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

 
 
Friday 21 October 2011

GDS hiring product managers

The Government Digital Service has posted a job advert, seeking five 'world-class' product managers, on a 24-month fixed-term basis. I can't see any detail on what the five 'products' actually are; but there's a lengthy application form, posted online in Word format only, allowing you plenty of room to explain why you're suitable to manage them.

There's a total salary package of up to £90k 'available for exceptional candidates depending on specialist skills and expertise', but that comprises base salary, additional pensionable allowances, pension benefits, generous annual leave allowance and flexible working arrangements.

It's interesting to see these positions being advertised externally: questions have been asked about the recruitment of GDS staff thus far, and the extent to which positions have been externally advertised. In a comment on a recent blog post, James Taylor acknowledged:

All roles in the GDS have to be filled in line with the Recruitment Principles published by the Civil Service Commission.

The Commission excepts certain appointments from the principle of appointment on merit through fair and open competition where it believes this is justified by the needs of the Civil Service. In the case of the GDS, some roles have been considered to be exempt under the following condition.

See Annex C of the Recruitment Principles:

3. Appointments of individuals with highly specialised skills and experience for up to two years to allow highly specialised people to be brought in without a competition for a particular one-off job on the basis that such a process would be a mere formality. Any proposal for a longer appointment at the outset or to extend an appointment made under this exception beyond two years requires the approval of the Civil Service Commission.

Closing date for applications is 4 November, with interviews in the week of 21 November. 'Late or faxed applications will not be accepted'.

Friday 21 October 2011

Government publishes ICT Strategy implementation plan

Following on from March's publication of the new government ICT strategy, the Cabinet Office has published its implementation plan - a long and detailed document, full of specific milestones, risks and nominated Senior Responsible Owner, leading to projected savings of 'around £1.4bn of savings within the next 4 years' (according to the press release).

'Our plans are focused on standardising government ICT,' states the foreword, with a pledge to 'fundamentally change how government incorporates ICT into its everyday business. It will ensure the early factoring of technology considerations into the design of policy, increase digital inclusion, reduce the cost of our operations, and ensure information is shared and transparent where possible and always handled appropriately.' Good news on all fronts, you'd have to say.

The document covers so much ground, it's almost impossible to provide a meaningful summary of it. But to pick out a few highlights, based on the areas of particular interest to this blog and this blogger:

  • Open source: a 'toolkit to assist departments in the evaluation and adoption of open source solutions' is due for completion this month, although it will only be accessible by '100% of departments' by next March. By March 2013, '100% of all department software procurement activity includes an open source option analysis'. The Senior Responsible Owner for Open Source is Robin Pape, CIO for the Home Office.
  • Open technical standards: the findings from the recent 'crowd sourcing' exercise will be published this month, with 'the first release of a draft suite of mandatory Open Technical Standards' to follow in December. Levels of adoption of these will be reviewed in six months.
  • App Store: will launch in March 2012, but rather unambitiously, they're giving it until the following December to reach '50 accredited products'. Sounds like it'll be pretty empty until this time next year.
  • Single domain: The launch of a 'Beta version of single government web domain for public testing' is set for February 2012.
  • APIs: I'm pleased to see the statement that 'Government will select common standards' - as opposed to defining its own. But despite having apparently completed a review of existing cross-government APIs in March 2011, it's going to take until September 2012 for a list of APIs to be published. Like the single domain work, this stream will be owned by Mike Bracken.
  • Consultation: This one looks a bit odd. All departments are to have established a 'digital channel for online consultation' by December 2011... but then in February, the GDS 'online consultation product' will have been delivered, which makes you wonder why they're making departments spend time and money getting something together for December. Said GDS product will be 'integrated' into Single Domain by October 2012.
  • Social media: Maybe it's me, but it seems a bit odd that the lead department on departmental access to social media sites should be the Home Office: they'll be producing 'final guidelines' by March next year. Verification of existing government social media accounts 'where appropriate' is to be completed by next month.

It's good to see so many specific dates and people in this document, and I think we can take a lot of encouragement from the plan as a whole. Personally, though, I can't help feeling slightly excluded. I don't see too many specific areas where Puffbox, or someone like us, can offer a contribution.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Matt WordPress vs Dries Drupal

If you have any interest in WordPress and/or Drupal as a technology, or open source more generally, I urge you to find (at least) half an hour to watch this video from a conference in Houston, Texas a couple of weeks back: it's Dries Buytaert, the project lead for Drupal and Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress sharing a platform for the first time ever.

