtually all tax payers, and those who are not, are on low incomes and benefits or pensions. There may well be a good many silver surfers out there, but not in sufficient numbers to make a difference, and even those with access to IT kit, do not always have the confidence to negotiate forms.

    The idea is right, it's just 30 years too soon, and there will always be people who can't access IT.

    Psychologically, if you have a problem, talking face to face with another human being is the way to solve it. You can't communicate with a form, and a lot of people will give up if they don't understand the process. GDS do not understand this, any more than they understand the demographics of the citizen. The government serves the citizen, not the taxpayer. Somewhere are politicians seem to have forgotten what universal suffrage means, and who they work for.

    1. 0laf Silver badge

      Re: Digital Bubble

      "The general opinion of GDS is that they live in a bubble of newness, without much reference to the real world."

      I think that's very accurate. GDS seems to be providing jobs for many unemployed tech graduate hipsters that have failed to gain entry into the Apple or Google silos.

      The strategy seems to be to fit every online Gov service into one model, shove it in the Cloud any cloud and give everyone an iPad whilst passing the buck on the costs of change and the risks of their grand new plan onto the individual government departments or local authorities.

      They've given up on proper security as well so hang onto your designer stubble because a big breach is on the way. But that'll be ok coz we'll all have iPads and shiny thing make it all better.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        FAIL

        Re: Digital Bubble

        Not just that.

        As I've said before, technology as an answer to everything seems to be the standard response by those who know feck all what they're on about.

        Make everything "Digital By Default"? What could possibly go wrong there?!

        Not to mention, that those who are most vulnerable often don't even have access to a computer or are even able to use one. And how many Hill Farmers have no mains electricity, let alone internet access?

        The whole GDS malarky is the typical response of Politicians who've been listening to those with their eyes set firmly on the all you can eat buffet that's a Government IT Project.

        1. Nigel Whitfield.

          Re: Digital Bubble

          The access to technology is a significant problem. It's all very well suggesting those on low incomes can use a computer in a library, but libraries are being closed all over the country, or shifted to volunteer staff.

          Those who need to use computers in places like that will probably be more likely that others to need assistance, which potentially means having someone hovering by the computer to help you as you enter personal details. Bad enough when it's a paid librarian, but even worse when it's a volunteer.

          The likes of MLF still talk about cheap computers and low price internet access as a solution to some of these things, but people who are struggling to make ends meet at the moment - or in some cases failing - won't be able to spare £100 for a computer, or £10 a month for a internet connection.

          If public access computers in libraries continue to disappear, and services are pushed to digital only, some of the most vulnerable will be forced to pay cybercafes a few quid just to be able to fill in the forms they need to claim benefits.

          That, to me, would be a shocking state of affairs. If you push services to digital only without making provision for the most vulnerable, you're really just shifting some of your costs onto those least able to pay them.

          1. 0laf Silver badge

            Re: Digital Bubble

            Yes the usual central Gov response to a query regarding the lack of effective broadband in rural areas is that you should use 3G or 4G.

            Tell them you don't have 'G' never mind '4G' and all you get is a puzzled look then they fiddle with their iPads for a bit before changing the subject.

  2. Graham Anderson

    The Companies House site is now a worse experience

    I use CH fairly frequently to keep tabs on clients and suppliers. It used to be that you go to CH.gov.uk and right there on the front page was a search box to enter the name or company number to get the info you were after. Now:

    CH.gov.uk → redirects to GDS front page → Find Company info → Start Now → old CH front page exactly as it was, with the useful search box right on the front page

    Similarly, one of the very first tools launched by GDS was the Trade Tariff Tool. That defintely needed sprucing up as at the time we were exporting iPads, and you needed to choose "Automatic data-processing machines and units thereof; magnetic or optical readers, machines for transcribing data onto data media in coded form and machines for processing such data, not elsewhere specified or included". Foolishly I'd hoped that they were doing something useful to improve the existing tool like looking for common search terms and making suggestions. It launched with some fanfare and GDS branding, and zero functional improvement. If you search for 'iPad' or the more vendor neutral 'tablet computer', you get results for sugar, yeast, nuclear reactors and photographic equipment. Yay!

