In an answer (ahem) to a PQ from Tom Watson today, Francis Maude announces that only three requests for new .gov.uk domains have been granted since the new government took office in May 2010. These were:
- alpha.gov.uk (which you might have heard of)
- childrenscommissioner.gov.uk (replacing thechildrenscommissioner.org.uk)
- education.gov.uk (replacing dcsf.gov.uk, reflecting the Department's change of name)
OK, but strictly, that's not what Tom asked: the question was about 'requests for the creation of new websites', not new domain name registrations. What an unfortunate mix-up! - which I think we all saw coming. And yes, for the record, the remit of the Efficiency and Reform Group was for 'new websites', not new domains, as this press release from June 2010 makes quite clear.
Even so, the response still fails to quote a total number of requests (for whatever you choose to define as a 'new website') made to the ERG, citing - guess what? - 'disproportionate cost'. Really? Doesn't sounds like their filing system is tremendously efficient, does it.
[Historical footnote: I think it was Alan Mather who came up with the first Big Scary Number of government websites - this blog post from 2003 quoted a count of 2,643 domains, which was frequently - and wrongly - cited as being 2,643 websites. But even in that same post, I see Alan uses the words 'domains' and 'sites' interchangeably.]
Computer Weekly have posted an interview with Mike Bracken: a fairly chatty (and somewhat predictable) getting-to-know-you piece, but with a few interesting snippets.
He reflects on the problems with the e-petitions relaunch:
For example, with e-petitions, no-one could predict just how fast that demand would go up. Consequently we learnt a lot about scaling and applications within the government estate. We reacted literally within an hour to sort out [the site crashing]. If someone else is doing that for you, you don't learn. Managing a contract is a distinct skill but actually managing the service is different.
Was it really so unpredictable? Ah well, never mind. There's also some detail about the structure of the nascent Government Digital Service:
The five areas of GDS will include DirectGov, which will be the most prominent constituent; identity assurance, which will identify people consuming government services; BetaGov, headed up by Tom Loosemore and formerly known as the AlphaGov team building a prototype for a single government website; digital engagement; and the innovation team.
Total headcount within the GDS will be 'up to 200', but the budget across those five areas has 'yet to be finalised'. (Incidentally: it was confirmed in a PQ issued today that the GDS budget for 2011-12 would be £22.3 million.)
Mike also makes a point about the need to set precedents, a point I've made here numerous times in the past:
Launching successful products and pointing at them as examples of what can be done will be key. One can do lots of formal learning, but the simple way to build that culture of expertise is take people on a journey with you, which also means failing and learning on the way.
I've learned from my own experience that this is really the only way to take organisations with you. Find a modestly-sized but reasonably high-profile project, whose manager buys into the need for change. Make a success of that one, whatever it takes; then sell everything else you're planning on the back of it.
The argument of 'well, it was good enough for X' is pretty primitive; but it works better than anything else I've ever tried. I've found few teams who really cared about 'the journey': most are only really interested in knowing the (approximate) destination, and seeing some evidence that you know the route.
Accessibility is the subject of the latest post on the Government Digital Service blog: having had their fingers burned in the 'alphagov' phase of work, by consciously ignoring the subject, it's clear they want to be seen to make it a priority into the beta phase.
Léonie Watson writes:
Tom Loosemore has said: “… we want to make the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been”. Those of you who know something about web development on this scale will understand what a challenge that is. Those of you who know me will also recognise it’s a goal I thoroughly believe in. So, what are we doing to achieve that goal? Simply put, we’re planning accessibility in from the outset and documenting the accessibility steps we take throughout the website’s lifetime.
I've posted a comment on her article, which I'll reproduce here for the record. You'll instantly note a common theme with my recent inflammatory post about departmental publishing.
As you’ve noted, accessibility is very hard to get right: you’re conceding that you might not even score a 'perfect 10', even though you’re 'planning [it] in from the outset'. And as [previous commenter] Keith says, for small organisations, it’s prohibitively expensive to even buy the rulebook, before you even begin to implement the rules.
