New CERT-UK website will be shortlived

Maude at Sprint 14. Pic: gdsteam on Flickr
Maude at Sprint 14. Pic: gdsteam on Flickr

If Puffbox was still on active service, it would already have brought to your attention the news that:

The number of government websites is increasing despite a high-profile cull, Francis Maude has revealed. The Cabinet Office minister said his officials were engaged in a “nightmarish game of ‘splat the rat'”. “As soon as you knock one website on the head another one pops up,” he told a government IT conference in London. Mr Maude said all sites – including those for government agencies – would either be axed or moved into the gov.uk domain by the end of the year. “There is no reason why every single bit of government should have its own unique web presence,” he told the SPRINT 14 conference. “It’s complicated and it’s expensive and we don’t need to do it.’

Government websites on rise again despite cull‘, BBC website, 29.01.2014
See also: speech on gov.uk

Sadly Francis apparently missed the opportunity to mention this when, earlier today, he stood up on a stage to launch the 55-strong Computer Emergency Response Team UK (CERT-UK). New organisation… guess what? New website.

I only take some modest consolation from the fact that it’s running on WordPress… WP Engine, in fact, as demonstrated by the fact you can access the site via certuklive.wpengine.com.

CERT-UK’s director, Chris Gibson proudly declared at the launch event: ‘Numerous government departments (such as the Government Digital Service who built our website and other technology) have assisted us.’

If that’s true – why does it say ‘Built by Surevine’ in the footer of every page on that website, not to mention the theme’s stylesheet? Why would GDS help prolong its boss’s rat-splatting nightmare?

Surevine, meanwhile, are keen to tell you about their participation in Open Source – ‘it’s core to what we do,’ they say. But their claim to being ‘active’ in the WordPress community is something of a stretch – given that their sole contribution appears to be a single plugin connecting to their own node.js web service, posted not in the official repo but on Github. It’s being watched by a total of 14 people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Surevine staff.

There are plenty of other nits I could pick. But what’s the point? The site will be shut down in 276 days tops. Won’t it?

GDS’s visions of the future

Master of ceremonies, Mike Bracken

I must admit, I was a bit surprised to receive an invite to what was billed as the launch of the Government Digital Service – but was, more accurately, the housewarming party for its new offices at Holborn. I consider myself a ‘critical friend’ of the project, but it’s clear that some people focus on the ‘critical’ part. I had visions of one of those American police sting operations, where they tell all the local fugitives they’ve won the Lottery.

Looking back at the tweets afterwards – from people who were there, and those watching from afar – I was surprised at quite how big a deal people were making of it. I observe these matters more closely than most, I admit; but I didn’t hear a lot I hadn’t already heard before. Some of it several years ago.

What was more important, by far, was who said it. And where.

Francis Maude in casual mode

Leading off the sequence of rapid-fire speeches and presentations (slides now on the GDS blog) was Cabinet minister Francis Maude: note the open-neck shirt, the relaxed saloon-bar lean against the side of the podium. This was not your typical Address By The Minister. Citing his pride that this was happening on his watch, Maude made a somewhat unexpected statement: ‘where a service can be delivered digitally, it should be, and only digitally.’ That sounded like a step beyond the notion of ‘digital by default’. Had I taken that down correctly? Yes I had; helpfully he said it again. And again. Fair enough…

The honour of following the Minister fell, perhaps unexpectedly, to Ryan Battles from Directgov. In fact, this was a recurring theme throughout the morning: it felt like every opportunity was taken to credit Directgov, how much it had achieved, how strong its satisfaction ratings had been.

Tom Loosemore

Tom Loosemore’s slot was probably the most eagerly anticipated: a first public sight of screens from the Single Domain ‘beta’ build. He opened with a tribute to Directgov, and said he now appreciated how difficult it was to get things done in government. And via an extended jigsaw metaphor, he demonstrated some of the new site’s key principles – most notably the use of ‘smart answers’ javascript-based forms which asked specific questions, and gave specific answers. (I’ve got a story of my own to tell about such approaches… another time.)

But for me, Chris Chant’s comments may prove the most significant of all. He described how the GDS’s IT had been set up, using the kind of instant-access, low-cost tools you’d expect of a technology startup. Mac laptops, Google Apps, the open-source Libre Office software suite, and no fixed telephony. (OK, so maybe the Mac laptops wouldn’t be low-cost to buy initially; but they’re more developer-friendly, and almost certainly lower-cost to support.)

I think that’s when it all fell into place for me. The day wasn’t about demo’ing the current work-in-progress on the websites. It was about presenting GDS itself as a vision of the future. It’s an office space which looks and feels like no government office I’ve ever been in: and for many, it’ll come as quite a shock to the system. (Not least the ceiling-height photos of Francis and Martha.)

It’s taking a pragmatic, rather than the usual paranoid and overbearing view of IT security; and a modern approach to ‘desktop’ computing. Which of course is the only sensible thing to be doing in this day and age… although that hasn’t been enough to encourage government to do so in the past.

