GDS Disaggregates Data

To judge from the Digerati’s comments, the recent move of Data (capital D) from GDS to DCMS is akin to the beginning of the end of GDS, that is, far beyond the end of the beginning that we were only celebrating a few weeks ago thanks to a brilliant talk by Janet Hughes.

For most in Government IT, disaggregation has been a hot topic and is a live goal for nearly all of them, even those busily extending their contracts with incumbents so that they can buy time to disaggregate properly, as I wrote in June 2013 for instance.

Concentrating power in big, slow moving central organisations has, traditionally, been a bad thing.  As an organisation grows, so does its bureaucracy.  Government has, then, repeatedly broken itself down (Departments and Ministries … agencies and NDPBs) in an effort to separate policy from delivery and get closer to the customer, with varying degrees of success.

Political fiefdoms have, at the same time, been created to satisfy egos (ODPM) or to pretend to the outside world that real change was happening (the story of dti on its journey to the current BEIS for instance).  Alongside that, functions have moved – Child Benefit between DWP and IR (now HMRC) – and Tax Credits, whilst benefits, were sited in HMRC rather than DWP, to the great consternation of HMRC staff on day one (and for many days thereafter).

GDS, perhaps accidentally, perhaps as a result of a flood of cash in the Spending Review, has become that big, slow moving central organisation.  I’m sure it wasn’t intentional – they saw gaps all around them and took on more people to fill those gaps. Before they knew it, they needed a bigger office to fit in the 900+ people in the organisation.  Along the way, they forgot what they were there for, as the NAO said.

On data, all we know for now is:

“Data policy and governance functions of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will transfer from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The transfer includes responsibility for data sharing (including coordination of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act 2017), data ethics, open data and data governance.”

The real issue here is not that “Data”, whatever that is in this context, has moved from GDS to DCMS, but that we lack (still) an executable strategy.  We have a trite “transformation strategy” that is long on words and short on actions (see “No Vision, No Ambition” on this blog), but we have no real framework to evaluate this decision, to move “Data”, from one department to another.

An executable strategy would lay out not just the what, but the why, the how and the when.  We would be able to see how changes were planned to unfold, whether incremental, revolutionary or transformational … and when a decision such as this was taken, understand the impact on the that strategy and whether it was good or bad (and sometimes, decisions with known bad impacts are taken for good reasons).

Mike Bracken, writing in the New Statesman, is emphatic that this is a bad idea – one that runs against what everyone else in the world is doing.  His closing take is that:

“the UK seems to have made government a little bit slower, more siloed, harder to reform and more complex.”

GDS is hardly the rapidly responding, iterative, agile organisation that it set out to be (and that it certainly was in its early days as I’ve said before) … so maybe this little bit of disaggregation will free up the remaining (and still large) part to get moving again.

Over the last two decades we’ve had several goes at this – OeE, eGU, OCIO and then GDS.  Each worked for a while and then got bogged down in themselves.  New leadership came in, threw out some of what was done, took on some different things and did the things that new leaders generally do when they come in (say how rubbish everything was until they came along and then proceed to do much the same as had been done before only a little differently).

I suspect, though, that this isn’t enough of a change.  We need a more fundamental reform of GDS, taking it back to its roots and to what its good at.  So maybe it is the beginning of the end and maybe that’s no bad thing.

Think.Digital Identity – Leaked Keynote Speech Announces "Verified By Facebook"

Next month sees Think.Digital Identity for Government, a conference focused on the issues around “The UK landscape for identity in public services is itself at an ‘inflection point’ compounded by government and private sector deliberations around a trust framework for the reuse of government-developed identity services, a subject which arouses plenty of opinion.”

Kevin Cunnington, Director General of the Government Digital Service (GDS), will be at the event, with a speech entitled “Identity Parade.”  I’ve been passed, by an anonymous source, the text of his speech which I have pasted, unedited, below. I’m confident you’ll find the speech a revelation:

It’s 6 years, almost to the day, since DWP went to market for identity providers to support the Universal Credit programme.  Of course, we, that is, GDS, cancelled that programme, seeing it as symptomatic of the old way of doing business in government – closed, expensive, no demonstrable value for money, highly likely to fail and so on.
We replaced that programme with Verify, the start, as Mike Bracken said at the time, of a new market of identity services for access to digital public services.   Mike was clear that delivery wouldn’t happen overnight.  And he was right, of course. 

We have, though, made massive progress.  In just the last year, the number of accounts on Verify has doubled.  We now have 2 million users.  An astonishing number.  And we are running an open system, with proven value for money and one that is highly successful.  But, onwards, as is our rallying cry. 

Eighteen months ago we declared that by 2020 we would have 25 million users registered on Verify.  Today, I’m very pleased to announce that we have signed a partnership deal with Facebook to cross-link UK users of the world’s biggest social network with Verify.  That is, any UK citizen with a Facebook account will, from today, be able to log in to government’s online services to claim benefits, pay their tax, renew their passport or sign their mortgage deed.  That’s right, you’ll be able to use your Facebook account to access any one of the eleven amazing services available via Verify.   