If government is hiring experts, consulting widely with users, and (hopefully) delivering exemplary results, it seems like a tragic waste for the benefits to be locked into a single website.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if one of the outputs from your work were to be a reusable, customisable front-end theme for an open-source, widely-used publishing platform, like WordPress or Drupal? You could enforce certain ‘must have’ accessibility practices in the page templates, whilst still giving people plenty of scope to make it look and feel like their own site – via a parent/child theme arrangement, or a ‘theme options’ screen.
You could then release that theme publicly – giving web developers everywhere a robust base on which to build their sites. Imagine all those common accessibility headaches being solved, before the first line of custom code is written.
(I’m not suggesting this would solve all problems instantly, of course. And there’s still plenty of scope to cause all sorts of new problems in, say, a child theme’s CSS. But you’d certainly be giving people one heck of a head start.)
The fact is, very few organisations have any real motivation to get accessibility right. But Government has a moral obligation to do so. And you’re spending our taxes to do it… so I’d argue we all have a right to enjoy the fruits of that labour. Central and local government, public and private sector.
Issuing a list of rules seems a very old-fashioned way to encourage / enforce good practice. You have an opportunity here, to do something much smarter than that.
By their own admission, it doesn't unveil any shocking secrets: but I suppose it's worth noting the BBC's attempt to investigate Whitehall's use of open source software, or lack thereof. In truth, it really only highlights that the picture is rather chaotic, with little centralised control. I can also guarantee it's less than comprehensive. But would you expect anything else?
The answers are rather vague; but then again, so was the question. What exactly does it mean, to 'acquire' an open source product?
By way of illustration: the Beeb's list - (initially) published, without a hint of irony, as an Excel file - tells me that there is precisely one copy of Firefox inside DCMS, plus an unspecified number in DH, MOD and DFID... but none, apparently, in DfT. Clearly that's ridiculous. But even if Firefox appeared on everyone's list, what exactly would that tell us? That there's a copy which the web team use for occasional testing? That it's available as an option on every desktop? Or that it's the department's default, or even its exclusive browser?
Puffbox, if you hadn't already spotted it, is very big on open source as a principle. But I've taken a very specific approach to the subject: concentrating on one specific product, for one specific purpose. Why? Because it's much easier to frame the question that way. And because that particular product is a pretty good case study for open source done right.
The plan is, we set a precedent. Prove to people that the open source model can produce first-class results. Show how an open source basis can stimulate smarter and faster innovation. Then it becomes easier to take the next step, and the next, and the next...
It's with some regret that we note the end of Puffbox's winning streak, as regards web work for political candidates.
Thus far, every client who has stood for election to a political office of some kind has been successful. But our run came to an end on Friday night, with the announcement that Mike Tuffrey had fallen just short in his bid to win the Lib Dems' nomination for London Mayor. Brian Paddick came top on first preferences by just 57 votes; in the head-to-head second round, after transfers, Paddick took it by 91. (In case you're wondering, Lembit Opik finished bottom of the poll, with just 8% of first preference votes.)
It's a bit of a shame, as we had some really nice enhancements ready to go on Mike's website tomorrow morning: think MailChimp plus Gravity Forms plus a custom post type and taxonomy, with a bit of ajax magic on top. Some nice design work from my regular collaborator, Matt Budd. (Oh, there was also talk of a weather-sensitive homepage; but we ran out of time.) But whilst they won't ever go live as we envisaged last week, I'm sure they will appear online in some form or other, in projects to come.
Well, maybe not the weather-sensitive homepage.
It's been a fun project to work on, and has taken me into areas I hadn't previously explored in much depth. Many thanks to Mike for having us on board; and for giving us so much creative freedom throughout.
Now... I wonder what technology brianpaddick.com is running on?
One of the most prominent WordPress installs in the UK is under new management: Nick Jones, formerly Director of Interactive Services at the (now doomed) COI, has been appointed Head of Digital for the (now merged) Downing Street / Cabinet Office operation. He replaces former Tory staffer Rishi Saha, who quit government for a PR job based in Dubai.
New Media Age reports:
As head of digital for the Prime Minister’s office and Cabinet Office, Jones will oversee all digital communications, including the Number 10 and Cabinet Office websites. He will also continue with his COI duties.
Both sites have, of course, been redesigned in the last 12 months: the former staying on WordPress, the latter moving to Drupal late last year. We've also had a number of WP-based microsites from the Cabinet Office crew. So they know their open source on that team, as does Nick, so there are grounds for optimism... although of course, the next six months will (in theory) see departments' independent web presences being run down, in favour of the (ahem) bespoke unified presence. But I don't want to prod that particular hornet's nest again quite yet.