Ian Watmore

Ian Watmore’s comments confirmed this: one of the first things Mike Bracken had asked for upon his appointment was ‘a building’ – and this was it. Perhaps appropriately, Watmore observed, it’s a former church. As might be expected of a Permanent Secretary, his remarks seemed the best-prepared – although, as he freely admitted, the previous night’s football results must have been quite a distraction for an avid Arsenal fan.

Some visionary remarks from Martha Lane Fox, about technology providing a route out of poverty, brought the procession of Big Names to a close. It’s hard to imagine a more illustrious lineup of speakers for such an event; (almost) all of them speaking without notes, and with conviction. These were the people at the highest levels of the department in overall charge of public services, all speaking as converts to the benefits – to the user, to the civil servant, to the taxpayer – of the new tech-led approach. There’s absolutely no questioning the backing for it.

And by their very mode of operation, GDS is setting precedent after precedent, about what is allowed, and can be done in a Civil Service environment. Others can point to it as an example, and ask difficult questions of their own IT and facilities managers. If they can do it, and apparently save something like 82% by doing so – why can’t we? Or more to the point, how the hell can we justify not doing so?

Things are changing.

Cabinet Office approves only 3 new domains since election

In an answer (ahem) to a PQ from Tom Watson today, Francis Maude announces that only three requests for new .gov.uk domains have been granted since the new government took office in May 2010. These were:

  • alpha.gov.uk (which you might have heard of)
  • childrenscommissioner.gov.uk (replacing thechildrenscommissioner.org.uk)
  • education.gov.uk (replacing dcsf.gov.uk, reflecting the Department’s change of name)

OK, but strictly, that’s not what Tom asked: the question was about ‘requests for the creation of new websites’, not new domain name registrations. What an unfortunate mix-up! – which I think we all saw coming. And yes, for the record, the remit of the Efficiency and Reform Group was for ‘new websites’, not new domains, as this press release from June 2010 makes quite clear.

Even so, the response still fails to quote a total number of requests (for whatever you choose to define as a ‘new website’) made to the ERG, citing – guess what? – ‘disproportionate cost’. Really? Doesn’t sounds like their filing system is tremendously efficient, does it.

[Historical footnote: I think it was Alan Mather who came up with the first Big Scary Number of government websites – this blog post from 2003 quoted a count of 2,643 domains, which was frequently – and wrongly – cited as being 2,643 websites. But even in that same post, I see Alan uses the words ‘domains’ and ‘sites’ interchangeably.]

Cabinet Office finally confirms Alphagov transition to beta

If you’ve been following the whole Alphagov thing – and if you’re reading this, we can probably assume you have – then today’s Cabinet Office ‘announcement’ that the Single Government Domain project has now ‘progressed to the next stage’ won’t have come as any kind of surprise. I make it seven weeks since the team declared via Twitter:

We’ve moved on from developing the “Alpha” (prototype), so we’re no longer called @alphagov on Twitter. “Beta” now in development.

… followed soon after by Neil Williams’s revelation on his personal blog that he was now working half-time on ‘Betagov’.

Tom Loosemore’s blog post adds some detail, promising three things for ‘early 2012’:

  1. Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of gov.uk.
  2. Private beta test of a shared gov.uk ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments (see alpha.gov.uk/government for a flavour)
  3. A first draft of a gov.uk ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single gov.uk domain. (see BBC.co.uk/gel for an example).

There will be a certain amount of dual running of ‘the beta’ and Directgov – ‘it will be constantly updated in order to trial the essential behind-the-scenes administrator tools & processes’ – indicating, at the very least, how serious they’re now taking it. Constant updating means, in effect, a ‘proper’ staff – and that’s probably the most difficult thing to arrange in Whitehall terms.

I’m glad to see Tom’s apparent acknowledgement that the ‘single domain’ approach only goes so far, and doesn’t perhaps sit too neatly with departmental representation. He writes: ‘the audience for such content tends to be more specialist and already engaged with the work of government than most mainstream users.’ Would departmental subdomains still count as being within a ‘single domain’, I wonder?

Of course, given my own experience with departmental publishing, it’s this aspect which I’m most interested in – even though it’s not the most important from the citizen perspective. And, to be frank, it’s the area where I feel Puffbox can be of most help. Throughout the past year (ish) working with Defra, we’ve kept in mind the possibility – increasingly, the likelihood – that departments would start to share a platform, and ultimately, share code within it.

We’ve shown how WordPress can be configured to bear the load, whilst still maintaining an efficient balance between centralised control and devolved publishing responsibility. And if you’re wondering why the Puffbox name doesn’t appear in Defra’s spending data on the No10 transparency site: that’s because we came in (well!) below the £25,000 threshold for publication.

Meanwhile, as highlighted earlier this week, we’re now up to four Whitehall departments (plus No10) using WordPress as their primary web platform. Thus far it’s been somewhat opportunistic; now it’s time to get a bit more strategic.

