Government publishes ICT Strategy implementation plan

Following on from March’s publication of the new government ICT strategy, the Cabinet Office has published its implementation plan – a long and detailed document, full of specific milestones, risks and nominated Senior Responsible Owner, leading to projected savings of ‘around £1.4bn of savings within the next 4 years’ (according to the press release).

‘Our plans are focused on standardising government ICT,’ states the foreword, with a pledge to ‘fundamentally change how government incorporates ICT into its everyday business. It will ensure the early factoring of technology considerations into the design of policy, increase digital inclusion, reduce the cost of our operations, and ensure information is shared and transparent where possible and always handled appropriately.’ Good news on all fronts, you’d have to say.

The document covers so much ground, it’s almost impossible to provide a meaningful summary of it. But to pick out a few highlights, based on the areas of particular interest to this blog and this blogger:

  • Open source: a ‘toolkit to assist departments in the evaluation and adoption of open source solutions’ is due for completion this month, although it will only be accessible by ‘100% of departments’ by next March. By March 2013, ‘100% of all department software procurement activity includes an open source option analysis’. The Senior Responsible Owner for Open Source is Robin Pape, CIO for the Home Office.
  • Open technical standards: the findings from the recent ‘crowd sourcing’ exercise will be published this month, with ‘the first release of a draft suite of mandatory Open Technical Standards’ to follow in December. Levels of adoption of these will be reviewed in six months.
  • App Store: will launch in March 2012, but rather unambitiously, they’re giving it until the following December to reach ’50 accredited products’. Sounds like it’ll be pretty empty until this time next year.
  • Single domain: The launch of a ‘Beta version of single government web domain for public testing’ is set for February 2012.
  • APIs: I’m pleased to see the statement that ‘Government will select common standards’ – as opposed to defining its own. But despite having apparently completed a review of existing cross-government APIs in March 2011, it’s going to take until September 2012 for a list of APIs to be published. Like the single domain work, this stream will be owned by Mike Bracken.
  • Consultation: This one looks a bit odd. All departments are to have established a ‘digital channel for online consultation’ by December 2011… but then in February, the GDS ‘online consultation product’ will have been delivered, which makes you wonder why they’re making departments spend time and money getting something together for December. Said GDS product will be ‘integrated’ into Single Domain by October 2012.
  • Social media: Maybe it’s me, but it seems a bit odd that the lead department on departmental access to social media sites should be the Home Office: they’ll be producing ‘final guidelines’ by March next year. Verification of existing government social media accounts ‘where appropriate’ is to be completed by next month.

It’s good to see so many specific dates and people in this document, and I think we can take a lot of encouragement from the plan as a whole. Personally, though, I can’t help feeling slightly excluded. I don’t see too many specific areas where Puffbox, or someone like us, can offer a contribution.

How we could all benefit from Betagov’s accessibility work

Accessibility is the subject of the latest post on the Government Digital Service blog: having had their fingers burned in the ‘alphagov’ phase of work, by consciously ignoring the subject, it’s clear they want to be seen to make it a priority into the beta phase.

Léonie Watson writes:

Tom Loosemore has said: “… we want to make the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been”. Those of you who know something about web development on this scale will understand what a challenge that is. Those of you who know me will also recognise it’s a goal I thoroughly believe in. So, what are we doing to achieve that goal? Simply put, we’re planning accessibility in from the outset and documenting the accessibility steps we take throughout the website’s lifetime.

I’ve posted a comment on her article, which I’ll reproduce here for the record. You’ll instantly note a common theme with my recent inflammatory post about departmental publishing.

As you’ve noted, accessibility is very hard to get right: you’re conceding that you might not even score a ‘perfect 10’, even though you’re ‘planning [it] in from the outset’. And as [previous commenter] Keith says, for small organisations, it’s prohibitively expensive to even buy the rulebook, before you even begin to implement the rules.

