Departmental websites: gone by Xmas?

My attention has been drawn to the commitment on page 42 of yesterday’s Budget 2012 document.

from 2014, new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they themselves can use the service successfully

It’s so simple, it’s brilliant. And quite funny too.

But don’t overlook the non-highlighted bit which follows. It’s a commitment, the first I’m explicitly aware of, that:

all information is [to be] published on a single ’gov.uk’ domain name by the end of 2012

In other words, the Single Domain will at least be ‘dual running’ with all departmental websites within 9 months. But it’s surely more likely, given that efficiency is a key selling point of the Single Domain strategy, that we’ll see all departmental websites closed by then. There was no deadline mentioned in the Martha Lane Fox report of November 2010, or in last October’s ICT Implementation Plan.

Update: blogging on the GDS’s WordPress.com-based site, Mike Bracken adds some clarification:

We’re working with colleagues across Government to get all information for citizens and businesses (what’s currently covered by Directgov and Businesslink) published on GOV.UK by the end of this year and this gives us the hurry up. We’re also working towards migrating Departmental sites onto ‘Inside Government’ but that will take a little longer, with a more gradual transition as current contracting arrangements for individual Departments come to an end.

‘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 gov.uk website hits beta

The GDS project to build a ‘single government domain’ website passed from alpha to beta phase in the final few hours of January 2012. And as with the alpha, it’s all open to the public – you’ll find it at http://www.gov.uk, which still looks rather odd, and feels very strange to type. I guess I’ll get used to it.

Writing on the GDS blog, Tom Loosemore describes it as ‘ the next step on the journey’, but of course, that’s a bit of an understatement. An ‘alpha’ build, such as was unveiled last year, makes no promises. By definition, a beta is much closer to what its creators consider to be their eventual vision. The stakes are higher, much higher this time.

Thankfully, it’s looking great. It’s no surprise to see the defining characteristics of the alpha still in place – notably the placing of emphasis on tools rather than text, and search rather than navigation. And it’s in these that you find the platform’s real strengths.

‘Quick answers’, such as this Student Finance Calculator perfectly illustrate the revolution that this ushers in. For too long, government websites have sought to provide inch-thick documents instead of single-sentence (or even better, one word) answers to the user’s specific question.

(Remind me to blog about the ‘do I need a visa?’ questionnaire I built in 1999, whilst at the Foreign Office – and still visible, hurrah!, via web.archive.org. And a dozen years later, presumably after serious reconstructive surgery, it’s still going strong albeit in a new home.)

And it goes without saying – the predictive search mechanism is excellent. But then again, it has to be. Once you’re beyond the homepage, there’s next to no clickable navigation. This is the ‘Google is the homepage‘ credo gone fundamentalist.

For those of a technical mind, James Stewart has listed the technology it uses; and I’m grateful to Harry Metcalfe for the tip-off that interesting things happen if you stick .json on the end of a URL.

I for one welcome our new online overlord. 😉

(Plus, it gave me an excuse to play around with the excellent Bootstrap web framework, open-sourced by Twitter last year. I love it, although it’s highly likely to make your website look a lot like Twitter.)

Scotland’s new public service portal

First major government web launch of the year is DirectScot – described by some as the ‘Scottish version of alpha.gov.uk’, although if you dig beneath the service, it’s arguably closer in philosophy to Northern Ireland’s NIDirect.

On its WordPress-powered blog (yay!), DirectScot says its aim is ‘to enable you to find what you are looking for as quickly and easily as possible, based on aggregation of content and powerful, location-based search technology.’ Indeed, it explicitly calls itself a portal, a word Alphagov never used. The development agency behind the site, Edinburgh’s own Storm ID admit as much: their launch announcement is all about search, search, search.

