Sprint 16 was the annual GDS celebration of its activities last year and a glimpse of what the upcoming year will be. There were plenty of celebratory tweets trending during the day as #sprint16 of the announcements, demos and speeches. I wanted to take a little more time to reflect on the day and sift both the overt and implicit messages I took away from the celebration.
But before I do this thanks again to GDS for an invitation to listen in on a great event organised in an ideal location — the British Film Institute on Southbank. The venue matches the GDS vibe well (relaxed-trendy but not the full Shoreditch) and is ideal for concurrently presenting to large audiences. And it did feel like an upbeat celebration.
The day can be broken down into five segments: Visionary, Platforms, Show-and-Tell, Data and Technology. First off this makes sense given GDS is organised internally into four groups: Government as a Platform, Digital, Technology and Data. Digital didn’t get main stage time but was heavily profiled in the Show and Tells. Platforms had the most prominent demo time while Data had the most discussion time.
Let’s talk about the Visionary segment first because this feels like the closest thing to a keynote. Sprint 15 last year was similarly celebratory but in contrast Sprint 16 was a new start, a reset. There was a new minister, a new GDS Director, a forward look at the state of the UK digital nation with heavy emphasis on entrepreneurship. There was emphasis on cross-departmental collaboration. The digital exemplars were barely mentioned and Francis Maude was almost commemorated.
So a new beginning.
Transforming the relationship between citizen and state was Matt Hancock’s message. Is this grander than previous sprint visionary statements? I’m not sure but the ways in which this will be achieved are similar: empowering the civil service to embrace digital, an emphasis on data, much better government IT.
One way in which it will be different is a collaborative approach rather than a declarative approach. There was much talk of GDS working to help departments, departments building government platforms and cross-departmental communities of practice. This is a notable difference in approach and should allow departments to make the best decisions with the best central advice and assistance from GDS.
It was nice to see Aaron Snow from 18F giving so much overt thanks to GDS for the headstart the USA have gained from taking the service manual, gov.uk code and strategy from the UK. What was apparent was the very different execution approach 18F have to take because of the optional, un-budgeted nature of 18F. Because they don’t have a budget they have to provide savings to states and federal departments. 18F have a carrot but no stick. Aaron described this as a blessing in disguise.
Talking of visionaries I was very impressed with Stephen Foreshew-Cain (who summarises Sprint 16 on the GDS blog). He comes across as a strong encourager-leader. Someone with substance who is more interested in backing his team to deliver than razzmatazz. His compering throughout the day was down to earth and generous to his team. When he spoke to close his message was simple and effective: “be bold, you’re doing great things, I’ve got your back”. Inspiring stuff.
GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Notify were the big demos of the day. Both were presented with panache and demoed well. It is evident there is a big need across government for both a payments broker service and a notification platform. Pete Herlihy confirmed that the cost savings for Notify would be significant given the reduced cost of calls to call centres. This is excellent news but GDS will have to remove reasons for departments and agencies not to use them like it did with gov.uk.
Pay makes sense on a number of level: it is self-evident when working in government that there is considerable duplication across departments. It will also allow government more leverage to negotiate on fees. Notify is different. It offers functionality that most departments do not have or do not offer. This will bring out a new dimension to digital services: proactive notifications from government to citizens. We saw txt and email notifications in the demo but I wonder will we see mobile notifications in future with a Notify app — further reducing the cost of txt — and providing a link into the most ubiquitous form of internet connected device citizens have in 2016?
The bold Janet Hughes told us that Verify will finally move to Live status in April with a predicted bump in number of services using it. Verify has had it’s well publicised issues over the last few years (mainly IDP related) but is now in a much better place with the available IDPs and services they provide. GOV.UK Verify demonstrates that it is not trivial to design and operate a large-scale platform — even a beta platform. This is a cautionary lesson for departments rushing headfirst into platform building programmes.
The first register is live. Whoop whoop. Go and take a look at the new countries register. This is brilliant news. Registers have lots of potential to reduce data errors in future as they are used in more services. I remember when Paul Downey — champion of registers — introduced me to the concept of canonical data sources across government. It was a penny dropping moment that data is more valuable and durable than any technology. Clearly it will take some time until the simple registers are available, then some more time for the more sophisticated registers to come along. The more GDS can do to accelerate departments efforts the sooner data can start to be cleaner.
Data is important to government. This was evident with the large time slot given over to Data in the agenda and the minister’s references to better data. GDS have conditioned us to “show the thing” and so it was surprising to see a lengthy panel discussion about data. Clearly it’s early days for data engineering and advanced analytics across government.
Liam Maxwell arrived on stage like a rock star, just off the plane from Seattle. He then delivered a concise, powerful message about the direction of government technology. The key policy for government technology is openness: open standards, open data, open source and open markets. With openness comes disruption.
Liam told us the primary user need for OCTO is to remove friction, allowing government technology to keep pace with consumer technology. He also noted that many of the “boring” technologies that were ripe for commoditisation such as email, network, printing, office tools as well as ERP, case management and MI — shown on the Wardley map. This is a big shift for departments and agencies and will unlock inflexible and expensive IT constraints.
This contrast can be visualised today within departments with the contrast between the agile teams using MacBooks over Wi-Fi in any location, chatting over Slack regardless of location, collaborating on document creation — and those civil servants who have one-arm tied behind their back with a heavy and slow laptop where no “unapproved” software can be installed to join in.
The new UK Digital Strategy hasn’t been published yet and wasn’t mentioned at Sprint. When it is published we will see in more detail the intentions of government over the next few years.
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