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

 
 

Archive for 'cabinetoffice'


Monday 11 July 2011

Downing Street redesigned

Very quietly last week, Downing Street launched a new design for number10.gov.uk - but to my own great relief, and (happily!) contrary to my prediction of last December, it remains very much on WordPress.

Visually, I personally think it's a great improvement, with bold use of the iconic 10, now complemented by the lion door-knocker. It looks a lot more head-of-statey: with the central alignment of the 'logo', and the capitalised primary navigation, I can't help thinking of the White House a bit... but maybe that's just me. It's also nice to see a non-standard font in use - the free PT Serif.

One of the new site's most striking aspects is the way it seeks to represent government policy across departments - see, for example, this FCO page. If we didn't know that BIS's Neil Williams has only just started looking at this area, you'd be left wondering if this was the next stage of the Alphagov vision, with No10 taking control of all policy presentation. These pages look like WordPress pages (or a similar custom post type), with the sidebar news stories being pulled in automatically via tags (or a similar custom taxonomy).

And it's intriguing to see Prime Ministerial initiatives being represented up-front: 'TAKE PART' is one of the handful of primary nav headings, and includes some very Cameron-y elements (which one wouldn't previously have expected to see on the No10 site):

Apart from the animating slideshow (which in my mind doesn't count, somehow) there's no actual 'news' content on the homepage, and not that much of Cameron himself - which might be indicative of a change of target audience, away from the Westminster Village? And whilst static icon-based links point out to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, I note the virtual disappearance of video content from the site: no Number10 TV, not even a YouTube link. (Although to be fair, it's still there on the sitemap.)

The front end doesn't give much away, in terms of what lies behind (boo! not fair!); but I sense there's a fair bit of hard-coding going on in certain page templates, not least because the source code is very neat. Plus the page generation times, as reported by WP Super Cache in the source code, also look extraordinarily quick... usually measured in hundredths of seconds, which is impressive by anyone's standards.

My only criticism - and it's a very mild one at that - is that there seem to be a few missed opportunities to do things 'the WordPress way'. The primary navigation, for example, looks hand-crafted, where it could surely have been done as a custom menu - meaning changes are dependent on the technical team editing the theme code, rather than the editors using the admin interface. But we're mainly talking about the potential for things to be problematic in due course, rather than already causing problems already.

I understand it's been done almost entirely in-house: in which case, hearty congratulations to the Cabinet Office team. I never doubted you. :)

Monday 27 June 2011

Open source advocate’s Cabinet Office role

Liam Maxwell is head of ICT at Eton College, and a Conservative councillor in Windsor & Maidenhead. He co-wrote a 2008 paper for the Tories on 'Open Source, Open Standards: Reforming IT procurement in Government', plus the 2010 paper 'Better for Less' for the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, in which he declares:

British Government IT is too expensive. Worse, it has been designed badly and built to last. IT must work together across government and deliver a meaningful return on investment. Government must stop believing it is special and use commodity IT services much more widely. As we saw with the Open Source policy, the wish is there. However, the one common thread of successive technology leadership in government is a failure to execute policy.

There is at last a ministerial team in place that “gets it”. The austerity measures that all have to face should act as a powerful dynamic for change. Let’s not waste this great opportunity to make British government IT the most effective and least expensive service per head in Western Europe.

And as from September, according to Guardian Government Computing, he'll be taking a sabbatical from his day job, and advising the Efficiency and Reform Group [ie Ian Watmore] and the government chief information officer [Joe Harley] 'on new ideas for the government's use of technology'.

Maxwell was the Windsor & Maidenhead councillor who drove the debate a year or so back, on councils switching to Open Document Format ('OpenOffice' to you and me, although there's more to it than that)... with savings in the tens of millions promised. There's a nice interview with Charles Arthur from last summer, in which he talks through his ideas, with one rather interesting quote in the light of today's news:

[Office software procurement is] a dysfunctional market because it's set by standards which are set at the centre. Only the Cabinet Office can set this standard. It does sound a bit wet [to be waiting for that instead of just doing it in the council] but this is what's actually stopping it happening.

A case of being careful what you wish for, perhaps? :)

I find it very hard to find much in Maxwell's writing that I disagree with; and indeed, you'll find many similar sentiments through the archives of this very blog, going back several years. It could get very interesting from here.

