Open source didn’t exist until 2011

Puffbox emerges briefly from retirement to bring you an extract from Computer Weekly’s write-up of a somewhat confrontational appearance by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and DWP officials before the Commons Work And Pensions Committee, and a reported £40m write-off of IT work.

Universal Credit director general Howard Shiplee also revealed that the new system being developed will use open source, and he implied it will use cloud-based services.

“The digital approach is very different. It depends not on large amounts of tin. We will use open source and use mechanisms to store and access data in [an online] environment. It is much cheaper to operate and to build. We don’t have to pay such large licence fees,” he said.

When asked why that approach was not taken in the original plans for Universal Credit – where an agile development approach was adopted, then switched to waterfall when agile failed, Shiplee said, “Technology is moving ahead very rapidly. Such things were not available two-and-a-half years ago.”

Funny, that. Because…

  • The Cluetrain Manifesto was published in 2000, followed in 2001 by the Agile Manifesto for software development.
  • In 2004, the Office of Government Commerce said open source was ‘a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software’.
  • In October 2008, Amazon EC2 came out of beta after two years of successful operation.
  • In 2009 there was a UK government policy statement which, I felt, explicitly tipped the scales in favour of open source.
  • In early 2010 that policy was further beefed up, requiring suppliers to show they had given ‘fair consideration of open source solutions’ – and if they hadn’t, they faced being ‘automatically delisted from the procurement’.
  • In July 2010, following the general election, the Cabinet Office specifically acknowledged that ‘open source software offers government the opportunity of lower procurement prices, increased interoperability and easier integration’.
  • In March 2011, over two and half years ago, HMRC claimed to have ‘transformed [its] website, which as you know is one of the largest websites in the UK if not in Europe, to actually become a completely open source technology.’

Mr Shiplee is the director general of a project designated as one of the government’s 25 exemplars of digital transformation. His background, though, is in development of a more concrete kind: he was director of construction for the London Olympics. It’s unfair to expect him to be an expert in government technology policy. But one is left wondering how he was briefed.

No matter what you may have been encouraged to believe, there was life before the creation of the Government Digital Service.

‘Inside Government’ opens for testing

The next phase of the gov.uk beta programme was opened last night: a six-week public testing phase for the ‘Whitehall’ information, now renamed ‘Inside Government‘ (complete with tautological URL). Ten departments are covered initially, including all the obvious online big-hitters such as Health, BIS, Defra, FCO and DFID.

It looks very much like the rest of the gov.uk platform – as you’d expect, with a Global Experience Language – so it feels more like an extension than an enhancement. This is most striking with the individual department ‘subsites’: a unique ‘spot colour’ aside, and with an unexpected exception made for the MOD crest, all look identical and carry the same navigation. Departments aren’t going to recognise these as ‘their’ sites – but that’s kind of the point.

It’s far too early to make definitive judgments about the presentation, not least because the team admit it’s much more unfinished than previous previews. It’s hard, therefore, to decide what’s deliberately minimalist, and what’s just ‘not done yet’ – and therefore, hard to offer helpful criticism. A lot of the pages feel very plain, probably too plain. In particular, I’m not fond of the very ‘boxy’ presentation of many pages: see the main News or Publications pages as good examples. I just don’t find my eye being guided anywhere, and I don’t get any sense of significance. But maybe they just haven’t been ‘done’ yet.

Writing on the GDS blog, Neil Williams describes the ‘custom publishing engine properly tuned to the needs of multiple users and publishers across Whitehall, and built specifically for the kinds of things governments produce. … On average, publishing to GOV.UK was 2.5 minutes faster than WordPress and 11 minutes faster than Directgov,’ he claims: I’ve already taken him to task on that one. 🙂

As a website, it’s what they said it would be, and it looks like we knew it would look. So it doesn’t feel like much of a leap forward, and could actually be quite a tough sell around Whitehall. But this part of the gov.uk project isn’t about a website. It’s about redefining how government departments see themselves, present themselves, and talk about what they do. And that’s w-a-y more difficult than building a website.

