Digital Government GaaP Series Open Data

GaaP: Paths and Cliffs

This is Part 3 of a series of articles by Larry Larkin

Previous articles in the series described the myriad of benefits – financial, operational and social – that GaaP can bring. But how do we get there? The path, alas, is not a road to follow but, rather, a cliff to scale. The challenges associated with moving from our current siloed, monolithic application environment – pervasive across the Federal/Central governments – to an open-data platform ecosystem are mind-numbingly formidable.

The technology path, relatively speaking, is the easiest one because: (1) the technology is available, (2) the cost efficiencies are more apparent and measurable, and (3) ever decreasing budgets are acting as forcing functions. We’re still far away, particularly in the United States, from the “one big Government cloud” – but we’re making progress. The US Federal Government’s “Cloud First”mandate, which requires agencies to consider cloud-based solutions when seeking to implement new systems is a good example.

The showstoppers are issues like:

  • Leadership – What incentives do agencies/ministries have to collaborate to design and build a common architecture that delivers shared services? Even if the cost savings of a common approach are there, who is going to orchestrate and drive its development – who has the authority to make it all happen?
  • Control of the data – Today, the data owners, i.e., the government organizations, have control of the data. Will they be willing to relinquish some of that control and share this data? What data should be shared and what shouldn’t? Who decides? What role do citizens have in deciding which data about them can be shared and which cannot? What about privacy and security – and liability?
  • Open data standards – Who sets the standards on how data is shared and defines the interfaces? To date – by default – it has been the private sector, companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, that has been setting the standards.

These are complex issues that cut across government, industry and citizens. They tend to be manageable at the state and local government levels given their smaller scale. However, at the national government level, particularly in the United States, given its size and complexity, these issues are almost intractable.

For such an effort to succeed at the national level, a central organization with cognizance over all governmental departments and some measure of authority – the orchestra conductor, if you will – is a requisite first step. Happily, these organizations already exist: Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK, and US Digital Service (USDS), together with 18F in the United States. GDS, by virtue of its ability to fund projects, has made tangible progress in constructing GaaP building blocks, platforms like GOV.UK for publishing and GOV.UK Verify for identity verification.

USDS and 18F, by necessity, have been focusing their limited resources in fixing critical systems at risk of failure and, in the process, inculcating industry best practices across US government agencies. Given their remarkable workload – and their success – I suspect it will be a while before they can focus on “global” GaaP issues.

So, the good news, is that several critical chess pieces of GaaP are in place. Given the magnitude of the cultural change (within government agencies) and massive resources the implementation of GaaP will require, the process will have to be evolutionary and will take time. But the movement is there…

Read Larry’s full series of posts on GaaP.  

Citizen Engagement Digital Policy United States

Web to Transaction: Next Big Challenge

There has been a lot of chatter since Mike Bracken announced his decision to leave GDS – and today Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, has added her voice to the many who are questioning what might happen to IT in the UK government in a post-Bracken era.

Some mystery still surrounds the Bracken departure. Some titles have been questioning whether the new Conservative government – or the civil service status-quo – can be bothered with GDS any longer.

Even some of the most vocal advocates of GDS – and Bracken – acknowledge that incumbent “big IT” is still pretty incumbent. And new systems have been rolled-out, post-GDS, that have failed to deliver.

That might not be the fault of GDS, but there is a widely held perception that GDS tends to get involved more in information delivery projects (like .GOV.UK) rather than operational systems that need overhauled. Government as a Platform (much favored by Bracken) may be the means of achieving that.

In part 2 of my interview with Noah Kunin of 18F I ask him about this very issue (the question comes about 3 minutes or so into the video).  Noah also outlines how 18F is ensuring the new systems are more rapidly procured, and made fit for purpose for the citizen who might use the systems.  Part 1 of the interview is here.  

Digital Government Digital Policy United Kingdom

Mike Bracken Leaves GDS: Passing the Baton

The Head of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, has announced he is leaving the civil service. We asked Emer Coleman, former Deputy Director for Digital Engagement at GDS, to give her personal reaction to his departure.

Over the past two years – since leaving Government Digital Service – I’ve spent a lot of time working with senior people on digital leadership. Well, on leadership really, digital is just the trojan horse.

One of the things I try to get them to understand is that successful leadership is now a distributed function. It doesn’t come from the top down – rather it exists all over successful organisations and is determined by the hierarchy of contribution not the hierarchy itself. My interest in this stems from a quote from Nietzsche: “he serves a teacher badly always to remain only a pupil.”

I thought of that quote quite a lot with the announcement, last week, that Mike Bracken will be leaving Whitehall at the end of September. Apart from the digital legacy for government and citizens that Mike will leave, more striking for me is the fact that he created a template for change in one of the most risk averse environments one can work in – government.

Real change only happens in the civil service or public service when individuals care enough to lift their heads above the parapet and really care about better outcomes.