Update: it turns out this was announced on the Cabinet Office website last week. They've listed the areas he'll be looking at:

  • develop new, more flexible ways of delivery in government
  • increase the drive towards open standards and open source software
  • help SMEs to enter the government marketplace
  • maintain a horizon scan of future technologies and methods.

Update 2: Liam is on Twitter, and has just tweeted:

Sad to be resigning as a councillor http://bit.ly/m09Uhi but its for a good reason http://bit.ly/keH94z

The new appointment means he has to resign his council seat. He's also putting his (admittedly rarely updated) personal blog on hold 'for now'... but with a promise to restart a new blog out of the Cabinet Office.

Friday 20 May 2011

Guardian man is government’s new digital director

I have it on very good authority indeed It's now been confirmed that the new (£142k pa) Executive Director Digital, filling the post currently held by Chris Chant on an interim basis, and advertised back in April, is to be Mike Bracken - digital director at The Guardian until last week.

Computer Weekly makes some interesting - and quite exciting - observations about the management culture he built up:

While GNM has outsourced some IT roles, the company has brought in information architects, analytics and product development managers as a discipline. GNM uses an agile environment for developing web applications and has scrapped project management and business analyst roles to replace them with product managers.

In fact, he sent a tweet to Steph Gray yesterday which seemed to suggest he sees a similar role for 'product managers' in government:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/MTBracken/status/71234171762262016"]

To get a flavour of what to expect, fasten your seatbelt and watch this five-minute breakneck presentation on innovation, which he gave to a WPP event last year:

... or this slightly more corporate presentation on deriving benefits from social media, at a Gartner symposium in October. (Fast forward eight minutes to skip the extended intro.) You'll like what you hear.

Interestingly, in both presentations, he uses the same quote from Simon Willison. How exciting is it to have a new digital director who actually appreciates that:

You can now build working software in less time than it takes to have the meeting to describe it.

Those who know Mike are very complimentary about him: I note William Heath's description of him last week as 'one of the UK's very best new-style CIOs'. On the downside, though, he's a Liverpool supporter.

Mike's personal website is at mikebracken.com - and he's done a post formally announcing the appointment. He runs a couple of Twitter accounts: you'll probably want to follow his 'work' account, @MTBracken.

He starts on 5 July.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Cabinet Office’s new Red Tape consultation runs on WordPress

The government's latest crowdsourcing initiative launches today: the Red Tape Challenge takes a slightly more focused approach than previous efforts, naming a specific sector or industry 'every few weeks', pointing visitors at Legislation.gov.uk, and asking them what can be scrapped, merged, simplified or improved.

I really like the idea of targeting by sector, but I'm less convinced by the notion of chucking people rather randomly at various Acts of Parliament. It works OK when we're talking about very specific legislation, such as The Bunk Beds (Entrapment Hazards) (Safety) Regulations 1987. But when it's something as broad as a Criminal Justice Act, it's not much help to be dumped at the table of contents, and told to find the clauses which might be relevant to the Topic Of The Week yourself. And even then, it's the usual chaotic mess of cross-references and amendments.

The site's been built in WordPress, by the in-house team, and uses a custom theme. There are a few slightly curious things in its configuration, which I can't immediately work out; and the content (such as it is) is very formulaic, which makes me think it's been done in a hurry. But it's very nicely done, and suggests the Cabinet Office team are definitely finding their feet with WordPress.

However, whilst - of course! - I'm going to welcome further use of WordPress at the heart of government, I'm slightly bemused. When they moved their corporate site to Drupal, I assumed they'd be adopting Drupal as their corporate-wide solution... and in all likelihood, everyone else's too. It would have been perfectly feasible to build this site, and various others they've done recently, in Drupal... yet they're consistently choosing not to. I wonder why?

Thursday 7 April 2011

Permanent Executive Director Digital post advertised

Just posted on the Civil Service jobs website: the recruitment notice for the permanent position of Executive Director Digital, as proposed in the Martha Lane Fox review. It's the position currently being fulfilled on an interim basis by Chris Chant.

The position is at SCS2 level, worth £142,000 per year, and promises 'a rewarding role with a great deal of public visibility'. (Well, certainly if Puffbox has anything to do with it, anyway.) They're clearly pitching it at a serious IT level, with references to 'a track record of leading digitally enabled change at a strategic level, in a large federated organisation with complex delivery chains.'