If government is hiring experts, consulting widely with users, and (hopefully) delivering exemplary results, it seems like a tragic waste for the benefits to be locked into a single website.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if one of the outputs from your work were to be a reusable, customisable front-end theme for an open-source, widely-used publishing platform, like WordPress or Drupal? You could enforce certain ‘must have’ accessibility practices in the page templates, whilst still giving people plenty of scope to make it look and feel like their own site – via a parent/child theme arrangement, or a ‘theme options’ screen.

You could then release that theme publicly – giving web developers everywhere a robust base on which to build their sites. Imagine all those common accessibility headaches being solved, before the first line of custom code is written.

(I’m not suggesting this would solve all problems instantly, of course. And there’s still plenty of scope to cause all sorts of new problems in, say, a child theme’s CSS. But you’d certainly be giving people one heck of a head start.)

The fact is, very few organisations have any real motivation to get accessibility right. But Government has a moral obligation to do so. And you’re spending our taxes to do it… so I’d argue we all have a right to enjoy the fruits of that labour. Central and local government, public and private sector.

Issuing a list of rules seems a very old-fashioned way to encourage / enforce good practice. You have an opportunity here, to do something much smarter than that.

 

Bespoke builds and broader benefits

In which Simon makes the case for the ‘government machine’ (in the diagram above), for government departments to publish fairly basic written information about their work, to be built on something which already exists, instead of being built ‘from the ground up’. If you haven’t already, do read Neil’s piece… then Stephen Hale’s piece about the Department of Health’s new approach… then read on. And do please note the line about ‘Seriously, this isn’t about WordPress.’

It won’t entirely surprise you to learn that, when Neil Williams’s blog post about government web publishing in the world of a Single Domain popped up in my feeds, the first thing I did was press control-F, and search for ‘wordpress’. And hooray, multiple mentions! Well, yes, but.

Some background, for those who need it: Neil is head of digital comms at BIS, currently ‘on loan’ to the Government Digital Service team, to lead the work exploring how government departments fit into the grand Lane Fox / Loosemore / Alphagov vision. A ‘hidden gem‘, Tom Loosemore calls him – which seems a bit harsh, as Neil has been quite the trailblazer in his work at BIS, not least with his own web consolidation project. It’s hard to think of anyone better placed to take up this role.

With that track record, it’s happily predictable to see Neil reserving a specific place for WordPress (and the like). More generally, the vision – as illustrated in the diagram reproduced above – is sound, with the right things in the right places. There’s so much to welcome in it. But there’s one line, describing an ‘irreducible core‘, which stopped me in my tracks:

a bespoke box of tricks we’ll be building from the ground up to meet the publishing needs most government organisations have in common, and the information needs ‘specialist’ audiences most commonly have of government.

Here’s my question for the GDS team: why bespoke? why ‘from the ground up’?

It’s a decision which requires justification. ‘Bespoke’ invariably costs more and takes longer. It will increase the risks, and reduce the potential rewards. It would also seem to be directly in breach of the commitment Francis Maude made in June 2010, to build departmental websites ‘wherever possible using open source software’. Were all the various open source publishing platforms given due consideration? Was it found to be literally impossible to use any of them, even as a basis for development?

Let’s assume WordPress and Drupal, the two most obvious open source candidates, were properly considered, as required by the Minister. Let’s assume contributions were sought from people familiar with the products in question, and just as importantly, the well-established communities around them. Both are perfectly capable of delivering the multi-view, multi-post type, common taxonomy-based output described in the ‘multistorey’ diagram. Both are widely used and widely understood. So why might they have been rejected?

Did the team spot security or performance issues? If so, wouldn’t the more responsible, more open-source-minded approach be to fix those issues? Then we’d all see direct benefits – on our own personal or company websites – from the expert insight of those hired by our government. If things are wrong with such widely-used technologies, whether inside or outside government, it’s already government’s problem.

Or were there particular functions which weren’t available ‘out of the box’? If so, is it conceivable that someone else might have needed the same functions? Local government, perhaps – for which the GDS team has ‘no plans or remit‘. We’re seeing plenty of take-up of WordPress and Drupal in local government land too. They have very similar needs and obligations as regards news and policy publication, consultations, documents, data, petitions, biographies of elected representatives, cross-cutting themes, and so on. Why not make it easy, and cheap, for them to share in the fruits of your labours?

