Tories’ new packaged website service

I see the Conservatives have followed in the footsteps of both Labour and the LibDems, in offering a ‘website in a box’ service to local constituencies. Known as Bluetreenot to be confused with website developers bluetree.co.uk* – it’s based on Drupal (plus multi-site management add-on Aegir) and was developed by the UK’s self-proclaimed Drupal specialists, ComputerMinds. It promises ‘state-of-the-art technology … at a cost well below market rate’ – although there’s no (publicly visible) indication of precisely what that cost is.

It’s taking a little while to find its feet, judging by the first few examples I’ve come across – including WitneyConservatives.com, the constituency of one David Cameron. But the basic structure is obvious: about, events, news, people. Everything’s on brand, naturally, with promo boxes for the (national) party’s Twitter and Facebook accounts; and there’s a nice little arrangement, presumably RSS-based, to pull national news in from conservatives.com. The design is clear, if a little lacking in warmth.

It’s a reasonable idea, but they need to be careful not to fall into the same traps as the Labour and LibDem party offerings: both of which have had widespread takeup, driven primarily by rock-bottom pricing, without winning the hearts and minds of party members and activists. Remember this tirade against Labour’s retained agency, Tangent? And I’m told there’s disappointment among LibDems at Prater Raines’s last relaunch, although it hasn’t seeped into the public domain.

In case you’re wondering, the Tories’ last grand Drupal project, myconservatives.com, has been displaying an ‘under construction’ message for at least the past few weeks.

* I did get in touch with bluetree.co.uk to ask if they were aware of this; but didn’t get a reply in time to include it here.

Tories’ commentable Budget

Following the apparent success, back in December, of presenting a leaked draft of the government’s IT strategy for reader comments, the Conservatives have repeated the trick by laboriously scanning every page of the Budget book, and presenting them on commentable WordPress pages.

They aren’t asking for email addresses on comments, and aren’t posting the comments when they’re submitted – citing a desire to protect the ‘anonymity [of] those who have sensitive insights’. It turns WordPress into an inbox filtering application, in effect: recording people’s submissions against the page to which they related, but not really doing anything more than that. Nothing wrong with that approach, just a little curious.

Again, I applaud the Tory team’s ingenuity here. But… writing on the Conservatives’ Blue Blog yesterday, Jeremy Hunt said:

We will be publishing it online in an easy-to-read format (not like the enormous PDF documents so beloved of the Treasury) as soon as possible after its release.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with publishing stuff purely in PDF files – and there’s a lot right about doing this site in WordPress. But PDFs have several huge benefits which this image-based site can’t match. Copy-and-paste, search, screen-reading, search engine indexing… etc. Plus, without wishing to be too pedantic: if ‘enormous’ is a reference to file sizes, the Treasury’s 3.5MB PDF file equates to significantly less than 230 JPG images of roughly 150kB each.

Leaving aside the technicals, this is a very interesting initiative on several levels. There’s the ‘crowdsourcing’ aspect, of course; but there’s also an underlying message – that Labour will be trying to sneak the nasty things through in small print on page 186. They do, after all, have a certain amount of form on this.

So is this a declaration that under the Conservatives, they’ll tell it to us straight – good and bad? I sincerely hope so.

Number10’s iPhone app

I finally gave in, and upgraded the company’s iPod Touch for the purposes of testing the brand new iPhone app from 10 Downing Street. And then, as I spent an hour randomly resetting and restoring, I promptly remembered why I hadn’t upgraded for so long. Anyway…

On a technical level, the Number10 app is actually quite modest – just a pretty front end on its website’s RSS feeds, and the feeds from its YouTube, Flickr and Twitter accounts. But it’s really very pretty – and that kind of thing matters in the world of the iPhone. It feels like a perfect blend of native iPhone interface and the parent website’s house style.

