Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

 
 
Tuesday 13 September 2011

UKTI’s TechCityUK site: 100 WordPress pages, £53k

TechCityUK.com is a website produced by UK Trade & Investment to promote the 'entrepreneurial cluster' of technology startups in the Shoreditch / Old Street area of east London. Judging by its blog, it launched on 19 July this year. Google currently reckons it has 89 pages. And according to an FOI response published this morning, it has already cost £53,351.

The FOI enquiry, by Milo Yiannopoulos, revealed the following breakdown:

  • £37,000 for website development and hosting
  • £9,595 for content and
  • £6,756 for security and penetration testing

The site is built on WordPress, and runs as a child theme of Twenty Eleven. On the face of it, it's a very high figure for a fairly straightforward WordPress build - but it's a pity the costs haven't been broken down a bit further. Without a better breakdown, I'm reluctant to join the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the headline figure; although you'll find plenty of that on Twitter. But I will say it poses some interesting questions, at the very least.

The stylesheet reveals that it was built by a company called Creativeworks, who list a couple of previous UKTI projects in their portfolio - but conspicuously little online work. (Good spot, Harry.) A traceroute shows it's currently hosted at Zen Internet, seemingly on a dedicated box (according to a myipneighbors check).

Interestingly, the domain name was registered in March 2011, but was not listed among the three new websites approved by the Cabinet Office in the past year. Presumably because it uses a .com domain name. See, there it is again: the mismatch between 'new website' and 'new domain'. The Cabinet Office press release of last June was quite clear:

As part of the Government’s efficiency drive, all of the existing 820 government funded websites will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better.  No new websites will be permitted except for those that pass through a stringent exceptions process for special cases, and are cleared by the Efficiency board which is co-chaired by Mr Maude and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Note: 'no new websites'. Not 'no new .gov.uk domain names'. So did the Cabinet Office approve it, and forget to mention it? Or did UKTI not seek permission? Or does that ministerial commitment not actually go any further than new domain names? - and if not, perhaps the press release could be corrected?

The one cost which is broken down sufficiently is the £6,756 spent on security and penetration testing. Or to put it another way, two weeks' full-time work by a specialist consultant. It's possible, I suppose, although a bit over-the-top for a fairly basic site containing (as far as I can tell) no personal or confidential information.

I wonder what they did, apart from remove the 'generator' line from the page header, and activate SSL on wp-admin? Would it be useful to other departments running their own WordPress installs?

Or is it - finally - time for government to step up, and provide a centrally-managed (and centrally-secured) WordPress multisite installation for such small-scale uses? The £6k security spend wouldn't have been necessary; and I wonder how much of the £37k could have been saved, too. It's not that government can't afford to do this; it can't afford not to.

Comments ( 12 )

  1. Stuart Bruce says:

    It was the security and penetration testing that jumped out at me as well. Firstly, does such a simple site really need that much testing and secondly can't that knowledge/activity be shared across other sites. The build and hosting also seems extremely excessive for the amount of customisation that's been done. The content seems more reasonable, but it depends on how much of it was created from scratch and what source material was available.

    The cost that appears to be missing is project management, which I'm guessing has been 'hidden' within the other costs, but might explain why the cost is so high. It's not hard to imagine an excessive round of meetings, plans, proposals and approvals that could easily eat up £10K to £15K of time.

  2. I agree that a lot of time that isn't listed could have been gobbled up and created far higher costs than might be expected for what is, as you say, a relatively simple website.

    Meetings, revisions, scope creep and so on all add to the costs meaning that what is simple on the surface took forever to get built. We find that similar projects can vary in time required to build by up to 300%. Consequently we've learned to stop quoting based on similar projects in the past, and now assess each client and job prior to giving a fixed price. We've learned our lessons and, as a consequence, have learned not to comment any more on the cost of projects by others, unless we get the full breakdown - and that's somewhat unlikely.

    What we can see, however, is that for a site of this size to result in over £50k of spending there is a problem /somewhere/. Where, we can't tell. It could be overcharging, it could be poor specifications, it could be poor management. Who knows? Anything said, really, is pure speculation.

