From the ‘tying up loose ends’ department… I mentioned a while back that the Australian government was procuring Drupal services for the development of a government-wide (and non-mandatory) content management system.
The winning bidder was announced last week. And guess who it was? Acquia. Would you believe it? Contract details will be published online within 6 weeks, if you’re curious. The platform will be ‘broadly available to Commonwealth Government entities from February 2015’.
Canberra is planning on doing a GOVUK: developing a single ‘Whole-Of-Government Content Management System’ for Australia. And they’re very clear on what they want: ‘The solution must use Drupal open-source software‘.
Why Drupal? They’ve published a detailed report (PDF) on their decision. They had two key requirements: that it must be ‘truly Open Source’, and very much unlike GOVUK, that it ‘must not be a .NET or Ruby based solution’. Well well well.
There were 18 options on a long-list:
which they assessed using various criteria, and came up with the following scores:
The top three were then considered in more depth, with Drupal actually coming out third of the three in most cases, and its user experience coming in for particular criticism. But in the end they’ve opted for Drupal primarily, it seems, because of the availability of extension modules and (local) developer resource.
Obviously it’s more than a little disappointing to see WordPress ranking so low: but not entirely surprising. Nobody is currently tasked with representing the WordPress platform as, say, Acquia does for Drupal. (By the way – have a look at the list of open job vacancies at Acquia, including many in the UK. And compare that to the equivalent Automattic list. Quite a contrast in approaches.)
But it’s a victory for Open Source nonetheless – and an explicit recognition of the value of the sizeable community behind the Drupal platform. It’s exactly what I talked about in 2011, when I took GDS to task for building the GOVUK platform from scratch, ignoring the benefits (immediate and future) of working with an established external platform. And took a fair bit of flak for it.
It gets better: they’ve posted an explicit commitment to feed back into Drupal core. ‘It was unclear whether GovCMS intends to give back to the community,’ they admit: ‘it was always a clear intention of GovCMS to do this, we have made the statement more direct, and the Draft Deed of Standing Offer document clarifies this requirement further.’
If you fancy the work, tender responses need to be in by the end of the month.
Her Majesty’s Government has made occasional forays into the world of Buzzfeed. I thought the Foreign Office’s use of the platform to rebut claims by Russia Today was quite amusing, and entirely appropriate. A very serious message presented in an ultra digestible format.
Earlier this week, someone in UK central government (the Treasury?) put together a list of 12 things you could buy with the £1,400 that Scottish people are better off per capita by remaining in the UK… and posted it on Buzzfeed. Complete with photos of Lego scenes.
Now I have to say, I don’t feel at all comfortable with Whitehall, the Civil Service, the organs of state taking a position on the Scottish referendum like this.
I agree entirely with the assertion (posted on a gov.uk explanatory page) that ‘there is a demand for the provision of information which will enable voters to come to an informed decision’. If the conclusion arising from unbiased consideration is clearly in one direction rather than the other, they should say that. But they should do so whilst standing clearly outside the fray. If the Yes campaign wins, Whitehall needs to negotiate a smooth exit from the Union, having been an active combatant on the opposite side. It means they would enter any such negotiations at an immediate and irretrievable disadvantage.
If they are going to take a stance, and campaign actively in its favour, they might as well articulate their conclusions in a digestible format (listicle), and post it in an appropriate place (Buzzfeed). Yes, it might create a few ripples in the Scottish media – and indeed it has: they probably wanted that anyway. But it’s easy to shrug off. Sure, it’s Buzzfeed. What do you expect?
But I think it’s a huge mistake to bring that into the universally acclaimed gov.uk site, as they have now done. Steph Gray describes it beautifully in a post on his Postbureaucrat blog.
Library content answers questions… It has credibility, and a certain longevity, if maintained appropriately. These days, GOV.UK is the natural home for most library content in central government.
Café content is what you create to get people talking. (It) needs to exist in the context of a solid strategy, and often will point people to your library content where they can find out more, sign up for something, join a campaign or give you their feedback.
Keep the library and the cafe distinct spaces, and find out how best to make them work together.
He also points to the deeply troubling ‘imaginable situation’ of the civil service being instructed to campaign for exit from the EU. And I now wish he hadn’t.