If you're hoping for fisticuffs, you'll be somewhat disappointed. But it's fascinating to hear the two luminaries explaining their perspectives - the many things which unite them, and the few aspects on which they diverge. It's a beautiful encapsulation of the differing philosophies, structures, businesses and approaches behind the two world-leading platforms... and the strength of the open-source model in general.

There are some audio problems at the start of the recording, but do please bear with it. You won't regret it.

Friday 7 October 2011

Civil Service website moves to WordPress (at least for a bit)

I'm grateful to the GDS blog for pointing out something I'd missed last week: the relaunch of the main Civil Service corporate website, on none other than WordPress... albeit as an interim measure.

the coincidence of impending changes to Civil Service recruitment processes and the end of the existing hosting contract for the site provided us an opportunity to revisit the site’s content, design and function. We needed to make sure that it is providing a stable, value for money interim option until it can be encompassed into the ongoing Single Government Domain project.

The site was produced by the in-house team within six weeks, helped in no small measure by their use of an off-the-shelf theme which 'fitted what [they] needed with a little customisation.' The theme in question is called Striking, offered for sale on ThemeForest for the princely sum of $40 (or just over £25).

The post helpfully includes their rationale for selecting WordPress:

We chose to use WordPress as it offers a simple, quick (with such a short development window) and flexible open source solution to a site primarily designed for publishing content. As such it is easy to use for a wide range of content editors and, of course, provides significant cost savings for maintenance and development.

I can't tell you how nice it is to read that paragraph on a .gov.uk-domained site. The same site, of course, which earlier in the week defended its decision to code the new departmental publishing machine from scratch. But I promised to let that lie, didn't I.

WordPress isn't powering what is arguably the most meaningful Civil Service web content: jobs. That's a separate platform, outsourced to someone called World Careers Network plc - 'commissioned by the MOD and now led by HMRC'. There's a link to their website on that jobs homepage, but you won't see it:

Hidden text? Spammer tactics

It's a rather dated-looking system, with a basic search facility based on a number of 'select multiple' form fields. It's at its weakest when, as most people will do, you try to find a job near you. It offers an eclectic choice of 1688 city, town and village names, but not - as it happens - the respectably-sized town where I live. And there's no intelligence to the geography: a search for jobs in Camberley just now gave me zero results, rather than recommending jobs it does have in nearby Sandhurst. There's no facility to search by distance from a given postcode, and no map.

When I say 'nearby'...

Add to that the apparent lack of an API, or RSS feeds, and it feels like something of a backwards step, compared to the optimism around the 2009 site. But it does offer email alerts, and the application process (end to end) can be done online.

Quick update: I've done some investigating re the former jobs API. It used to reside at api.civilservice.gov.uk - but that address isn't responding. To mourn what we've lost, have a look back at Google's cache.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

GDS defends bespoke approach

I seemed to cause a bit of a stir a couple of weeks back, when I challenged the decision to develop a new Government [web publishing] Machine from scratch, rather than basing it on an existing third-party platform. My blog post got quite a few comments; and there were some interesting exchanges on Twitter too. And now, to the Government Digital Service team's great credit, they've written a post on their own blog, responding to the challenge.

James Stewart's piece opens on a rather sour note, choosing to reference the Americans' adoption of Drupal first, before acknowledging the UK's primarily WordPress-based initiatives. The fact is, for once, Britain led the way on this. Perhaps if we'd had a high-profile champion like Tim Berners-Lee or Martha Lane Fox, we might have had greater, wider recognition. Instead, we just got on with it, delivering projects quickly, cheaply and quietly.

The choice of WordPress-based projects to namecheck in that opening paragraph is also a little odd. James is of course correct to observe that it powers 'numerous central government sites'; some traditional blogs, some more complex. But he doesn't mention the four central government departments who are already using WordPress to power their core departmental publishing - Defra, Transport, Health and the Wales Office. Nor is there a mention for the Cabinet Office's use of Drupal. Altogether a slightly odd omission in the context.

James proceeds to list the reasons why they took a bespoke approach, but each time, concedes that yes, they probably could have used WordPress or Drupal.