But I think it goes wider than different tiers of government. Government is under a moral obligation to think about how its spending of our taxes could benefit not just itself, but all of us too.

Even if this project’s bespoke code is eventually open-sourced, the level of knowledge required to unpick the useful bits will be well beyond most potential users. Given that it’ll probably be in Ruby or Python, whose combined market share is below 1%, it won’t be much use ‘out of the box’ to most websites. A plugin uploaded to the WordPress repository, or a module added to Drupal’s library, would be instantly available to millions, and infinitely easier to find, install and maintain. (Well, certainly in the former case anyway.)

I can’t help thinking of the example of the BBC’s custom Glow javascript library, which does simplified DOM manipulation (a bit like jQuery), event handling (a bit like jQuery), animations (a bit like jQuery), etc, proudly open-sourced two years ago. It appears to have attracted a grand total of 3 non-BBC contributors. Its second version, incompatible with the first, remains stuck at the beta-1 release of June 2010. Its Twitter account died about the same time; and its mailing list isn’t exactly high-traffic. I’m not convinced it ever ‘unlock[ed] extraordinary value out there in the network‘. Proof, surely, that open-sourcing your own stuff isn’t the same as pitching in with everyone else.

Seriously, this isn’t about WordPress – although that’s unquestionably where the Whitehall web teams’ desire path leads. It’s not really even about open source software. It’s about government’s obligation to the citizens and businesses which fund it. It’s about engaging with existing communities, instead of trying to create your own. Acknowledging people’s right to access and make use of the data – erm, sorry, the code – whose creation they funded. Any of that sound familiar?

There’s so much right about the picture Neil paints. And maybe I’m reading too much into a single line. But the idea of building yet another bespoke CMS to meet Whitehall’s supposedly-unique requirements seems to be three to five years out of date. And it didn’t work too well, three to five years ago. Or three to five years before that. Or…

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‘.

Alphagov ‘real deal’ (with added local) to go live ‘in about a year’

Some interesting comments from (interim) government digital chief Chris Chant, speaking at the SOCITM spring conference this morning:

(Alphagov) is not perfect and it could be significantly different when we go live with the real deal, which will probably be in about a year… We want to make clear the infrastructure we put in place is available for local authorities to use.
Guardian Government Computing

We will work out what the appropriate branding is in due course… We won’t ask for any money from departments and we’ll still save money… (Local authorities would be invited to use the infrastructure) probably at no cost or marginal cost… (The permanent head of digital will be appointed) in the next couple of weeks.
ukauthority.com

I’m only going by the quotes in those articles – but that seems like much more than ‘let’s see how the alpha is received’. But for those who were asking if it would be a replacement for Directgov – no answer yet, but definitely maybe.

Ten things Alphagov gets right

Late on Tuesday night, the password protection was lifted from http://alpha.gov.uk – and the most eagerly anticipated web project ever produced by government, arguably the only eagerly anticipated web project ever produced by government, was finally revealed. And it’s… well, it’s quite a shock to the system. Or rather, ‘The System’?

It’s important to recognise what Alphagov is, and what it isn’t. It is an illustration of how the ‘experts’ think government should present itself online. It is a pre-pre-release product: they aren’t just saying ‘you might find problems’, they’re more or less guaranteeing it. It is not a finished product – in terms of information content, browser compatibility, accessibility, etc etc. It isn’t a live site: much of the content is a snapshot in time. And it’s not a definitive blueprint of how things will be: it’s a challenge to the status quo. Some of it won’t be workable; some of it won’t be palatable. But it’s time to ask some difficult questions.

Rather than pronounce one way or the other, here’s my list of the ten things Alphagov – as a product, and as a project – has got right. (That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a complementary list of 10 mistakes, by the way.)