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: The Companies House site is now a worse experience

      "CH.gov.uk → redirects to GDS front page → Find Company info → Start Now → old CH front page exactly as it was, with the useful search box right on the front page"

      Which you then bookmark and continue to use. Isn't GDS wonderful? - it helped you to do that.

    2. ACZ

      Re: The Companies House site is now a worse experience

      The CH website used to better in 2004 - back then, they had static URLs for individual companies i.e. you could bookmark the information page for individual companies. Unfortunately, a year or two later they started including session IDs in URLs, and that borked bookmarks.

      I use UK Gov online services fairly frequently as part of my work, and the primary difference I have seen is a re-skinning of the service home page. The web pages for the actual services themselves haven't changed.

      As ever, delighted to see my taxes being spent well...

    3. matthewcford

      Re: The Companies House site is now a worse experience

      Hi Graham,

      The Trade Tariff was a bit more than a rebrand, we rebuilt and open sourced a complete rewrite of proprietary software, that said I am aware there is more we can do to make the trade tariff better - if you would be willing to drop me an email, we're are planning to do some user testing to improve the service: matt@bitzesty.com.

      Thanks,

      Matt

  3. Richard Jones 1
    Unhappy

    The Agile Problem?

    Perhaps if there was less emphasis on being agile, as in jumping from mountain top to mountain top like a mountain goat on stimulants and being more emphasis on being like a shire horse, pulling hard and getting real work done, the result would be more useful?

    I have in the past used TV licensing and the old car tax websites and found them useful, but for actually getting useful information the new ways can be woeful. The information is often somewhere, it is just not possible to find or easy to access. You can go round and round often ending back where you started.

    Oh and boy do they like adverse comments - not.

    They are like trying to do laundry with the foam rather than water and soap or detergent.

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: The Agile Problem?

      Yeah they seem to have fallen into the agile trap of it being all cool and edgy, without realising that they still actually have to do some work.

      Pretty sure the majority of GDS don't actually understand what "agile" means, chances are they didn't even read the agile manifesto. Just heard the term being used and thought it sounded impressive. Since nobody else in Whitehall knows what "agile" means either, but must never show weakness by letting on they don't know, this sort of shit spreads like a cancer and we end up with a lot of flash and no substance.

  4. Allonymous Coward

    To be fair

    Rory Cellan-Jones is easily confused

  5. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

    What? Promised savings failed to materialise!?!

    Say it ain't so, el Reg!! Say it ain't so.

  6. James Pickett

    "no explanation from GDS about the lessons learned from the RPA system has been forthcoming"

    That's because they haven't learned anything. They never do.

  7. James Pickett

    "Doubts over whether cost savings will ever become reality"

    No doubts whatsoever, IMO. Cost savings are just mooted to ensure a project goes ahead - they never really happen.

  8. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Back to basics

    I was trying to find some tax information on-line. I ended up phoning them up as I just went round in loops on their website. The person explained it was all documented in tax form BLAH - which wasn't online. (He did then explain the details and worked through the calculations with me over the phone, so ten out of ten for customer service by the agent.)

    C'mon government, start with the basics of putting all information online in easy to find, sane formats and work from there.

    Oh - and get rid of all those stupid out-sourcing companies and employ some IT staff yourself. Once you have development in-house, you'll start to discover what agile development is really like.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. Eclectic Man
    FAIL

    You are wrong

    Stop it! GDS is a bunch of dedicated (b)leading edge geniuses who will win through in the end. the systems are wonderful and you are just too silly to notice.

    Oh hang on, that was a rant for criticism of a different large HMG IT procurement. Umm, what was it called? You know, the one that went really well, saved oodles of money, and everyone likes, and has not had any security breaches, or unplanned down time, and came in on time and under budget.

    I'll remember it in a moment.

    Umm,

    It just seems to have slipped my mind, temprarily.

    How embarrassing.

    Umm, come on, someone must have heard of one.

    oh.

  10. Stuart Moore

    My experience

    I wanted to change the address on my driving licence. I went through all of their hoops online-passport number, national insurance, previous addresses (although it insisted that one of the places I lived didn't exist, nor did its postcode - it's been there 500 years)

    Then you have to enter a number offf the photocard, and one off the counterpart. After 3 attempts the it kept claiming I was entering the wrong numbers, then said you've made too many mistskes, you need to pay for a lost one.

    So I posted it instead!