The job description calls for someone who will:

  • champion the citizen/end user through the implementation of the Coalition Government's digital strategy;
  • design the organisation and recruit people to establish a successful Government Digital Service;
  • manage the budget of the central group within the Government Digital Service;
  • direct all government online spending in a way that delivers value for money, makes use of best existing technology, that is both available commercially and also free and results in an improvement of the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs)
  • reduce the cost of providing the Directgov platform itself in line with efficiency plans; and
  • work closely with the Government Chief Information Officer to direct, set and enforce standards across government departments in areas such as  technical, content, design, process and customer standards.

Plenty to get excited about in there... citizen first, recruitment into the new GDS, APIs, etc... but I'm most particularly drawn to the explicit reference to 'existing technology available free'. With everything else around it being so serious and high-level, it's pleasantly surprising to see 'stuff you can just get off the interweb' getting a look-in.

The position is open to non-civil servants, and non-UK nationals. Slightly ominously, I note the job advert says 'Language skills required: none.' - but let's hope that's a quirk of the underlying database. Good language skills are going to be absolutely essential for this.

You've got two weeks to get your application in.

(And thanks to various well-placed sources for tipping me off.)

Update, 11:00

I've been sent the full job spec, and although it doesn't add a tremendous amount, there are some interesting titbits therein.

  • 'The budget for the central group within the Government Digital Service, which is currently £23 million per annum falling in line with other administrative budgets to £17 million in 2014/15.'
  • It talks about website rationalisation 'through adoption of a single URL for all online services' - er, really, a single URL? I don't think that's quite what they meant. Common parlance seems to have settled on 'single domain', but even then, I'm not sure that's quite how it'll turn out.
  • The lucky individual will be based at Hercules House, with hot-desking at the Cabinet Office / Treasury offices. As a statement of intent, that's quite interesting in itself: they clearly want the person concerned to be close to the hands-on work.
  • The recruitment process will happen pretty swiftly, with interviews scheduled for the first half of May, in front of a panel consisting of Ian Watmore, Bill McCluggage and Martha Lane Fox (plus a Civil Service Commissioner).

Reading through it, I'm struck by the differences with the Director of Digital Engagement job spec, published two years ago. Then, the wording seemed to be implying that they were particularly keen on getting someone in from outside, ideally the media - but that didn't happen. This time, there's no such implication: if anything, it feels like it's angling for someone with a Big IT background - quite possibly from within government, or somewhere very like it.

Another quick update, Fri am: Chris Chant has publicly ruled himself out - which is fair enough, as he's got a pretty big job already.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

New govt IT strategy published

The new Government ICT Strategy has been published on the Cabinet Office website - and to their great credit, it's been published:

  • primarily for web consumption, with the downloadable versions a click deeper; and
  • not just in PDF, not just in Word format, but also in OpenOffice format! The quiet symbolism is noted.

Much of the document will seem familiar, as it's been (notionally) in place, or  certainly on the cards, for some considerable time. But I'm struck by the relatively strong language it uses, for example: 'The Government will also put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision.'

There's formal endorsement of Agile methodology; 'mandation of specific open standards'; and a commitment that 'Government will not commission new solutions where something similar already exists.' That may sound like common sense... but the impact of such a black-and-white statement could be substantial.

The picture as regards open source specifically is somewhat disappointing, boiling down to little more than a restatement of the same 'level playing field' principle of recent years. Of course, as I've written here many times, that policy should be all that's needed to kickstart a revolution; but it hasn't happened. And I'm just not convinced that the creation of three new committees - an Open Source Implementation Group, a System Integrator Forum and an Open Source Advisory Panel - plus the creation of a 'toolkit for procurers' will do much to advance things... in themselves. But maybe that's just how the Civil Service has to do things.

A couple of other points which jumped out at me:

  • there's an apparent endorsement of Directgov as the 'single domain', along the lines proposed by Martha Lane Fox. As I wrote at the time, there are pros and cons to this; and I know there were some efforts to keep services and policy separate.
  • an explicit commitment that 'departments will ensure an online channel is included in all government consultations', within six months.
  • no going back on the notion of open policy formulation, including a pledge to 'develop practical guidelines on departmental access to the internet and social media channels'.

