Tag Archives: cabinetoffice

Trying to engage with the Taxpayers’ Alliance

I usually let the Taxpayers’ Alliance stuff wash over me. No matter how valid their points often are, it’s getting to the stage where every news story about any government expenditure has to feature an angry quote from them. Maybe journalists really are using that online TPA Quote Generator.

Then today, in the widespread but entirely inaccurate press coverage of a ‘Twittercrat on £118,000pa’, I spot a quote from TPA’s political director Susie Squire: ‘Taxpayers don’t want more Web2.0. They want an end to wasteful spending.’ Oh really? OK…

I was interested to find out more about TPA’s view of ‘Web2.0’… so I visited their website. Or specifically, their Typepad-hosted blog. How very ‘Web2.0′ of them. I wonder do they know about the various government websites which have also used Typepad for its cheap hosting, instant availability and high degree of configurability. I haven’t heard them praising it, so maybe not.

Anyway, a ‘Non-job of the week’ post makes a passing reference to the Cabinet Office vacancy, but concentrates on a local council recruiting a new press officer – which, apparently, is a bad thing. Anyway, as the article reaches its conclusion, author Tim Aker writes:

However, another communications officer at the council, taking scarce funds from the frontline, isn’t the answer. The answer is to have councillors do more than canvass at election time. Were we to have a more open political system … then maybe the people would trust politicians more. But as usual, instead of accepting the blindingly obvious solution of cutting back on their profligacy and engaging more with their constituents, the council opts for the norm and throws money at a problem. Sigh.

So the TPA wants more openness in government and politics. More direct engagement between elected representatives and the public. But it doesn’t want ‘Web2.0′ – the use of interactive technology, most of it ‘open source’ (and hence free), to promote direct engagement.

Here’s the thing. Done well, ‘more Web2.0′ has great potential to meet precisely the objective set by the TPA, namely bringing an end to wasteful spending. (And I like to think Puffbox is doing its bit in that regard.) How precisely do you ensure it is ‘done well’? You get someone in who knows what they’re doing. Someone with external experience, and internal seniority. And if you can get them into the one department specifically charged with improving government generally, so much the better.

Do you see where I’m going here, TPA? Sigh indeed.

PS Full marks to the Cabinet Office for their online rebuttal of the pathetic media coverage. It reads like a blog post, but it’s in the press release section of their website. I particularly love the line about @downingstreet being ‘followed by more than 1.2 million people, more than the official White House Twitter and considerably more than the daily circulation on most national newspapers.’

Cabinet Office seeks digital chief

A job advert of potential interest to readers of this blog: the Cabinet Office is looking for a ‘Deputy Director – Digital Communication’ – a full-time, permanent Grade 5 position, based in Whitehall, paying ‘c£75k’.

It’s an interesting-sounding role, reportedly the ‘most snr dept webby in Whitehall’, with the successful candidate being asked to ‘lead the development and delivery of a detailed website strategy encompassing the technical and communications future of the entire online estate, supporting the drive for website rationalisation and enabling the rapid uptake of digital engagement activities throughout communications and beyond.’

Inevitably at that level, the focus is on strategy development, stakeholder management, evaluation, benchmarking, etc etc. – but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Cabinet Office is a very juicy department to be involved in, given that its raison d’etre is to be ‘at the centre of government, making government work better’. Which is kinda what we’re all looking to do.

The job includes responsibility for ‘running and transforming to “Web 2.0″ a number of high profile and well trafficked government web presences: Cabinet Office – the core corporate channel, HMG – the home of major cross government policy initiatives, [and] Civil Service – the corporate mouthpiece and sole online channel for >500,000 employees and their diverse needs.’ (First time I’ve seen HMG referred to as a ‘proper’ channel, by the way; I’ve always seen it as a domain of last resort.)

It’s an influential role, a decent salary, and a permanent position in a time of recession. I can imagine a lot of people being interested in it.

Tim Berners-Lee: the celebrity we need?

