Another Cabinet Office WP consultation

Has somebody at the Cabinet Office just discovered WordPress, or something? I see they’ve also just launched a WP-based site to consult on the proposed Public Data Corporation. This time, the site is running in the most vanilla, out-of-the-box configuration imaginable – using the TwentyTen theme, and without even tinkering with the sidebar widgets (albeit with the addition of Disqus for comments). It’s hosted at MediaTemple… despite the fact that the Office has its own hosting capability at Amazon, as demonstrated by today’s Public Bill Stage pilot.

Can Cabinet Office’s WordPress-based commentable bills make a difference?

The Protection of Freedoms Bill, published last week, has become the first piece of proposed legislation to go through a ‘public reading stage‘, as promised in the Coalition Agreement. The No10 website says it’s ‘the first step towards meeting the Coalition’s commitment to introduce a public reading stage for all Bills, allowing the Government to test the technology and ensure the system works well.’ And the technology in question is WordPress.

It’s a fairly straightforward presentation, using a custom WordPress theme bearing the catchy name ‘Cabinet Office Commentable Document (non-core)’, produced by the Cabinet Office’s in-house digital team – in double-quick time, so I’m hearing. The government branding is very understated indeed, with only an HM Government logo, in the bottom right corner. It looks like it’s all based on pages, as opposed to posts, with a jQuery-based expand/collapse menu (which I suspect has been hard-coded) in the left margin. It’s sitting on the same Amazon account as the main Cabinet Office site.

Can it work as an idea? I’m not convinced. The commenting technology’s certainly up to it, as we’ve proven time and again. But legislation isn’t exactly written to be read; you don’t have to dig too deeply into the site to find unintelligible passages, with every other sentence cross-referencing another subsection of another chapter of another Act… and no hyperlinking (even though all the source material should presumably be available in legislation.gov.uk). I just can’t imagine how an ordinary member of the public could be expected to make sense of it.

A starting point would be a ‘diff’ tool, similar to a programmer’s code editor – showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’, with changes highlighted. If you’ve never seen one, they look something like this:

One example: the open source tool, Meld

… instantly allowing you to see where text has been added and/or changed, and how. Wikipedia offers something similar: if you click on ‘View history’ for any page, you’re able to compare various past versions of the page, and see the changes highlighted (albeit in a less-than-friendly fashion). And indeed, back in 2007 MySociety proposed a diff tool (of sorts) as part of their Free Our Bills campaign.

Without this, I can’t imagine many ordinary people going to the trouble of decoding what’s actually being proposed… meaning I can’t see it doing anything to widen participation, if that’s the intention. So whilst it’ll be useful as a pilot exercise, I fear it’ll only prove the difference between green/white papers, which are text documents intended to be read; and bills, which just aren’t.

DWP’s Harley takes on CIO role

Confirmation today of a promotion (of sorts) that’s been rumoured for the last couple of weeks at least: Joe Harley CBE, DWP’s corporate IT director since 2004, on a salary just short of a quarter of a million a year, is to take on the CIO role vacated by John Suffolk.

As with many of the recent CIO changes, it’s what you might call a reverse job-share: he keeps his DWP job, in which he’s been credited with ‘carv[ing] £1.5 billion from operational costs’. Tony Collins at Computer World UK suggests he won’t be taking any extra salary for the added responsibility.

But then again, and to put the two roles in some kind of context, Suffolk’s salary was around £210k, as opposed to Harley’s £250k. So it’s debatable as to whether it’s even a step up the ladder.

The Cabinet Office press release doesn’t say anything to increase my excitement at the news:

Joe Harley will be able to call upon a dedicated team in the Cabinet Office to implement the Government’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) agenda for data centre, network, software and asset consolidation and the shift towards cloud computing. This will realise financial savings, increase flexibility and reduce development timescales and risk. He will work closely with Chris Chant, the Government’s digital director, and also be able to call upon the commercial, procurement and programme management capabilities in the Cabinet Office to improve the delivery and cost effectiveness of government ICT projects.

Zzzz. Oops, sorry. Where we we? Ah, yes. You can easily see how he might be perceived, to quote Tony Collins’s piece, as ‘a cut-price part-timer’, and it’s hard to imagine how much spare time he has to devote to these extra responsibilities. But those who know him say he’s an amiable straight talker, as you might expect given his Glasgow roots – Celtic fan, by the way – and he’s certainly done a lot to cut DWP’s IT spending in his time there.

More interesting, though, is the press release’s reference to the recruitment of a ‘Director of ICT Futures':

This role will be responsible for implementing new ways of designing and developing systems using agile methods and skunkworks environments; increasing the drive towards open standards and open source software; change the terrain for SMEs to enter the government marketplace; and maintain a horizon scan of future technologies and methods.

