A top Whitehall civil servant has sensationally quit in protest at government’s failure to take the web seriously. Well, I’m sure someone’s going to write it up like that, so it might as well be me. 🙂
It hasn’t exactly been top secret, but ‘Whitehall Webby’ blogger Jeremy Gould has now formally announced his departure from the civil service. He’s quitting his role as head of internet communication at the Ministry of Justice, to join us on the outside as a government-specialist consultant. The post on his blog is clearly from the heart; and even though it’s no surprise to hear how he feels, I must admit I’m still a bit surprised to see it expressed so directly. And it’s curious to see someone express precisely the same feelings I had when I went solo myself.
It’s the right thing to do – for Jeremy himself, and on balance, believe it or not, for the greater good too. Good people need to be given good things to do; and particularly post-Web Rationalisation, individual departments rarely have enough substantial projects to make it worth keeping such good people permanently on the books. The System needs people like Jeremy (and myself) to circulate around, wherever and whenever we’re needed. (A point made by Nick Booth earlier this week… although I’m wondering, don’t us ‘mercenaries’ count too?) And in doing so, we see the ever-bigger picture, gain experience, and become better at what we do. I’m unquestionably better at this than when I started two years ago – and everyone benefits as a result.
But senior civil servants – and, frankly, Ministers – should heed his words. ‘Web stuff is still not being taken seriously enough. There’s been a lot of talk over the last four years of how more senior strategic web roles are inevitable, but in that time its been just talk. So there was no next move for me. I’ve also found my extra-curricular activities being scrutinised and discouraged in a way I hadn’t expected after it being benignly ignored for the first year or so.’
Government is rarely short of good people, of which Mr Gould – a good friend, and a great colleague – was unquestionably one. However, it’s never short of obstructive people who refuse to rock the boat, even when that boat is demonstrably about to capsize. Tom Steinberg talks about bringing computer-savvy people back into government; wouldn’t it be a good start to stop losing the ones you’ve already got?
Welcome (back) to the real world, mate. It’s much more fun out here. And you can actually get stuff done.
Thanks to Jeremy for pointing out Harry Metcalfe‘s new ‘Tell Them What You Think‘, the latest mass screen-scraping exercise from the MySociety stable: this time, it’s government departments’ consultation exercises. I actually met Harry last week, but didn’t realise the project was actually ‘out there’. It bears all the classic MySociety hallmarks – which Harry should take as a great compliment.
Describing the story so far on the site’s own blog, he writes:
A few months ago, I responded to a couple of government consultations and, in the process, discovered there was no way to search all live consultations, or to be alerted when a new one was published. This struck me as more than a little mad.
Except that, as web.archive.org demonstrates there was a central site listing live consultation exercises, at www.consultations.gov.uk from 2004 to early 2006. Did the site succeed in encouraging a new wave of civic engagement? Let’s put it this way: if it had, why would I be writing this? The site was then taken down, with the address redirecting into the Cabinet Office site.
Today, it redirects to the BERR page on last year’s Consultation Policy Review. And – oh! the irony – if you look at their published response, you’ll find the following paragraphs:
3.21 Several responses called for a new approach to publicising consultation exercises, including suggestions for a single website for all central Government consultations with a facility to register for alerts.
3.23 The Better Regulation Executive will look into the feasibility of one website indexing all central Government consultation exercises and providing an automated alert system.
Visibility of current consultations is part of the problem, but I’d argue it’s a small – and maybe even negligible – part. I’m not even sure we know what they are trying to achieve: is it simply transparency of process? is it just ‘what we’re meant to do’? are we looking for huge volumes of responses?
And more pertinently, does the government really care what The Masses think? Harry almost acknowledges this himself to an extent, citing an example of a recent consultation which saw 85% outright opposition, and 91% disagreement with the phrasing of the question. What happened? The measure passed anyway.
We need to decide what we’re trying to achieve with consultation, then decide the best way to go about it. We’re a long, long, l-o-n-g way from there.
But there’s one important lesson from the exercise, as Jeremy notes. There are things you can do with your website to help the eage, public-spirited geeks take your information, and do something better with it. Ask them. And next time you spec up a website, make sure there’s a section on XML, RSS and/or API.
Puffbox‘s latest project was unleashed today; working alongside Jeremy Gould at the Ministry of Justice, we’ve built a WordPress-based website in support of the Whitehall-wide programme of UK constitutional reform, going under the banner Governance of Britain.
As regular readers will know, I’ve started specialising in blog-powered websites which aren’t actually blogs. And this one is probably the least bloggy of the lot, so far. (For now, anyway; the functionality’s there when they want it.) At its heart is a ‘what’s new’ function, keeping track of the various announcements and consultations happening across Government. And as you’d expect, there are a few supplementary, ‘static’ pages explaining what’s going on.
There are a couple of ‘innovations’ (using the term rather loosely, I admit) worthy of note. One is the use of categorisation in the
blog posts news updates. We’ve used WordPress’s notion of parent/child categories to build a list of subjects, and a list of departments. So if you want to see any announcements related to Parliament, let’s say, or announcements by HM Treasury, then there’s a page for that. And because it’s WordPress, you can access this ‘page’ as an RSS feed. (Which explains something I wrote a couple of weeks back…)
I’ve been trying to do something like this for a while; the implications for cross-government working are huge. You, in your Whitehall department, can write stuff into the Governance site; and we can pump it back to you in RSS format, for your own site to republish (if you want). In other words, it’s the ability to get the best of both worlds: a page on your own corporate site, and inclusion within the unified web presence. A real-world example of joined-up working… if your corporate site is able to process basic RSS. We do the hard part at our end; we can’t make it any easier for you. But I fear very few will be able to receive it. (Please prove me wrong, folks.)
The other ‘innovation’ is the page of ‘What others are saying‘, powered by del.icio.us. Technically, it’s just a republished RSS feed (um, see above). But I think it’s an important step for a government website to go out of its way to point to relevant stuff elsewhere – newspapers, magazines, blogs, anywhere online.
We’re using del.icio.us for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s a really nice way to save web links; and it delivers an easy-to-process RSS feed which we can integrate directly into our pages. (Yes, even our homepage.) But equally of course, this means we’re in the del.icio.us community – so if people want to tell us about pages we might want to read, they can do this via del.icio.us. Just tag it ‘for:governanceofbritain’, and we’ll see it in our ‘links for you’ inbox.
We’ve also hijacked some other blog functionality: for example, the list of ‘recent documents’ on the homepage is actually managed by the WordPress ‘blogroll’. Nothing particularly special or clever in that, but it provides an easy-to-use interface for non-technical people to keep that list up-to-date.
It all came together very quickly, almost too quickly; and it’s far from the prettiest site I’ve ever done. But again, it’s proof that you really can get from nought to a full-featured, multi-authored, two-way communicating, CMS-driven site in a couple of weeks. It’s a site which makes real efforts to engage with the rest of the web. And it tries a few things which might come off, and might not. We’ll all learn something as a result.