If Puffbox was still on active service, it would already have brought to your attention the news that:
‘The number of government websites is increasing despite a high-profile cull, Francis Maude has revealed. The Cabinet Office minister said his officials were engaged in a “nightmarish game of ‘splat the rat'”. “As soon as you knock one website on the head another one pops up,” he told a government IT conference in London. Mr Maude said all sites – including those for government agencies – would either be axed or moved into the gov.uk domain by the end of the year. “There is no reason why every single bit of government should have its own unique web presence,” he told the SPRINT 14 conference. “It’s complicated and it’s expensive and we don’t need to do it.’
Sadly Francis apparently missed the opportunity to mention this when, earlier today, he stood up on a stage to launch the 55-strong Computer Emergency Response Team UK (CERT-UK). New organisation… guess what? New website.
I only take some modest consolation from the fact that it’s running on WordPress… WP Engine, in fact, as demonstrated by the fact you can access the site via certuklive.wpengine.com.
CERT-UK’s director, Chris Gibson proudly declared at the launch event: ‘Numerous government departments (such as the Government Digital Service who built our website and other technology) have assisted us.’
If that’s true – why does it say ‘Built by Surevine’ in the footer of every page on that website, not to mention the theme’s stylesheet? Why would GDS help prolong its boss’s rat-splatting nightmare? Surevine, meanwhile, are keen to tell you about their participation in Open Source – ‘it’s core to what we do,’ they say. But their claim to being ‘active’ in the WordPress community is something of a stretch – given that their sole contribution appears to be a single plugin connecting to their own node.js web service, posted not in the official repo but on Github. It’s being watched by a total of 14 people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Surevine staff.
There are plenty of other nits I could pick. But what’s the point? The site will be shut down in 276 days tops. Won’t it?
Puffbox emerges briefly from retirement to bring you an extract from Computer Weekly’s write-up of a somewhat confrontational appearance by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and DWP officials before the Commons Work And Pensions Committee, and a reported £40m write-off of IT work.
Universal Credit director general Howard Shiplee also revealed that the new system being developed will use open source, and he implied it will use cloud-based services.
“The digital approach is very different. It depends not on large amounts of tin. We will use open source and use mechanisms to store and access data in [an online] environment. It is much cheaper to operate and to build. We don’t have to pay such large licence fees,” he said.
When asked why that approach was not taken in the original plans for Universal Credit – where an agile development approach was adopted, then switched to waterfall when agile failed, Shiplee said, “Technology is moving ahead very rapidly. Such things were not available two-and-a-half years ago.”
In 2004, the Office of Government Commerce said open source was ‘a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software’.
In October 2008, Amazon EC2 came out of beta after two years of successful operation.
In 2009 there was a UK government policy statement which, I felt, explicitly tipped the scales in favour of open source.
In early 2010 that policy was further beefed up, requiring suppliers to show they had given ‘fair consideration of open source solutions’ – and if they hadn’t, they faced being ‘automatically delisted from the procurement’.
In July 2010, following the general election, the Cabinet Office specifically acknowledged that ‘open source software offers government the opportunity of lower procurement prices, increased interoperability and easier integration’.
In March 2011, over two and half years ago, HMRC claimed to have ‘transformed [its] website, which as you know is one of the largest websites in the UK if not in Europe, to actually become a completely open source technology.’
Mr Shiplee is the director general of a project designated as one of the government’s 25 exemplars of digital transformation. His background, though, is in development of a more concrete kind: he was director of construction for the London Olympics. It’s unfair to expect him to be an expert in government technology policy. But one is left wondering how he was briefed.
No matter what you may have been encouraged to believe, there was life before the creation of the Government Digital Service.
Can’t help but mention the sites.usa.gov project being run by the US General Services Administration, offering ‘a shared service to help agencies focus on creating great content rather than on building systems to deliver that content’. No charge initially, but looks likely in due course. And yes, of course it’s running on WordPress.
By providing agencies with a content management tool that is up-to-date, supports open content, is secure, compliant and hosted, we can help government agencies meet the goals of the Digital Strategy: to enable the American people to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device. You concentrate on carrying-out your mission and engaging with citizens, we do the infrastructure lift.
