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

 
 
Wednesday 8 February 2012

Going in 60 seconds

In a single sentence, Stephen Hale's latest blog post encapsulates the sheer joy of moving from a classic old-style CMS to WordPress.

By switching out Stellent for WordPress as our primary content management tool, we changed the processes by which web content was created and published. Editors no longer needed the same in-depth knowledge of the CMS to publish content, it was possible to publish more quickly, and it was much easier for us to devolve the act of publishing. The day-long CMS training course for new editors was replaced with a 1 minute (I timed it) session showing staff how to click on “add new” and type in a box.

From what I hear, the GDS training course for those publishing on the new unified platform is going to take a _little_ longer than that.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Saul’s gov.uk plugin now on Github; anyone know Ruby?

Saul's plugin: 24 hours later

I blogged earlier today about Saul Cozens and his 'v0.1 alpha' WordPress plugin for embedding gov.uk content via WordPress shortcode.

The great news is, Saul has uploaded it to a public repo at Github, meaning it's now:

  • dead easy for you to download, and keep up to date
  • possible for you to fix, enhance and generally improve it

Saul has very foolishly kindly given me commit privileges on it, and I've done a bit of work on it this evening - a bit of error handling / prevention, adding basic parsing of gov.uk's multi-page 'guide' content (including any videos!), and general housekeeping.

In other words, it's now less likely to simply fail on your page. It's likely to fail in more complicated ways instead. :)

There's one substantial catch: and this is an appeal for help.

The platform's content is marked up, so it turns out, using an extension of the Markdown language, which they're calling govspeak.

It adds a number of extra formatting options, to create things like information and warning 'callout' boxes. And whilst there are PHP based libraries for Markdown, which we can bolt on easily, there's nothing instantly WordPress-friendly for this new govspeak.

Yet. If you know a bit of ruby, if you've got a bit of spare time, and if you want to help expand the reach of govuk's content to charities, community groups, local government, etc etc... now's your chance.

If you fancied one of those £73,000pa developer jobs, I bet it would look great on your application. ;)

Tuesday 7 February 2012

New plugin embeds gov.uk forms within WordPress

Saul Cozens has done a wonderful thing. He's written a WordPress plugin which allows you to integrate content from the new gov.uk site within WordPress pages. You add a WordPress shortcode, of the form:

[govuk url="https://www.gov.uk/vat-rates"]

It pulls in the corresponding JSON data - which is really just a case of adding .json on the end of the URL - and plonks it into your WordPress page. So far, so not tremendously complicated.

Here's the good bit. No, sorry, the fantastic bit. Not only does it plonk the text in, it can also plonk forms into place. And keeps them active as forms. Yes - actual, working forms.

My screenshot above is taken from my test server: no offence Saul, but I'm not putting a v0.1 alpha plugin on my company site! - but it shows me successfully embedding the Student Finance Calculator 'quick answer' form within my current blog theme, and sending data back and forth. Sure, the CSS needs a little bit of work... but Saul's concept is proven.

Game on.

Monday 6 February 2012

GDS needs more devs, offers more money

I confess, I rather shared Steph Gray's astonishment to see that GDS's appetite for fresh developer blood continues unabated.

It's a little unhelpfully presented on the Civil Service jobs site, but I've since had it confirmed that they are currently recruiting a total of 22 developers at Grades 6 and 7 level. (Not, as you'd almost certainly assume by reading it, 22 at each.)

For those outside the Civil Service, Grade 6 equates to an Army Colonel. At that level, you'd normally expect to be managing quite a decent number of human beings... which in my experience, are a lot more temperamental than servers.

You've got a week to get your application together, if you're attracted by the prospect of a £73,000 salary package for a 36 hour working week. Which of course you would be, if you're even remotely qualified.

I shudder to think what this is doing to 'the market rate' for IT jobs elsewhere in Whitehall.

And I wonder where these devs are going to go, in their next step up the career ladder. It can't possibly be within government, without taking a significant pay cut... or a huge step-up in responsibility.

It's quite agonising, by the way, to see that GDS have felt the need to write a blog post explaining how to search that Civil Service site, and download the appropriate files. An indication of just how work needs to be done; and therefore, perhaps, some kind of screening process? 'This is what you're up against...'

Thursday 2 February 2012

Betagov not afraid of public commitment

When I blogged about the GDS launch, before Christmas, I noted that how it did things was at least as important as what it was actually doing, and possibly moreso. Within the first 24 hours of the new gov.uk beta site going public, we have a perfect example of this.

The gov.uk team have an account at Github - which, you won't be surprised to hear, is where all the cool coding kids hang out these days. For the benefit of those of a certain age, Git is neither randy nor Scouse. It's a 'version control' system, which lets multiple people work on the same code file(s). The GDS team are using it for their own benefit; and they've made the account public, so other people can see what's happening, work out how it can be fixed or improved - and then submit amended code for potential inclusion.

David Mann picks up the story:

Matthew Somerville, a notorious polymath (and former civil servant) found an issue with our bank holidays page. ... He downloaded the code for that particular page from our open source code repository, and then corrected the code and uploaded the changes to GitHub. He submitted a pull request (ie he proposed that we include his changes). After careful testing and checks, we have now included his contribution into the GOV.UK code and the change will appear on the site soon.

And here's exactly how it happened, over at Github.

A certain amount of perspective is required. Matthew is a pretty special case; and the code change in question was trivial (in code terms, rather than legislative terms). But let's revel in the fact that it happened. An Outsider spotted a problem, wrote a fix, sent it in, and the Cabinet Office activated it.

This is what progress looks like.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

New gov.uk website hits beta

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.)

Tuesday 24 January 2012

MoJ CIO to succeed DWP’s Harley

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.

Monday 9 January 2012

Scotland’s new public service portal

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.

Thursday 22 December 2011

New year, new job? More big-money vacancies at GDS

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? Who knows.

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.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

GDS’s visions of the future

Master of ceremonies, Mike Bracken

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.

Francis Maude in casual mode

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.

Tom Loosemore

Tom Loosemore's slot was probably the most eagerly anticipated: a first public sight of screens from the Single Domain 'beta' build. He opened with a tribute to Directgov, and said he now appreciated how difficult it was to get things done in government. And via an extended jigsaw metaphor, he demonstrated some of the new site's key principles - most notably the use of 'smart answers' javascript-based forms which asked specific questions, and gave specific answers. (I've got a story of my own to tell about such approaches... another time.)

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

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.