The GDS project to build a 'single government domain' website passed from alpha to beta phase in the final few hours of January 2012. And as with the alpha, it's all open to the public - you'll find it at http://www.gov.uk, which still looks rather odd, and feels very strange to type. I guess I'll get used to it.
Writing on the GDS blog, Tom Loosemore describes it as ' the next step on the journey', but of course, that's a bit of an understatement. An 'alpha' build, such as was unveiled last year, makes no promises. By definition, a beta is much closer to what its creators consider to be their eventual vision. The stakes are higher, much higher this time.
Thankfully, it's looking great. It's no surprise to see the defining characteristics of the alpha still in place - notably the placing of emphasis on tools rather than text, and search rather than navigation. And it's in these that you find the platform's real strengths.
'Quick answers', such as this Student Finance Calculator perfectly illustrate the revolution that this ushers in. For too long, government websites have sought to provide inch-thick documents instead of single-sentence (or even better, one word) answers to the user's specific question.
(Remind me to blog about the 'do I need a visa?' questionnaire I built in 1999, whilst at the Foreign Office - and still visible, hurrah!, via web.archive.org. And a dozen years later, presumably after serious reconstructive surgery, it's still going strong albeit in a new home.)
And it goes without saying - the predictive search mechanism is excellent. But then again, it has to be. Once you're beyond the homepage, there's next to no clickable navigation. This is the 'Google is the homepage' credo gone fundamentalist.
For those of a technical mind, James Stewart has listed the technology it uses; and I'm grateful to Harry Metcalfe for the tip-off that interesting things happen if you stick .json on the end of a URL.
I for one welcome our new online overlord.
(Plus, it gave me an excuse to play around with the excellent Bootstrap web framework, open-sourced by Twitter last year. I love it, although it's highly likely to make your website look a lot like Twitter.)
I feel obliged to report that Joe Harley's successor as government CIO has been named. It's going to be Andy Nelson, currently at the Ministry of Justice. The Cabinet Office announcement confirms that, as with Harley, it'll be a 'reverse jobshare', with Nelson keeping his MoJ responsibilities - leaving Tony Collins wondering if the role is now 'more titular than strategic'. Harley leaves in March.
It's not entirely surprising, given that he was the Senior Reporting Officer for the cloud programme, which underpins the entire future vision of government IT. Here's a video interview he gave to ukauthority.com on the subject.
The appointment has been welcomed by his new underlings. Obviously.
Meanwhile, the Deputy CIO position being vacated by Bill McCluggage has now been advertised. For a base salary of £120,000, you'll be expected to '[support] the strategic development and implementation of the Government ICT Strategies, acting as the lynchpin between the various CIOs and ICT Teams.'
In the context of recent GDS salary packages, that doesn't sound like a fantastically high sum for such significant responsibility.
First major government web launch of the year is DirectScot - described by some as the 'Scottish version of alpha.gov.uk', although if you dig beneath the service, it's arguably closer in philosophy to Northern Ireland's NIDirect.
On its WordPress-powered blog (yay!), DirectScot says its aim is 'to enable you to find what you are looking for as quickly and easily as possible, based on aggregation of content and powerful, location-based search technology.' Indeed, it explicitly calls itself a portal, a word Alphagov never used. The development agency behind the site, Edinburgh's own Storm ID admit as much: their launch announcement is all about search, search, search.
The site highlights a handful of services 'featured for the prototype': one of which is Booking a practical driving test. This takes you to a page with an intriguing URL, ending in a DG reference number. Can you guess what DG stands for? And indeed, the five-digit number on the DirectScot site matches the equivalent page ID on its orange neighbour. Scanning down that page on driving tests, you'll see links to half a dozen other DG-sourced articles, plus a few pointing at dft.gov.uk... none of which, as yet, carry your geographic location across.
The one feature which is properly 'wired in' is the application process for a Blue Badge parking permit. A page named DS_0001 ultimately leads you to a DirectScot-branded equivalent of the standard Directgov page... although tellingly, the 'home' URL behind the DirectScot logo is, in fact, still www.direct.gov.uk. Ahem.
It's far too early to make any judgements about the site. The principle of location-tailored information is unquestionably a good thing; and even if this prototype is only a statement of intent in that regard, it's to be welcomed. It's quite pretty, and makes a good first step towards responsive design - the process by which a layout adapts according to the available screen size.