  3. And to add - a lot of FOI responses are misinterpreted. Having had our clients scrutinised in such a way it's comical to see that they were pilloried for spending £8k with us one year without anybody noticing the a: reduced running costs nor b: ever reporting on the subsequent FOI requests for a similar site where the response was in the order of a few hundred quid.

    In other words, it's easy to drum up an outrage over a simple sum, because most people have no idea what's involved and what the reasoning was.

  4. Nigel says:

    >> I'm reluctant to join the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the headline figure
    Well apart from the big bold headline, anyway !

    • Simon says:

      @Nige There's no comment in the headline, just a statement of bare facts. (In fact, if anything, I was over-generous in rounding the page count up to 100.)

  5. Nigel says:

    Hmmm...

    >> The £6k security spend wouldn't have been necessary; and I wonder how much of the £37k could have been saved, too. It's not that government can't afford to do this; it can't afford not to.

    Well... those costs would be replaced with some very large 'centralised' ones for your super system. Whether this would save money overall is very far from clear.

  6. You'd hope for 55K, they could at least have done some decent SEO, but instead they have gone for the barest minimum and used the page headings for title tags and no meta descriptions

    With really good SEO plugs such as the Yoast SEO plugin freely available, there really is no excuse for not doing this

  7. Andrew Fairley says:

    I imagine that a huge amount of the cost of development came through sub contracting out the actual web development; as has been pointed out, the responsible agency's experience lies predominantly in print, not digital. Had this project been awarded to a dedicated digital agency, the costs may well have been significantly lower (admittedly something tricky to prove), as rather than bringing in contractors at £££ a day, all development could be done in house at a far reduced cost.

    I may be wrong in that, but even if I am not, it does seem a little odd that UKTI would award the contract for an important website (as they are pushing the Tech City agenda) to an agency that doesn't specialise in web development.

  8. >> I imagine that a huge amount of the cost of development came through sub
    >> contracting out the actual web development;

    If that was the case, it wouldn't have just been the UKTI who got taken to the cleaners, but agency who built it. Looking over the site, it all seems pretty standard out of the box WordPress stuff

  9. Stuart Bruce says:

    I very much doubt that it's using external freelance contractors that would contribute to the cost. That can be an approach that is frequently actually significantly cheaper for the client than having a big in-house team. I know because I've frequently bid on projects against big digital agencies with in-house teams and our pitch using specialist freelances has been lower. In some cases big digital agencies also outsource their actual development, with their team mainly being account handlers, planners, project mangers and creatives.

  10. Nigel says:

    Sigh.. Ok I grant you - headline not wailing.
    But then, presumably expecting a barrage of praise about cost-effectiveness we read the copy...
    'it's a very high figure for a fairly straightforward WordPress build'
    and
    'a bit over-the-top for a fairly basic site'
    and indeed in bold
    'It's not that government can't afford to do this; it can't afford not to' (the inference is quite clear here - these single sites cost a fortune).

    Don't get me wrong, it's your site, gnash away by all means.
    But gnashing you surely are :)

    In all seriousnes I do agree that there is a balance to be struck between doing these things 'one-off' like this and providing a slightly cleverer central way of doing things (and indeed UKTI already has a central publishing platform running a number of sites). It is a fairly tricky balance to strike, though and super-systems can end up costing a LOT of money since the costs spiral exponentially as more people are required.

    Looking at the figures more closely we can see 37K for development/hosting. Over what period the hosting is covered we don't know. However if it is the case that they're using (leasing ?) dedicated servers then that probably equates to a few K per box per annum. Chances are we'd be under 30K for the development. Split that into design, coding and (sigh) meetings and it is not too hard to see where the money went. The coder probably had 2 or 3 weeks, the designer 1 or 2.

    Better still, as you say, address the question of whether a website is really needed. Quite often the answer is no in govt. but it rarely seems to stop anyone.

  11. Mark says:

    Surely a Good News headline for this item would have been that a central government website was built quickly, on an open source platform, and for only £53k.

    Until recently this site would have taken 2years, been built on a proprietary platform, and cost £530k.