Can’t argue with that. Nor would you expect me to, having advocated precisely such an approach for at least four years.
I’ve been building websites for 18 years. Roughly half of that as a full-time civil servant; and a good chunk of the rest as a government specialist. I was Whitehall’s full-time web worker; and for the first five years of my career, the management chain either didn’t know or didn’t care what I was doing. I took full advantage.
Over time, managers decided it was something they should probably take an interest in. So too did the management consultancies. Progress ground to a halt. These were the dark days of government web development. Getting things done from the inside was becoming impossible; so I moved outside, and soon found myself re-energised by the flourishing open source movement.
I began blogging in early 2006. I tried to offer opinions and insight on stuff I thought I knew a bit about – which, broadly speaking, was ‘new media’ (ha!) and its effect on the businesses of news and politics/government. I could see there was something genuinely exciting in this new technology, and this seemed as good a way as any for me to gain some experience with it.
By this point, I’d been in the web business for a decade. I had pretty clear ideas about what I thought worked, and what didn’t. The blog wasn’t intended as a campaign for cheaper, faster, better web development – but that’s what I believed in, so it’s no surprise to see it coming through time and again.
I wrote frankly about new government websites, new policy announcements and new staff appointments. And because nobody else was doing so, at all, my blog picked up a following. Some liked it: and I began to receive tip-offs, sometimes from remarkably senior levels of government. Some didn’t like it: and well-meaning individuals would regularly take me aside for ‘a quiet word’, to say that so-and-so had read my piece about X and wasn’t happy.
Of course, if that was meant to put me off, it had the opposite effect.
I began to feel an obligation to blog. Numerous times I found myself firing up the PC, well after midnight, to post about something I’d seen or heard. I owed it to – to what? My audience? The cause? It was academic. This was what I did. I monitored those RSS feeds, I crawled Hansard, I dug through lengthy PDFs so you didn’t have to. Whoever you were.
I justified my occasional moaning from the sidelines – to myself at least – with the thought that I wasn’t just highlighting problems; I was advocating a solution, based on transparency, engagement and open-source. But these were quite vague, nebulous concepts at the time… so I often chose, quite deliberately, to frame those principles in terms of one particular engagement channel (blogs) and one particular open-source project (WordPress). This absolutely wasn’t to exclude other channels and other technologies: but I found that better and more useful conversations arose when we talked about specifics.
Now look where we are.
Government departments’ profligate spending on websites has been eliminated. The main communication channel for this radical transformation of public services has been a blog – hosted on wordpress.com initially, soon to move to a centralised WordPress multisite install. It’s all built on open source, using open standards, and all posted on Github. New code is pushed live daily.
So it’s no wonder that the postings on Puffbox.com have slowed to a trickle. Although I can’t take much credit for it, this is pretty much where I hoped we’d get to. I don’t really need to make the case for it any more.
We’re proud to announce that Facetious, a plugin we’ve been working on for quite some time, has now been released in the official WordPress repository. And we’d like to thank the UK taxpayer for his/her assistance in writing it.
We do a lot of work for government departments, and on several recent projects, there’s been a requirement for an ‘advanced’ or ‘faceted’ search form. This allows you to search by post type, by keyword, by taxonomy, and by month – all together. You can see it on the Government Olympic Communication site, for example, where we let you search its video library (post type) by keyword, and/or theme, department, nation/region, video quality, or month of upload.
We did something similar for the Commission on Devolution in Wales; and it’s a key feature of another site due to go live in the next month or so.
We’re in good company, by the way: you’ll see a very similar search form on GovUK’s Inside Government pages, for example.
It became immediately obvious that we could write the code as a plugin, for instant reuse on any WordPress site. We called it Facetious, because it had the word ‘facet’ in it. And in keeping with our open source principles – not to mention the fact that the development work had been funded by government departments – we decided we would release it publicly in the official WordPress plugin repository.
Out of the box, it provides an enhanced ‘search form’ widget, which you can drop into any WordPress sidebar. If you want to add a customised form into your own post templates, we’ve made that easy too: it’s all detailed in the plugin’s readme file. Facetious isn’t a ‘search engine’ per se: it’s just a simple way to construct complex multi-dimensional queries. The results are gathered using WordPress’s built-in search function, which doesn’t try to be anything too clever. If you’re looking for smarter search results, you’ll need a different plugin. (Maybe Relevanssi or something.) Oh, there’s one more thing.