We’ve got a very strong focus on opening up APIs. While both Drupal and WordPress can be used to offer APIs... adding the range of APIs we’re aspiring to would require significant development work, and to make them perform as we’d like we’d need to work around the overheads introduced by WordPress and Drupal.

[On metrics:] Again, that’s certainly possible with both Drupal and WordPress, but to do it effectively we’d be writing a considerable amount of custom code.

Perhaps most compelling for me is our focus on admin systems... Here too we could customise any open source content management system to do the job, but it’s highly likely we’d either have to make significant changes to core code or develop a parallel admin system at which point much of the advantage of starting with the base system would be lost.

Or if I might paraphrase, somewhat provocatively: they're writing lots of custom code because otherwise, they'd have to write lots of custom code.

So on some level at least, it boils down to a comparison on the basis of cost and complexity. 'We’re choosing to start by assembling components rather than customising a package,' James writes in summary - implying a conclusion that their bespoke approach will work out easier / quicker / cheaper / more sustainable. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. So much of it boils down to the individuals you hire, and their varying levels of experience with various components.

James concludes with a pledge that 'we’ll be contributing code back to the wider community (whether in the form of new components or patches to existing ones) as we go along.' And of course, that's to be welcomed. Reuse of code is good. But this doesn't really tackle the point I tried to make about maximising reuse of the code: a point subsequently made, rather more forcefully, by Matt Jukes.

I think the work happening in GDS will have a real impact on web teams throughout the public sector but it will take a long time for it to leak through to those of us out in the NDPBs and I think I’ll switch to treating the work they are doing there as something as different to my job as that of a Silicon Valley start-up.

Ultimately then, it's a question of trust. Trust our judgement; trust our assessment of the relative levels of effort; trust our staff and project management skills; trust that the (back end) benefits will trickle down eventually. And looking at the CVs of those hired to do the work, there's certainly ample reason to put your trust in them.

Will they succeed where others have failed previously? We'll find out in due course. And genuinely, sincerely, I wish them well. We may disagree on the approach: but we all want to reach the same destination.

Friday 30 September 2011

Word Up Whitehall II: another 24 hour sellout

Just as with last year's inaugural event, all the available places at Word Up Whitehall II were snapped up within 24 hours.

We'll have representatives from a dozen government departments (depending on how you count the various No10/Cabinet Office connections): and once again, my thanks to everyone for obeying the informal 'maximum three per department' rule.

I do still have a couple of places held back, just in case anyone has missed out. But you will have to approach me directly, and make a case for why you need one of them.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Word Up Whitehall II: bookings now [SOLD OUT]

Last week, I announced plans to host a second Word Up Whitehall event, for civil servants and their most friendly external developers to spend a day talking about WordPress. The event will take place on Monday 7 November, and will be hosted by the good folks at the Department of Health.

Last year, all the spaces were claimed within 24 hours, which I have to confess, came as quite a shock. So this year, we gave you a week's notice, to decide who to send along. That week has now passed... so it's time to sign up.

Remember, we ask departments to send along a maximum of 3 people: it's not a huge space, and we'd like as many departments as possible to be represented.

 

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Announcing Word Up Whitehall II

Pic: Julia Chandler

This time last year, we organised an event called Word Up Whitehall: a day-long seminar for people working in UK central government, who were either already using WordPress or seriously considering doing so. An opportunity to take time out, listen to people's experiences, share some ideas, and hopefully come away inspired - or certainly, better informed.

I managed to persuade a bunch of people to stand up at the front, and share their ideas and experiences: some from inside government, but also some from the private sector, under strict instructions not to promote any commercial interests. (Well, not directly anyway.) BIS very kindly provided a venue, and numerous people generously chipped in a few quid to cover the few costs. Large quantities of donuts were ordered.

When I announced the event, the reaction was startling, and instant. All the places were snapped up within 24 hours. A waiting list began to form. People started sending me begging emails.

As for the day itself - yeah, it seemed to go pretty well, judging by the day's tweets anyway. It was recently described by one attendee as 'the most useful and, dare I say it, exciting (!) conference I've attended'. It provided 'a moment of epiphany' for one Whitehall department in particular, leading to them adopting WordPress as their principal online publishing platform. And even though I was worried we'd over-ordered on donuts, they all disappeared.

So - who's up for doing it all again?