The site highlights a handful of services ‘featured for the prototype’: one of which is Booking a practical driving test. This takes you to a page with an intriguing URL, ending in a DG reference number. Can you guess what DG stands for? And indeed, the five-digit number on the DirectScot site matches the equivalent page ID on its orange neighbour. Scanning down that page on driving tests, you’ll see links to half a dozen other DG-sourced articles, plus a few pointing at dft.gov.uk… none of which, as yet, carry your geographic location across.

The one feature which is properly ‘wired in’ is the application process for a Blue Badge parking permit. A page named DS_0001 ultimately leads you to a DirectScot-branded equivalent of the standard Directgov page… although tellingly, the ‘home’ URL behind the DirectScot logo is, in fact, still www.direct.gov.uk. Ahem.

It’s far too early to make any judgements about the site. The principle of location-tailored information is unquestionably a good thing; and even if this prototype is only a statement of intent in that regard, it’s to be welcomed. It’s quite pretty, and makes a good first step towards responsive design – the process by which a layout adapts according to the available screen size.

But there’s one dark cloud on the horizon: the site looks to have been built using Microsoft technologies, which doesn’t bode well for the site’s code being open-sourced.

Consultation on the site opened today, and closes on 1 March.

22 more well-paid GDS jobs up for grabs

In addition to the five Government Digital Service product manager roles I mentioned at the end of last week, I’ve also had my attention drawn to several other roles being advertised on the Civil Service jobs website:

  • Two creative leads (eh?), with salary package up to £80k
  •  Two technical architects, £90k
  • 12 developer positions, with salary quoted at ‘up to £65k’
  • Two ‘web ops’ (I’m not even sure what that means – guess I’m not suitable), £65k
  • A delivery team manager, £85k
  • Three interaction designers, £59k

All the above positions are based in Central London, are ‘open to UK, British Commonwealth and European Economic Area (EEA) Nationals and certain non EEA members’, and are offered on a Fixed Term basis. The closing date for all positions is 4 November.

Potentially totalling £1.5 million (and that’s without overheads, NI, etc), those look like very generous salaries indeed, particularly in an economic downturn. They’ve clearly set their sights very highly indeed: justifiable, arguably, given the importance of the positions, and the (net) savings they’re meant to generate.

Additionally, they’re advertising for the SCS1-level position of Deputy Director Digital Engagement: a permanent position this time, with salary in the range £58,200 – £72,000 – ‘with an expectation of joining at the lower end of the payscale’ , which seems slightly odd given the other positions on offer at the same time. Closing date on that one is 8 November.

There’s plenty of detail in the ‘person specification’ for the role, listing among its responsibilities:

  • Managing the use of social media within government, focusing on standards, acceptable use and engagement.
  • Engaging with other business units within Cabinet Office to assist in the delivery of key initiatives using digital channels to ensure that the GDS agenda is at the heart of government policy and execution.
  • Defining the GDS communication approaches as an exemplar of best practice in digital communication
  • Encouraging the maximum use of digital channels to access government information and transactions.
  • Designing and implementing the organisational development programme that will embed the Digital by Default mission
  • Actively promoting concepts of open governance through promoting the use of open government data, engaging actively with third party developers in conjunction with the partnership team
  • Establishing an approach to managing reputation risk across the digital domain with appropriate ownership by individual departments
  • Being the media spokesperson for GDS

But I’m having trouble confirming the position of this position in the GDS hierarchy. It reads like it’s a direct report to executive director Mike Bracken, but that isn’t made clear. (The paperwork attached to the job ad calls it ‘Deputy Director, Digital Engagement’ with a potentially all-important comma.) For the record, the last time we saw the words ‘director’, ‘digital’ and ‘engagement’ together, it was Katie Davis taking over from Andrew Stott on an interim basis… but she moved to DH in July.

I’d link to the various job adverts on the new Civil Service Jobs website … but it won’t let me. For some ridiculous reason, they’ve made the form submit via POST, not GET… so you don’t get any identifying data in the URL displayed by the browser. You’ll have to go here, and search for ‘Cabinet Office excl agencies’ positions.

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’.