It follows, coincidentally I’m sure, in the wake of recently-launched apps by both Labour and the Conservatives – and I’d say it’s the best of the three. The Tories’ somewhat dazzling effort may have more glitz, but the Number10 app feels better in terms of information delivery: and I like its one-click sharing button to send details to your Twitter and Facebook chums. (It’s quite surprising that neither the Labour nor Tory apps have sharing buttons.)

Not entirely sure who it’s aimed at, or what specific purpose it serves, other than providing an iPhone-optimised interface on those various web presences: but the same criticism can be levelled at many such ‘corporate’ iPhone apps.

Brown’s big picture of the digital future

Gordon Brown’s speech, describing a vision of Britain’s digital future, is stirring stuff, with its pledges to make Britain a world leader in terms of digital jobs, public service delivery and ‘the new politics’.

The announcements and commitments came thick and fast – from the £30m to create an Institute of Web Science, to be headed by Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, to confirmation of the release of ‘a substantial package of information held by Ordnance Survey … without restrictions on reuse’, to a ‘Domesday Book for the 21st century’ listing all non-personal datasets held by government and arms-length bodies, to an iPhone app for Number10, to an API on Directgov content ‘by the end of May’.

And then there’s MyGov – ‘a radical new model making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping.’ On the face of it, this seems – finally – like recognition that citizens’ expectations have jumped ahead of government’s delivery in the last decade. There wasn’t much detail in the speech – but it sounds to me like the first hint at Vendor Relationship Management, where the citizen shares his/her data up to suppliers. That’s certainly where the Times seemed to be pointing on Saturday, when it described the creation of a ‘paperless state’:

The aim is that within a year, everybody in the country should have a personalised website through which they would be able to find out about local services and do business with the Government. A unique identifier will allow citizens to apply for a place for their child at school, book a doctor’s appointment, claim benefits, get a new passport, pay council tax or register a car from their computer at home. … Over the next three years, the secure site will be expanded to allow people to interact with their children’s teachers or ask medical advice from their doctor through a government version of Facebook.

As I’ve written here before, I’m convinced this has to happen at some point. We build up personal profiles on Facebook, and allow Amazon and Tesco to analyse our purchasing habits – in return for much improved service. I just don’t think it’s sustainable on any level for government to continue to demand that we fill in lengthy forms, whether on paper or online, to get what we’re due.

But of course, that’s a huge government IT project, isn’t it? And by definition, that’s doomed? Well, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line which suggests things might be changing:

This does not require large-scale government IT Infrastructure; the ‘open source’ technology that will make it happen is freely available. All that is required is the will and willingness of the centre to give up control.

Blimey: recognition that open source is ready to deliver the most visionary of government policy.

And with my WordPress hat on – do I ever take it off? – I can’t help smiling at his pledge that ‘no new [government] website will be allowed unless it allows feedback and engagement with citizens themselves.’

Of course, the speech has to be seen in context. Without ever mentioning the Tories, the speech was quite unashamedly party political in places: portraying the differing views of broadband expansion, or trying to match or trump Tory pledges on data transparency. It was also the speech of a Prime Minister staring at a huge public debt problem: and with neither tax rises nor spending cuts being palatable, that really only leaves technology-driven efficiency savings.

And it’s the context that’s stopping me getting too excited about it all. We’re probably a fortnight away from government pulling down the shutters for a month. In six weeks, Brown may or may not be Prime Minister, and may or may not be in a position to deliver on these promises.

Comparisons with the Tories’ technology manifesto are inevitable. In this speech, Brown blended small-scale but symbolic measures, like a Directgov API within weeks, with big-picture principles such as VRM. It’s both shorter- and longer-term than the Conservative document – attempting, perhaps, to outflank Cameron, Maude, Hunt et al on both sides at once.

But whilst they may differ on certain matters of implementation, both are heading – rushing actually – in the same basic direction. On the face of it, no matter who wins, we can’t lose.