But there's one dark cloud on the horizon: the site looks to have been built using Microsoft technologies, which doesn't bode well for the site's code being open-sourced.
Consultation on the site opened today, and closes on 1 March.
My attention has again been drawn to the Civil Service jobs website, and the latest vacancies being offered within the Cabinet Office - and specifically, the Government Digital Service. They're looking for, among others:
- 7 'interaction designers', on salary packages 'up to £97,500 per annum'
- 2 'creative leads', 'up to £111,000 per annum'
- 4 'web ops', 'up to £73,000 per annum'
- a 'Delivery Team Manager', 'up to £97,500 per annum'
- 3 'technical architects', 'up to £97,500 per annum'and... brace yourself...
- 22 developers, 'up to £73,000 per annum'
Some of these labels are familiar: for example, I blogged back in October about a previous round of vacancies, which included:
- Two creative leads, £80k
- Two technical architects, £90k
- 12 developer positions, £65k
- Two 'web ops', £65k
- A delivery team manager, £85k
- Three interaction designers, £59k
Increased demand, with across-the-board salary increases? Or perhaps they weren't offering quite enough last time to fill those previously advertised vacancies?
Update: Confirmation from GDS's Tony Singleton - 'We did not fill all the posts advertised in October so are readvertising those along with additional ones.'
For the record, that current round of vacancies has a potential total just short of £3.2 million; and that's before overheads, NI, etc etc.
There are also some slightly less glamorous positions, such as an Internal Network Manager and Internal Network Administrator, both on £29-38k. But these are permanent, where the others are Fixed Term.
Closing dates on all of these, if you're interested, is 11 January; and they are all open to external candidates. Something to keep you occupied over Christmas, maybe.
I must admit, I was a bit surprised to receive an invite to what was billed as the launch of the Government Digital Service - but was, more accurately, the housewarming party for its new offices at Holborn. I consider myself a 'critical friend' of the project, but it's clear that some people focus on the 'critical' part. I had visions of one of those American police sting operations, where they tell all the local fugitives they've won the Lottery.
Looking back at the tweets afterwards - from people who were there, and those watching from afar - I was surprised at quite how big a deal people were making of it. I observe these matters more closely than most, I admit; but I didn't hear a lot I hadn't already heard before. Some of it several years ago.
What was more important, by far, was who said it. And where.
Leading off the sequence of rapid-fire speeches and presentations (slides now on the GDS blog) was Cabinet minister Francis Maude: note the open-neck shirt, the relaxed saloon-bar lean against the side of the podium. This was not your typical Address By The Minister. Citing his pride that this was happening on his watch, Maude made a somewhat unexpected statement: 'where a service can be delivered digitally, it should be, and only digitally.' That sounded like a step beyond the notion of 'digital by default'. Had I taken that down correctly? Yes I had; helpfully he said it again. And again. Fair enough...
The honour of following the Minister fell, perhaps unexpectedly, to Ryan Battles from Directgov. In fact, this was a recurring theme throughout the morning: it felt like every opportunity was taken to credit Directgov, how much it had achieved, how strong its satisfaction ratings had been.
But for me, Chris Chant's comments may prove the most significant of all. He described how the GDS's IT had been set up, using the kind of instant-access, low-cost tools you'd expect of a technology startup. Mac laptops, Google Apps, the open-source Libre Office software suite, and no fixed telephony. (OK, so maybe the Mac laptops wouldn't be low-cost to buy initially; but they're more developer-friendly, and almost certainly lower-cost to support.)
I think that's when it all fell into place for me. The day wasn't about demo'ing the current work-in-progress on the websites. It was about presenting GDS itself as a vision of the future. It's an office space which looks and feels like no government office I've ever been in: and for many, it'll come as quite a shock to the system. (Not least the ceiling-height photos of Francis and Martha.)
It's taking a pragmatic, rather than the usual paranoid and overbearing view of IT security; and a modern approach to 'desktop' computing. Which of course is the only sensible thing to be doing in this day and age... although that hasn't been enough to encourage government to do so in the past.
Ian Watmore's comments confirmed this: one of the first things Mike Bracken had asked for upon his appointment was 'a building' - and this was it. Perhaps appropriately, Watmore observed, it's a former church. As might be expected of a Permanent Secretary, his remarks seemed the best-prepared - although, as he freely admitted, the previous night's football results must have been quite a distraction for an avid Arsenal fan.
