MPs call for ‘urgent rebuilding’ of government IT capacity

The Commons Public Administration Select Committee has published its report into government IT, and to be frank, it’s all a bit predictable. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be welcomed: the four highlighted points – better management information, greater transparency, more involvement of SMEs, agile working – are all good. But if we haven’t heard it all before, we probably should have done.

The report’s opening factoid – that ‘some departments spend an average of £3,500 on a desktop PC’ – will almost certainly grab the headlines. (Update: step forward Sky News, who do a textbook job of it, including under-informed talking head.) It shouldn’t – but the report doesn’t help itself by putting this figure in the second paragraph of its introduction, without any context (as Paul Clarke has already noted).

The real story, such as it is, is the Committee’s apparent recognition that the current process – reliant on a small number of large suppliers being given over-spec’ed, over-detailed, over-sized and over-priced projects – is the ‘root cause‘ of the problem. And it’s quite nice to see them challenging the Cabinet Office, about whether its initiatives are tackling that root cause, or just the symptoms (paras 10-11).

Para 13 goes on to list what the Committee sees as the ‘six underlying causes of failure in government IT’:

  • Inadequate information, resulting in the Government being unable to manage its IT needs successfully;
  • An over-reliance on a small number of large suppliers and the virtual exclusion of small and medium sized (SME) IT contractors, which tend to be less risk adverse and more innovative;
  • A failure to integrate IT into the wider policy and business change programmes;
  • A tendency to commission large, complex projects which struggle to adapt to changing circumstances;
  • Over-specifying security requirements, and
  • The lack of sufficient leadership and skills to manage IT within the Civil Service, and in particular the absence of an “intelligent customer” function in Departments.

It acknowledges that outsourcing has often gone too far, leaving Departments short of people able to manage suppliers – the ‘recipe for rip-offs’ which gives the report its inflammatory title:

Currently the Government seems unable to strike the right balance between allowing contractors enough freedom to operate and ensuring there are appropriate controls and monitoring in-house. The Government needs to develop the skills necessary to fill this gap. This should involve recruiting more IT professionals with experience of the SME sector to help deliver the objective of greater SME involvement.

I’m not sure about the need to hire too many new people: Whitehall already has a decent number of insightful specialists, dotted around various Departments, and it would certainly be a start to concentrate their skills and experience within the evolving Government Digital Service (as outlined in the engagement-centric contribution I made to Alphagov, along with Neil and Steph). Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t apply for any such recruitment exercise: for now at least, I think I can do ‘my bit’ better from outside, rather than inside.

On engagement itself, it’s good to see the report recommending ‘that Departments exploit the internet and other channels to enable users to provide direct online feedback both in the design of services and in their ongoing operation and improvement’ – as that’s broadly what we put in the Alphagov proposal.

Not for the first time, data transparency is presented as a silver bullet to eliminate the profligate spending – except that, as Paul Clarke notes, the report rather undermines itself by ‘intentionally’ (Paul’s word) throwing opaque figures around. Can transparency solve the problems? In theory, I want to agree – but a year into Cameron’s open data revolution, I can’t think of many grand successes.

And there’s surprisingly little about open source per se – although you could argue it’s probably implicit in references to greater SME involvement, supplier lock-in and use of non-proprietary data formats.

So, personally, I’m struggling to get excited by the report. It’s not the first time any of these things have been said: and the government response will contain a lot of ‘we’re doing this already’… which, in fairness, they probably are. If the report helps keep those plans on the straight and narrow, I suppose it’s done its bit. As long as we get there in the end.

An MP for the blogosphere?

Tom Watson, soon-to-be former Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East, has been the greatest advocate for, and representative of the ‘digital industry’ in the past few years: not just in his time as Cabinet Office minister, but just as much (and arguably moreso) in the period afterwards. I’ve no idea if he has been a good representative of the good people of West Bromwich; but I do know that he raised more issues of direct relevance to me, my work and my areas of interest than the MP who notionally represents me, solely on the basis of where I live.

So I’m intrigued by Tom’s move today, to ask the online community to help him draft a one-man manifesto on technology. He explains:

I want to stand on a platform that is avowedly supportive of the generation that seek to use the Internet to make the world a better place. To do this I have to be able to draw authority from an electoral mandate from electors in West Bromwich East. So I’d like to produce a leaflet that sets out what I stand for. It will be delivered to as many homes in West Bromwich as my campaign team can manage.

