Commons flame war

I draw your attention to Early Day Motion no 1037, lodged yesterday by Peter Kilfoyle MP and signed by more than 50 MP colleagues: at the current count, 51 Labour and 1 LibDem (Lembit, before you ask).

That this House deplores the innuendo of the blog of Nick Robinson, the BBC’s lobby correspondent; calls upon him to substantiate the imputations he makes in his blog concerning the Speaker and hon. Members; and also calls upon the BBC to publish a full, itemised account of the expenses of Mr Robinson, in the name of transparency and accountability of public funds.

This follows Kilfoyle’s submission of a comment on the offending post on Nick Robinson’s blog, barely an hour after it was posted. Nick reflects on the kerfuffle here. Personally, I don’t see why Kilfoyle’s getting so worked up: if someone said I was crap at my job, I’d probably be less inclined to be nice to them. Still, I guess it’s all an interesting step forward.

Incidentally, Mr K: be careful what you wish for. BBC Radio Ulster presenter Conor Bradford was interviewing the DUP’s Gregory Campbell MP on precisely this subject. As the Belfast Telegraph reports:

During (the) debate on air, Mr Campbell had been jibing him about BBC secrecy policy on presenter pay when Mr Bradford defended his position. “Look, I earn £29,000 a year for my Good Morning Ulster contract,” he said. “That is not hidden, that is open for everyone to see. That is my salary. Have you got any problems with that?”

Mr Campbell, the article also notes, ‘rents his constituency office from his wife and employs her in a secretarial role.’

PoliticsHome: like onepolitics, but with cash

onepolitics has competition. The Dizzy Thinks blog revealed at the end of January that Stefan Shakespeare (who previously brought you 18 Doughty Street and YouGov) is set to launch PoliticsHome.com, promising to be the ‘definitive portal to the ongoing political debate, edited by some of the UK’s leading political journalists and pollsters’. Then Guido published a screenshot a couple of weeks back (although his footnote that PoliticsHome ‘is not going to be the final name’ looks a bit shaky given the company’s later use of the URL).

First there was a job advert for ‘well paid part-time shifts‘ on the Work for an MP site, withdrawn early due to a high number of applicants. Now there’s an ad on the Guardian site, offering a salary of around £40k for a ‘Daily Editor to manage the newsroom and head up its website coverage’. But crucially, the ad notes, the site ‘does not produce its own content.’

Promises of a February launch look a bit optimistic now. But there’s clearly a lot of money going into this – and it had better be good, very good. Because in a matter of a couple of days, and using fairly straightforward technology, I produced a website which (if you don’t mind me saying) does a more than reasonable job of providing a ‘portal to the ongoing political debate’. Granted, onepolitics makes no attempt to offer a qualitative commentary on individual posts… but it could, if anyone fancies helping me construct a business model?

Could the banks run ID cards?

Writing for ConservativeHome at the weekend, the Telegraph’s Robert Colville recalls his colleague Rachel Sylvester’s revelation (uh, OK…) that ‘Sir David Varney, Gordon Brown’s adviser on “public service transformation”, supports vast databases to tailor public services to individual need – “a joined-up identity management system” that acts as “a single source of truth” about every individual.’

Whilst I claim no technical expertise on the subject, I’ve long been of the opinion that some kind of centralised – or certainly, joined-up – identity register is inevitable, and indeed desirable. Too often this debate gets confused with identity cards; police stop-and-search powers; or even less helpfully, the War on Terror. It is unquestionably ‘ludicrous’ if, as Rachel Sylvester’s piece noted, ‘somebody has to contact 44 bits of the state when a relative dies.’ It would mean an end to the (alleged) shame of means-testing; those in need would get what they’re entitled to, automatically. But I understand people’s concerns about the security of that single repository of data; if someone cracks your DNA or retina scan, for example, you can’t just replace it like a stolen credit card.