Update: The Register’s piece on the subject refers to a ‘Betagov’ budget of £1.6m: author Kelly Fiveash tweets to tell me it’s ‘an accurate figure the Cabinet Office gave [her] this morning’. Subsequently confirmed by Tom Loosemore: ‘yup, that’s the overall programme budget for single domain‘.

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.

Websites under £20k dodge Maude’s gateway

There’s an intriguing mismatch between the answers to two PQs tabled by former Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson today. In one, he asks ‘what criteria have been set to govern the creation of new Government websites’, to which Francis Maude replies:

I am determined to reduce the number of Government websites and so the creation of any new sites will be exceptional and only permitted where its objective cannot be met in any other way. The reduction in the number of websites is part of the overall control on communications spending, which the Efficiency Board is overseeing.

You’ll note the complete lack of any specific criteria being mentioned. That’s OK, it’s hardly the first time. But on the very same page of Hansard, we go on to learn there are some specific criteria as to whether or not a web project even requires the Board’s oversight.

Tom also asked about the cost of the Your Freedom website, built by Delib. Francis Maude responds that the site cost a very reasonable £3,200 (inc VAT) to build, and has a (very precisely) estimated annual cost of £19,853.98 including VAT. But the last line of the response is the most interesting:

The creation of the Your Freedom website did not come before the Efficiency Board as the estimated cost was below the £20,000 threshold for approval.

Ah, there is a specific criterion after all! There’s certainly been no mention of it in, for example, the Cabinet Office press release announcing the new procedure, which only stated that:

No new websites will be permitted except for those that pass through a stringent exceptions process for special cases, and are cleared by the Efficiency board

So at first glance, it looks like you’ll get away with it if you keep the price below £20k. Your Freedom, which comes in just £146.02 below that threshold, appears to be setting a handy precedent.

Gov websites to use open source ‘whenever possible’

In the response to a pretty innocuous parliamentary question from Tom Watson, new Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude makes a statement which could, on the face of it, be of monumental significance for UK e-government.

The Government believe that departmental websites should be hubs for debate as well as information-where people come together to discuss issues and address challenges – and that this should be achieved efficiently and, whenever possible using open source software. Any future development of websites run by the Cabinet Office will be assessed and reviewed against these criteria.

We’ve heard the ‘hubs for debate’ line before, in the Conservative tech manifesto, but the other part is quite startling. Open source software ‘wherever possible’. An unqualified statement of policy. No caveats at all; not even financial. That takes us far, far beyond the ‘level playing field’.

Downing St reopens its email function

no10mailbox wide

Rejoice, bloggers! Downing Street has started the rollout of its (apparently?) much-missed function to send an email to the Prime Minister.

There’s been plenty of commentary on the function’s disappearance last summer, from Tim Ireland to Francis Maude, much of it coming from the slightly naive position of ‘how hard can it be to set up an email account’? Of course, that part’s dead easy. But what do you do when that account receives hundreds or thousands of messages daily?

I’ve spoken to the Downing Street team about this in the past; the problems with the old ‘just an inbox’ system went beyond sheer volumes. And unfortunately, the classic corporate response – ignore the lot of them (and yes, it does happen) – isn’t an option when there’s the considerable risk of missing something tremendously sensitive: an email, let’s say, from a soldier’s widow.

It’s based on a web-to-email form rather than a plain email address: no shame in that, it’s what Obama does. However, unlike most (including Obama, by the way), it’s done over https, giving an extra layer of security for those messages whilst in transit.

Before you get to that form, though, you’re shown a list of subjects you might be emailing about: and if one of these is relevant, it directs you to somewhere more suitable. Isn’t this obstructive? Yes, of course it is. But it stops you before you waste your time typing a message which won’t get the reply you want. That’s got to be a good thing overall.

Once over that hurdle, the email form is perhaps surprisingly short: all it asks, in terms of personal information, is a name, postcode and email address. Enough for you to get a reply (if they choose to send one), and enough for them to see if any subjects are particularly hot in certain areas. The message is limited to 1000 characters: too tight for Dizzy, but at least there’s a live character count on the screen.

Before your message is properly submitted, you get an automated email asking you to verify your address. Again, perfectly normal online behaviour, with benefits to both sides: it filters out the anonymous rants, and double-checks the recipient’s address in the event of No10 wanting to reply.

Then, behind the scenes, I hear there are a few tools to help them cope better with the volumes: the ability to group emails by common subjects, workflow management, and so on.

A lot of the commentary, it must be said, has been purely a hook on which to hang wider criticism: ‘a beleaguered prime minister retreating to his bunker,’ to quote Francis Maude. It didn’t take any account of whether the former function was actually working. For anyone.

The new system – built outside WordPress, incidentally – provides added security, greater efficiency and reliability, But most importantly, it provides a much better likelihood of your email actually getting a decent response. Which is the whole point of having such a service in the first place.