There’s a fascinating subtext to that plea: Tom clearly sees the representation of the digital community as one of his key purposes in public life, but he needs the electorate of a geographically-defined area to back him first. The message to the constituency is effectively that the country needs him, and they need to do their duty, whether or not they really understand why.

This is an idea I’ve been quietly contemplating for some time: the notion that a political system based on geographic location is increasingly anachronistic. The World Wide Web has reduced, if not eliminated the need to define oneself on the basis of place. If you’re supposed to judge me by the company I keep, that company exists – for the most part – ‘in the cloud’, not in the immediate vicinity of my house.

Which brings me to the concept of ‘functional constituencies’ – a term I came across in relation to Hong Kong, when working at the Foreign Office in the mid-1990s. Half of Hong Kong’s 60-seat Legislative Council is elected on the basis of geographical constituencies; the other half is elected by ‘functional constituencies’, defined by people’s professions or interests. So for example, there’s a ‘representative for accountancy’, voted in by 22,000-odd individuals registered as working in accountancy; and there’s a ‘representative for Information Technology’, voted by a combination of 364 institutions and 5,000-odd individuals. Wikipedia has the full breakdown.

There’s a not dissimilar situation much closer to home, in Ireland. The Irish Senate (or Seanad) consists of 60 people, 43 of whom were chosen by five panels representing – very broadly defined – vocational interests, and a further 6 by the graduates of two particular universities. (See Wikipedia for details.)

Neither system is perfect, with democracy campaigners seeking changes to, if not the complete abolition of the arrangements. And I’m claiming no expertise whatsoever in the design of democratic systems. But there’s certainly something appealing about a system that recognises – or can be made to recognise – that the nature of community and representation is evolving.

When the manifestos are published this week, we’re almost certain to see all three main UK parties offering proposals for an elected (or ‘mainly elected’) House of Lords. But a second chamber consisting of more members of the same old political class, no matter how proportionally elected, is not particularly enticing. I actually quite like the idea that the House of Lords includes appointees who have demonstrated excellence in their professional field; but I can appreciate that any system based on party nominations doesn’t exactly pass the democratic test.

So why not a system where professionals democratically select those from their own ranks, who best represent their community’s expertise, experience, knowledge and concerns? On the face of it, it has the potential to take representative democracy in a whole new direction, and make it more immediately relevant to all parts of society. Defining the right ‘functional constituencies’, and the eligibility criteria to become an elector for each, would be a hell of a job. But it couldn’t fail to end the notion of ‘them and us’.

Hey, we could even call them ‘peers’. 🙂

BBC’s Democracy Live site goes, er, live

On the day the BBC launches its Democracy Live website comes news that MPs speaking in the Commons chamber are ‘to be discouraged’ from reading out text stored on an electronic device. No, seriously.

But hey, back to Democracy Live. There’s a lot to like about it. The front page ‘video wall’ owes a lot to Sky Sports on a Champions League night, albeit without the drama. The ‘Your representatives’ databank (from Dod’s) is nice, with the ability to search by postcode – although it only gives you MPs, MSPs/AMs/MLAs and MEPs, not councillors; and it would be nice if there was an API onto the data too.

The bit they’re clearly most excited about is the ability to search the video coverage by text – using ‘speech-to-text’ technology with a success rate ‘slightly higher’ than the industry standard. However the results, in my experience so far, have been disappointing: it seems pretty good at finding results, but it drops you in at the start of the debate (etc), not at the moment your word or phrase was mentioned.

(Update: Ah, I see now. The search results’ main link is to the start of the clip; you have to click to expose the ‘deep links’ to the right place in the clip. Interface fail? Although actually, it takes you right to the very word: should probably start a few seconds earlier?)

Oh yeah, and then there’s the whole embedding thing:

At the moment, we do not have permission to enable the embedding of video from the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Discussions are continuing with officials at Westminster.

If there’s one thing the Beeb have really cracked, it’s quality video streaming. So there’s no arguing with the site’s TV-esque aspect. But there’s nowhere near as much depth of coverage as on the official Parliament Live site, which includes video – live and recorded – of each committee. Besides, is video an efficient means of reviewing the proceedings of Parliament? I can read the Hansard transcript much faster than an MP can speak it.

