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

 
 
Thursday 9 February 2012

Open standards consultation now, er, open

I came away from this year's UKGovCamp with an uncomfortable sense of there being an 'us' and a 'them'.

The day opened with Dave Briggs declaring the event was different because, among various examples he quoted, it didn't have a keynote address. The day concluded with a keynote address by a senior Cabinet Office civil servant, who proceeded to tell us what his team of hired specialists were going to do.

But the 'us and them' was even more apparent in the first session I attended, led by the Cabinet Office's Liam Maxwell, on the subject of open standards. The substance of the presentation was:

  • we think open standards are very important;
  • we're doing lots of very important things, none of which we can talk about;
  • but we'd value your input when the time comes.

I voiced a certain amount of frustration in the questions which followed, so it won't surprise Liam if I say it all felt thoroughly unsatisfying.

Having said that, I did - and do - have some sympathy. Open standards are commercial dynamite: software lock-in is worth £££millions to the big vendors. Enough for those vendors to put up a hell of a fight, in defence of an unsustainable and #unacceptable status quo. And to extend my metaphor just one step further, Liam and his colleagues were keeping their powder dry.

The aforementioned time for our input has now come: the Cabinet Office has opened its consultation process, with Liam asking for 'as much feedback from the IT community as possible... There’s a lot of strong opinion on this subject,' he says, 'so I’m urging people to take this opportunity and let us know what they think.'

The consultation 'document' is online, and it's been done on WordPress. ;)

The interactive part of the site comes in three pages of questions, two of them very long and very scary, powered by a bespoke plugin (by the look of it). At the very top, it declares:

which may not be quite what they meant. Based on the error message displayed following a blank submission, it looks like only name and email address are actually required, plus an answer to at least one question. And if there's an asterisk anywhere, I've yet to find it.

The exercise itself is all rather semantic, and the language inevitably technical. It goes way over my head, to be perfectly honest. But my feelings on open standards are easily summarised:

As open as possible, as standardised as possible, as soon as possible.

Based on my experience in the Civil Service, it's that final point which is probably most important. I've been scarred by past experiences - notably around the Government Category List and eGMS, which both took several years, went through numerous iterations, and yet seemed to deliver no tangible benefits. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

This time round, hopefully, things are different. The 'cloud computing' narrative has been widely accepted; and implicit in that is the belief that government's needs are not unique. Government should be looking to embrace standards that are already being widely adopted - and where there are any (perceived) deficiencies, it should play a part in their development.

Exactly how it does that, frankly, is up to smarter people than me.

Comments ( 7 )

  1. Steph Gray says:

    It's a funny structure - not quite commentable but sort of... I'm not even quite clear whether a 'comment' left on the site is public or private?

    Maybe Commentariat 3 needs to be a plugin of some kind that adds post- or page-level options to extend the comment form with arbitrary custom response fields and let respondents choose whether to post publicly or privately. Would that basically cover what people seem to want in 2012, without resorting to SurveyMonkey?

    • Simon says:

      You're getting dangerously close to full-on form plugins with that, though. Automattic's own Grunion contact form is excellent if people just want form-to-email; for public display, you're almost certainly looking at Gravity Forms, possibly with the Custom Post Type add-on.

      That said, I still think there's a place for online survey tools: although I tend to recommend Wufoo or PollDaddy to people, over SurveyMonkey. I haven't yet found a WP-native solution which makes form creation easy, and gives really good reporting on results.

  2. Adam says:

    Just looking at those pages puts makes me glaze over so I tried putting the introduction (http://consultation.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/openstandards/chapter-1/) through a readability test. I used this one http://juicystudio.com/services/readability.php

    It seemed to get rated on about level with an academic paper.

    Perhaps using simpler writing style and guidelines would make people more likely to read/use them and participate.

    • Simon says:

      Fair point; but deep down, this is a pretty academic subject. It's tied up in legalities, EU directives and arcane discussion about the tiniest technical differences. I don't know quite how readable it can be made to be.

      Plus, of course, bear in mind where Liam Maxwell comes from. A certain academic leaning is surely to be expected?

  3. Gillian says:

    I came to this post in response to your tweet about testing 'only Simon can reply' and got sidetracked into looking at the Government OS consultation paper. 'Us and them' appears to go a lot further than you suggest: there's no mention in the introductions of how Government OS will affect citizens.

  4. Jenny Poole says:

    Thanks for the feedback guys, we're working on addressing some of these issues today. I still haven't got to the bottom of what to do when there are 80, 90 questions on consultations. I think some kind of interactive survey integrated with wordpress would be amazing, especially if it allowed you to look at the source chapter while you were answering.

  5. Nigel Baddie says:

    "Citizens, businesses and delivery partners must be able to interact with the Government, exchanging information/data across in the software package of their choice and not have access costs imposed upon them by the IT choices which the Government makes."

    I liked this bit. Does it mean we can choose to build our own websites and wont have to use gov.uk?