It's interesting to see a civil servant taking up the role, following on from the political appointment of Rishi Saha: and given the imminent shake-up in government comms, not just online, it's unquestionably the right thing to do. We need someone in that position of key influence who understands government as a whole - not technology, not politics - and there's no questioning Nick's experience in that regard.
Good luck, Nick. It's a job which, publicly, can be more about limiting criticism than earning praise. But there's no more influential role in digital government. Use it well, sir.
In which Simon makes the case for the 'government machine' (in the diagram above), for government departments to publish fairly basic written information about their work, to be built on something which already exists, instead of being built 'from the ground up'. If you haven't already, do read Neil's piece... then Stephen Hale's piece about the Department of Health's new approach... then read on. And do please note the line about 'Seriously, this isn't about WordPress.'
It won't entirely surprise you to learn that, when Neil Williams's blog post about government web publishing in the world of a Single Domain popped up in my feeds, the first thing I did was press control-F, and search for 'wordpress'. And hooray, multiple mentions! Well, yes, but.
Some background, for those who need it: Neil is head of digital comms at BIS, currently 'on loan' to the Government Digital Service team, to lead the work exploring how government departments fit into the grand Lane Fox / Loosemore / Alphagov vision. A 'hidden gem', Tom Loosemore calls him - which seems a bit harsh, as Neil has been quite the trailblazer in his work at BIS, not least with his own web consolidation project. It's hard to think of anyone better placed to take up this role.
With that track record, it's happily predictable to see Neil reserving a specific place for WordPress (and the like). More generally, the vision - as illustrated in the diagram reproduced above - is sound, with the right things in the right places. There's so much to welcome in it. But there's one line, describing an 'irreducible core', which stopped me in my tracks:
a bespoke box of tricks we’ll be building from the ground up to meet the publishing needs most government organisations have in common, and the information needs ‘specialist’ audiences most commonly have of government.
Here's my question for the GDS team: why bespoke? why 'from the ground up'?
It's a decision which requires justification. 'Bespoke' invariably costs more and takes longer. It will increase the risks, and reduce the potential rewards. It would also seem to be directly in breach of the commitment Francis Maude made in June 2010, to build departmental websites 'wherever possible using open source software'. Were all the various open source publishing platforms given due consideration? Was it found to be literally impossible to use any of them, even as a basis for development?
Let's assume WordPress and Drupal, the two most obvious open source candidates, were properly considered, as required by the Minister. Let's assume contributions were sought from people familiar with the products in question, and just as importantly, the well-established communities around them. Both are perfectly capable of delivering the multi-view, multi-post type, common taxonomy-based output described in the 'multistorey' diagram. Both are widely used and widely understood. So why might they have been rejected?
Did the team spot security or performance issues? If so, wouldn't the more responsible, more open-source-minded approach be to fix those issues? Then we'd all see direct benefits - on our own personal or company websites - from the expert insight of those hired by our government. If things are wrong with such widely-used technologies, whether inside or outside government, it's already government's problem.
Or were there particular functions which weren't available 'out of the box'? If so, is it conceivable that someone else might have needed the same functions? Local government, perhaps - for which the GDS team has 'no plans or remit'. We're seeing plenty of take-up of WordPress and Drupal in local government land too. They have very similar needs and obligations as regards news and policy publication, consultations, documents, data, petitions, biographies of elected representatives, cross-cutting themes, and so on. Why not make it easy, and cheap, for them to share in the fruits of your labours?
But I think it goes wider than different tiers of government. Government is under a moral obligation to think about how its spending of our taxes could benefit not just itself, but all of us too.
Even if this project's bespoke code is eventually open-sourced, the level of knowledge required to unpick the useful bits will be well beyond most potential users. Given that it'll probably be in Ruby or Python, whose combined market share is below 1%, it won't be much use 'out of the box' to most websites. A plugin uploaded to the WordPress repository, or a module added to Drupal's library, would be instantly available to millions, and infinitely easier to find, install and maintain. (Well, certainly in the former case anyway.)