WordPress itself has moved on considerably in the last year; and departments' use of it is becoming deeper and more sophisticated. Defra, Health and Transport are all now running their main departmental web presences on WordPress, using multisite arrangements of varying complexity. The Cabinet Office team have taken to WordPress with some gusto, with projects including the Red Tape Challenge and a reskin of the Number10 site. And in the next few weeks, we'll be seeing another of the larger departments adopting WordPress in a big way.

But of course, the biggest news in the last twelve months has been Alphagov and the adoption of the 'single domain' strategy, including a 'shared corporate publishing platform aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments'. With that work now getting properly underway, now seems like the right time to talk about where WordPress could or should fit into that picture.

Get your diary out.

Stephen Hale's team at the Department of Health have kindly agreed to host a second Word Up Whitehall event, to take place at their Skipton House offices (Elephant & Castle) on Monday 7 November 2011.

It'll be the exact same rules of engagement as last time:

  • We'll start at about 10am, and finish at 4pm - giving people a bit of time to call by the office, before or after. Lunch will be provided. (As will donuts, but don't tell DH's five-a-day people.)
  • Space is limited, so it's only open to central government people, and please, only two people (or three at a push) from any one department. We had this same rule last time, and people respected it beautifully.
  • If your department has done something interesting with WordPress this year, and you think other people might benefit from hearing about it, this is your moment. I will be approaching certain obvious candidates in advance, but don't let that stop you volunteering first. It might even guarantee you a ticket.
  • Private sector people, contact me directly if you'd like to attend - terms and conditions will be applied.

I'll be opening the ticket booking facility on Wednesday next week, 28 September. That gives you some time to think about who's most appropriate to come along from your department. And if you've got something you'd like to present, let me know: the sooner the better.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

UKTI’s TechCityUK site: 100 WordPress pages, £53k

TechCityUK.com is a website produced by UK Trade & Investment to promote the 'entrepreneurial cluster' of technology startups in the Shoreditch / Old Street area of east London. Judging by its blog, it launched on 19 July this year. Google currently reckons it has 89 pages. And according to an FOI response published this morning, it has already cost £53,351.

The FOI enquiry, by Milo Yiannopoulos, revealed the following breakdown:

  • £37,000 for website development and hosting
  • £9,595 for content and
  • £6,756 for security and penetration testing

The site is built on WordPress, and runs as a child theme of Twenty Eleven. On the face of it, it's a very high figure for a fairly straightforward WordPress build - but it's a pity the costs haven't been broken down a bit further. Without a better breakdown, I'm reluctant to join the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the headline figure; although you'll find plenty of that on Twitter. But I will say it poses some interesting questions, at the very least.

The stylesheet reveals that it was built by a company called Creativeworks, who list a couple of previous UKTI projects in their portfolio - but conspicuously little online work. (Good spot, Harry.) A traceroute shows it's currently hosted at Zen Internet, seemingly on a dedicated box (according to a myipneighbors check).

Interestingly, the domain name was registered in March 2011, but was not listed among the three new websites approved by the Cabinet Office in the past year. Presumably because it uses a .com domain name. See, there it is again: the mismatch between 'new website' and 'new domain'. The Cabinet Office press release of last June was quite clear:

As part of the Government’s efficiency drive, all of the existing 820 government funded websites will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better.  No new websites will be permitted except for those that pass through a stringent exceptions process for special cases, and are cleared by the Efficiency board which is co-chaired by Mr Maude and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Note: 'no new websites'. Not 'no new .gov.uk domain names'. So did the Cabinet Office approve it, and forget to mention it? Or did UKTI not seek permission? Or does that ministerial commitment not actually go any further than new domain names? - and if not, perhaps the press release could be corrected?

The one cost which is broken down sufficiently is the £6,756 spent on security and penetration testing. Or to put it another way, two weeks' full-time work by a specialist consultant. It's possible, I suppose, although a bit over-the-top for a fairly basic site containing (as far as I can tell) no personal or confidential information.

I wonder what they did, apart from remove the 'generator' line from the page header, and activate SSL on wp-admin? Would it be useful to other departments running their own WordPress installs?

Or is it - finally - time for government to step up, and provide a centrally-managed (and centrally-secured) WordPress multisite installation for such small-scale uses? The £6k security spend wouldn't have been necessary; and I wonder how much of the £37k could have been saved, too. It's not that government can't afford to do this; it can't afford not to.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Cabinet Office approves only 3 new domains since election

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.]