Special Report Open warfare has broken out in Whitehall after the Government’s own much-hyped in-house IT team, GDS, publicly trashed a new VAT service vital to small digital businesses. The Register understands the service works well - but didn’t use GDS and was failed for meeting its taste guidelines.
This week the Government Digital Service disparaged the HRMC’s new VAT Mini One Stop Shop – which is designed to cope with new EU VAT rules which come into effect on 1 January – on its blog. Digital businesses selling apps, games and ebooks are affected by the VAT changes.
The system functions well, we understand, but doesn’t conform to GDS’s taste, expressed in its bureaucratic guidelines. GDS's issues with the system raise questions about the Cabinet Office’s ability to "sabotage" departmental services it doesn’t like.
"We have put the VAT MOSS service in place to help businesses meet the requirements of new EU rules as easily as possible. It has been rigorously tested to ensure it is secure and works well,” an HMRC spokesman told us.
Sources familiar with the project told us that HMRC was unable to use GDS because it lacks the skills required to deliver the system on time – a familiar departmental complaint – and used external contractors to complete the project. One source shrugged off the "disapproval" as an attempt to discredit initiatives that don’t do things the GDS way, and for which the GDS cannot take credit.
Why doesn’t GDS like the new VAT system?
The reasons for GDS trashing the new VAT service are arcane.
GDS claims the new VAT service didn’t follow GDS's bureaucratic “service manual". And it also suggests that the VAT site might not be easily familiar to users who’ve never used a VAT site before.
“A great deal of reliance is placed on the user having experience of the VAT transaction in the same portal”, notes GDS, sniffily. This, apparently, is a bad thing. A source familiar with the project told us this illustrates GDS's lack of real experience: the VAT portal is not a general purpose public website.
The service also “fails” the VAT one-stop-shop service for failing to follow “Digital by Default Service Standard criteria”.
However, a developer familiar with Whitehall IT told us: "GDS guidelines are confusing, contradictory and not even necessarily industry best practice. Some are authoritative and concise. But they're contradicted all the time."
"Pro-active developers and teams are left with little choice but to get on with it and cover their arses by providing some means to revert the code,” our source explained.
One HMRC told us the tax department was continuing to educate GDS staff.
By establishing and hyping GDS, the Cabinet Office had increased its own influence and weakened the capacity of departments to develop their own systems, our sources told us. As a result, the government is now more reliant than ever on contract developers, sources say. A Labour Party review recently recommended moving power over IT projects back to departmental CIOs.
Wait a minute. How well is GDS 'delivering'?
The public disparagement of a well-functioning vital service may backfire by increasing scrutiny on GDS's own “delivery” record. So far, it has received glowing press.
"Geeks in Jeans are the Treasury's new heroes,” claimed the Times' Rachel Sylvester (behind paywall) last year, quoting a claim by GDS chief Mike Bracken (recruited from The Guardian newspaper) that “an 18-year-long period of aggressive outsourcing of technology skills ... is now at an end”.
And they don’t just wear jeans - they have mascots.
A visiting BBC reporter was told that the Platform Team had adopted an otter. "'His name is Jerry,' one woman explains, pointing to a brown and white soft toy with a rather sad expression on its face".
But critics point out that much of the adulation is based on wishful thinking rather than tangible results. If the government employs people with web skills, it will make things better - because the web makes things better. So how well is it doing, really?
“Delivery” is the justification for the rapid expansion of the Cabinet Office over the past 15 years: it now functions as the Prime Minister’s personal department – in practice this means the whims of the PM’s personal advisors, say insiders.
The Cabinet Office, remember, was responsible for setting up the Nudge Unit, and it is also the department which gave £200,000 to millionaire supermodel Lily Cole for her whimsical ghost site Impossible.com, even though she had failed to meet the stated criteria.
Created from a blueprint (PDF) drawn up by Martha Lane Fox, the government created the Government Digital Service (GDS) to “revolutionise Government IT”. It’s part of the ever-expanding Cabinet Office, and sold policy makers on a vision of Agile development as a panacea for government IT problems. However, the skills base appears to be weighted down with a preponderance of web front end designers and service manual creators.
Four years into the “revolution”, GDS's real achievements look threadbare. GDS has produced a huge quantity of "service manuals”. A mere handful of projects are in “beta”. The identity system vital to underpin many government services, now rebranded as “Verify", is years late. GDS claims 25 projects are in beta, but some are mere “reskinnings” of websites, and one is Universal Credit: a large project in which GDS was only briefly (and unhappily) involved.
"GDS are several years late starting a small beta test of their [identity] offering. The users are finding it hard. No alternative, non-digital registration system is provided. And GDS are breaking their own rules,” digital identity expert David Moss wrote this week. "Meanwhile, they are providing us with re-written front ends to services we already had, but with no identity assurance, and without re-designing the services first. Culture change? Hardly. The promise of government transformation is not being delivered."
Experts across several departments have confirmed such concerns, but fearing the career consequences of publicly being seen to criticise GDS. One senior Labour figure privately described GDS to us as “cult-like”.
The Cabinet Office, of which GDS is a part, did not respond to our questions.
Ironically, GDS is part of the "Efficiency and Reform Group” within the Cabinet Office. In July, spending watchdog the National Audit Office said the Group had hugely exaggerated the savings made by GDS – for the second year running. ®