Coincidentally, Francis Maude is just sitting down in front of the Public Adminstration Select Committee as I type this. I'll be watching, and hope to provide notes later.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Loosemore leads Lane Fox vision work

Confirmation on the Cabinet Office's blog of something that's been known within the Whitehall webby world for a little while now: Tom Loosemore (ex BBC, Channel 4, Ofcom, Show Us A Better Way, etc etc) has been 'asked' to put together an 'alpha' version of what a Single Government Domain website, as proposed by Martha Lane Fox, might look like.

My feeling was that, although Martha's principle was sound, I feared for its execution. With the 'right people' involved, it could be made to happen; with the usual people involved, however, it would almost certainly go the same way as previous attempts.

Tom Watson MP took a very similar view of things. Writing at Labour Uncut last November, he said:

As Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with HMG online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise. And Francis [Maude] is also humble enough to know that he’s going to need the flair and talent of Britain’s best web people. He needs the A-team.

... and indeed, one of the names Tom (W) went on to list was Tom Loosemore. It was a suggestion I entirely agreed with: indeed, I'd mentioned Tom as an ideal candidate for the CEO Digital position (although he himself didn't agree!).

Tom and his team - which also includes FCO's Jimmy Leach as the designated Editorial Lead, and has called on various 'usual suspects' from the gov/web field (including yours truly, briefly thus far) - have been working out of a deserted floor of COI's Hercules House offices for a couple of months now, starting with a thorough analysis of traffic and search data from various sources, to identify exactly what the public wants from its government.

Subsequently, there's been quite a lot of activity over at ScraperWiki, showing a combination of political material, consultations and general public information. There's an alphagov account at Github. And intriguingly, there have been a couple of FOI requests made via What Do They Know, in Tom's name, to get JobCentrePlus-related information out of DWP.

Some early visuals - rather bold, post web-2.0 you might call them - have been shown to senior Whitehall webbies, but it's far too early to offer a judgement on them. The Cabinet Office blog includes a pledge that the team 'will be making public their progress as they go', and 'will report when the first iterations are public': which, I believe, should be in a matter of weeks rather than months. Meanwhile, you'll probably want to start following @alphagov on Twitter:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/alphagov/status/52762689625268225"]

Whether or not you like the thought of this initiative, or its hush-hush approach (thus far), there's no escaping the fact that Francis Maude had given his provisional approval to the notion of unification; and to get us all to a definitive 'yes' or 'no', we need exercises like this to test out what it will/would actually mean. And you'd struggle to put together a team with better experience, skills and insight to do so.

PS Don't forget, Francis Maude and Ian Watmore are in front of the Public Administration Select Committee tomorrow morning (Wednesday). I suspect this may come up. Follow the action live at parliamentlive.tv from 09:45.

PPS I couldn't resist a cryptic tweet this morning: 'Tempted to register betagov.co.uk - it's still available, and might come in, you know, handy.' Amusing to note that it's since been claimed by Richard Pope (aka memespring).

Monday 28 March 2011

Getting down to business

A couple of potentially interesting launches today.

First came Start Up Britain, which offers an unusual proposition: 'helping Britain's future entrepreneurial talent by providing links to the web's best business resources, along with offers from some of the biggest brands in the country'. You're greeted at the top of the homepage, somewhat surprisingly, by a photo of David Cameron - looking quite sinister, or is it just me? (No, it's not.)

The site claims to have 'the full backing of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and HM Government', and the big photo of Cameron - which may or may not be connected to the adjacent proposition? - lends credibility to a one-page site which might otherwise come across as yet another attempt to make money from startups: of its four 'top tips', two are explicit adverts, and one expects the other two will lead to some monetisation further down the line.

Dig beneath the javascript, and there's little more to it - for now at least - than a bunch of links and money-off vouchers: so in effect, it's an online equivalent of the goodie bag you'd get at the door of any one of the many startup exhibitions. Steph said it was hammering nails into BusinessLink's coffin: that seems premature. But it certainly poses some challenging questions of it.

Then this afternoon, we see the launch of Innovation Launch Pad, a Cabinet Office initiative powered by Spigit - whose recently appointed 'general manager' is James Gardner, who joined them from DWP at the start of the year.

