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.)

Mike Bracken on GDS structure and the power of precedents

Computer Weekly have posted an interview with Mike Bracken: a fairly chatty (and somewhat predictable) getting-to-know-you piece, but with a few interesting snippets.

He reflects on the problems with the e-petitions relaunch:

For example, with e-petitions, no-one could predict just how fast that demand would go up. Consequently we learnt a lot about scaling and applications within the government estate. We reacted literally within an hour to sort out [the site crashing]. If someone else is doing that for you, you don’t learn. Managing a contract is a distinct skill but actually managing the service is different.

Was it really so unpredictable? Ah well, never mind. There’s also some detail about the structure of the nascent Government Digital Service:

The five areas of GDS will include DirectGov, which will be the most prominent constituent; identity assurance, which will identify people consuming government services; BetaGov, headed up by Tom Loosemore and formerly known as the AlphaGov team building a prototype for a single government website; digital engagement; and the innovation team.

Total headcount within the GDS will be ‘up to 200’, but the budget across those five areas has ‘yet to be finalised’. (Incidentally: it was confirmed in a PQ issued today that the GDS budget for 2011-12 would be £22.3 million.)

Mike also makes a point about the need to set precedents, a point I’ve made here numerous times in the past:

Launching successful products and pointing at them as examples of what can be done will be key. One can do lots of formal learning, but the simple way to build that culture of expertise is take people on a journey with you, which also means failing and learning on the way.

I’ve learned from my own experience that this is really the only way to take organisations with you. Find a modestly-sized but reasonably high-profile project, whose manager buys into the need for change. Make a success of that one, whatever it takes; then sell everything else you’re planning on the back of it.

The argument of ‘well, it was good enough for X’ is pretty primitive; but it works better than anything else I’ve ever tried. I’ve found few teams who really cared about ‘the journey’: most are only really interested in knowing the (approximate) destination, and seeing some evidence that you know the route.

Guardian man is government’s new digital director

I have it on very good authority indeed It’s now been confirmed that the new (£142k pa) Executive Director Digital, filling the post currently held by Chris Chant on an interim basis, and advertised back in April, is to be Mike Bracken – digital director at The Guardian until last week.

Computer Weekly makes some interesting – and quite exciting – observations about the management culture he built up:

While GNM has outsourced some IT roles, the company has brought in information architects, analytics and product development managers as a discipline. GNM uses an agile environment for developing web applications and has scrapped project management and business analyst roles to replace them with product managers.

In fact, he sent a tweet to Steph Gray yesterday which seemed to suggest he sees a similar role for ‘product managers’ in government:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MTBracken/status/71234171762262016″]

To get a flavour of what to expect, fasten your seatbelt and watch this five-minute breakneck presentation on innovation, which he gave to a WPP event last year:

… or this slightly more corporate presentation on deriving benefits from social media, at a Gartner symposium in October. (Fast forward eight minutes to skip the extended intro.) You’ll like what you hear.

Interestingly, in both presentations, he uses the same quote from Simon Willison. How exciting is it to have a new digital director who actually appreciates that:

You can now build working software in less time than it takes to have the meeting to describe it.

Those who know Mike are very complimentary about him: I note William Heath’s description of him last week as ‘one of the UK’s very best new-style CIOs’. On the downside, though, he’s a Liverpool supporter.

Mike’s personal website is at mikebracken.com – and he’s done a post formally announcing the appointment. He runs a couple of Twitter accounts: you’ll probably want to follow his ‘work’ account, @MTBracken.

He starts on 5 July.