So whilst it’s a nice enough site in itself – and don’t get me wrong, it is a nice site – it doesn’t feel like it’s adding a tremendous amount, in qualitative terms, to what’s already out there. Yet. But a look at the source code suggests more exciting developments to come: there’s a lot of stuff ‘commented out’ or not yet enabled. Give it time.

No awards for MPs’ websites this year

bcsawardBad news for anyone who’s just put a massive amount of work into an innovative, cutting-edge website for an MP. (Ahem.) I’ve received confirmation from the British Computer Society – oops, sorry, ‘BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT’ – that their annual awards recognising the best websites by Members of Parliament aren’t quite as ‘annual’ as the label might suggest.

I noticed that the new BCS website seemed to be downplaying the info on their MP Website Awards – and emailed to ask if it was still happening this year. The response – quite telling in its own way – came back:

The decision was taken earlier this year not to hold the competition this year. We decided that would give MPs time to have another look at their websites as, while some had really made efforts to improve their sites as a result of our first year competition, a significant proportion had not. BCS is still very much interested in the competition and we hope we can take it forward in the future.

A pity. But then again, I suppose those websites will be facing the ultimate test of their effectiveness – with their constituents in a general election – next spring.

MPs who use WordPress

I had a bit of a brainwave earlier, which led me to wondering how many MPs run websites on WordPress. Taking as my starting point the Total Politics directory of Parliamentarians’ blogs, I soon received a number of extra suggestions from Twitter folks… leading me to the following list of MPs whose blogs (or non-blog websites) are powered by WordPress:

If anyone knows any more, I’d love to add them to the list. Oh, and for the record… with such low take-up (so far), my brainwave may be a little ahead of its time.

Update: a special thanks to Danny Dagan (whose Blogminster project is in development) and PSF’s Ian Cuddy for providing a load of new ones I didn’t know about, even one or two at Cabinet level. I now count three Cabinet ministers on WordPress: Messrs Byrne, Bradshaw and Johnson… plus Nick Brown, who ‘attends’ Cabinet as chief whip, but isn’t ‘in’ it.

Visual aids in Parliament?

Visual aids in .au parliament

I wrote last year about the insanity of the annual Budget speech(es), in which the Chancellor stands up and reads off a list of numbers. In business, you’d never contemplate doing that without some kind of visual aid. But come on, visual aids in Parliament?

Let me take you to Canberra, where there’s been an outbreak of visual aiding on the floor of the House of Representatives. In recent days, the ABC reports, Kevin Rudd and his government have been ‘taunting the Opposition by waving photos of projects funded with stimulus money’. The opposition have responded by wielding ‘a mock credit card to make its point about debt and a hard hat to mock Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s appearances at infrastructure sites’.

But by common consent, things went a bit far on Thursday when, with the assistance of his front bench colleagues, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey unfolded a three metre-long chart, over six panels, illustrating the growth in government debt. The speaker ruled this was too much; Hockey responded by producing a pair of scissors, and cutting the chart into its constituent panels for individual presentation.

‘Pity they couldn’t have cut through the noise and silliness of a question time that added nothing to the sum of human knowledge,’ says Sky News Australia’s commentary on the ‘farce’.

Lords committee on online engagement

Did you know the House of Lords is currently inviting opinions on how it, and Parliament generally, can relate better to the public? No? Neither did I, which kind of proves something in itself.

It’s the Lords’ Information Committee, it’s called People And Parliament… and it closes in two days. The deadline for full written submissions passed on 5 May. Having bumped into details about it earlier today, I’ve been looking at the transcripts of an April session featuring such luminaries as Ben Hammersley and Tom Loosemore. It was a feisty session at times – listen to it here. I was particularly taken by one contribution by Tom, which I will probably find myself quoting in business meetings to come.

I used to run the BBC’s message boards and forums and it is a thankless task because you end up spending millions of pounds censoring people, and I fear you will do the same, if you are successful. I do not think you will be successful as being the home for those national debates, a genuinely democratic cross-section of the country coming along and discussing issues in a constructive way. I do not think Parliament’s website itself will ever be the home for that debate.

Having said that, what I think the Web does do is open up all sorts of possibilities for you, as representatives in this place, to go out and consult. So if you want to go and find out what people think about immigration, there are many, many places on the Web where there are constructive conversations about immigration and you can go and join in and listen there. You do not have to insist that everybody comes here. That is how the place has always worked. It does not always rely on five people sat in front of a table talking to you.