When Andrew Stott was appointed Director of Digital Engagement, I commented that it wasn’t the ‘rock star’ appointment many of us had been led to expect. Well, the ‘rock star’ appointment came through yesterday, with the news that Sir Tim Berners-Lee as the government’s ‘expert advisor on public information delivery’. The Director position required evidence of having ‘run a public facing web site of significant size': well, I guess TBL qualifies, having run the entire web at one point. :)

This is meant to send a loud and clear signal to the civil service: raw data now. And I couldn’t agree more; see this post, for example, from 2008 about ‘API-first publication’, in the context of the 2011 Census. But I think it’s more about how that signal gets sent.

The Cabinet Office press release says:

He will head a panel of experts who will advise the Minister for the Cabinet Office on how government can best use the internet to make non-personal public data as widely available as possible. He will oversee the work to create a single online point of access for government held public data and develop proposals to extend access to data from the wider public sector, including selecting and implementing common standards. He will also help drive the use of the internet to improve government consultation processes.

It reads like a rather hands-off, committee-based kind of role. And whilst that wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself, I wonder if it’s what The Machine really needs from him. What’s the question, to which ‘Sir Tim Berners-Lee’ is the answer?

I don’t think we particularly need the advice on standards; and I don’t know that TBL will be able to tell (checks the post-reshuffle situation) Tessa Jowell how to organise data publication processes inside the typical Whitehall department. But what he will be able to do is intimidate persuade those people who always seem to block the initiatives which have already gone before. He may have more success saying the exact same things many of us have already been saying for some time, because of who he is.

Stuart Bruce, who knows a thing or two about PR / technology / the Labour Party responded thus on Twitter: ‘Opening access to government data YES! Well done. But Tim Berners-Lee? Isn’t that just like Sugar, yet more cult of celebrity.’ Maybe so. Probably so, in fact. But it may be exactly what we need.

Watson to quit at reshuffle?

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line from the Sunday Times at the weekend: ‘Tom Watson, the Cabinet Office minister wrongly accused of involvement in the Damian McBride smear e-mails, will return to the back benches. He has told friends he is exhausted by government and wants to see more of his two children.’ I’ve got no inside track on that story (not for lack of trying, btw); but when you look at recent blog entries and tweets, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising. Even though he got his apology, it’s clear the experience of this Easter wasn’t pleasant. (Plus, being realistic, the Party may prefer him to be spending his time planning for the forthcoming general election.)

Around Easter, I had several conversations with people, all of us concerned at the possible loss of Tom as Minister for e-government / Digital Engagement. It’s been such a wonderful period, having someone in that position who deeply, personally understands it – particularly after two anonymous predecessors, Pat McFadden and Gillian Merron. (Yeah, exactly.)

If true, and I stress if, it would seem to put a slightly different light on the appointment of Andrew Stott as Director of Digital Engagement. With a new Minister arriving at the Cabinet Office front door, with (in all likelihood) little background knowledge, it’ll be up to his/her right hand man to drive the Power Of Information agenda forward. The reshuffle is expected shortly after the European elections on 4 June; Stott starts his new job (formally) on 2 June. Two fresh faces in the same fortnight would not be ideal.

PS: Is that really Tom’s middle name? (not safe for work)

‘Safe hands’ Stott fails to inspire – so far

Stott announcement

Well, we didn’t see that one coming, did we? The Cabinet Office ultimately plumped for an internal candidate in its search for a Director of Digital Engagement; Andrew Stott has worked there since September 2004. The new role was ‘created to take forward the Power of Information agenda’, the press release helpfully notes; but in his existing (former?) role, Stott already has/had ‘director-level oversight within the Cabinet Office for the Power of Information work from its inception and was a member of the Minister for Digital Engagement’s Power of Information Taskforce.’ So very much the ‘continuity candidate’, you might say.

The job description for the role (which I’ve reproduced here) called for ‘someone who would be acknowledged by their peer group to be a leader in this field. The successful candidate,’ it said, ‘will have a CV that creates instant credibility and confidence with Ministers, senior officials and digital communicators in Whitehall.’

Sadly, ‘instant credibility’ isn’t the reaction I’ve heard from most of my own contacts. One, on promise of anonymity, called it a ‘spectacular own goal’. Others have been more measured in their language; others much, much less. Several of the responses frankly aren’t printable.

