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


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

GOV.UK is the premier platform for hosting government websites and information. This was GDS’s first major project and it was an example of how platforms could be used to save money and simplify the user experience (i.e. create once and reuse). Much of GDS’s initial funding was driven by its ability to designate GOV.UK as a success.

GOV.UK has also always been an example of how governments can work out in the open and take advantage of the use of non-proprietary open source code. GDS ministers and leaders have always linked GOV.UK’s success to the fact that its code is 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 private is “Frontend,” which is an app that supports part of GOV.UK, such as the homepage (and others). The second is ‘Static’, which is an application that provides the appearance of GOV.UK (models, colors, etc.). The dead links for both can be found here and here.

Some sources have suggested the code has been made private so the government can work quietly on preparing GOV.UK for messaging without a Brexit deal. That being said, GDS has always had to prepare sensitive information for GOV.UK, such as budgets, but has never deprived code repositories before. This decision makes some observers very nervous.

As one person told me, “once something is private, it is a big step to reopen it”.

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 quietly on Brexit-related messages, but added that it “should be easy to do … without lockdown”.

A spokesperson for GDS said the code would be made public again – but gave no timeline and did not reveal more details on why it was made private. They said:

A small number of code repositories on GOV.UK that are generally open have been temporarily closed to facilitate some site updates. We plan to reopen this code after a short period of time once this work is completed.

My opinion

I can fully understand why this makes people uncomfortable. GOV.UK has been a shining example of open and transparent working. As noted above, sensitive updates have always been done on GOV.UK, without making repositories private. So why now? This is more likely than not to be driven by the new Brexit agenda, as the UK increasingly appears likely to head towards a no-deal scenario at the end of October. But if it’s a sign of things to come as we part ways with the EU – for example working behind secret and closed doors – then it really doesn’t give me confidence in our future.

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