Some visionary remarks from Martha Lane Fox, about technology providing a route out of poverty, brought the procession of Big Names to a close. It's hard to imagine a more illustrious lineup of speakers for such an event; (almost) all of them speaking without notes, and with conviction. These were the people at the highest levels of the department in overall charge of public services, all speaking as converts to the benefits - to the user, to the civil servant, to the taxpayer - of the new tech-led approach. There's absolutely no questioning the backing for it.
And by their very mode of operation, GDS is setting precedent after precedent, about what is allowed, and can be done in a Civil Service environment. Others can point to it as an example, and ask difficult questions of their own IT and facilities managers. If they can do it, and apparently save something like 82% by doing so - why can't we? Or more to the point, how the hell can we justify not doing so?
Things are changing.
At what price? Well, that came out soon afterwards, in a PQ to the Leader of the House.
The Government's e-petition site was designed and created by the Government Digital Service, in conjunction with the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, at a cost of £80,700. The projected technical running cost for the first three years of operation is £32,000 per annum.
- which works out, very roughly, at
just over around 1p per 'transaction' (ie petition signature). The traffic numbers were impressive in and of themselves, but it's this calculation which matters more. A hearty 'well done' to the GDS team. Now, it's over to the politicians to do something meaningful with the petitions...?
It seemed like fun. A quick jaunt over to Paris, to attend their first WordCamp proper. A chance to put my French to its toughest test in 17 years. A chance to attend a WordCamp as an ordinary punter, rather than as an organiser. And a good opportunity to check up on the neighbours.
Paris has a well-established barcamp-style event each year, and will continue to do so, but was (according to host Amaury Balmer) the only country in the world not to have a formal WordCamp. And as if to underline the increasing professionalisation of WordPress, they decided to hold it on a Friday, starting at 9:00am. Or effectively, if your brain has only just got off the Eurostar, 08:00am. Thankfully, black coffee was provided.
First speaker of the day, appropriately enough, was Michel Valdrighi - you've probably never heard of him, but he's the Frenchman who ultimately gave WordPress to the world.
Michel was an early convert to the joys of blogging, but couldn't find a platform which ticked all his boxes. A month after he wrote his first lines of PHP code, to create a dictionary of the Corsican language, he started on his own blogging platform - Blogger 2, or b2. A version 1.0 release was written, but never released; then came unemployment and a bout of depression, and he walked away from it all. Which led to a conversation between this guy and this guy, which led to... well, you can probably pick the story up from here yourself.
And then - ironically - having set the day's wheels in motion, Michel more or less disappeared. A shame, as I was dying to hear more. (I believe he returned for the social side later, but I'd gone by then.)
Francis Chouquet was up next: a web designer who also has a premium themes business (Peaxl), and has written a book on WordPress development. He talked about the market for premium themes, where apparently 2/3 of purchases are by resellers; and why he had ultimately opted to build a team to create premium themes, and a custom platform from which to sell them.
His key point was that a theme shop needed distinct skills: creative, technical, marketing and support. You had to have a fighting spirit to make it work, he explained; but it was important not to lose the pleasure which made you do it in the first place.
He was followed by Julio Potier, who gave a very assured talk on theme and plugin vulnerabilities, and how not to get caught by them. He listed the various well-known plugins he'd found issues in, even certain security plugins! - and described the various levels of interest shown by the original developers. Some were grateful for the tipoff, some were hostile, some simply weren't bothered. Cautionary tales a-plenty.
With each slot lasting a full hour - not something I'm planning to recommend for future UK events, we were already nearing lunchtime. Next up was the youthful Aurélien Denis, who runs French-language tutorial site wpchannel.com, talking about recent WordPress enhancements which made it more of a CMS. People were wrong to say WordPress was a system conceived for managing blogs, he concluded; in fact, it was much more than that.
I very nearly spoke up at that point; personally, I think the fact that it was conceived for blogs is precisely what makes WordPress what it is, and we should be embracing that fact, rather than trying to argue it away. A normal CMS is designed to be managed by a trained sysadmin, and built by experienced developers. (cf Drupal) WordPress assumes you're on your own, and you just want to get on with writing something. Which is almost always the case, even in large organisations like government departments.
