The future of UK government technology interoperability

This is the second post of a two-part musing by yours truly.

The first post discusses how UK government technology interoperability is far from easy — some background, problem statement and caveats.

This second post discusses what the future could look like. It is certainly not exhaustive.

When you think about it, it is an obvious requirement

The technology is sort of already out there

You can absolutely achieve all tenants of workstream collaboration using different technical systems. Doing so might be a bit messy to get setup and certainly from a user experience perspective (y’know, that really important cornerstone to technology decision making) but one could argue this helps reduce vendor lock-in.

If you decide you want a single pane of glass, you start to look to products such as Slack (already used by 12,000 people across UK government for free-text chat, but nothing more) that aims to be ‘where you work’: chat, share a document and start a call from the same place.

Products like Slack are a productivity tool but they can’t be the only productivity platform. They can help you reduce email volumes but they aren’t an email platform. They can help you share documents, but they are not a document authoring platform or repository.

There are really only two viable productivity platforms on the market.

Google G Suite

I personally get on with G Suite quite well. It is the productivity platform for my consultancy company. I prefer it when working with clients.

It however falls short when it comes to cross-domain working (in this context, working between Whitehall departments). A key example is within Google Drive, where I can share a file:

  • with me (excellent)
  • Google Groups (my teams etc)
  • the whole G Suite tenant (every single other Google G Suite user in the department can access with the link and/or find it through org-wide search)
  • the whole Internet (can access with a link and/or find it through search terms)

To describe this as a ‘hop, skip and whoa what a jump!’ would be… accurate.

Google have been getting better at things like free-text chat (classic Hangouts into Google Hangouts Chat, for example). Google Hangouts Meet is simple to use, but simple in features. Google’s live document editing is… *Italian chef kiss*

Beyond Google’s issue with understanding organisational units (and cross-domain concepts) products like Google Hangouts Chat are actively restricted to ‘same tenant’ unless you enrol in a beta programme. I can only hope beta means it will hit main release at some point, but that isn’t always the case.

Microsoft Office 365

I also have various Office 365 accounts as issued by clients. I get on with it fine, but I spend more of my time in G Suite.

At the moment, Office 365 can use Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) business-to-business (B2B) to enable cross-domain collaboration (obviously both organisations need to Microsoft houses). My personal view is that this experience (being a B2B connected user) is ‘second class citizen’.

Microsoft is clearly wrestling to make Teams the user’s main productivity pane. (We can debate whether they are winning or not another time.) With the chat element reducing email volumes, tabbing between Edge Chromium, Teams and Outlook (or another mail client) feels… viable.

Microsoft are working on what is currently called Complex Org. It allows federation between Office 365 where the users have a far more equal and integrated experience.

Complex Org seems to be about 6 months away (baring in mind, this post is written in April 2020). That feels like 12 months away if you don’t want to be the first guinea pig. Testing and then rollout including training… see you in 24–36 months?

Go on then… predict the future

If the future of UK government technology interoperability is a single platform, then that platform will be…Microsoft Office 365.

I am by no means a fan of single vendors or vendor lock-in. I have spent my technology career striving to pick the ‘best’ solution for the context instead of bringing a pet vendor with me to every problem.

‘Best’ for me always has to be a culmination of a whole bunch of metrics: time, cost, features, security and lock-in / interoperability (standards based technology) are just some of them.

Whoa, a single platform?

I haven’t done the user needs research into cross-Whitehall workstream collaboration myself.

On the basis the scope of organisations is Whitehall and a finalised requirement is a single productivity platform: yes, I can see Office 365 with Complex Org working and actually being achievable.

Vendor competition issues and vendor lock-in are important — I’m not commenting on these, I’m just going with the technologist angle.

A G Suite to Office 365 migration isn’t anything to take lightly. A few organisations (including business units such as digital teams within an organisation) will need to conduct some pretty serious migration programmes.

Can’t the two platforms work together?

G Suite and Office 365 do not work well together.

There are methods and products to sit in the middle of them and try but it is awful for users, IT system administrators, IT support/training folk and information governance. Just say no kids.

Didn’t you talk about best of breed versus all-in-one in your first post?

Yes, yes I did.

If a single productivity platform isn’t required and different functions can be completed using different tools things start to get a little bit more ‘fun’ (to design, to train, to use as an end-user and to manage as an IT system administrator).

As I said in the first post, I think regardless of what you do, the cross-government Slack will always meet use-cases not otherwise met and will need to live on. The cross-government Slack only provides the chat capability at the moment.

Slack (chat) + video (videoconferencing)+ documents (well, documents).

Slack off the bat gives you free-text chat. Check.

Slack integrates with Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom etc for calls. Check (wait for it).