This all comes down to trust – and the truth is, people don’t trust government IT. But government isn’t the only area this kind of ‘crisis of confidence’ affects. Just look at the queues outside Northern Rock branches, the minute people suggested you couldn’t trust that bank’s financial position. The first run on a bank in 150 years, we’ve been told repeatedly.

Banks face exactly the same issue of trust. Every month you hand over all the money you’ve earned to your bank, and you trust them not to lose it. They don’t stash it in a box in their big vault with your name on it. Your personal wealth, or the roof over your head is nothing but a cell in a spreadsheet. The banks’ only currency is trust, trust that they won’t screw up your spreadsheet. Like government data, it’s impossible to secure it 100%. But unlike the government context, the banks have a competitive reason – in fact, a life-or-death reason – to ensure it’s as secure as it humanly, possibly, conceivably can be. Otherwise, the queues will be outside their branches… and you can’t imagine Gordon and Alastair wanting to nationalise another one in a hurry.

Robert Colville’s ConHome piece presents it, wrongly in my view, as a choice between ’empowering citizens’ and ‘amassing information on them’. But I do agree with his point about the ‘decentralising spirit’ of ‘Public Services 2.0’; and that may be the key. Identity data doesn’t necessarily have to be centralised in government; or then again, as technology like OpenID seems to hint, it doesn’t have to be ‘centralised’ at all. Since we all already have a relationship with a bank, aren’t they the natural people to provide this kind of service? After all, what is a bank today other than a provider of a data security service?

onepolitics, the new Puffbox site

onepoliticsIt wasn’t originally intended for public consumption, but today I’m unveiling a new website produced by Puffbox. onepolitics is an at-a-glance view of the latest posts on the growing number of political blogs being written by ‘proper’ reporters. You can wait until tomorrow to see what they say in print, or in tonight’s bulletin; or you can get advance warning from what they’re writing on their blogs.

In essence, it’s an RSS aggregator for people who don’t get RSS. I realised I’d written too many posts looking forward to the day when RSS would go mainstream – and it still shows very little sign of happening imminently. And all the while, I’m talking to public sector people for whom RSS is several evolutionary steps away. I’ve written quite lengthy explainers, covering the concept and the technicals, on the new site itself… so I won’t duplicate my efforts here. Suffice to say, it’s WordPress. But you all knew that already.

onepolitics is the first fruit of my promise to give myself some Google-style ’20 per cent time’; a project with a loose connection to my work, but no direct commercial application. But I’m starting to wonder if it might be of interest to clients. Press offices or stakeholder managers, maybe, who don’t yet have any kind of blog monitoring strategy. We could be pulling in any kind of RSS feed; and could be indexing them, or just listing them (as with the ‘meanwhile in the blogosphere’ box on the homepage). Even better, it’s almost entirely automated, updating in the background as often as you like.

It’s also making me wonder if there’s a need for a bridge between casual web surfing, with zero commitment to the site or subject; and the ‘need to know’ hunger for RSS subscriptions. I’m finding myself looking at onepolitics during quiet moments through the day, purely to see what’s popping up. I’m kind of interested in this sort of content generally, but not enough to want to be disturbed by every new item popping up in my RSS reader.

I’m making no promises about onepolitics. It is what it is, for now anyway. Please have a play with it, and tell me what you think. There are a couple of glitches I know about, and can’t really justify fixing, so don’t get too pedantic please.

New report on politics and internet

Provocative stuff from Mick Fealty over at the Telegraph’s Brassneck blog. He highlights a report by the Centre for Policy Studies which suggests that ‘the internet could offer MPs an unmatched opportunity to create a niche for themselves, and to re-empower local politics.’ And echoing the Economist’s point about government in competition, he notes:

The most subtle, but perhaps most powerful, change, will be to the public’s mindset. As we grow used to the instant availability of information online, we will no longer tolerate delay and obfuscation in getting similar information from government. The individual, and not the state, will be the master in the digital age.

