GDS takes GOV.UK open source code and makes it private...but why?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 30, 2019
GOV.UK is the core platform for hosting government websites and information. It was the first key project for the Government Digital Service (GDS) and its code has always been open source.


The Government Digital Service (GDS) has made two of its core GOV.UK code repositories “temporarily” private, making some digital government observers very nervous. GOV.UK code has been open source and publicly available on GitHub since its launch back in 2012. 

GOV.UK is the primary platform for hosting government websites and information. It was GDS’s first big project and was as an example of how platforms could be used to save money and simplify the user experience (i.e. build once and re-use). A lot of GDS’s early funding was driven by being able to point to GOV.UK as a success. 

GOV.UK has also always been an example of how governments can work in the open and benefit from using non-proprietary, open source code. Ministers and GDS leaders have consistently linked the success of GOV.UK to its code being open source, often citing that other governments around the world have lifted it and used it to run their own websites. 

The first repository to be taken private is ‘Frontend’, which is an application that supports part of GOV.UK, such as the homepage (and others). The second is ‘Static’, which is an application that provides the look and feel of GOV.UK (templates, colours, etc.). The dead links for both can be found here and here

Some sources have suggested that the code has been taken private so that the government can quietly work on preparing GOV.UK for no-deal Brexit messaging. That being said, GDS has always had to prepare sensitive information for GOV.UK, such as for Budgets, but has never taken code repositories private before. The move is making some observers very nervous. 

As one person said to me - “once something is private, it’s a huge leap to open it up again”. 

James Stewart, one of the co-founders of GDS, now a partner at Public Digital, said in a tweet that the most likely reason is that the government wants to work on Brexit-related messaging quietly, but added that this “ought to be easy to do...without locking down”. 

A spokesperson for GDS said that the code will be made public again - but didn’t indicate any timelines and didn’t reveal further details about why it has been taken private. They said: 

A small number of code repositories on GOV.UK that are usually open have been temporarily closed off to facilitate some updates to the site. We expect to reopen this code again after a short period of time once this work is complete.

My take

I can fully understand why this makes people uncomfortable. GOV.UK has been a shining example of working in the open and transparency. As noted above, sensitive updates have always been carried out on GOV.UK, without making the repositories private. So, why now? More likely than not this is being driven by the new Brexit agenda, as the UK looks increasingly likely to be heading for a no-deal scenario at the end of October. But if this is a sign of things to come as we separate from the EU - e.g. working behind secret, closed doors - then that really doesn’t fill me with confidence about our future. 


Image credit - Image sourced via GOV.UK

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