Seriously, this isn't about WordPress - although that's unquestionably where the Whitehall web teams' desire path leads. It's not really even about open source software. It's about government's obligation to the citizens and businesses which fund it. It's about engaging with existing communities, instead of trying to create your own. Acknowledging people's right to access and make use of the data - erm, sorry, the code - whose creation they funded. Any of that sound familiar?
There's so much right about the picture Neil paints. And maybe I'm reading too much into a single line. But the idea of building yet another bespoke CMS to meet Whitehall's supposedly-unique requirements seems to be three to five years out of date. And it didn't work too well, three to five years ago. Or three to five years before that. Or...
If you've ever felt just a little, well, awkward with WordPress's use of American (so-called) English - color, 'uncategorized' and so on - I've got frightfully good news for you.
A brief exchange of tweets this morning between myself, Dave Coveney and Automattic's Peter Westwood led to the creation of a proper localisation project, to 'translate' WordPress into the Queen's English.
Like nearly all WordPress translations, it's being run through the online GlotPress application - which presents you with each phrase used in WordPress core, one by one, and invites you to translate it. In this case, of course, a lot of it won't need translating: which means, as Peter so rightly points out, we'll never hit the magic '100% translated' mark.
Will this improve anyone's experience of WordPress, on this side of the Atlantic? I doubt it. But it's a bit of fun, and it might actually help with bug-hunting or UI refinement in GlotPress, or WordPress itself, to have two near-identical languages for easy comparison.
It also gives me (and you?) a chance to call myself a contributor to WordPress, not just a mere user. The GlotPress system is fairly intuitive; all you'll need to get started is a wordpress.org forum account.
Of course, this United Kingdom has numerous languages with official recognition (of some kind), not just English: Welsh, Gaelic (both Scottish and Irish), Scots and indeed Ulster-Scots. Putting my government hat back on, I'd love to see a situation where the relevant language promotion bodies organised, funded, or even just contributed to translation efforts on WordPress, or other online technologies of similarly wide take-up.
One area where the LibDems were conspicuously - and perhaps surprisingly - lacking at the last election was technology policy. In fact, it hadn't (formally) updated its thinking on the subject since 2003. But a working group was set up soon after the election, chaired by newly elected Cambridge MP Julian Huppert. A consultation paper was published a year ago; and as per the advertised schedule, a full-on policy paper (pdf) is being put to their annual conference next month. (Thanks to Richard Parsons for the tip-off.)
Under the rather curious title of 'Preparing the Ground', and bearing the somewhat ominous reference number 101, it sets out ideas 'to put IT at the heart of government, to create a liberal and open environment for business, and to secure a better deal for citizens.' And it's well worth reading through its 20-odd pages: there's some genuinely good stuff in there.
The first half concentrates on copyright and intellectual property issues: and as you might expect from a conference paper, there's regular reference to the party's liberal values. The paper restates a general preference in favour of free speech and self-policing, as well as a desire to 'avoid well-intentioned but badly drafted rules' around policing the internet - quite timely, amid talk from their Coalition partners of switching off social networks for a few hours, when we all need to calm down.
There are a few specific proposals, such as the suspension of IR35, repealing large chunks of the Digital Economy Act, and an in-context defence for Twitter Joke Trial scenarios. But it's the underlying tone of the commentary which is most encouraging. Huppert and co clearly get this stuff.
The second half is much more natural territory for this here blog: 'filling in the gaps', particularly as regards the public sector's use of technology. It starts with a rather bold statement:
It is essential that decision-makers and their advisers have a deep understanding of the impact of IT across society and a vision for what it can provide.
The proposal is that 'a specific government office be established, encompassing the work of the current UK Government Chief Information Officer and staffed with experts in the IT field. This new government office would advise all other departments of ways in which IT can improve efficiency and quality of service to the public, and engender a culture of online engagement with the public.' Civil service and local government managers, it suggests, should 'undergo a serious period of initial training in the impact and current implications of IT, [to] be refreshed annually.'
Noting the high levels of mobile phone ownership among the lower social classes, there's a specific recommendation that 'the government make all appropriate public services available online and accessible by an average retail mobile phone. This may mean, in some cases, trimmed down versions of websites with richer content.'