A weighty 60-page document landing on your boss’s desk may give you some useful extra leverage, but regular readers of these pages can probably skip the first half: it’s a rather predictable mix of stuff you know already, mostly from across the Atlantic. The good stuff starts at the half-way point: I particularly like the notion of a continuing dialogue between MP and constituents, in good times and bad. As author Robert Colville points out:

MPs traditionally hear from their constituents only when they are angry or in need – whether that be by post, or email, or at a surgery or public meeting. Most normal people will never contact their MP, due to constraints of time or motivation. This, naturally, promotes a rather jaundiced view of humanity among our elected officials. Yet by inhabiting the same online spaces as their constituents on a day-to-day basis, MPs will interact with them in much more normal conditions – when the MP is not the privileged voice of authority, but merely one member of a conversation among many. In doing so, perhaps they will get a much more realistic idea of what their constituents actually think.

The thrust of the report is undermined, sadly, by the curious formatting issues on the press notice announcing its publication. The link to download the full PDF is at the very bottom, behind an almost undetectable ‘click here’ link.

Leading blogger is new e-gov Minister

I haven’t yet seen official confirmation, but I’m reliably informed that Tom Watson is the new minister for e-government, post-reshuffle. The Cabinet Office website only says that: ‘Following on from Gillian Merron’s departure to the Department for International Development, Tom Watson MP has been appointed as new Parliamentary Secretary.’ And since she was responsible, it seems a safe bet that he is now. Watson, writing on his own blog, has only said that he has ‘some responsibility for technology projects’.

Tom Watson was famously the first MP to start a blog, back in 2003; he won recognition from the New Statesman’s new media awards in 2004. And already he’s putting it to good use, to try and engage with people like us:

If I was (smarter at all this stuff), I’d design a one page “Tell Tom” site where you could describe the project you think the clever people at the Ministry should be working on. A sort of “Fix my Street” for government web sites. All ideas welcome and who knows, you might actually make a difference.

(Tip for Tom: you’re using WordPress. Just create a ‘page’ rather than a ‘post’, and be sure to tick the ‘Allow Comments’ box – if, that is, your web designer has allowed for comments in the ‘page’ template, which he/she may not have done.)

This, of course, raises an interesting dilemma. Watson’s blog has always been unashamedly pro-Labour, anti-Tory: even in the last handful of posts, he’s been having digs at Iain Dale and David Cameron (reminding me of his apparent involvement in 2006’s notorious Sion Simon video). It’s generally good-natured, but it’s certainly party-political. So is it appropriate for him to conduct Ministerial business on the same blog?

I’m not trying to make a point by asking this question: just pointing out that Ministers face the same quandry as the civil servants. Tom clearly understands the territory, and it’s actually a great appointment from that perspective. But I’m more than curious to see how ministerial responsibility for government web activity will affect his long-running personal web activity.

Cabinet Minister for digital inclusion?

A timely piece from the BBC’s Ashley Highfield on the ‘digital divide’. It’s timely, because as of this week, Britain has a Cabinet-level minister with responsibility for digital inclusion – Wales secretary Paul Murphy. This news appeared to come as a surprise to BBC Wales’s David Cornock when it emerged at PMQs this lunchtime. Mr Brown announced:

The new Secretary of State for Wales has responsibilities in addition to his responsibilities for Wales. He is overseeing the British-Irish Council, he is responsible for the joint ministerial committees on devolution, he is the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, and he is responsible for data security and information assurance. Those responsibilities are in addition to his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Wales.

All of which is very timely, for reasons I’ll reveal here tomorrow. (Although if you attended my session at Barcamp, you know already.)

Panic over

Well, that’s a relief. With Peter Hain resigning at lunchtime, there was a rush of quite rational speculation that the Wales Office might be folded into a new ‘department for the devolved bits’, covering Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I’ve been doing a bit of work for the Wales Office over the last month or so, which I’ll (hopefully?) be unveiling at Saturday’s government BarCamp. I’m exceptionally proud of it, and I think it’s a potentially groundbreaking piece of work for e-government. But if Downing Street had announced the end of the Wales Office as a department in its own right, the whole point of my project would have disappeared. And for a moment this afternoon, it looked like my masterpiece might never see the light of day.