There’s no question general (but for the record, not universal) consensus that Stott will be a ‘safe pair of hands‘. Of course he meets the criteria of having ‘the authority to be credible with Ministers and senior officials’ and ‘experience of the workings of Government’. But there’s little evidence – and I stress, evidence – of his fit with some of the other supposedly essential criteria. If he has ‘run a public facing web site of significant size’, or ‘innovated in web, beyond web publishing’, the web itself doesn’t have much information about it.

I’ve been pointed towards the ‘Information Matters’ strategy published last year by the Knowledge Council, chaired by Stott. Not a document I’ve yet read myself; but Public Sector Forums did, and weren’t impressed – ‘consisting largely as it does of top-down dictums, much reinventing of wheels and what Basil Fawlty would aptly call the bleedin’ obvious.’ (Link for PSF members only)

However, COI’s Andrew Lewin offers grounds for optimism. ‘A new face from the private sector to make a bold splash and shake everything up… wasn’t a very appealing prospect,’ he writes. ‘[Stott is] certainly very familiar with the government scene in the online engagement areas and will be hitting the ground running. This appointment means we should be able to get on with things, but with a high profile person at the head of things to drive it forward still faster.’

And Will Perrin, who knows him from the Power Of Information taskforce, says he is ‘exactly what [the role] needs: responsible, reliable, non political, strong on delivery great with the tech’.

Stott is a brave man, not just because the Daily Mail is against him from day one. If he is to meet the sky-high demands of the role, he needs the active support of the many web-literate civil servants, and the wider ‘gov 2.0′ community. His is not the appointment to win that support instantly, by default. If he is to lead a process of national digital engagement, he first needs to engage with the guys who will actually make it happen.

Oh… and a quick PS: No, I didn’t apply for it. It struck me – rightly, I’d now suggest – as a talking role, rather than a doing role. I’m enjoying the freelance lifestyle too much. I don’t miss the bureaucracy, not in the slightest. I don’t want to be full-time in central London just now. And frankly, there’s too big a political risk attached to the position.

Andrew Stott named as Director of Digital Engagement

Andrew Stott Facebook picJust announced by the Cabinet Office: Cabinet Office man Andrew Stott, Deputy Government CIO and chair of the CTO Council has been announced as the new £120k/yr Director of Digital Engagement. An appointment from the government IT angle, rather than the social media angle. Hmm.

The Cabinet Office press release plays up his Whitehall seniority and experience, but rather neglects the more ‘social web’ aspects of the appointment. So for reference, here are the key elements of the Job Description, sent out in February. I expect there will be plenty of discussion to come on this.

ROLE PROFILE

Background

The Government recognises the widespread use of the internet and in particular a huge increase in the use of digital communities and social media. It also recognises that despite significant advances in Government web, there is now an opportunity to significantly increase the degree to which Government engages with citizens through the web. In recognition of this, the Prime Minister has appointed a Minister for Digital Engagement at the Cabinet Office and we now seek to appoint a highly credible digital communicator to be Director of Digital Engagement.

Job Purpose

The Director of Digital Engagement will be based in Government Communications at the Cabinet Office and will work across Government departments to encourage, support and challenge them in moving from communicating to citizens on the web to conversing and collaborating with them through digital technology.

Job Description

The successful applicant will:

  • Develop a strategy and implementation plan for extending digital engagement across Government
  • Work with communication, policy and delivery officials in Government departments to embed digital engagement in the day to day working of Government
  • Work with Directors of Communication to ensure that digital media are included in the reporting of reaction to Government policy and initiatives
  • Work closely with web teams to ensure that digital communications are making the most effective and efficient use of hardware and software
  • Act as head of profession for civil servants working on digital engagement
  • Ensure that digital engagement is always a leading part of Government consultation
  • Introduce new techniques and software for digital engagement, such as ‘jams’ into Government
  • Convene an expert advisory group made up of the leading experts on digital engagement to provide advice to Ministers and act as a sounding-board for the Government’s digital engagement strategy
  • Work closely with the Ministerial Group on Digital Engagement, delivering the work agreed at Cabinet on digital engagement

You will manage a small team, directly, but will have to manage relationships with a wide group of senior officials across Government. This will require developing working arrangements in which departmental officials feel they are accountable to the Director of Digital Engagement without the benefit of a formal line management arrangement. These relationships will be at Director and Director General level and may well involve five or six departments at any one time. The relationships will be across professions, involving policy and delivery officials as well as communications and IT. Since this is a new role charged with getting Government to work differently, you will have to develop these relationships from scratch in a pressured environment in which Ministerial expectations of delivery are high.