Before Mike there was no template for what that looked like so he created that template using a combination of street smarts and keen strategic skills. He wouldn’t give up and he wouldn’t give in he just kept pushing forward with a laser like focus on what needed to change to better meet the needs of citizens in a digital age. So now there is no room left for excuses. We know what change looks like. It looks like someone who understood what Billy Bragg meant when he penned Talking with the Taxman about Poetry:

Outside the patient millions
Who put them into power
Expect a little more back for their taxes

It behoves those that Mike leaves behind, therefore, not to remain pupils but to come together across Whitehall and step into his shoes. Not just one or two. But all of them. A baton has been passed but in the digital race the baton is no longer exclusive. I’m looking forward, therefore, to seeing those new digital leaders whizzing past with the same zeal and courage that Mike has demonstrated so ably in government. That is, of course, if rumored cuts are not to derail the whole digital transformation of government with truly unfortunate consequences for the most important people of all – users of government services.

I’ll finish by exhorting: The strategy is delivery folks. Onwards.

Emer Coleman is the former Deputy Director for Digital Engagement with Government Digital Services. She is now Director of Development and Engagement with TransportAPI  and CEO of Disruption Ltd a consultancy specializing in Digital Leadership Training for Senior Executives.

Digital Government Digital Policy United Kingdom United States

18F: Where next?

We have done our fair share of speculating, on this site, about the similarities between 18F, GDS and USDS.

But where do the similarities start and end? What is 18F and how is its role evolving now that its honeymoon period is over and it’s now into its second year of operations?

The Citizen 2015 team had the chance to meet with 18F just over a week ago in Washington DC. We interviewed Noah Kunin, Director of Delivery Architecture and Infrastructure Services at 18F.

We asked him about the relationship between the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) and 18F (and the similarities between the two). We also asked him to outline the government services most likely to be focus areas for 18F in the coming year.

We’ll feature more from the interview with Noah in the coming weeks.


Digital Government Digital Policy United States

Briefing: USDS and 18F

Following what many considered a disastrous launch of the U.S. Government’s exchange in August 2014, the White House set up an organization known as the US Digital Service (USDS). The mission of this organization is to implement “the best of product design and engineering practices to transform the way government works for the American people.” The idea behind USDS is to institutionalize best IT practices across government agencies not only to prevent debacles like but to actually deliver better systems that meet the needs of the people that use them.

The original USDS organization consisted of a 7-10 person cross-functional team of high caliber IT professionals. (The team has since grown to some 25 people and the President has requested additional funding in its FY2016 budget request to expand the team further). USDS is headed by Mikey Dickerson, the former Google reliability engineer who played a key role in getting back on track.

One of the first actions USDS took was to release two documents: the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR. These are very interesting documents, particularly the Playbook.

The Playbook is a foundational roadmap for implementing digital government. It consists of thirteen “plays” – best practices drawn from the private sector – that guide the development of digital services:

  1. Understand what people need
  2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish
  3. Make it simple and intuitive
  4. Build the service using agile and iterative practices
  5. Structure budgets and contracts to support delivery
  6. Assign one leader and hold that person accountable
  7. Bring in experienced teams
  8. Choose a modern technology stack
  9. Deploy in a flexible hosting environment
  10. Automate testing and deployments
  11. Manage security and privacy through reusable processes
  12. Use data to drive decisions
  13. Default to open

The White House’s goal is to make this playbook the bible for US Government IT system development.

The other document, the TechFAR, while not garnering the same amount of attention, is just as important. For years, critics have said that government acquisition regulations, which are embodied in the 1,000+ page Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), are so restrictive that they make the acquisition of IT services based on concepts like agile development impossible. The TechFAR dispels this myth by highlighting the flexibilities built into the FAR– as is – that permit procurement of agile-development-based systems.

The USDS team is not a software or systems development organization – it’s intended to be a consulting organization. They will be working with agencies’ IT teams, first, to help them develop “get-well” strategies for major systems in or near trouble, and then to design new systems based on best practices.

USDS is patterned after UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) – but that’s where the similarity ends. Unlike GDS, USDS does not develop systems. That task is relegated to the agencies’ IT organizations and a newly formed development group under the US General Services Administration known as “18F.” This latter group builds free, open source digital services and works “hands-on” with agencies to fix broken or troubled systems. It’s not clear how one organization focusing on the design and another on the implementation is going to work. Furthermore, GDS has a large budget and spending authority – which gives it influence over government ministries. USDS does not.

The jury is still out as to how effective USDS will be and how much it will be able to accomplish given its gargantuan task. So far the team has met with 22 agencies and identified 60 projects that require its attention. How many projects a team of a couple dozen people will be able to tackle remains to be seen.

The concept does seem to be catching on across agencies, though. Some 25 agencies are seeking to establish their own digital teams and have requested $75M in funding for fiscal year 2016 to pay for them.

General Electric CEO Jack Welch has said that, to successfully implement organizational change, the change will have to be radical; otherwise the “bureaucracy will eat you up.” So will a small group of very talented, highly motivated, high energy technologists with the President’s full backing succeed in transforming how the Federal government builds IT systems? Well, David did beat Goliath…