Tories promise IT skunkworks

If there’s one commitment in the Conservatives’ Technology Manifesto, billed as ‘the most ambitious technology agenda ever proposed by a British political party’, which makes my heart leap with joy, it’s this:

We will also create a small IT development team in government – a ‘government skunkworks’ – that can develop low cost IT applications in-house and advise on the procurement of large projects.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘skunkworks’ was devised by aircraft maker Lockheed Martin – and is still jealously guarded by them as a trademark. It describes a small, almost secret unit within a large organisation, protected from all the internal bureaucracy, and given carte blanche to be creative. Among Lockheed Martin’s 14 rules for its operation are:

  • Unit manager to be answerable directly to a very senior member of the organisation.
  • An ‘almost vicious’ restriction of the numbers of people involved.
  • Minimal reporting requirements.
  • Strict access controls.
  • Mutual trust, with close cooperation and daily liaison, allowing correspondence to be kept to a minimum.

All very ‘web 2.0’… until you learn these rules came together in the 1940s.

I detect the influence of Tom Steinberg. Eighteen months ago, at MySociety’s 5th birthday celebration, Tom gave a speech in which he said:

So long as the cult of outsourcing everything computer related continues to dominate in Whitehall, and so long as experts like Matthew [Somerville] and Francis [Irving] are treated as suspicious just because they understand computers, little is going to change.

Government in the UK once led the world in its own information systems, breaking Enigma, documenting an empire’s worth of trade. And then it fired everyone who could do those things, or employed them only via horribly expensive consultancies. It is time to start bringing them back into the corridors of power.

But equally, as I argued at the time, bringing those kinds of people back into Whitehall and then dumping them inside IT departments wasn’t going to help either. This skunkworks concept – where you’re effectively a startup within the organisation – should offer the best of both worlds.

I’ve been one of numerous people – inside and outside government – who have suggested such an approach in the past. And no matter how positive a hearing the idea received, it didn’t happen. Its time may well be coming.

My suggestion is that this unit needs to be created very, very quickly after the election. I remember the uncertainty and sheer chaos which followed the handover from Tories to Labour in 1997. Radical, dramatic, shocking, good things happened. For a while, you went into work each day not knowing what was coming next. It was magnificent, wonderful chaos – for a while.

There’s also a specific paragraph on government websites:

The Conservative Party believes that government websites should not be treated like secure government offices or laboratories, where public access is to be controlled as tightly as possible.

We see government websites as being more like a mixture of private building and public spaces, such as squares and parks: places where people can come together to discuss issues and solve problems.

Where large amounts of people with similar concerns come together, for example filling in VAT forms or registering children for schools, we will take the opportunity to let people interact and support each other.

Again… Mr Steinberg, I presume? I’m not sure quite what that’s getting at; discussion forums? opening up Sidewiki-esque comments on ‘standard’ pages? (That idea was first aired at the 2008 Barcamp.)

There’s a commitment to ‘a level playing ?eld for open source IT’: welcome words, but we already have an on-paper commitment to a level playing field… or arguably, ever-so-slightly slanted in favour of open source. I haven’t changed my mind since January this year, when I concluded that we need a ‘specific high-profile victory for Open Source, to give it real momentum in government’. And those mythical 100 Days could be the time to deliver that.

Elsewhere there’s confirmation of notions already floated: transparency of senior salaries and contract spending, a ‘right to data’, online publication of expenses claims at Parliament and council levels, and so on.

In some aspects, there’s little to separate the rhetoric between Labour and the Tories. But whereas Labour has had the opportunity to make ambitious changes happen – and hasn’t always taken them, you get the sense of energy and ambition in the Tories’ promises.

There are specific actions and measurable commitments in this document: and it must be said, there’s evidence of the Tories practising what they’re preaching – use of WordPress and Drupal, publication of government IT policy (admittedly, someone else’s) in commentable form, publication of front-bench expenses via Google Spreadsheet.