Paul Murphy, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear of your appointment. I note he’ll also be chairing a ‘new cross-departmental committee on IT and information security – although the grammar of the No10 announcement doesn’t make clear if it means IT generally, or IT security specifically.

The Mirror should be ashamed

Maguire blog misses HainI’m sitting here at 6pm on a huge day in politics. A political heavyweight has unexpectedly resigned, freeing up two seats at the Cabinet table. We’ve got all the usual fun and games of the ensuing reshuffle – who’s up, who’s down, who’s been snubbed – and widespread speculation about a merger of several government departments, with an impact on the Ministry of Defence. It’s Gordon Brown’s first resignation, and there’s a good argument to say this is the blogosphere’s first scalp. It doesn’t really get any bigger.

Over at the Mirror’s ‘Kevin Maguire & Friends‘ blog? Nothing all day. Not a peep, from Kevin or indeed his friends. My advice to the Mirror: kill the site now. If you can’t make it work today, you never will. Shameful.

‘Governance of Britain’: Puffbox helps rewrite the UK’s constitution

Puffbox‘s latest project was unleashed today; working alongside Jeremy Gould at the Ministry of Justice, we’ve built a WordPress-based website in support of the Whitehall-wide programme of UK constitutional reform, going under the banner Governance of Britain.

As regular readers will know, I’ve started specialising in blog-powered websites which aren’t actually blogs. And this one is probably the least bloggy of the lot, so far. (For now, anyway; the functionality’s there when they want it.) At its heart is a ‘what’s new’ function, keeping track of the various announcements and consultations happening across Government. And as you’d expect, there are a few supplementary, ‘static’ pages explaining what’s going on.

There are a couple of ‘innovations’ (using the term rather loosely, I admit) worthy of note. One is the use of categorisation in the blog posts news updates. We’ve used WordPress’s notion of parent/child categories to build a list of subjects, and a list of departments. So if you want to see any announcements related to Parliament, let’s say, or announcements by HM Treasury, then there’s a page for that. And because it’s WordPress, you can access this ‘page’ as an RSS feed. (Which explains something I wrote a couple of weeks back…)

I’ve been trying to do something like this for a while; the implications for cross-government working are huge. You, in your Whitehall department, can write stuff into the Governance site; and we can pump it back to you in RSS format, for your own site to republish (if you want). In other words, it’s the ability to get the best of both worlds: a page on your own corporate site, and inclusion within the unified web presence. A real-world example of joined-up working… if your corporate site is able to process basic RSS. We do the hard part at our end; we can’t make it any easier for you. But I fear very few will be able to receive it. (Please prove me wrong, folks.)

The other ‘innovation’ is the page of ‘What others are saying‘, powered by del.icio.us. Technically, it’s just a republished RSS feed (um, see above). But I think it’s an important step for a government website to go out of its way to point to relevant stuff elsewhere – newspapers, magazines, blogs, anywhere online.

We’re using del.icio.us for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s a really nice way to save web links; and it delivers an easy-to-process RSS feed which we can integrate directly into our pages. (Yes, even our homepage.) But equally of course, this means we’re in the del.icio.us community – so if people want to tell us about pages we might want to read, they can do this via del.icio.us. Just tag it ‘for:governanceofbritain’, and we’ll see it in our ‘links for you’ inbox.

We’ve also hijacked some other blog functionality: for example, the list of ‘recent documents’ on the homepage is actually managed by the WordPress ‘blogroll’. Nothing particularly special or clever in that, but it provides an easy-to-use interface for non-technical people to keep that list up-to-date.

It all came together very quickly, almost too quickly; and it’s far from the prettiest site I’ve ever done. But again, it’s proof that you really can get from nought to a full-featured, multi-authored, two-way communicating, CMS-driven site in a couple of weeks. It’s a site which makes real efforts to engage with the rest of the web. And it tries a few things which might come off, and might not. We’ll all learn something as a result.