You will have a small budget, but two key purposes of the job are to assist Government in making effective use of current digital spend, which runs into many millions, and to enable departments to save significant sums on their engagement activities through switching from expensive face to face and postal methods to cheaper digital techniques. You will be accountable for leading Government’s new focus on digital engagement, which is central to Government priorities and with significant risk of reputational damage if this does not happen or Government gets it wrong.

You will be accountable to the Permanent Secretary – Government Communications and to the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Judgement will be crucial in this role. It leads on the future of Government engagement with citizens through digital means. This means that the post will be breaking new ground on a daily basis, across Government. The agenda is politically very high profile and full of complex issues between and within departments that you will have to exercise very sensitive judgement on how to manage and resolve. You will have a level of professional expertise that is likely to mean that you will be unique in your ability to exercise judgement and provide advice to Ministers and Permanent Secretaries/ senior officials on matters within your remit.

Influence is a key aspect of this role. You will be required to exercise influence across departments with Ministers and senior officials to drive forward the future of digital engagement. This will require Government and individual departments to change the way they do business – from consulting citizens to collaborating with them on the development of policy and how public services are delivered to them. It will involve supporting Ministers and senior officials in entering conversations in which Government does not control the message or the dialogue. Giving Ministers and senior officials the confidence to do this will require influencing skills of the highest order. This role has few direct reports and little direct resource at its command. The ability to make change and delivery of challenging objectives happen by negotiation, persuasion and influence will be critical.

This is not a role for a generalist. The professional skills required are formidable. Engagement in the digital space is a young ‘profession’ and the job requires someone who would be acknowledged by their peer group to be a leader in this field. The successful candidate will have a CV that creates instant credibility and confidence with Ministers, senior officials and digital communicators in Whitehall.

Within six months the Director of Digital Engagement will have developed a strategy and implementation plan and be able to show concrete signs of momentum in executing the plan.

Within a year the Director of Digital engagement should be able to point to two departments whose use of digital engagement are recognised in the digital community as being world class

Within two years the use of world class digital engagement techniques should be embedded in the normal work of Government

In addition [to all the usual senior civil service stuff], there are a number of additional attributes for the role:

Essential

  • Is a highly credible individual in digital communications
  • Has run a public facing web site of significant size, for example for a broadscaster or newspaper; or has been a leading figure in getting a large organisation to engage through digital channels.
  • Has innovated in web, beyond ‘web publishing’ and can demonstrate concrete personal examples of changing how organisations carry out their core functions using digital channels
  • Understands the technology and software that enable excellent web development, and has experience of advising on its procurement and deployment
  • Has experience of achieving change through influence, especially with policy and delivery officials
  • Has the authority to be credible with Ministers and senior officials

Desirable

  • Has experience of the workings of Government

Civil Service jobs API: five years in the making

Five years ago – to the very minute, as it happens! – I was working on a proposal to put to someone at the Cabinet Office. I was still working at ONS, and was trying to think of a clever way to handle our job adverts. We were obliged to post details of all vacancies into the (very recently departed) Civil Service Recruitment Gateway website. So I thought, what if that site could feed our vacancies back to us?

I approached the Cabinet Office with a proposal to not only help them spec up the work, but to pay for it. I’ve still got the PowerPoint slides I produced for the ‘pitch’.

Click to view slide-by-slide

Five years ago, this was truly visionary stuff – in effect, an open API on all government jobs, way beyond anything that had been done before. And even though I’d documented the whole thing, even though I was putting up the money myself for them to do it, to build a function for everyone to use freely… it never happened. An all too familiar story. So it’s especially amusing to see Steph’s news, exactly five years on, of Civil Service jobs, your way.