Things could be about to get very, very interesting.

Tories: always big City fans

Hot on the heels of the BNP apparently (?) taking design cues from Obama, here’s the new homepage for the Conservatives‘ website… and the Manchester City FC homepage, with which – you’d have to say – there is a remarkable similarity.

For the avoidance of any confusion: one is returning to prominence after a long period out of the limelight, thanks in no small part to a wealthy foreign-based backer; however, some poor results over the last few months have shaken fans’ confidence of a breakthrough at the highest level – leading to tricky questions being asked of their unquestionably photogenic manager who has yet to truly win over the hardcore support.

The other is… 🙂

Wanted: consultation platform, £1m reward

I’m glad my former Microsoft colleague John McGarvey reminded me of Conservative shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s proposal of a £1m prize to develop ‘the best new technology platform that helps people come together to solve the problems that matter to them’. That’s what happens when you announce things over the Christmas holidays.

The plan is for a future Conservative government to use it ‘to throw open the policy making process to the public, and harness the wisdom of the crowd so that the public can collaborate to improve government policy. For example, a Conservative government would publish all government Green Papers on this platform, so that everyone can have their say on government policies, and feed in their ideas to make them better.’ Why does that sound so familiar? ‘There are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by Government,’ says Mr Hunt; ‘this prize is a good and cost-effective way of getting one.’

Now I don’t know what kind of ‘scale’ or ‘depth’ Mr Hunt thinks he requires. If there’s a formal brief, I’ve yet to find it – and I’d be delighted if someone could point me in the right direction.

Because I’ve been building websites allowing the public to input their views on government green and white papers for some time now. Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme kickstarted the process: and I’ve since gone on to build reusable WordPress MU-based platforms for two Whitehall departments, for a few grand each. We’ve proven WordPress can handle (literally) thousands of responses – and in the only case so far where it’s wobbled, that was because of ISP throttling rather than the ability of WordPress to handle it.

Then on the academic side, you’ve got the work that’s been done by Joss Winn and Tony Hirst et al on JISCPress / digress.it / writetoreply.org. Their focus has been on the technical side, including some early steps towards community-building. It’s a bit lacking in terms of aesthetics, and it hasn’t yet been tested with huge volumes, but it’s doing some very interesting things.

And of course, barely a month ago, you had Mr Hunt’s own people at Tory central office proving the point by turning the government’s draft IT strategy into a consultation document using WordPress. Cheap and quick, showing signs of inexperience with the platform – but good enough to receive nearly 400 contributions.

So you have several independent operations in the (wide) UK public sector, already proving in the real world that WordPress is perfectly capable of supporting such ‘user feedback’ websites, and delivering some pretty sophisticated functionality and user experience. BuddyPress, meanwhile, continues to improve, and could certainly form the bedrock of a government-backed policy development community.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology is ready. And there are enough good people who have built up enough experience to collaborate on building something pretty special. For a slice of that £1m, I’m sure I could find time in my own schedule.

But the big question is… is Mr Hunt ready? What does it mean to receive large volumes of contributions from the general public? When do you ask for them? How do you deal with them? How do you ensure they’re representative? And what if you don’t like the consensus of the opinions expressed?

I’m all for the kind of revolution in policy development he seems to be proposing; and I’d be happy to play a part in it. But it isn’t the lack of a technical platform that will hold this vision back. If anything, that’s the easiest part.

PS Just a thought… whither Tom Steinberg?

Tories publish leaked Govt IT strategy with WordPress

strategyleak

You might have seen coverage in the last few days of the Government’s forthcoming ICT strategy – ‘New world, new challenges, new opportunities’ – which leaked out last week, and is due to be published next week to coincide with the Pre Budget Report. The first I saw of it was at UKAuthority.com, with follow-up coverage in places like Kable and Silicon.com. The key elements seem to be a move to cloud-based computing, a common desktop and common applications (known as the ‘Government Applications Store’, not a label I’m especially keen on); plus a restatement of policy on things like Open Source.