We’re calling it “Verified by Facebook(TM)” 

How is this possible I hear you ask?  Well, we have been working on a brand new part of GaaP, or Government as a Platform, for the last year called GOV.UK ML.  Yes, machine learning.  Many people think that ML is just for analysing pictures of cats or for playing centuries old board games.  We’ve done far more than that.  We’ve used our ML platform to read in all of the UK Facebook data, kindly made available to us by one of Facebook’s partners, a small firm in Cambridge, and we’ve scanned all of the posts, likes, photos and videos to build up a profile of every user and them matched that with their government profile.   

Now we can be sure you are who you say you are, and when you next log in to one of those eleven services, you’ll be invited, first to “like” it and then to share with your network what a great service you’ve got from Verify, a step that will address a shortage of user feedback that is evident from our performance dashboard, and then you can carry out the transaction.   

Advertisements may, naturally, show up during your user journey. We have taken care to make sure that those ads are relevant to you, based on your search history on GOV.UK as well as other data that we, and Facebook, have gathered on your online activities, using our new product, GOV.UK Ad Curator, that entered beta recently. We will split the ad revenue with Facebook and their partners, and our share will go into improving the Verify service and its functionality – this is GDS proactively handling austerity and seeking new ways to fund itself. 

We are so confident in our GOV.UK ML platform and the matching that it’s already carried out that we have pre-registered every UK Facebook user on Verify and so, today, I can announce that we have met our target of having 25 million users on Verify more than 18 months early.  Indeed, we have over 35 million users now.  Contrary to what Mike said back then, we made it happen overnight.  

This announcement doesn’t, of course, mark the end of the Verify programme. It is, though, the end of the beginning.  With 35 million users, we can now move ahead even faster with our efforts to transform government, in line with our much lauded Government Transformation Strategy.  Departments will  beat down our doors to get their transactions integrated with Verify.  Soon Verify will have as many services available, if not more than, as our stand out GaaP performer, GOV.UK Notify.  Even those who thought it was the wrong hammer for the wrong nail will find that we’ve now got a very big hammer that can deal with any nail.

Critics, including the NAO, have said that GDS has found it difficult to define its role as it has grown.  Well, we can safely put that criticism to bed now.  Our role is clear – we are leading on the path to transformation.  Let me be clear that it’s not the cow path and we are not merely paving it, it’s a brand new, shiny path, defined by user needs.  How wrong do those critics look now? Let’s see Govdigerati make a cartoon out of that. 

We have several more user-led initiatives that I am pleased to announce will be entering beta in the coming days, including: 

  • Close binding of GOV.UK with Verify.  If you login, using Verified by Facebook, and post, say, a picture of a baby, we will refer you to child benefit services, making it easier for you to claim what is due to you.  If you post a sad face letting your network know that someone has died, we will link you to burial at sea, a service that we are keen to see more use of.  Life events will be played out through your posts on Facebook, allowing us to build a detailed user profile and start to anticipate your true user needs so that we can develop and offer services to match. 
  • A series of partnerships with banks where our GOV.UK ML technology and Facebook data will allow banks to let customers sign up for new accounts and services right from GOV.UK Verify in just three clicks.    Verify will quickly become the centre of your digital experience in the UK – naturally we will look after your data and ensure that none of it is made available to third parties, except, obviously, for Facebook and companies with whom they engage.   The next step from there is obviously for us to suck in all of your data and prepare your tax return directly from the source data.  We are starting some discovery work now on what we call GOV.UK Orwell.  More on that another time.
  • Extending our GaaP work to include a brand new capability, GOV.UK blockchain. We see blockchain as a fundamental leveller of all things digital, allowing us to manage transactions across government and track who did what and when, reducing errors, fraud and improving the user experience.  For GDS, it’s all about being user led.  Too many previous efforts have been technology led and our blockchain initiative demonstrates that is the last thing on our minds.  We are 100% user led and our users need blockchain. 
  • Introducing digital certificates to government – never seen before technology that will make demonstrating your identity even easier, and portable across platforms and devices.   We know that blockchain is often closely associated with anonymity but we think our users need strong identity so we will tie Verified By Facebook, blockchain and our new digital certificates together to allow us to track all of your transactions across government services, banking and the wider web.  This will allow us to offer joined up government as described in all of the seventeen Digital Transformation Strategies published to date.  Those who publish “Lego Government” manifestos will realise that all they’ve been doing is talking and theorising whilst GDS has actually been doing it, brick by user-led brick. 

Oh, and one more thing … 

We are so pleased with the progress that we have made on Verify that we are announcing a new project called “Global Digital Identity,Verified by Facebook”. As the name suggests, it’s an expansion of the existing Verify and our partnership with Facebook that will be open to international government.  It will help other governments make their services more transparent, prevent corruption and boost their digital, data and technology sectors.  We already have strong interest from both Russia and China about how they can take on our services to help them with their own digital transformations.  Very soon we will announce an event where you can hear more about this new initiative. Let the parade commence – cue bunting.


First published on on April 1st 2018.  The contents of Kevin’s speech may well change before the conference takes place on May 18th 2018.