The implications of free

I’m in the early stages of spec’ing up a new site build. The client helpfully provided a wireframe sketch of the homepage, which included – deep breath – a news ticker. And for the first time in living memory, I haven’t recoiled in horror. In fact, I’m quite happy to give it to them.

Previously, my response would have been to open up a cost-vs-benefit discussion. In my experience, people (arguably the less web-literate?) like to see tickers, but they don’t actually ever use them. So is it worth me programming a function nobody really wants, just so you can pretend to be the BBC? Maybe, maybe not. Generally speaking, the ticker idea soon falls off the mockups.

But the new reality is that it’ll take me a matter of a few minutes to program. I’ll use WordPress to generate a normal HTML bullet-list. I’ll include a reference to the fantastic (free) JQuery javascript library – if there isn’t one already, and these days, there probably will be. Then I’ll include one of several free JQuery ‘plugins’ to do ticker functionality: probably this one. Then we’ll have a ticker. A couple of lines of CSS to pretty it up, and we’re done. Yes folks, that really is all there is to it.

Suddenly, any approach based on cost-benefit analyses goes out the window. The cost is virtually zero, so if there’s any potential benefit to be derived from doing something, the test is passed. That doesn’t mean we should throw everything at any given project; but it does mean we might as well drop it in, and see if it works.

For me, this is the challenge of the Open Source Era for big corporate clients like government. Procurement and project management processes have been built up to handle projects costing millions. We spend huge amounts of money ensuring that we don’t waste all the money. But what if the cost of the job is zero, or something close to it?

This is why I’m bit perplexed by COI’s new WordPress-based šŸ™‚ consultation on Improving Government Websites. There’s a huge section on measuring costs: they’re suggesting you might/should report an associated cost against each of nearly 200 activities. But how can you put a cost against something like (for example) RSS feeds in a WordPress build, when they’re built-in, in numerous different ways, whether you like it or not?

Gov.UK tips scales in open source’s favour

The line which jumps out at me from today’s new government ‘Action Plan’ on open source software is quite a neat encapsulation of the entire document:

Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.

Fundamentally, the policy on Open Source hasn’t changed much, if at all. Instead of just considering Open Source, civil servants now have to ‘actively and fairly’ consider it. I’m not sure what practical difference that tweak will make: but the subtext is pretty clear.

Likewise, I don’t imagine the ‘tiebreaker’ clause will be invoked very often, not explicitly. But what’s important is that it doesn’t say there’sĀ  potential to be more flexible, it says – rightly – that the flexibility is inherent.

The Action Plan reads like a document which wanted to say more, but didn’t feel able to. It sets out to reassure the bureaucrats that Open Source isn’t a risk, is already widely used, and can be taken seriously. It talks up the notion of ‘open source culture’, and warns against procedural barriers. It goes as far as it can towards saying ‘please use it more!’ – but in the world of procurement politics, and billion-pound budgets, perhaps you can’t realistically expect it to go any further. Opposition politicians aren’t under such restraint, of course.

Will this make a difference to me, as someone who ultimately makes most of his living from selling open source to government? Not really. In fact, I feel as if Puffbox has been putting a lot of these principles into practice for some time. We didn’t need to be told to; we just felt it was right to do so.

I’ve always felt perfectly comfortable making the case for open source on its own merits, and had plenty of success too, without having to wave around a Cabinet Office document – the 2004 policy has literally never come up in conversation. And whilst it might be useful to have a list of officially approved products (action point #4), I don’t expect departments to accept documentation in OpenOffice format (#8) any time soon.

Blears backs wider use of online petitions

Writing on Comment Is Free, Hazel Blears reckons Labour’s problem is that it has become distanced from its voters. ‘The problem is the powerlessness within the system for the majority of people,’ she writes. ‘People feel that their views disappear into a black hole, without the slightest echo.’

Hazel’s solution is ‘a healthy dose of direct democracy’: more directly elected mayors, a reinvigorated co-op movement, and online petitions. ‘Petitions, especially on-line, should be used to guide the deliberations of local councillors and ministers,’ she says. ‘Petitioners should be able to press for debates in council chambers and even parliament.’

If that inspires anyone to set up their own petitions system… don’t forget that the Downing Street petitions system, built by MySociety, is ‘open source’, meaning you can download and use it free of charge.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

Over at the Telegraph, Mick Fealty rightly reflects on the ‘fascinating confluence of ideas cascading into the body politic at the moment’, with both right and left suddenly making an issue of innovation, open source, and all that good stuff. The latest contribution was David Cameron’s speech at NESTA this morning:

Indeed, the odd thing about the Government’s innovation policy is how un-innovative it is. More spending, more state control, more reliance on the levers of bureaucratic intervention. The chapter on public sector innovation in Government’s “science innovation” document, has this as its centrepiece: the proposal to create a “Whitehall Hub for Innovation”. Something about that doesn’t ring true. Whitehall and innovation don’t go together, for the simple reason that innovation is the product of many heads not a few, and free thinking not state control.

We accept that innovation requires a culture of risk-taking, of trial and error, of flexibility in thinking and often of collaborative effort. So I have also asked Adam Afriyie to identify ways a Conservative government could tackle the corrosive sense of risk-aversion which holds back innovation within our society.

To be fair, it’s been an uplifting week in terms of online innovation, across the political divide(s). The sudden rush into Twitter – by No10, and (apparently) by both major parties – isn’t a big deal in terms of audience numbers, but it’s certainly symbolic: a recognition that there’s clearly something interesting going on, and a readiness to just get stuck in.

I’m hoping that the weekend’s Progressive Governance summit microsite, which I’m constructing on No10’s behalf, can take that momentum forward. We’re throwing as many 2.0 tricks into the mix as we can: some will undoubtedly work better than others. (And yes, as Guido helpfully notes, we’re cutting it fine. We know.)

But the value of the social connections fostered by blogs and Twitter is already revealing itself. Last night I talked about my search for a live blogging / chat solution. Paul Bradshaw suggested CoverItLive, a service I hadn’t seen before. I played around with it, and it looked great. But I wanted to see what others thought – so I threw out a plea for assistance on Twitter. Within a couple of minutes, I had two friends in the ‘chatroom’ with me, giving the product a proper test. It passed – and it’s looking like we’re going to use it on Saturday morning to ‘live blog’ the summit’s proceedings. This stuff works.

Tom Watson’s ‘mashed up’ speech

OK, I’m an idiot. The lengthy and fair-minded piece I wrote this morning about a speech by Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne at the RSA was a year late.

Osborne made some interesting points about the need ‘to recast the political settlement for the digital age.’ And now today, there’s an email doing the rounds (see Nick Booth’s piece) pointing out similarities between this 2007 speech and the one made by Tom Watson on Monday. Amusingly, it condemns the Watson speech as a ‘mashup’. But hold on. Surely it’s entirely in keeping with the whole ethos of open source, to take good ideas and build on them? Didn’t you say mass collaboration was a good thing? šŸ™‚

OK, I’m being churlish. But this points to the biggest single hurdle in ‘politics 2.0’, or whatever we’re calling it. Inevitably, roughly once every four years, every politician’s worst instincts will come out as they fight for power or survival. You can’t blame them. That’s the adversarial, winner-takes-all political system we’re currently stuck with.

And that’s ironically why we need the apolitical Civil Service to take a lead on use of these collaborative technologies.