Saul’s gov.uk plugin now on Github; anyone know Ruby?

Saul's plugin: 24 hours later

I blogged earlier today about Saul Cozens and his ‘v0.1 alpha’ WordPress plugin for embedding gov.uk content via WordPress shortcode.

The great news is, Saul has uploaded it to a public repo at Github, meaning it’s now:

  • dead easy for you to download, and keep up to date
  • possible for you to fix, enhance and generally improve it

Saul has very foolishly kindly given me commit privileges on it, and I’ve done a bit of work on it this evening – a bit of error handling / prevention, adding basic parsing of gov.uk’s multi-page ‘guide’ content (including any videos!), and general housekeeping.

In other words, it’s now less likely to simply fail on your page. It’s likely to fail in more complicated ways instead. 🙂

There’s one substantial catch: and this is an appeal for help.

The platform’s content is marked up, so it turns out, using an extension of the Markdown language, which they’re calling govspeak.

It adds a number of extra formatting options, to create things like information and warning ‘callout’ boxes. And whilst there are PHP based libraries for Markdown, which we can bolt on easily, there’s nothing instantly WordPress-friendly for this new govspeak.

Yet. If you know a bit of ruby, if you’ve got a bit of spare time, and if you want to help expand the reach of govuk’s content to charities, community groups, local government, etc etc… now’s your chance.

If you fancied one of those £73,000pa developer jobs, I bet it would look great on your application. 😉

New plugin embeds gov.uk forms within WordPress

Saul Cozens has done a wonderful thing. He’s written a WordPress plugin which allows you to integrate content from the new gov.uk site within WordPress pages. You add a WordPress shortcode, of the form:

[govuk url="https://www.gov.uk/vat-rates"]

It pulls in the corresponding JSON data – which is really just a case of adding .json on the end of the URL – and plonks it into your WordPress page. So far, so not tremendously complicated.

Here’s the good bit. No, sorry, the fantastic bit. Not only does it plonk the text in, it can also plonk forms into place. And keeps them active as forms. Yes – actual, working forms.

My screenshot above is taken from my test server: no offence Saul, but I’m not putting a v0.1 alpha plugin on my company site! – but it shows me successfully embedding the Student Finance Calculator ‘quick answer’ form within my current blog theme, and sending data back and forth. Sure, the CSS needs a little bit of work… but Saul’s concept is proven.

Game on.

GDS needs more devs, offers more money

I confess, I rather shared Steph Gray’s astonishment to see that GDS’s appetite for fresh developer blood continues unabated.

It’s a little unhelpfully presented on the Civil Service jobs site, but I’ve since had it confirmed that they are currently recruiting a total of 22 developers at Grades 6 and 7 level. (Not, as you’d almost certainly assume by reading it, 22 at each.)

For those outside the Civil Service, Grade 6 equates to an Army Colonel. At that level, you’d normally expect to be managing quite a decent number of human beings… which in my experience, are a lot more temperamental than servers.

You’ve got a week to get your application together, if you’re attracted by the prospect of a £73,000 salary package for a 36 hour working week. Which of course you would be, if you’re even remotely qualified.

I shudder to think what this is doing to ‘the market rate’ for IT jobs elsewhere in Whitehall.

And I wonder where these devs are going to go, in their next step up the career ladder. It can’t possibly be within government, without taking a significant pay cut… or a huge step-up in responsibility.

It’s quite agonising, by the way, to see that GDS have felt the need to write a blog post explaining how to search that Civil Service site, and download the appropriate files. An indication of just how work needs to be done; and therefore, perhaps, some kind of screening process? ‘This is what you’re up against…’

Betagov not afraid of public commitment

When I blogged about the GDS launch, before Christmas, I noted that how it did things was at least as important as what it was actually doing, and possibly moreso. Within the first 24 hours of the new gov.uk beta site going public, we have a perfect example of this.