Given the enduring popularity of job search online, this is an exciting development for a major government data set. It should provide something which third party developers can use to derive valuable commercial services to their customers, as well as helping to ensure Government broadens the reach of its recruitment at lower cost, facilitating the creation of innovative new services based on public data. With luck, it’s the business case for APIs to government data that we’ve been looking for.

Now admittedly, my proposal was a modest affair based on a straight-down-the-line RSS feed. There were few specific references to XML, never mind API, and certainly not RDFa. But reading Steph’s piece, and the ensuing comments, I can see a direct line between my 2004 proposal – which, let’s be honest, is ancient history in online terms – and today’s unveiling. If you ever wanted a precise metric for how slowly government moves, there it is.

Regardless of the history, it’s an excellent piece of work by the Cabinet Office team; and – I hope – having done the donkey work to set it up, someone is ready to take it to market, and make people aware of what the service can do for them. Some relatively straightforward PHP or ASP would be enough to put an automated list of all current vacancies on each department’s own homepage; perhaps the Cabinet Office team could go a step further, and deliver it via a Javascript-to-PHP call (as the LibDems do for their ‘campaign buttons‘), making it child’s-play for the recipient site. The requirement to obtain an API key doesn’t help their cause, though.

Govt seeks £120k/yr Director of Digital Engagement

Who said there were no ‘senior strategic web roles’ in government? The Cabinet Office has just issued a job advert, looking for someone to ‘develop a strategy and implementation plan for extending digital engagement across Government’, and ‘act as head of profession for civil servants working on digital engagement’. It’s a Senior Civil Service Pay Band 2 position – ie very senior indeed, ‘accountable to the Permanent Secretary – Government Communications (Matt Tee) and to the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Tom Watson)’. Oh, and the money’s not bad either: starting salary of £120,000, plus 30 days holiday.

On paper at least, the resources available aren’t great: the job spec promises only a ‘small team’ and a ‘small budget’. But regular readers will know I’m actually quite happy to see that – and the spec justifies it  beautifully, saying one of the role’s key purposes is ‘to assist Government in making effective use of current digital spend, which runs into many millions, and to enable departments to save significant sums on their engagement activities through switching from expensive face to face and postal methods to cheaper digital techniques.’ Perfect.

On the flipside, the demands are sky-high. ‘This is not a role for a generalist,’ it warns – a statement clearly intended to scare off the bog-standard civil servant seeking promotion. ‘The professional skills required are formidable… Within a year the Director of Digital engagement should be able to point to two departments whose use of digital engagement are recognised in the digital community as being world class. Within two years the use of world class digital engagement techniques should be embedded in the normal work of Government.’

The applicants’ information pack spells out some specific qualities they’re after:

Essential

  • Is a highly credible individual in digital communications
  • Has run a public facing web site of significant size, for example for a broadscaster or newspaper; or has been a leading figure in getting a large organisation to engage through digital channels.
  • Has innovated in web, beyond ‘web publishing’ and can demonstrate concrete personal examples of changing how organisations carry out their core functions using digital channels
  • Understands the technology and software that enable excellent web development, and has experience of advising on its procurement and deployment
  • Has experience of achieving change through influence, especially with policy and delivery officials
  • Has the authority to be credible with Ministers and senior officials

Desirable

  • Has experience of the workings of Government

So who’s going to get it? It might appeal to people like DJ Collins, Google’s European comms director (with good Labour connections); or ex-BBC chief Ashley Highfield, although he’s just started a new job with Microsoft… but it’s probably a significant pay cut for those guys. Then again, whoever takes the job will have to be doing it for the love of it, not for the money.

PS: Full marks to that man Steph for setting up a UserVoice ‘idea storm’ to crowd-source the lucky applicant’s to-do list. :)

Minister’s ‘regret’ at Civil Serf affair

Full credit to Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson for his extremely measured and well-balanced take on the Civil Serf story. Tom was speaking at Tower 08, a major CO-hosted conference on Transformational Government – and has posted his speech on his long-established (and often highly party-political) blog. For the record, the speech isn’t yet showing on the Cabinet Office site… which probably says something in itself.

4pm update: in fairness to the Cabinet Office, it’s up there now. Kinda.