We broke a little early for lunch, and given the (frankly unforgivable) lack of wifi at the venue, I went in search of free connectivity and good food. I couldn't find anywhere visibly offering both in the immediate vicinity; probably just as well, as I really fancied a moules-frites, and it wouldn't have gone well with my iPad.
First after the restart was Benjamin Lupu, who runs the WordPress-based digital operations of a publishing company targeting the public sector. In his excellent talk, he reviewed their work to integrate WordPress with their various other systems: subscriptions, email marketing and so on. There was initial reluctance at the thought of using a blogging platform, but the work came in under budget, handled the huge traffic levels, did everything they wanted, and provided a much more journalist-friendly experience than what had gone before. His only complaint was the lack of a built-in search engine in WordPress core; but it's not as if there aren't better, more focused open source solutions which could be easily bolted on.
And so to our gold sponsor for the day: Microsoft. Yes, yet another WordCamp sponsored by Microsoft. Things didn't start well, with Pierre Couzy failing to get his PowerPoint slides to project properly, unlike earlier Mac and Google Docs-based presentations. (Sorry, a cheap shot, I know.) And although he had a lot to say about Microsoft's efforts to engage with the product and the community, you just knew he would get a hard time when it came to questions.
I've heard the 'we love open source really' speech from numerous Microsoft people over the past couple of years. (Usually followed by 'And we hate IE6 as much as you.') I'm not as hostile to it as I once was. They now have numerous free downloads and services to help make WordPress work on Windows; and whilst you mightn't choose to use Microsoft's products in your WordPress project, sometimes it's forced upon you. At least they're helping... although you sense it's with at least half an eye of monetisation in future, probably based on cloud hosting services.
Final presentation of the day was a double header: Nicolas and Benjamin from WordPress specialists beAPI (Amaury's consultancy), talking about ways to improve WordPress performance. I thought I'd have heard it all before, but they came it at from unexpected angles, and I still picked up a few new tips.
The day finished with a 'round table' Q&A, featuring all the day's speakers (apart from Michel). The questions seemed rather negative, fearful, suspicious. Was the growth of Tumblr a cause for concern? Did the panel think 'they' would ever make WordPress paid-for? Why do 'they' bundle a paid-for plugin like Akismet with the free core product? It rather confirmed a feeling I'd had throughout the day, that the community in France felt distant from the core WordPress effort, in a way which we in the UK just don't. Perhaps it's the common language; perhaps we're just that little bit longer-established, and more confident as a result.
It proved to be a fascinating day, not least for the cultural differences. With so much of the jargon being in English, the presentations sometimes felt like they were being delivered simultaneously bilingually: and it took me a little while to tune into the Frenchified pronunciation of English terms. (It took me ages to work out what 'Apash' was.) And then there are the English terms which don't match the terms we use: le back-office, for one.
Félicitations to Amaury and Xavier for such a well-run event; and merci for the steady supply of coffee and cakes. Here's hoping the event inspires an even stronger, more confident WordPress community on the other side of la Manche.
It feels like ages since I built a site completely from scratch; so much recently has been about invisible enhancement, or extra-large scale work taking months to reach its conclusion. So it's been great fun to do a small and relatively quick build for the Commission on Devolution in Wales, established to review the present financial and constitutional arrangements in Wales.
In fact, it's been a complete identity package: working with Matt Budd, we generated a handful of logo suggestions, trying our best - but ultimately failing - to get away from the use of a red dragon. The Commission team picked a favourite which we then worked up into a website, Word and PowerPoint templates, business cards, etc etc. (Note the deliberate selection of a (free) Google Web Font, by the way: how's that for 'digital by default'?)
The website is a child site of the Wales Office's existing WordPress multisite setup, which we activated just over a year ago, with precisely this kind of scenario in mind. A couple of clicks, a mapped domain, and bingo - a new and independent website in a matter of moments.
Ah yes, independent. We're using the independent.gov.uk domain, set up to accommodate 'arms-length bodies, independent inquiries and other suitable temporary sites'. I still feel slightly uncomfortable with caveat-ed gov.uk addresses like this: is it gov.uk, or isn't it? But it's an established standard now, so we'll happily fall into line.