But here’s where it gets interesting. One of the recipients of the leaked document was the Conservative Party. And they’ve taken it upon themselves to republish it, in full, on a commentable web platform. (Which happens to be WordPress. Just thought I’d mention that.)

I’m not going to offer any comment on the strategy itself just yet: there’s something slightly uncomfortable about it being a leaked document, still apparently ‘work in progress’. But it’s a fascinating development nonetheless. We’ve seen academics and activists opening up documents like this: never a political party – although the only indication of the site’s origins is the obligatory reference in the footer. No logos, no explicit definition of who ‘we’ are, when it says on its homepage:

We have built this website to share with you a leaked copy of Labour’s report on public sector IT, which was scheduled to be published in the days ahead. … We think there’s a better way. … we believe that crowdsourcing and collaborative design can help us to make better policies – and we think this approach should begin now. This website allows you to post your comments and suggestions on this leaked Government report. We want to hear your ideas – and we will be responding to your thoughts in the weeks ahead.

The makeitbetter.org.uk domain was only registered on Friday last week; and it looks like the content was copied-and-pasted into the site during Saturday afternoon. It’s a modest build, using a plain off-the-shelf theme, and to be honest it lacks a certain finesse: no ‘pretty permalinks’, no mention of RSS, no subscribe-to-comments, etc. But it’s up there, in double-quick time, whether or not the Cabinet Office wanted it up there. And it’s a case study for how negligible-cost hosting plus free software, specifically WordPress, can change the game. As I may have mentioned here before.

It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of comments it attracts. (Here’s the site’s comment feed, if you want to follow it.)

Thoughts on MyConservatives

A bit pushed for time just now, but I wanted to jot down a few thoughts regarding the launch of the Conservatives’ new community platform, MyConservatives.com. I hope they make sense.

  • It’s built on an open-source platform – specifically Drupal. Almost certainly the right choice: after all, Drupal describes itself as ‘community plumbing’. For those who have never used it, Drupal is a startlingly powerful platform for all things social and online; but to me, that’s its downfall – I’ve always found it overwhelming.
  • It fell over on day one. Happens to us all.
  • Opening the system to allcomers, not just party members, is a brave move – but the right one, I think. (And is something I suggested Labour might do with Labourspace, back in March 2008.)
  • Having said that, the heavy Conservative branding – including the use of an Eric Pickles video on the homepage – will put a lot of people off. I don’t see people registering for this unless they’re at least passively Tory.
  • The ‘campaigns’ page – currently the heart of the site – has two key elements: ‘local campaigns’ and an events calendar. Neither are working well. When I put my postcode into the local search – even though I live in a Tory-LD marginal, high on the LDs’ list of target seats – it comes back: ‘Your local candidate doesn’t have a campaign team yet.‘ I’d have thought they’d pre-organise some of these key areas prior to launch. And there’s no encouragement for me to sign up to be notified if/when they do finally organise locally. The events listing is rather curious, initially showing me events from 2 to 10 Oct – not great when today’s the 13th.
  • I really like the way they’ve illustrated what a donation pays for:
    MyCon donate constituency
    It demonstrates that even a token donation can have a material effect…
  • … but I still think it’s an uphill struggle to get people to donate. We’re looking at a massive cultural change, at a time when public trust in politics really couldn’t be lower. I just can’t see it.
  • The sign-up form isn’t too intrusive, but it doesn’t tell me what my details will get used for. Inevitably I’m assuming it’ll go straight into their junk-mailing database – which is why I haven’t signed up myself, incidentally.
  • And whilst it may not be unique functionality – both Labour and the LibDems can rightly claim to have had a lot of the same tools for some considerable time – presentation and high-level commitment goes a long, long way. Even if it doesn’t really raise the bar, the perception is that it does.
  • I wonder what will happen to it after the election?