Until 22 April, the Cabinet Office is inviting SMEs to 'pitch business ideas on how you can help to provide better value for money in the delivery of Government’s business... The best ideas will be handpicked by a community of civil servants and, after intensive mentoring from some of Britain's foremost entrepreneurs, those that demonstrate the highest impact will be invited to present their ideas at a Product Surgery in the summer.  This will stimulate new, open competitions in Government markets in which these suppliers will be able to participate.' None of which seems to guarantee any business, but anyway.

Coming on the same day, these two initiatives - both sitting somewhere between the public and private sector - certainly point to a different way of doing things, and (I suppose) make tangible Cameron's notion of an enterprise-led recovery. Both are backed by names with good track records in this sort of thing, so certainly worth keeping an eye on. But do either of them fill me with inspiration? To be honest... no, not yet.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Martha’s vision taking shape

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/Marthalanefox/status/47206064797659136"]

Monday saw a meeting of the ministerial working group tasked with considering Martha Lane Fox's vision of a 'single domain based on agile web shared web services'... resulting, as I understand it, in across-the-board approval. So it's with commendable speed that just two days later - to prevent me revealing it first?! :) - the Cabinet Office has announced the creation of the Government Digital Service, created by merging 'Directgov and the Cabinet Office Digital Delivery and Digital Engagement teams'.

The Cabinet Office blog post states:

This new organisation will be the centre for digital government in the UK, building and championing a ‘digital culture’ that puts the user first and delivers the best, low cost public services possible. To deliver this vision and the government’s digital priorities requires a new streamlined, agile organisation and an operating structure with an integrated, flexible team of skilled staff.

According to FCO's Jimmy Leach:

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/JimmyTLeach/status/48078117000052736"]

Things are getting interesting.

Monday 7 March 2011

Cabinet Office’s open standards survey

With some unexpected free time in my schedule for today, I sat down to complete the Cabinet Office's recently published questionnaire on Open Standards in government. To be perfectly frank, its 120 questions have left me reeling, and nervous.

Screen after screen of acronyms and document reference numbers - ISO this, BSI that, W3C whatever - which you're asked to rank as priority, mandatory, recommended, optional, or 'should not use'. They swing from the insanely detailed to the laughably obvious. At one extreme: I can't believe more than a handful of people on the planet understand the finer points of ISO/TS 16071:2003 as opposed to ISO 9241-171:2008... and I'm not entirely sure they would be the right people to be making decisions affecting day-to-day hands-on use anyway. At the other: yes, I think JPGs are probably a good image format to use.

The thing about standards is, even a bad standard is a good standard.

OK, I'm over-simplifying a little. There might be certain reasons why one particular refinement of XML is better than another for a specific purpose. But broadly speaking, as long as you're giving me XML, I'm sure I'll be able to deal with it.

I don't think we have the money to spend on librarians and uber-consultants, the only people who'll really know or care about this stuff, holding talking shops about which particular ISO standard is just right. It's the absolute opposite of the 'Agile' philosophy I thought we were all supposed to be moving to? And what if The Market decides that it prefers a different standard... or more likely, that it just doesn't care? It should be perfectly possible to deliver well-structured data in whatever format people may require: be this, to take one specific web-related example, HTML4 or XHTML or HTML5 or RSS 1.0 or RSS 2.0 or Atom or NewsML.

I can't help feeling that we're coming at this from the wrong angle altogether. The problem isn't with the selection of a particular open standard. The problem comes when government chooses closed standards (er, MS Office?)... or even worse, decides to create standards of its own (eg IPSV).

The end game on this, I'm convinced, is the centralised provision of open-source-based platforms, which are - by their very nature - standardised and open. Imagine if we had all government news output in a single multisite WordPress instance, and someone somewhere asked to receive material in NewsML. WordPress does a lot of formats 'out of the box', but not NewsML. However, WordPress is built with the expectation that you'll want to add to it. It has an add_feed function, which would let you create a new feed output template, call out whatever data you needed, and drop it into the right place. A few days work to code a plugin, activate it network-wide, and you're done.

So Cabinet Office, I've answered your questions. You'll end up with a piece of paper, ranking other pieces of paper in priority order. Will it answer the question? I fear not.

Oh, and just for the record: neither the SurveyMonkey questionnaire, nor the Cabinet Office website's page pointing to it, are [at the time I write this] compliant with the 11 year old XHTML 1.0 Transitional standard they both declare, according to the W3C's validator. I know it's a cheap shot, but it puts things in some kind of context.