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fishing

    Radio 4's farming programme a few days ago was telling me that there is another government IT project for the fishermen to report their fish quota stuff on-line. I gather that it is not going terribly well.

    1. 0laf Silver badge

      Re: Fishing

      What do you mean there is no high speed broadband in the North Sea or Mid Atlantic. Oh well just use your 4G wonderphone natch.

  12. James Pickett

    More on GDS and HMRC here, who needed an FOI request to supply some fairly basic information...

    http://www.accountingweb.co.uk/article/hmrc-overruns-budget-govuk-transition-project/574500

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Emperors new clothes

    We need to be very careful about taking claims from GDS at face value. The author makes some positive noises about the prison visits booking system. However, all that system actually does is send an email to the prison someone is trying to visit with three choices of times. There is no integration with the internal system used to book visits. So there are still huge numbers of officers and clerks overseeing the booking system. You never hear about that in the GDS presentations.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's not about the technology...

    In all my years working for a number of local and central government organisations, I have seen the same pattern repeated over and over, in that the business hands over the modelling of information to the people developing IT systems for them.

    Many government departments' job is solely to process information (hopefully adding value on the way), from how much tax we owe, to how much land that we have qualifies for government grants, to recording the grant of legal power of attorney, registering a business etc. etc.

    Key information needs to be consistent across multiple parts of the business, and this is where the problem has occurred; in often handing over the responsibility to IT to deliver systems at a departmental level, and not controlling the information that is core to their operations, the business has let go of control and left it up to generations of IT implementers (both internally and externally) to decide their information model for them, which is why most organisations find it hard to co-ordinate information about us within multiple systems, let alone more complex models like how to handle delegated authority of, say, a third party land management company.

    To government I am many people - a taxpayer, husband, father, company owner, landowner, car driver etc. etc. but each of these systems rely on data effectively defined by IT people or the IT suppliers who provide them with CoTs solutions.

    So, a GDS-type solution was probably inevitable, since those people that relinquished control of the information model are unwilling to do the hard thinking around what core information they really need for regulation and control, and the cost of bringing all those IT systems under a consistent model makes them want to put their fingers in their ears and hum loudly. QED the 'we can give you digital really cheaply' GDS model, and now the cracks are showing because none of them are (at least publicly) facing up to the fact that the real first step is that IT needs to help business take back the responsibility for enterprise information.

    Or maybe I'm just an old dinosaur who thinks that occasionally you need to really, really think about what you are doing...

  15. Kay_terra

    I think the election will begin the unravelling of GDS. For all the good work that has been done (such as in OPG on lasting power of attorney), there has been a litany of failures, mostly limited to an attempt to interact with any service or solution of any great scale.

    I think GDS would have been better served remaining as a small, agile delivery body rather than trying to fling its weight about in the departments by determining strategies. Without the political nous of Francis Maude giving them air cover, I can't see the big departments actually bending the knee to them for much longer. I'm struggling to think of a politico with the amount of capital in the bank to maintain such a grip on departmental spending as Maude had.

    That said, Maude's appointments - Maxwell being the obvious one will surely be quickly out the door should anything other than a Tory led government end up being returned in May.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The decision makers are IT illiterate.

    I've worked on several government transition projects, ranging from Job Centres, through CSA to Defence. The one common thread in all of this was that there was no real requirements analysis. What was the final target? What was needed? How was it going to be achieved? and maybe most importantly of all, How is it being done now and what do you need to change?

    Then once the project starts, there's the "It would be a good idea if..." and "can we have this...". Major changes to the project without it being re-planned. By the time you're nearing the end, the project looks nothing like the plan at the start.

    Then they wonder why it's failed or why it's over budget.

    No one who was planning, dictating the requirements or making any major decisions had the foggiest of how their staff, the people using the systems, worked or what they really needed.

    The result? A system which sort of does what was asked, but not necessarily what was needed and most probably a bastardisation of what was designed in the first place.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Has anyone noticed how the GDS folk are very much like Nathan Barley?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06AS8SiY3rw

    I've met a few.

  18. Give Me Six

    GDS do not publish user satisfaction surveys, which is a clear indication of how much confidence they really have in GOV.UK and those wonderful smoke and mirrors applications. High volumes of transactions are meaningless if customers have nowhere else to go.

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