So I would encourage you as Members and as Lords of this place to go out and use the Web to engage with the different issues and avoid like the plague hosting conversations on your own website. When I left the BBC I left them with a document which said, ‘Do not host conversations on the BBC’s website, link to them instead.’

There’s not a little irony, then, in looking at the forum set up by Parliament to discuss the subject: only to find a handful of responses, whose quality is, to be frank, mixed. Not for the first time then, Tom Loosemore shows he knows what he’s talking about. He also made some fine points about making Parliament’s data easily reusable as a first step towards wider engagement, and handled questions about sustainability with great tact. I heard his name mentioned as a possible Director of Digital Engagement; for the record, I think he’d have been fantastic.

There are two more meetings scheduled: one happens to be tomorrow, and features none other than Tom Watson. It’ll be streamed live online, and archived for later viewing: you’ll find it here.

Let freedom of information ring

It would appear that the plan to exempt MPs and Lords from Freedom Of Information provisions has been ditched. The Mail’s Benedict Brogan is trying to unpick what just happened:

Gordon Brown claims that Tories have pulled out of a cross-party deal to introduce the change. The suggestion from No10 is that up until yesterday the Tory and Labour Chief Whips were agreed that the Tories would vote with Labour in favour of the scheme. In effect the accusation is that David Cameron took fright when he realised what that would mean for his stand on transparency. The Tories are expressing mystification, suggesting that there was no deal. So either it’s embarrassment for Dave because Brown has revealed that the Tories were ready to back the exemption. Or it embarrassment for the PM because the Tories have forced him to back down.

Arguably, it doesn’t matter. A bad thing has been averted, and we – the citizens of the Internet – should take some credit, and pride in that. ‘Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way.‘ Not Obama’s inauguration address, as I initially assumed; that’s from Tom Steinberg’s blog post on the subject. 🙂

But it’s been a depressing couple of days, watching this come to a head. The potential implications, if such stories are true, aren’t pleasant to contemplate, if (like me) you believe it’s inherently a good thing for the country to know what its leaders are doing, and why. The two parties conspiring, behind the scenes, to get the measure through, undermining any claims they’ve ever made about transparency – and, while we’re at it, any claims of affinity to the Obama message:

As president, Obama will restore the American people’s trust in their government by making government more open and transparent and by giving regular Americans unprecedented new tools to keep track of government officials, who they are meeting with, who is giving them money and how they are spending taxpayer dollars.

It would have been sheer hypocrisy. As a small business owner, I have to be able to present receipts for every sum I try to claim back from the public purse (in the form of the Tax Man) as expenses incurred in the course of my work. I’m not allowed to deliver a top-level summary under either 9 or 26 headings. And quite simply then, MPs should have to do likewise – and be seen to do so.

And let’s give due credit to the Liberal Democrats here. It was Jo Swinson who tabled the (relatively poorly supported) EDM on Monday; and Nick Clegg had imposed a three-line whip on his MPs to oppose the move. Their credentials are reinforced today.

UPDATE: The story is evolving. ‘Tory HQ are desperate to claim that there was no deal or collusion between their backbenchers and Labour over the issue,’ says Sam Coates at The Times.  ‘The decision, apparently made in the 45 minutes between the mid-morning lobby briefing and the beginning of PMQs, looks shambolic at best – but the Conservatives’ ire has been fuelled by what was said (and left unsaid) at PMQs,’ says Niall Paterson at Sky News.

Bong! Parliament goes WordPress

The Parliament web team have launched a new News site for the new parliamentary session – and hurrah, it’s done in WordPress.

I can’t really claim any credit for actually doing any of it, despite what you may have read elsewhere. The internal development team did a considerable amount of customisation, most of which won’t be immediately visible to the reader, before I ever came along. I didn’t do a lot more than pick holes in it for a day or so.

It’s definitely a ‘news site’ rather than a blog, and the layout sits comfortably alongside the likes of the BBC. It’s a brave move to commit to putting big photos on every story, but if it’s sustainable, it’ll pay dividends. There’s a little way to go as regards the editorial; but these are early days, and the direction is unquestionably the right one.