Slack integrates with SharePoint Online and Google Drive to let someone post a link and then pulls in metadata from the document to display something more useful to other users.

Ruh-oh, caveats

Users would have to ‘leave’ Slack to edit the document though. If someone has posted a SharePoint document from Office 365 but the person who clicks it doesn’t have a suitable permitted Microsoft account, it fails. If someone has posted a Google Drive document from G Suite but the person who clicks it doesn’t… you get the picture.

Users sort of (experience varies) ‘leave’ Slack to join a Google Hangouts Meet or Microsoft Teams call. The version you access when you click through Slack is actually a little different than if you create a call natively in the platform. There are nuances here as well I have experienced before (which are not good) which I’ll skip for brevity.

So, in this permutation:

  • I have chat working
  • I have caveated calls working using Zoom, Google, Microsoft, or something else
  • I have caveated documents working in that people can post and others can see a rich description (subject to integrated permissions)
  • Users still may not be able to edit documents if they click a document link though.

Argh.

So what about guest PIN systems for stuff like Google Docs? I mean sure, but does that scale to be workable everyday? I’m not sure I would be OK with that as a relatively capable technology user.

Scope is still really important

‘Whitehall departments’ is as narrow as you could likely get while achieving the associated political mandate.

Whitehall departments and all of their Arms-length Bodies gets a little hairier. You’re going to start finding immoveable IT systems.

‘Central government’ starts to not be that much fun. You’re both going to find the immovable but also will have to miss out some organisations who won’t be too happy about being the odd one out.

‘All of government’ would be in my view simple naive and untenable.

Organisations like the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice and others than have multiple unique networks for different parts of their organisation/use-cases will likely break into a cold unfunded sweat if mandated to ‘just’ get things working. I would expect some outsourced IT suppliers to be rubbing their hands with change fee glee.

So, what happens next?

Videoconferencing is on the way.

Zoom has been tactical.

Google Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Skype for Business / Teams and some other popular platforms are being Unblocked, through a Project. The goal is that Department X using Teams can invite Department Y and they can join in, even if they use WebEx internally. If Department Y creates the meeting, Department X can attend despite normally using Teams.

Enabling a new technology platform isn’t just about firewall changes. You have to think about the end-user device software, IT support (because when something doesn’t work, 1st line gets the hit), IT training, feature nuances, license nuances, security, information governance and so on.

I recently mused that Whitehall CIOs — with an unlimited budget and complete waiver of security, supply chain, technical and project risks — would still need 4–6 weeks to ‘put into production’ all other videoconferencing solutions that they don’t already use but others in Whitehall do.

If I was ‘on point’ I would want to hit the pause button on any strategic work until the scope was defined and the user needs were actually captured. I would also say something along the lines of ‘money please’ — government measures money and people separately, so I would actually be saying ‘money and people please’ but no one says that in Parks & Recreation!

Additional tactical projects might be to ensure that Departments who use Google can use Hangouts, Chat and Documents together and that Departments using Office 365 can use Teams (etc) together. This at least extends interoperability within organisations already using the same platform — as both platforms do this in odd ways, I’d have to fund some audit tooling as well, because there would be some security challenges here.

I would seek to understand why different configuration choices are made, and ideally use automated audit tools to retrieve configurations from each Google / Microsoft tenant and attempt to compare them.

I would attempt to agree common security postures and understandings, even amongst the departmental sovereignty problem.

Anyway, lots to do. Onwards?

It is now late July 2020 as I append a note to the bottom of this post.

The new programme director for technical interoperability asked me what my vision was for technical interoperability for UK government.

Where everyone in scope can video/audio call, free-text chat and real-time document collaborate based on purpose and topic, not role/grade/organisation, so they can act like a single organism.

Where their technology experience is equal (and good) — for example, everyone can organise a video conference instead of only a few licensed folks or the ‘main’ organisation.

Where the technology has enabled better people management, so that safe secondments and loans are swift and coherent.

Where the technology has enabled estates teams to dynamically respond to the need to collaborate in person based on the broad estates portfolio not based on Floor 11 is only DWP so Home Office can’t use that.

Fine… it is entirely possible I said something less succinct.

I have said the organism thing a lot lately. I’m not sure I am onto anything with that though, as I also say “nuke it from orbit” a lot as well.

I thought I would come here and add it because things have a chance to become a little exciting in this space…. Plus, an online quiz I completed today (its from Adobe, so totally legit right?) that says I am an Innovator.

You are an Innovator. Move, shake, disrupt, repeat.
You are an Innovator. Move, shake, disrupt, repeat.
“I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake” — T Swifty

Anyway, still lots to do. Onwards?

You might find other exciting posts in my Medium profile. I’m on Twitter as @JoelGSamuel.

The thin blue line between technology and everything else.

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