The gov.uk team have an account at Github – which, you won’t be surprised to hear, is where all the cool coding kids hang out these days. For the benefit of those of a certain age, Git is neither randy nor Scouse. It’s a ‘version control’ system, which lets multiple people work on the same code file(s). The GDS team are using it for their own benefit; and they’ve made the account public, so other people can see what’s happening, work out how it can be fixed or improved – and then submit amended code for potential inclusion.

David Mann picks up the story:

Matthew Somerville, a notorious polymath (and former civil servant) found an issue with our bank holidays page. … He downloaded the code for that particular page from our open source code repository, and then corrected the code and uploaded the changes to GitHub. He submitted a pull request (ie he proposed that we include his changes). After careful testing and checks, we have now included his contribution into the GOV.UK code and the change will appear on the site soon.

And here’s exactly how it happened, over at Github.

A certain amount of perspective is required. Matthew is a pretty special case; and the code change in question was trivial (in code terms, rather than legislative terms). But let’s revel in the fact that it happened. An Outsider spotted a problem, wrote a fix, sent it in, and the Cabinet Office activated it.

This is what progress looks like.

New year, new job? More big-money vacancies at GDS

My attention has again been drawn to the Civil Service jobs website, and the latest vacancies being offered within the Cabinet Office – and specifically, the Government Digital Service. They’re looking for, among others:

  • 7 ‘interaction designers’, on salary packages ‘up to £97,500 per annum’
  • 2 ‘creative leads’, ‘up to £111,000 per annum’
  • 4 ‘web ops’, ‘up to £73,000 per annum’
  • a ‘Delivery Team Manager’, ‘up to £97,500 per annum’
  • 3 ‘technical architects’, ‘up to £97,500 per annum’and… brace yourself…
  • 22 developers, ‘up to £73,000 per annum’

Some of these labels are familiar: for example, I blogged back in October about a previous round of vacancies, which included:

  • Two creative leads, £80k
  •  Two technical architects, £90k
  • 12 developer positions, £65k
  • Two ‘web ops’, £65k
  • A delivery team manager, £85k
  • Three interaction designers, £59k

Increased demand, with across-the-board salary increases? Or perhaps they weren’t offering quite enough last time to fill those previously advertised vacancies? Who knows.

Update: Confirmation from GDS’s Tony Singleton – ‘We did not fill all the posts advertised in October so are readvertising those along with additional ones.’

For the record, that current round of vacancies has a potential total just short of £3.2 million; and that’s before overheads, NI, etc etc.

There are also some slightly less glamorous positions, such as an Internal Network Manager and Internal Network Administrator, both on £29-38k. But these are permanent, where the others are Fixed Term.

Closing dates on all of these, if you’re interested, is 11 January; and they are all open to external candidates. Something to keep you occupied over Christmas, maybe.

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.

GDS hiring product managers

The Government Digital Service has posted a job advert, seeking five ‘world-class‘ product managers, on a 24-month fixed-term basis. I can’t see any detail on what the five ‘products’ actually are; but there’s a lengthy application form, posted online in Word format only, allowing you plenty of room to explain why you’re suitable to manage them.

There’s a total salary package of up to £90k ‘available for exceptional candidates depending on specialist skills and expertise’, but that comprises base salary, additional pensionable allowances, pension benefits, generous annual leave allowance and flexible working arrangements.

It’s interesting to see these positions being advertised externally: questions have been asked about the recruitment of GDS staff thus far, and the extent to which positions have been externally advertised. In a comment on a recent blog post, James Taylor acknowledged:

All roles in the GDS have to be filled in line with the Recruitment Principles published by the Civil Service Commission.

The Commission excepts certain appointments from the principle of appointment on merit through fair and open competition where it believes this is justified by the needs of the Civil Service. In the case of the GDS, some roles have been considered to be exempt under the following condition.

