Would GDS like to airbrush rural payments out of its digital exemplar history?

Last month, I wrote in this blog about the problems that caused the new rural payments digital service to be withdrawn from use by farmers and replaced by paper forms. The system was one of the 25 “exemplars” that the Government Digital Service (GDS) intended to showcase its digital transformation drive.

GDS needs to be challenged to live up to its mantra of “make things open, it makes them better” by being open about the problems, what caused them, and what was being done to resolve them.

Just today I came across the latest GDS quarterly progress report, published on 27 March, a week after the rural payment service was withdrawn. The report was published quietly and without fanfare in the run-up to the dissolution of Parliament, and GDS along with the rest of the Civil Service is in “purdah” during the election campaign and unable to respond to journalist queries. I haven’t seen any other publications cover the quarterly report, so it seems there was little attempt made to publicise its release.

If you read it, here, you would think that the rural payments problems had simply never existed. You might even fail to realise that rural payments was one of the critical exemplar services in the first place.

In a section of the report titled “Service transformation”, it highlights “seven more exemplar services went live this quarter” – the list fails to include rural payments, which went live in January.

The report continues: “By the end of March, a total of 20 exemplar services were available for public use. Four services are in beta development and one is in alpha. Home Office, Department for Work and Pensions, HMRC and Department for Business Innovation & Skills /Land Registry will continue work to deliver these remaining five exemplars, building digital by default services that meet the needs of their users.”

No mention whatsoever of the work that Defra is having to do to remediate the rural payment problems for future use.

Under a section titled “Exemplar projects: what we’re learning” the report says: “We want departments to learn from this transformation work and to use exemplars as templates when redesigning their own digital services. We’re also looking at how organisational structures and culture need to adapt and staff skills need to improve.”

And that’s it – no mention of the lessons that may need to be learned from rural payments, one of the exemplar services, and why it failed to meet user needs.

Eventually rural payment does get a mention in the report, as one of the first services using the new Gov.uk Verify system for identity assurance – but again, no mention of the problems farmers had using the Verify service.

Admittedly, the report was no doubt close to being finished when the rural payments service was withdrawn, and GDS was under time pressure to publish the report before purdah began a week later.

But the total absence of any mention of the rural payments problems in an official GDS quarterly progress report is extraordinary. Not even one sentence, added at the last minute, to acknowledge what happened. It leaves GDS open to accusations that it’s not just failing to be open when things go wrong, but seems instead to be airbrushing rural payments out of its exemplar history altogether.

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