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.

You say you want a revolution…

When the Lane Fox review proposed ‘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’, we may all have misread it. There’s a must-read comment on Steph Gray’s post reviewing the review by Tom Loosemore, who played in a role in the review. He writes:

The *last* thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nots to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office. The review doesn’t recommend that. Trust me! It does, as you spotted, point towards a model which is closer to the BBC – a federated commissioning approach, where ‘commissioning’ is more akin to the hands-off commissioning of a TV series, rather than micro-commissioning as per a newspaper editor.

With that one contribution, the proposal is cast in a very different light. And maybe it isn’t as crazy as it all sounded this morning. Sighs of relief all round.

I do firmly believe that there are appropriate role models, and appropriate technical solutions, to allow government web publishing to be consolidated satisfactorily – for all concerned. Yes, the BBC is a fine example, but Whitehall already has its own examples. BIS has done it – see a PQ answer, coincidentally published the same day as the review, in which it rightly trumpets the savings made by bringing all its partner organisations on to the same platform, under the same ‘unifying navigation bar’. (And among my own clients, Defra is on its way to doing it.)

It’s easy to imagine a WordPress1 multisite install, with Super Admin rights kept to a central team, a few custom (and customisable) themes, and a carefully selected set of plugins. Child site administrators wouldn’t be permitted to add new code; but would still have considerable freedom within those permitted boundaries. The themes (and indeed, WordPress itself) would enforce certain technological standards and methods, including – you’d imagine – a family bar across the top of each screen, a standard layout, the same font, good and consistent accessibility approaches, etc etc.

So in principle, yes, it’s absolutely possible… and could meet all four Lane Fox objectives. I dearly hope it can. But I share the mild scepticism of Steph Gray’s concluding paragraph: ‘There’s much to like in Martha’s report, and a real opportunity to make things better. If it’s done right.’ The thing is, twice in the past decade, with DotP and then The Club, it’s been tried – and since everyone still isn’t on a shared platform, you have to conclude it was done wrong.

This new vision will be dependent on the formation of a centre of genuine expertise, whether ‘absolute’-ly powerful or not, in the Cabinet Office. The same Cabinet Office who produced the report as a 5.7MB graphic-based PDF file, whose text was neither searchable nor selectable (for which, to give him his dues, Tom Loosemore has apologised – ‘no excuse’). The same Cabinet Office whose own news ‘child’ website failed to even mention the review’s publication (since corrected). So, some way to go, you’d have to say.

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And I wonder whether it ultimately requires a dramatic culture change of abandoning separate Departmental identities, including separate press operations. Francis Maude sat on the report for a very long time, before eventually publishing it (apparently) unaltered. Did he find it a tough sell to his ministerial colleagues? That would certainly explain why the response has been to form a new ministerial committee.

The Directgov CEO is walking out. So is the government CIO, explicitly named as the one to lead the development of the shared platform. Not to mention the retiring Director of Digital Engagement. So, to whoever finds this landing on their desk… I wish you good luck. And I assure you, there remains a lot of goodwill ‘out here’.

1 I’m sure it would be possible to do likewise on any number of other CMSes, but I doubt any are quite as good as WordPress at providing flexibility to the child site admins.

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.

Lane Fox plans for government web revealed

A document published on a non-departmental gov.uk site appears to have lifted the lid on Martha Lane Fox’s plans for UK government web publishing. The document, published as an unrestricted PDF, is a review of the website of the organisation in question. But given the ongoing Lane Fox review, its author provides a helpfully concise summary of what may lie ahead.

[Lane Fox] is recommending that Directgov should expand in scope to become the government front end for all transactions, with the ability to mandate departments to meet standards they set; she is also recommending the establishment of a central team in the Cabinet Office in charge of commissioning all online government information, led by a CEO for digital to direct all online government spending. There has been no formal response from the Government to her proposals, but it reflects an overall trend for centralisation and standardisation of government online information and services.

A copy of Lane Fox’s letter to Francis Maude, dated 16 October, was attached to the document in question; but, sadly, has not been included in the online copy. It does at least indicate that the plans have already been widely circulated around the Civil Service.

For the record, the PDF in question appears (at the time of writing) in the first few pages of Google search results for ‘martha lane fox directgov review’.

Directgov board ‘dissolved’ prior to CEO’s exit

In the world of the government webby, it really doesn’t come a lot juicier than this. Jayne Nickalls’s resignation as chief executive of Directgov was confirmed via Twitter on Saturday:

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This was followed by a report in the Sunday Express (which I’d have missed, were it not for a helpful tipoff):

THE boss of a major Government website has quit amid concerns about a “politicised power-grab” by David Cameron’s spin doctors. Jayne Nickalls, the chief executive of Directgov … left last week. The organisation’s board has also been dissolved before an announcement about the website’s future due on Tuesday.

I’d heard rumours about the board’s dissolution: so I contacted Rory Sutherland, a man who knows a thing or two about public relations, who was appointed as a non-exec director in 2008.

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Beautifully worded.