All of which gives us a site rejoicing in the URL:
unless you're Welsh, in which case you get:
- which, if I'm not mistaken, is the joint longest root URL in UK government, matching that of the Commissioner for Public Appointments who - guess what? - is also independent of government.
It's a single child site, running off a fairly simple but internationalised theme. The content is fully bilingual, managed - somewhat reluctantly, I must say - via the paid-for WPML plugin. As Word Up Whitehall attendees will have heard, Mr Wheatley and I are working on a multilingual plugin of our own: but it's not quite ready yet, and anyway, the Wales Office server wouldn't be ready for it either. (Long story.) I bear the scars of several WPML-based developments recently, but this one doesn't push it too hard, so it's been OK.
My thanks, as ever, to Matt for the creative work, Simon for some last-minute cake icing, and the Commission team for making this one run remarkably smoothly.
We'll have more multilingual shenanigans to come in the next couple of months... but on a completely different scale.
The DWP press release states:
The process for selecting his successor, as CIO for DWP, will begin immediately. The Cabinet Office will run a separate process for the next Government CIO along with the process that is already underway to replace Bill McCluggage, the Deputy Government CIO.
Worth noting the comments from Tony Collins:
Joe Harley has achieved much within the DWP – including cutting costs and helping to set up the administration, based on agile principles, of Universal Credit. But it was always going to be difficult combining a full-time job as DWP CIO with that of Government CIO. Harley’s retirement gives the government a chance to appoint a full-time CIO who is passionate about structural change and can build a strong public profile on the need for it.
If you were to ask me what has been the single most influential thing to have happened in UK digital government in recent years, my answer would be the annual BarCamp / UKGovCamp. That first event, in late January 2008, helped form a community of civil servants and external suppliers; and demonstrated a desire, on both sides, to use modern technology's new opportunities to do Government better.
So much so, in fact, that people willingly gave up a Saturday to come along. In the civil service, that's pretty much unheard of.
To me, that was its defining characteristic. We all had something 'better' to do: social life, family duties, supermarket trips, even just sleeping off the exertions of the week before. In my own case, it's the weekend of my wedding anniversary. But we all felt this was more important.
Last year, I picked up rumours suggesting that some people had claimed a 'day off in lieu' to attend. In some respects, that's a compliment to the continuing success of the event, and its perceived importance in the government webbie calendar. But it felt at odds with the idealism of the day. I didn't like it.
And so to this year (or rather, next year)'s event. Tickets for UK GovCamp 2012 went on 'sale' on Monday - and promptly 'sold out' (of the initial allocation) in just a few short hours. Clearly it's seen as being more essential than ever - which is good. But something has changed. Something significant.
GovCamp is back, BACK, BAAAAAACK for 2012 and it's bigger and badderer than ever.
Not just one day of fab conversations, networking, sharing tales of woe and mass tinkering - but two!
- FRIDAY 20th January sees the usual GovCamp experience of crowdsourced unconference sessions where delegates talk about the stuff that interests them
- SATURDAY 21st January is the all new GovCamp Doing Things day, where everyone attending can dream come some cool stuff to do, whether it's collaborating on the best social media strategy EVER, running some training sessions on creating video, or build some useful app or other with some data
Will Friday be the usual GovCamp experience? No, I don't think it can be. It completely changes the 'ask'.
The vast majority of the civil servants will, presumably, have had to ask their boss's permission to attend. That means they're effectively attending in an official capacity. In theory at least, they will have to be careful what they say. Gone is the freedom, both formal and perceived, of attending in your own time.
Myself, as an external attendee coming from a distance, I'll have to make alternative domestic arrangements, to get the kids to school. I'll have to pay for a weekday, on-peak train ticket. And of course, I'll be sacrificing a normal working day, costing me a notional few hundred quid. A day when most clients, current or potential, will be at their desks. My phone will have to remain switched on.
In Steph and Dave's defence, there is still a Saturday element - although at first glance, it looks like a completely different event, and aimed at completely different people. It isn't the only *Camp being organised on a weekday: a week from now, I'll be en route to Paris for a vendredi WordCamp. And of course, I ran my own Word Up Whitehall event on a Monday - although I'd argue, the rules of engagement there are slightly different.
If it's a sign of the GovCamp 'movement' growing up, then I suppose it's a positive. But it'll be sad if, in doing so, we've lost the thing which put its motives beyond any doubt.