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Government Digital Service founder - “GDS is no longer working in the open”

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 14, 2018
Dafydd Vaughan has analysed the number of blogs GDS and digital teams in government have published in recent years - pointing to a stark downward trend.

GDS blogs
One of the founders of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Dafydd Vaughan, has analysed data across the GOV.UK platform, to assess the “state of blogging in digital government”. The results point to a significant fall in posts in recent months across many of the digital teams in government - with a few exceptions - which Vaughan believes means that “GDS is no longer working in the open”.

Vaughan’s post has attracted a lot of attention on social media from those working in and observing digital government, with many dismayed at the apparent fall in transparency.

The criticism will likely fuel public debate about the future role of GDS, which diginomica/government recently argued is flailing. The once powerhouse is now suffering from a lack of leadership, vision, ambition and is being picked apart by others in government that see the opportunity to build new empires (read: DCMS).

Vaughan’s notes that the fall in transparency is not likely doing anything to help GDS’ cause. He says:

The quantity of posts doesn’t necessarily equal quality. However, it does give you an indication of the culture and practice across digital teams in government.

GDS is facing growing public criticism about what it’s delivering and it’s vision. This comes at a time when GDS is significantly reducing how much it talks openly about it’s work. Some of this criticism might be avoided if they talked and shared more openly about the work going on inside the organisation.

Working in the open is healthy. It helps others understand your thinking. It helps expose you to other points of view. It helps keep you honest. Talking about even small changes or insights helps others build better services.

But more than that, working in the open helps others understand why you’re doing something in a particular way, and the approach you take to solving problems.

GDS is no longer thinking out loud. And digital government is poorer for it.

We could not agree more.

The data

Vaughan references GDS’ early set of design principles, the tenth of which is to “make things open”. In the department’s early days, GDS followed this principle in several ways - everything from coding in the open, to speaking at events. However, Vaughan states, that publishing blog posts about the work you’re doing is a “great way of making things open”.

He explains that blogs let you share information and advice with people outside your organisation who are working on similar things, it helps you gather feedback, and it helps you to clarify your vision. Importantly, Vaughan adds, “it can help generate some excitement about the work”.

Vaughan said:

As GDS built new services and set up communities of practice in different fields around government, they set up blogs to work in the open. Over the course of the last 7 years, GDS has maintained around 15 separate blogs, covering subjects like how GOV.UK works, Technology in government and Accessibility.

At the height of its “Transformation programme” to build 25 exemplar digital services, GDS was publishing posts twice a day (on average) across 14 different blogs. These posts covered things like how to do agile governance, how GOV.UK was going to expose beta services to users, and how do unmoderated research with eye tracking.

Many digital teams across government followed, with new blogs being established for the digital teams at MOJ, DVLA, SFA and others.

Working out loud and talking openly about even small changes was normal practice. It was just a thing that happened.

However, in 2018, things are very different, he adds. Blogs that “were once active, now lie dormant - untouched for months”.

This is something that has been pointed out to me many a time in recent months. As Vaughan’s post notes, GOV.UK Verify last published in March, Digital Marketplace in April, and Government Technology was last updated 9 months ago.

He cites that Government as a Platform published 35 times in 2016, but only 16 times last year.

GDS more than halved the number of posts published in 2017, a “huge downward trend”, Vaughan adds.

However, according to the data, this isn’t confined to GDS. Of the 34 blogs on GOV.UK Blogs that relate to digital services in Whitehall, only four are posting more than once a week - HMRC, DWP, Defra and the main GDS blog.

Most blogs are posting less than once every 2 weeks.

Vaughan adds:

In 2015, the DVLA digital team published 36 posts, an average of 3 posts a month. In 2017, that’s dropped to less than once a month – they posted just 7 times in the whole year.

The digital team at BEIS (formerly BIS) published 40 posts in 2014, and just 3 in 2017.

In MOJ, there were 47 posts in 2015 but just 13 last year.

My take

This analysis by Vaughan is incredibly useful, as it puts measurable data to the qualitative sentiments that we’ve been hearing for months. It’s hard to know exactly the cause - the data doesn’t explain that. But we can make some assumptions/guesses.

For example, when blog publications were more prolific, those right at the top of digital government were publishing regularly and working in the open. Mike Bracken, for example, was at one point doing a weekly video talking about progress being made. Are we seeing the same from the current leadership? I’d argue not. And this filters down. If those at the top aren’t working in the open, those working below may not feel comfortable to do so.

It’s also noticeable that the decline in blogs coincides fairly closely with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister. May has been criticised for her bunker down attitude to running government, this may be having an impact.

Equally, the current political climate is very different to the one we face five years ago. Brexit is all consuming and resources are incredibly thin. This may well be taking its toll - blogging may be being perceived as a luxury at present (even though we’d argue it’s essential).

Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same. The perception is that digital government is less open than it used to be. And this has a network effect.

Image credit - Image sourced from GOV.UK

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