Directgov itself has virtually no information about its own board. So I’ll have to quote a COI press release from 2008, which says the board existed for the following purposes:

  • Contributing to and approving an annual business plan to meet the requirements of the annual remit letter;
  • Agreeing strategies for the delivery of the business plan, priorities for delivery and the allocation of resources;
  • Setting the standards and values of the organisation;
  • Agreeing annual KPIs for Directgov and regularly monitoring performance against them; and
  • Ensuring achievement of Directgov’s targets associated with the cross-Departmental Service Transformation Delivery Agreement.

Now… you could certainly put two and two together here, with the proposal that all government (ie policy / political) material should be merged with Directgov’s rather clinical information, and the protective layer of the board being removed, to conclude that Jayne had walked out as a direct consequence.

I stress, I don’t know if this is or isn’t the case: but you’d certainly understand if she felt this would jeopardise, and potentially compromise the ‘public services’ brand she’d worked hard to develop over the last five years. And stripping away the board, quite abruptly from what I’m hearing, can only have heightened any concerns she might have had.

Have a good week, gang.

PS I’ll also note in passing the piece in the Observer today: ‘Britons will be forced to apply online for government services such as student loans, driving licences, passports and benefits under cost-cutting plans to be unveiled this week… Cabinet Office officials say the full savings will only be felt if everything is moved online. Leaving even a small percentage of print registrations would be “prohibitively expensive”.’ Although there isn’t even a namecheck for Directgov itself, it’s an illustration of just how central it is to the government’s overall cost-cutting drive.

Directgov CEO Jayne Nickalls quits (now confirmed)

No formal confirmation as yet, but we have reports from two very well-placed sources that Directgov CEO Jayne Nickalls has ‘resigned’ from her £95,000-a-year position.

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It’s just over a month since Martha Lane Fox submitted her review of Directgov, and her proposals for its future. And only two days ago, there was the clearest confirmation yet of the whispers I was picking up, when Civil Service Live posted a report that Directgov is to be government’s sole website.

More to follow – but since it’s well after 5pm on a Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t exactly hold your breath.

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.

What are you suggesting, Sir Bonar?

There have been some intriguing tweets from the well-connected, albeit fictional, UK data sharing czar, Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom in the last day or so.

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There it is again: the notion of greater rationalisation around Directgov. Hmm..?

In other news: Guido Fawkes is getting his teeth into the number of former Conservative Party (and indeed, Lib Dem) staff now finding themselves with Civil Service jobs. One stand-out name on the list is Rishi Saha, whose appointment was (finally) covered by the Mail a few days ago. Newsnight’s Michael Crick quotes his job title as ‘deputy director of communications in the Cabinet Office (and effectively head of digital communications, in charge of the websites run by the Cabinet Office and Number 10)’ – but he isn’t named in the Cabinet Office’s recent orgchart.

Lane Fox review hints at further rationalisation

Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov appears to have taken a slightly wider view than simply how well everyone’s favourite orange website works. Speaking at a conference in Birmingham, Cabinet Office director of digital delivery Graham Walker said:

We’ve been doing a review of Directgov and most of government on the web. We can see that there is a need to massively simplify it, with a lot more rationalisation and to improve the user experience.

Most of government on the web? More rationalisation? I’ve been hearing rumours that Ms LF’s recommendations may include a stronger role for Cabinet Office in departmental / policy publishing, much as it already has (through Directgov) in citizen-facing material. Are we looking at a single super-site for departments?

On a superficial level, that’s a return to the Dark Ages of 1994, when departments used to send floppy disks in the post to Norwich, where someone from CCTA would mark them up into HTML, and FTP them over to the Government Information Service (aka open.gov.uk). It’s also a return to the expensive and ultimately unsuccessful notion of The Club / DotP, which would have seen all departments running on the same (bespoke) CMS as Directgov and DH.

But a lot has changed in the past year or two – and it’s possible to envisage more modern publishing infrastructures, based on a managed multisite approach. You can look at what we’ve done on WordPress for Defra as an example: a centrally controlled environment, with the root level defining aspects like primary navigation and plugin selection, but with a high degree of flexibility and freedom given to the various child sites.

So yes, I can see why such a move would seem desirable – Directgov has been a success, at a very high price of course, and consistency of presentation and UX wouldn’t be a bad thing. (Indeed, I’ve written here previously, in praise of greater presentational consistency.) And yes, I believe it’s now technically realistic, in a way it never was before.

The precedents give plenty of reason to be pessimistic, though.

Directgov’s £28m/yr to be cut by a third

For those interested in the move of Directgov, and its 172 FTE staff, back to Cabinet Office control, there’s loads more detail in an explanatory document published on the Parliament website. I say ‘published': it’s been slipped out as a PDF on the little-known deposits.parliament.uk subsite.

The note confirms that ‘Directgov funding will be reduced by a third over the Spending Review period’, from £28.4m in 2010/11, ‘together with the funding for the digital teams based in the Cabinet Office.’

But alongside the nuts-and-bolts details of who pays for the laptops, there’s an interesting perspective on what Directgov’s actual role is:

Directgov‟s ongoing role is to enable government to:

  • Reduce the deficit
  • Encourage individual and social responsibility, through provision and sharing of information and services in an open and transparent way
  • Enhance the role of social enterprises, charities and co-operatives in public services