  1. The fact that it happened at all.
    Don’t lose sight of the achievement it’s been to get this going in the first place. Those involved haven’t been working for free: my guess is, the project will have cost several hundred thousand quid (update: pricetag of £261k ex VAT confirmed via Twitter), at a time when jobs and services are being cut (although of course, there’s a view to long term savings). It’s been shielded from the Civil Service: more of a skunkworks, probably, than the ‘official’ skunkworks. It’s been staffed by a phalanx of individuals and small operations, working with open source tools and technologies, and hosted ‘in the cloud’. This is not how ‘we’ do things.
  2. Delivery 1, Perfectionism 0.
    The team were brave enough to publicise a go-live date in the mainstream media. And to within a day or so, they made it. Sure, it was rough round the edges, probably rougher than they actually intended. But they were absolutely right to get it out the door, and worry about the fine detail later. That’s the luxury of being an alpha, I suppose: the opportunity to concentrate on what really matters.
  3. It challenges the norm (while it can).
    You know what they say about the ‘first 100 days’? That’s roughly how long Alphagov had – and they’ve used it to good effect. They’ve shown healthy disrespect for ‘the way we do things’, as they should. They’ve pushed boundaries, broken rules, and thought the unthinkable. But that grace period can only last so long: in fact, this public release probably marks the end of it.
  4. Focus on search.
    For many people, Google is the internet. Alphagov recognises this on two levels. One, it presents itself primarily as a search engine – with the sophisticated ‘auto suggest’ function being a particularly welcome addition. Two, it’s very search engine friendly, with very clean HTML markup, and meaningful and keyword-loaded URLs. It’s also nice to see them indexing other government sites in their own search, although the results are frankly a bit patchy.
  5. Tools not text
    Perhaps the greatest leap forward demonstrated by Alphagov is its preference for online interactions, as opposed to text documents. So for example, instead of a maths textbook explanation on calculating holiday pay, you get a web page which asks a couple of questions, and gives the answer. The page listing bank holidays doesn’t just give you a written list of dates – it gives you a link to a .ics file, which can be imported into your calendar (Outlook, Google, iCal, etc).
  6. Location based services
    On similar lines, it’s fantastic to have a geographic lookup function built in. So for example, instead of telling you to contact your local police station, then chucking you at a list of every police station in the country, it points you to the only one you’re actually interested in. (Well, near enough: the data for where I am seems to be a bit off.)
  7. Jettisons the old, embraces the new.
    Alphagov is surely the first government project to revel in its (very strongly-worded) disregard for government browser guidelines. Whereas ‘proper’ projects are effectively obliged to spend time ensuring things look and work OK in Internet Explorer v6, they’ve used that time more profitably – demonstrating how the use of more modern features, such as geolocation, could really be beneficial. How many times, I wonder, have great ideas for on-screen interaction been killed by the Lowest Common Denominator?
  8. Single government view.
    From a user perspective this one’s a no-brainer, but it still remains the most potentially explosive: absorbing each departmental web presence, and putting a common identity across them. They’ve handled this beautifully, albeit rather cynically. The departmental ‘sites’ retain a certain individuality, if only through the use of a defining colour – red for the Treasury, blue for BIS, and so on. And the Ministers, whose vanity could kill the whole idea, get great big pictures. But for most people, these departmental presences simply won’t be there, until you go looking for them. And that’s how it should be… as long as we can trust the team and the technology at the centre, to be responsive to departments’ needs and desires. (Sadly, the ‘alpha’ won’t tell us that.)
  9. Straight talk.
    I love this page: Does my child need a car seat? You get your answer at the very top of the page, in extra-large bold letters. The sentences are short, decisive and jargon-free. And there’s no missing the safety advice at the bottom, with its mock highlighter-pen effect.
  10. Transparency throughout.
    From the very start, Alphagov has been active on Twitter, picking up well over a thousand followers. They’ve given cute little insights into the team’s activity, they’ve answered questions, they’ve generated a bit of excitement. Shortly before launch, they launched a blog (with our help), pro-actively announcing and explaining some of their more radical approaches, and posting in their own names – not to mention direct links to their personal Twitter accounts. They’ve had (more or less) an open-door policy for people inside government wanting to visit, and see what was brewing. And now it’s live, they’re taking feedback via public routes: comments on the blog, Twitter / Facebook responses, and a Get Satisfaction account… and acting on it, too. Truly exemplary.