Search URLs in WordPress are the platform’s last unpretty ‘permalink’. Nobody wants to see ?s=keyword in their address bar; and it isn’t possible to cache query-string URLs using something like WP Super Cache. So we’ve created a new permalink structure for searches as part of Facetious, and your search URL now looks like /search/keyword/ – or /search/month/201302/keyword/whatever/category/uncategorized/. This will be applied to any search: not just those submitted via a Facetious form.
If you want to give it a try on your own WordPress site, just go to Plugins in the admin area, and search for it. If you’re a developer, and you’d like to help us improve Facetious, it’s also on Github. Pull requests welcome. 😉
My thanks to Nick H, Nick S and Sara P for letting us experiment on their sites over the past few months: and to John Blackbourn, for doing such a fantastic job turning my hacky code into a plugin to be proud of.
Regular readers will know the pivotal role played by the Wales Office in recent gov-web history. In 2007, they took the then-radical step of moving their corporate web presence into an open-source web publishing platform, namely WordPress. Nobody died. A point was proven. From there, to Downing Street, to Defra, to Transport, to Health… etc etc.
We started out with two completely separate ‘single site’ installs: WordPress MU didn’t seem quite stable enough. But since 2010, they’ve been running a WordPress 3.x multisite – containing both their English and Welsh language sites, archived copies of their complete pre-2010 content, and more recently, the (bilingual) Commission on Devolution in Wales site. All fairly modest in traffic terms, but punching far above their weight (and pricetag) in terms of functionality.
For some time, we’ve been trying to perusade the Wales Office team to change hosting provider. Getting any serious systems admin work done – including, I’m ashamed to admit, WordPress upgrades – was almost impossible with the legacy hosting company. The market price for hosting had crashed, but their hosting bill hadn’t. And to be quite blunt, they were getting a minimal level of service. Our first step, early this summer, was to liberate the DNS. As with a lot of websites, the domain name info was held by the hosting company. Two eggs in the one basket. By taking the DNS to a third party, it gave us the freedom to move the sites at a time of our choosing – and the hosting company couldn’t really do anything about it. Would they have been deliberately obstructive? Probably not, no moreso than usual. But ‘usual’ was precisely why we wanted to move. Step two was to buy some new hosting space. And courtesy of GCloud (v1), this part was unexpectedly straightforward. In CatN, we found a hosting provider offering an appropriate level of service, with the kind of access and support we expected, for a tiny fraction of the cost. Step three was migration. Assisted by regular partner-in-crime John Blackbourn, we did a number of dry runs, zipping up the entire WordPress installation – database and uploaded files – and transferring it to its new home. Not as straightforward as it probably sounds, given the relative inaccessibility of the incumbent server… but we found a way. One or two rules may have been broken, at least in spirit, along the way. And I’m very glad I’m on an unlimited broadband contract. Today was step four. We implemented a content freeze at 9am, migrated everything one last time…. and by lunchtime, we had everything up and running at CatN. At 2.30pm, the DNS changes began – some by us, some done on our behalf. (Thanks again to you-know-who-you-are.) With some having very low TTLs, we could see the changes starting to kick in almost immediately. With others, we had to wait an hour or two. But by 4 o’clock, it was done. And with the freeze unfrozen, there was even time for a new press release before going-home time.
No downtime, and no loss of data. Massive performance improvements, at massive cost savings. At long last, a fully up-to-date install. And best of all? If we hadn’t told them we were doing it, I doubt they’d even have noticed it happening.
If you have any interest in the Directgov->GovUK transition, you are hereby ordered to make a cuppa and read this by veteran (sorry!) e-government blogger Alan Mather for a bit of historical perspective.
It’s long but it’s important. This isn’t the first time a new unified government website has made big promises. Some things are different this time; much, though, isn’t. ‘Some will take what I say below as an attack on GDS,’ he acknowledges; ‘that’s far from what it is, it’s an attempt to look ahead and see what is coming that will trip it up and so allow action to be taken to avoid the trouble.’