Cabinet Office grab

(Following evening update: they still haven’t fixed it. But anyway – back to our previously published story…)

Tom said of Civil Serf:

Yesterday I read with regret the story of an anonymous civil servant blogger by the name of Civil Serf. Her bluntly written blog about life in Whitehall was taken down, after it came to the attention of the national press. Now, I’m not going to say that we should tear up the civil service code it’s very important that civil servants play by the rules, nor do I agree with everything she says, but surely a truly transformed government would be one in which speaking engagingly about life our public services would be far from newsworthy, and far from career wrecking.

Hear hear. But that’s not the end of it. Tom goes on to list a number of things happening ‘over the next few months’, some of which I’m getting unreasonably excited about.

I see my job as helping you to accelerate the pace of change. Over the next few months, we will be

  • pushing through the closure of our hundreds of unnecessary websites.
  • improving our online content, including minimum standards for the content of remaining websites.
  • Ensuring that all content held on government web sites is fully accessible to the major search engines.
  • Embedding data mash-up into thinking across all of government not just the early adopters within departments.
  • Driving through the cultural change in all our communications that sees the internet, mobile and other new media as the norm
  • ensuring better innovation and much faster implementation. Build stuff small, test it out then iterate, iterate, iterate.
  • capturing the skills, talent and energy we need for change – from within the public service and from outside. Over the next few weeks I hope to say more on this.
  • using new media to engage more directly and more effectively with individuals and communities.

And the most frequent question my civil servants will hear from me is, ‘Why not’?

Yes yes yes yes yes. In all seriousness, I can’t imagine it getting much better than that. A rallying call, and a list of tangible actions from an e-government minister who knows first-hand what he’s talking about.

Er… except for one thing. I say the Tower 08 conference was backed by the Cabinet Office. You might be interested to discover that the two-day event at the Tower Guoman hotel (formerly the Tower Thistle) was actually ‘hosted by the Cabinet Office in conjunction with Intellect, the trade association for the UK technology industry and is being supported by our sponsors Fujitsu Services, Oracle and Lockheed Martin.’ And it cost £995 ex VAT per head per day.

I’m sorry, but there is something inherently wrong with ‘a range of public sector officials from chief executives and senior managers to customer facing staff’ paying that sort of money to hear their own bosses and colleagues talk.

I’m informed that the conference was actually free for civil servants – although since the web page has now been updated to the past tense, the cost details have been wiped. Still a lot of money for a conference, though.

Leading blogger is new e-gov Minister

I haven’t yet seen official confirmation, but I’m reliably informed that Tom Watson is the new minister for e-government, post-reshuffle. The Cabinet Office website only says that: ‘Following on from Gillian Merron’s departure to the Department for International Development, Tom Watson MP has been appointed as new Parliamentary Secretary.’ And since she was responsible, it seems a safe bet that he is now. Watson, writing on his own blog, has only said that he has ‘some responsibility for technology projects’.

Tom Watson was famously the first MP to start a blog, back in 2003; he won recognition from the New Statesman’s new media awards in 2004. And already he’s putting it to good use, to try and engage with people like us:

If I was (smarter at all this stuff), I’d design a one page “Tell Tom” site where you could describe the project you think the clever people at the Ministry should be working on. A sort of “Fix my Street” for government web sites. All ideas welcome and who knows, you might actually make a difference.

(Tip for Tom: you’re using WordPress. Just create a ‘page’ rather than a ‘post’, and be sure to tick the ‘Allow Comments’ box – if, that is, your web designer has allowed for comments in the ‘page’ template, which he/she may not have done.)

This, of course, raises an interesting dilemma. Watson’s blog has always been unashamedly pro-Labour, anti-Tory: even in the last handful of posts, he’s been having digs at Iain Dale and David Cameron (reminding me of his apparent involvement in 2006’s notorious Sion Simon video). It’s generally good-natured, but it’s certainly party-political. So is it appropriate for him to conduct Ministerial business on the same blog?

I’m not trying to make a point by asking this question: just pointing out that Ministers face the same quandry as the civil servants. Tom clearly understands the territory, and it’s actually a great appointment from that perspective. But I’m more than curious to see how ministerial responsibility for government web activity will affect his long-running personal web activity.