Their plan is to make heavy use of WordPress’s fantastic RSS functionality. There’s already a very detailed subject (category) taxonomy showing on the site; and of course, once everything’s tagged, it’s relatively easy to use category-specific RSS feeds to surface the headlines on other sites. Other departments might, for example, want to integrate into their own pages a list of Parliament’s latest news on their particular topics..?

An MP’s guide to blogs

Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn has apparently ‘been stripped of a Parliamentary allowance for making fun of other MPs on his blog‘, if you read today’s BBC piece on the subject. Flynn himself tells the story slightly differently, on said blog.

I’ve had a similar run-in with my own MP, Newbury’s Richard Benyon (Con). Back in September, the first posting on his new blog made some undeniably party-political comments: he talked about Labour being in a state of ‘desperation’, and his boss David Cameron ‘[continuing] to look like a Prime Minister in waiting’.

Good old political knockabout, nothing wrong with that… except his website proudly declared on every page that it is ‘paid for from his Communications Allowance’, which is explicitly not to be used ‘to promote, criticise or campaign for or against anyone seeking election’. To his credit, he made swift if superficial amends: I don’t see from a technical viewpoint how it’s possible for www.richardbenyon.com/blog ‘not [to be] connected to www.richardbenyon.com’.

The point is this: as both Flynn and Benyon have said, playing by the Parliamentary allowance’s rules would have meant a ‘totally non-political, fence sitting and boring’ blog. With the cost of setting up a basic blog being so low, indeed zero in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to take a chance with the ‘Byzantine complexity of the House of Commons rules’ (to quote Mr Benyon, although frankly I’m not buying that; the rules couldn’t be much clearer).

If you’re an MP, and you want to start a blog, here are the facts:

  • Most political blogs live on Blogger.com, a hosted service owned by Google, and free of charge. It’s not the most sophisticated platform in the world, but it does allow you total freedom to customise your pages… if you so wish. It’s good enough for Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale, generally seen as the #1 and #2 in the UK; they’ve gone to considerable lengths to design their sites. Others, like Lynne Featherstone, John Pugh, David Jones or Andy Love really haven’t.
  • Personally, I find WordPress.com a better blogging tool; but in its free, hosted incarnation, it’s limited in its scope for (full-on) customisation. See Tom Harris‘s top-rated blog, or the Lords Of The Blog group effort.
  • But there are other free alternatives. Adrian Sanders runs his blog on MySpace – hey, why not? Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has a blog on the Telegraph‘s website; and whilst his is technically on the ‘columnists’ side of the fence, rather than the ‘public’ my.telegraph.co.uk service, there’s nothing to stop you doing that either. It’s not ideal, but maybe it suits you and your situation.
  • If you want extra functionality, extra control or extra customisation, you’re looking at spending some money – but frankly, it needn’t be more than the price of a (very modest) dinner for two. Typepad used to be the service of choice for those who wanted to take things more seriously; their ‘pro’ service costs £75 a year, and gives you all the customisation and room for expansion you’re likely to need. Paul Flynn‘s site lives there, as does ConservativeHome, and the blogs of lobby journalists Benedict Brogan and Paul Waugh (among others).
  • These days, the (generally) preferred option – certainly in these parts! – is to download and run your own copy of WordPress. It’s free, and it’s the best; but you’ll need to pay a few quid to put it somewhere – say £22.99 a year from Eukhost; and running it yourself does take some effort. Tom Watson, John Redwood and Richard Benyon use it, as does the remarkably popular PoliticalBetting.com; but for a simple blog, it’s probably overkill. When you want to do something more, though, it’s perfect: ask Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and Jim Murphy.

There’s absolutely no shame in using the free options; and if you decide you need more, for whatever reason, you’re looking at a couple of hundred quid, tops… with most of that going to the friendly geek who sets it up for you. I dare say many MPs could find that kind of sum down the back of their sofa.

Spending a portion of your Communications Allowance on a blog is just The Wrong Thing To Do. And frankly it calls into question the purpose of the ‘totally non-political, fence sitting and boring’ Allowance in the first place. £10,000 times 646 MPs, times 4 years in a typical Parliament equals… no, don’t, it’s a terrifying answer.

PS: By sheer coincidence, I note that the British Computer Society held its MP Website Awards today: winners were Derek Wyatt, John Hutton, Alan Johnson and  Kerry McCarthy. All Labour, for the record.