On the face of it, that’s quite a bold job description. Note the plural skunkworks environments, and the explicit commitment to a ‘drive towards open standards and open source software’. DCMS and DCLG CIO Mark O’Neill has been tasked with driving things forward in those areas up to now, and he spoke at Word Up Whitehall about some of the initiatives he was trying to kick off in that space: this new role should provide some very welcome high-level backup.

Chant confirmed as new digital chief

I’m told that Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group chief Ian Watmore confirmed the appointment of Chris Chant as Director for Directgov and Digital Engagement in an all-staff email earlier this week. No mention of the word ‘interim’, as I understand it. We knew about the Directgov bit… but the news that he’s the new Andrew Stott is something of a surprise, given Chris’s almost exclusively technical background.

I’m also told that the email contained a commitment to implement the ‘agreed findings’ of the Martha Lane Fox report: although the process of agreeing is still ongoing, so that could mean anything.

The @dirdigeng Twitter account, incidentally, remains in the possession of Andrew Stott.

Interim govt CEO Digital appointed

Although I don’t believe there’s been any kind of formal announcement yet, I’ve had it confirmed from various well-placed sources that Chris Chant, the Cabinet Office’s programme director for cloud computing (salary £125-129.9k), has been named as ‘interim’ CEO for Digital – the all-powerful position recommended by Martha Lane Fox in her review of Directgov:

a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

I don’t know Chris at all, but it’s hard to imagine a richer CV – HMRC, Government Gateway, Defra, London 2012, and currently, the man tasked with finding massive IT savings in the cloud. Everyone I’ve spoken to is complimentary, using words like decisive and bullish: this is good. But I understand he’s a Spurs fan. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

It’s unquestionably a technical rather than a comms / editorial appointment… which shouldn’t come as a surprise in the current context of budget cuts and technology-driven opportunities. (And incidentally, I’m told that’s very much in line with Ian Watmore’s perspective on things.) But in that regard, you wonder what distinction there is between this new CEO Digital role, and the government CIO position recently vacated by John Suffolk… not to mention the various other IT management bodies around Whitehall, and within departments. I suppose it depends how he chooses to wield his ‘absolute’ power.

I don’t see much evidence of an online footprint: he was briefly active on Twitter over the summer, but hasn’t posted anything since August.

Cabinet Office heralds shift to Drupal

Make no mistake about it: today’s launch of the new Cabinet Office website isn’t just a much-needed facelift for the least usable departmental site in Whitehall. It’s a signal of things to come.

The new site is pretty, modern, and at first glance, very well put-together. There’s evidence of planning for re-use, with the simultaneous launch of a nearly-but-not-quite identical website for the Deputy Prime Minister. Good integration of social stuff, and multiple RSS feeds. And all built on an open-source publishing platform. Specifically, Drupal.

I’ve been sensing a steady shift towards Drupal at the Cabinet Office (and in its immediate vicinity) for some time now; and in fact, I’m told this project has been running since before the election, not always smoothly either. But things can only have been accelerated by the arrival of the Conservative team – including Rishi Saha, who masterminded the MyConservatives.com system, also built on Drupal.

Now the Drupal platform is in place, don’t be at all surprised to see Downing Street going down the same road; ‘practise what you preach’ and all that, given Martha Lane Fox’s pronouncements on the desirability of (total) web convergence. And then?

I’m delighted to see them coming over to open-source: a move, of course, effectively announced by Francis Maude back in June. Of course it would have been nice if it had been WordPress rather than Drupal, for reasons I’ve written about before. But that’s no reason not to welcome this as another step forward. Good on them; and I hope it works out. We’ll find out how much it cost in a matter of weeks, no doubt.

Confirmed: skunkworks running late

The Cabinet Office’s latest structural reform plan admits that they’ve missed the November 2010 target for establishing a ‘government skunkworks’… but there is progress to report.

Good progress has been made on IT skunk works with development lead appointed, a concept developed and a CIO-Council led initiative in place to help shape development of skunk works as part of their remit to set the way ICT projects and programmes are planned, designed, procured and managed.

No actual date, though. Anyone know who the development lead is?

Now Matt Tee resigns too

Mark Flanagan, Jayne Nickalls, John Suffolk, Alex Butler, Andrew Stott… now Matt Tee.

The Cabinet Office has announced that the Permanent Secretary Government Communications is to ‘undertake a review of the Central Office of Information (COI) and the coordination of cross-department marketing and communications’ – and then head for the exit himself. The review will be completed in January, and Tee will be gone by the end of March.

Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov rightly won praise for being concise and plain-spoken. Tee has also shown a similar fondness for brevity and bluntness – as exemplified by his recent review of Arsenal’s second-half performance against Spurs.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/matttee/status/5994919629946880″]

Update 1: now confirmed via Twitter. I wouldn’t read too much into it. But then again…

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/matttee/status/8187162335903745″]

Update 2: A copy of Tee’s resignation letter has come into my possession. Here are some of the juicier passages:

I will not be replaced as Permanent Secretary, but the importance of strong leadership of the profession is understood and arrangements will be announced before I leave.

The planned review of COI and the Lane-Fox review of digital bring us rapidly to some big conclusions.  Many of us have discussed the changes that need to happen – indeed many of us think they are overdue.  A far greater focus on effectiveness and value for money; more partnerships with brand and media owners; a greater focus on audiences rather than departmental brands; a different relationship with the industry; and a clarity about those things that only Government can do.

The work to reconfigure parts of Government communication, including COI, and to make very significant savings in departmental communications will be very challenging.  I recognise that it will be difficult to justify a Permanent Secretary role as head of a smaller communications profession and I am going to seek fresh challenges after overseeing the review of COI and the transition for Government communications.

It has been a privilege to be Permanent Secretary for Government Communication.  I hope that I have led the profession through challenging times to a place where communication is well placed to justify the resource we know it deserves. But be under no misapprehension, the argument still needs to be made.

Lane Fox report published; does Cabinet Office share her revolutionary zeal?

Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov has been published this morning – as an 11 page, 5.7MB graphic-based PDF file, making it impossible to search or select text. (Thanks to various colleagues on Twitter for confirming it wasn’t just me.) Its key recommendations, pretty much as anticipated:

  1. Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
  2. Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services & content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties.
  3. Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.
  4. Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

The document is entitled ‘Revolution not evolution’ – but that’s certainly not the tone of the Cabinet Office press release, which describes the proposals in the most anodyne form imaginable. Where Martha talks about recruiting a ‘CEO for Digital’, and giving him/her ‘absolute’ power, the press release talks about an ‘Executive Director’ – note the immediate switch to Civil Service speak – whose job will be to ‘drive change and bring together existing teams working in this area’. And the press release’s line about ‘asking Directgov and Business Link to create a plan of what would be involved to converge the sites into a single domain’ seems two or three steps removed from actually demanding that it happens pronto.

The most provocative proposal in the document is surely the plan to consolidate everything into Directgov:

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

Ultimately, departments should stop publishing to their own websites, and instead produce only content commissioned by this central commissioning team. There is no need for a major migration of content from existing departmental websites, they should simply be archived or mothballed when essential content has been commissioned and included in the new site.

But Francis Maude’s letter in response – quite rightly – takes a very cautious view of the work involved, and its implications… and almost seems to be kicking it into the long grass.

I agree in principle with your proposal that over time Government should move to a single domain based on agile web shared web services. However, as your report makes clear, this will be challenging for Government and I will need to consult colleagues before we make a final decision about how to proceed. To take these and other cross government issues forward, I intend to set up a new Ministerial Working Group on Digital reporting to the Cabinet Economic Affairs Committee.

Notable by its absence from the review is NHS Choices. Martha’s ‘shared service’ vision shows Directgov, Business Link, ‘departmental teams’, a Central Newsroom (CO/No10) and ‘digital engagement teams’ all feeding the Directgov brand/domain – but there’s no reference to the third of the three supersites. I spotted the other day that NHS Choices is being openly reticent about getting involved in the G-Digital project: the one-page overview on the G-Digital site notes that ‘NHS Choices are represented on the G-Digital Project Board and are considering how they can best utilise the project.’

And whilst the Maude response talks about ‘simplifying the governance of Directgov’, there’s no specific reference to the fate of its management board.

That’s my report on the publication itself; I’ll reflect on the proposals later. In the meantime, here’s what Steph Gray thinks… and he’s bang on.

Cabinet Office web ‘takeover’

Leaving aside the inevitable tabloid hyperbole, the Mirror is reporting this morning that:

Scores of civil servants could be axed under plans to hand David Cameron’s “vanity staff” control of all Government websites. The PM wants to create a single unit to take charge of web operations handled by 117 staff in separate departments. Whitehall’s dozens of official websites could be merged into one in a cost-cutting measure which would also allow Mr Cameron’s aides to “brand” the coalition’s presence on the internet. Former Tory party staffer Rishi Saha, who oversees No10’s internet site, is expected to be in charge.

That would certainly be in keeping with the signals I’ve been seeing over the past few weeks.