So what happens next? It’ll be fascinating to watch. The geeks have thrown down their gauntlets. It’s time for the civil servants to consider how their information and services could fit into the new mould. And for the public to compare the Alphagov approach with the established Directgov/departmental model. Which is better? There’s only one way to find out.

Alphagov blog open for business

If you've visited Alphagov HQ, you'll appreciate the image crop... 😉

The countdown to next week’s public unveiling of Alphagov has begun in earnest, with the team’s blog now open for business. And at Puffbox, we’ve been happy to help them on their way with it: a few weeks back, we were sent an early cut of some page code, and asked to turn it into a WordPress theme. How could we refuse?

Rapid development was the top priority – so it’s a fairly straightforward two-column theme, with a widgetised sidebar, and a custom menu along the top. In fact, it’s the first ‘blog’ I’ve built in what feels like a-g-e-s. But there are a couple of (potentially) interesting extras to note:

  • Normally, I’d have done the ‘Media Coverage’ links as an RSS feed from a Delicious account. But with the uncertainty over Delicious’s future, and to test out an idea, we’re powering this via WordPress’s own built-in links (or historically, ‘blogroll’) manager. The links themselves are being pulled out by a custom ‘Recent Links’ widget, with a filter allowing you to select only a particular category of links.
  • The list of @alphagov tweets is, in fact, the standard Twitter profile widget… with liberal use of CSS !important declarations, and a few other tricks, to override the out-of-the-box presentation.
  • Each blog post has an author’s biography at the bottom, showing the contents of their profile’s ‘Biographical Info’ box. But we’ve also added a pseudo-plugin within the theme’s functions, to ask each registered user for his/her Twitter ID. If available, this is used to display their picture, plus a link to their Twitter profile – as this post by Tom Loosemore demonstrates. Just a nice little humanising touch, with an added dash of interactivity and transparency.

It’s being hosted at Amazon, and we’re managing the code via Subversion, for simplicity and security. I’m really falling in love with Subversion as a deployment method, particularly the way it’s handled within Coda (my code editor of choice these days). It does mean we effectively disable things like one-click updating and plugin installation; but the pros definitely outweigh the cons on a corporate project like this.

My thanks – as ever – to Mr Wheatley for the setup; and to James, Jamie and Paul over at Alphagov for their assistance.

Alphagov screenshots emerge

A very positive Telegraph piece about Alphagov includes what, for many people, will be the first sight of a ‘proper’ screenshot:

That screenshot shows several elements which, from what I’ve seen so far, define the Alphagov approach. You’ll note the lack of Home Office/IPS (who? exactly) branding, the absolute prominence of search, the no-nonsense language, and for me the best idea of all, the expectation-setting elements on the right. How often have you sat down to complete an online transaction, only to realise it’s going to take forever, or that you need some crucial document which you don’t have handy? There’s also a tantalising reference to ‘location not set’ – which hints at geo-targeted information?

I’ve seen various Alphagov delivery deadlines mentioned, but now the Telegraph has printed 9 May (straight after purdah), I guess that’s fairly set in stone now.

Early glimpses of Alphagov

If you’re interested in where the Alphagov project is going – and if you’re reading this, you probably are – then it’s worth keeping an eye on the Dribbble account of Paul Annett (@nicepaul) – formerly of ClearLeft, now SuperniceStudio.

If you haven’t come across it, Dribbble is a social network for designers to share and discuss little 400×300 snapshots of work they’re doing: ‘Twitter for creatives’, you might call it. Membership of the site itself is free, but the ability to post snapshots is invitation-only. Designers tend to use it to showcase the little touches they’re working on: so don’t go there expecting full-blown screengrabs.

Paul is a designer; he’s putting forward ideas, not unilaterally deciding government policy. So don’t read too much into what you see… but I think it’ll give you an interesting snapshot of where the Alphagov thinking lies.