See Annex C of the Recruitment Principles:

3. Appointments of individuals with highly specialised skills and experience for up to two years to allow highly specialised people to be brought in without a competition for a particular one-off job on the basis that such a process would be a mere formality. Any proposal for a longer appointment at the outset or to extend an appointment made under this exception beyond two years requires the approval of the Civil Service Commission.

Closing date for applications is 4 November, with interviews in the week of 21 November. ‘Late or faxed applications will not be accepted’.

GDS defends bespoke approach

I seemed to cause a bit of a stir a couple of weeks back, when I challenged the decision to develop a new Government [web publishing] Machine from scratch, rather than basing it on an existing third-party platform. My blog post got quite a few comments; and there were some interesting exchanges on Twitter too. And now, to the Government Digital Service team’s great credit, they’ve written a post on their own blog, responding to the challenge.

James Stewart’s piece opens on a rather sour note, choosing to reference the Americans’ adoption of Drupal first, before acknowledging the UK’s primarily WordPress-based initiatives. The fact is, for once, Britain led the way on this. Perhaps if we’d had a high-profile champion like Tim Berners-Lee or Martha Lane Fox, we might have had greater, wider recognition. Instead, we just got on with it, delivering projects quickly, cheaply and quietly.

The choice of WordPress-based projects to namecheck in that opening paragraph is also a little odd. James is of course correct to observe that it powers ‘numerous central government sites’; some traditional blogs, some more complex. But he doesn’t mention the four central government departments who are already using WordPress to power their core departmental publishing – Defra, Transport, Health and the Wales Office. Nor is there a mention for the Cabinet Office’s use of Drupal. Altogether a slightly odd omission in the context.

James proceeds to list the reasons why they took a bespoke approach, but each time, concedes that yes, they probably could have used WordPress or Drupal.

We’ve got a very strong focus on opening up APIs. While both Drupal and WordPress can be used to offer APIs… adding the range of APIs we’re aspiring to would require significant development work, and to make them perform as we’d like we’d need to work around the overheads introduced by WordPress and Drupal.

[On metrics:] Again, that’s certainly possible with both Drupal and WordPress, but to do it effectively we’d be writing a considerable amount of custom code.

Perhaps most compelling for me is our focus on admin systems… Here too we could customise any open source content management system to do the job, but it’s highly likely we’d either have to make significant changes to core code or develop a parallel admin system at which point much of the advantage of starting with the base system would be lost.

Or if I might paraphrase, somewhat provocatively: they’re writing lots of custom code because otherwise, they’d have to write lots of custom code.

So on some level at least, it boils down to a comparison on the basis of cost and complexity. ‘We’re choosing to start by assembling components rather than customising a package,’ James writes in summary – implying a conclusion that their bespoke approach will work out easier / quicker / cheaper / more sustainable. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. So much of it boils down to the individuals you hire, and their varying levels of experience with various components.

James concludes with a pledge that ‘we’ll be contributing code back to the wider community (whether in the form of new components or patches to existing ones) as we go along.’ And of course, that’s to be welcomed. Reuse of code is good. But this doesn’t really tackle the point I tried to make about maximising reuse of the code: a point subsequently made, rather more forcefully, by Matt Jukes.

I think the work happening in GDS will have a real impact on web teams throughout the public sector but it will take a long time for it to leak through to those of us out in the NDPBs and I think I’ll switch to treating the work they are doing there as something as different to my job as that of a Silicon Valley start-up.

Ultimately then, it’s a question of trust. Trust our judgement; trust our assessment of the relative levels of effort; trust our staff and project management skills; trust that the (back end) benefits will trickle down eventually. And looking at the CVs of those hired to do the work, there’s certainly ample reason to put your trust in them.

Will they succeed where others have failed previously? We’ll find out in due course. And genuinely, sincerely, I wish them well. We may disagree on the approach: but we all want to reach the same destination.