And there's endorsement - as you'd expect from the LibDems - for petitioning at all levels of the political process, 'from parish council to European Parliament'. But whilst there's a broad welcome for the new e-petitions framework, they want to go further:
We believe that the system should also encourage the formation of communities around both supporters and opponents of the proposition. Petitioning should be more than just a signature; it has the potential to foster more genuine involvement in the political process, making it easier for people to express their views effectively.
They go on to suggest:
The government should establish an e-Democracy centre to initiate and encourage the use of tools by individuals, communities and government at all levels, funded by central government on a permanent basis.
There's also an explicit, indeed a ringing endorsement for government use of open source... and more.
It is our considered view that open source development is desirable and should be promoted... The government should ensure that it owns the code that it has paid for, and then share it for free within the public sector in order to avoid different parties paying external firms to develop the same software. We would like to see the public sector embrace collaborative development along the lines of websites such as Github.
One way of promoting open source would be for the government officially to support the use of those open source community websites which perform public services to a similar or better standard than official publicly-funded websites. The government could also consider providing resources to the creators responsible. Formerly it has been known for the government to attempt to replicate the work of such websites.
Nice... but I'd be against a separate 'Github for government', if that's what it's suggesting. Now that we've (more or less) won the argument for using open source for core government business, the next step in the evolutionary process is for government to systematically start sharing its insight, and the fruits of its labours, with everyone. (Or perhaps that's what they meant by 'support' and 'providing resources' for third-party websites.)
There's plenty more commentary over at Richard's edemocracyblog. He summarises it as 'a step forward for eDemocracy', and I'm inclined to agree.
I've long been amazed that the LibDems haven't been more vocal in this space - courting the geek vote, for want of a better description. It should be such natural territory for them. But there's so much good sense in here, that it might be the start of something very interesting.
If you've been following the whole Alphagov thing - and if you're reading this, we can probably assume you have - then today's Cabinet Office 'announcement' that the Single Government Domain project has now 'progressed to the next stage' won't have come as any kind of surprise. I make it seven weeks since the team declared via Twitter:
We've moved on from developing the "Alpha" (prototype), so we're no longer called @alphagov on Twitter. "Beta" now in development.
... followed soon after by Neil Williams's revelation on his personal blog that he was now working half-time on 'Betagov'.
Tom Loosemore's blog post adds some detail, promising three things for 'early 2012':
- Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of gov.uk.
- Private beta test of a shared gov.uk ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments (see alpha.gov.uk/government for a flavour)
- A first draft of a gov.uk ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single gov.uk domain. (see BBC.co.uk/gel for an example).
There will be a certain amount of dual running of 'the beta' and Directgov - 'it will be constantly updated in order to trial the essential behind-the-scenes administrator tools & processes' - indicating, at the very least, how serious they're now taking it. Constant updating means, in effect, a 'proper' staff - and that's probably the most difficult thing to arrange in Whitehall terms.
I'm glad to see Tom's apparent acknowledgement that the 'single domain' approach only goes so far, and doesn't perhaps sit too neatly with departmental representation. He writes: 'the audience for such content tends to be more specialist and already engaged with the work of government than most mainstream users.' Would departmental subdomains still count as being within a 'single domain', I wonder?
Of course, given my own experience with departmental publishing, it's this aspect which I'm most interested in - even though it's not the most important from the citizen perspective. And, to be frank, it's the area where I feel Puffbox can be of most help. Throughout the past year (ish) working with Defra, we've kept in mind the possibility - increasingly, the likelihood - that departments would start to share a platform, and ultimately, share code within it.
We've shown how WordPress can be configured to bear the load, whilst still maintaining an efficient balance between centralised control and devolved publishing responsibility. And if you're wondering why the Puffbox name doesn't appear in Defra's spending data on the No10 transparency site: that's because we came in (well!) below the £25,000 threshold for publication.
Meanwhile, as highlighted earlier this week, we're now up to four Whitehall departments (plus No10) using WordPress as their primary web platform. Thus far it's been somewhat opportunistic; now it's time to get a bit more strategic.
Update: The Register's piece on the subject refers to a 'Betagov' budget of £1.6m: author Kelly Fiveash tweets to tell me it's 'an accurate figure the Cabinet Office gave [her] this morning'. Subsequently confirmed by Tom Loosemore: 'yup, that's the overall programme budget for single domain'.