Cabinet Office approves only 3 new domains since election

In an answer (ahem) to a PQ from Tom Watson today, Francis Maude announces that only three requests for new .gov.uk domains have been granted since the new government took office in May 2010. These were:

  • alpha.gov.uk (which you might have heard of)
  • childrenscommissioner.gov.uk (replacing thechildrenscommissioner.org.uk)
  • education.gov.uk (replacing dcsf.gov.uk, reflecting the Department’s change of name)

OK, but strictly, that’s not what Tom asked: the question was about ‘requests for the creation of new websites’, not new domain name registrations. What an unfortunate mix-up! – which I think we all saw coming. And yes, for the record, the remit of the Efficiency and Reform Group was for ‘new websites’, not new domains, as this press release from June 2010 makes quite clear.

Even so, the response still fails to quote a total number of requests (for whatever you choose to define as a ‘new website’) made to the ERG, citing – guess what? – ‘disproportionate cost’. Really? Doesn’t sounds like their filing system is tremendously efficient, does it.

[Historical footnote: I think it was Alan Mather who came up with the first Big Scary Number of government websites – this blog post from 2003 quoted a count of 2,643 domains, which was frequently – and wrongly – cited as being 2,643 websites. But even in that same post, I see Alan uses the words ‘domains’ and ‘sites’ interchangeably.]

Websites under £20k dodge Maude’s gateway

There’s an intriguing mismatch between the answers to two PQs tabled by former Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson today. In one, he asks ‘what criteria have been set to govern the creation of new Government websites’, to which Francis Maude replies:

I am determined to reduce the number of Government websites and so the creation of any new sites will be exceptional and only permitted where its objective cannot be met in any other way. The reduction in the number of websites is part of the overall control on communications spending, which the Efficiency Board is overseeing.

You’ll note the complete lack of any specific criteria being mentioned. That’s OK, it’s hardly the first time. But on the very same page of Hansard, we go on to learn there are some specific criteria as to whether or not a web project even requires the Board’s oversight.

Tom also asked about the cost of the Your Freedom website, built by Delib. Francis Maude responds that the site cost a very reasonable £3,200 (inc VAT) to build, and has a (very precisely) estimated annual cost of £19,853.98 including VAT. But the last line of the response is the most interesting:

The creation of the Your Freedom website did not come before the Efficiency Board as the estimated cost was below the £20,000 threshold for approval.

Ah, there is a specific criterion after all! There’s certainly been no mention of it in, for example, the Cabinet Office press release announcing the new procedure, which only stated that:

No new websites will be permitted except for those that pass through a stringent exceptions process for special cases, and are cleared by the Efficiency board

So at first glance, it looks like you’ll get away with it if you keep the price below £20k. Your Freedom, which comes in just £146.02 below that threshold, appears to be setting a handy precedent.

Gov websites to use open source ‘whenever possible’

In the response to a pretty innocuous parliamentary question from Tom Watson, new Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude makes a statement which could, on the face of it, be of monumental significance for UK e-government.

The Government believe that departmental websites should be hubs for debate as well as information-where people come together to discuss issues and address challenges – and that this should be achieved efficiently and, whenever possible using open source software. Any future development of websites run by the Cabinet Office will be assessed and reviewed against these criteria.

We’ve heard the ‘hubs for debate’ line before, in the Conservative tech manifesto, but the other part is quite startling. Open source software ‘wherever possible’. An unqualified statement of policy. No caveats at all; not even financial. That takes us far, far beyond the ‘level playing field’.

Watson to quit at reshuffle?

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line from the Sunday Times at the weekend: ‘Tom Watson, the Cabinet Office minister wrongly accused of involvement in the Damian McBride smear e-mails, will return to the back benches. He has told friends he is exhausted by government and wants to see more of his two children.’ I’ve got no inside track on that story (not for lack of trying, btw); but when you look at recent blog entries and tweets, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising. Even though he got his apology, it’s clear the experience of this Easter wasn’t pleasant. (Plus, being realistic, the Party may prefer him to be spending his time planning for the forthcoming general election.)

Around Easter, I had several conversations with people, all of us concerned at the possible loss of Tom as Minister for e-government / Digital Engagement. It’s been such a wonderful period, having someone in that position who deeply, personally understands it – particularly after two anonymous predecessors, Pat McFadden and Gillian Merron. (Yeah, exactly.)

If true, and I stress if, it would seem to put a slightly different light on the appointment of Andrew Stott as Director of Digital Engagement. With a new Minister arriving at the Cabinet Office front door, with (in all likelihood) little background knowledge, it’ll be up to his/her right hand man to drive the Power Of Information agenda forward. The reshuffle is expected shortly after the European elections on 4 June; Stott starts his new job (formally) on 2 June. Two fresh faces in the same fortnight would not be ideal.

PS: Is that really Tom’s middle name? (not safe for work)

Govt seeks £120k/yr Director of Digital Engagement

Who said there were no ‘senior strategic web roles’ in government? The Cabinet Office has just issued a job advert, looking for someone to ‘develop a strategy and implementation plan for extending digital engagement across Government’, and ‘act as head of profession for civil servants working on digital engagement’. It’s a Senior Civil Service Pay Band 2 position – ie very senior indeed, ‘accountable to the Permanent Secretary – Government Communications (Matt Tee) and to the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Tom Watson)’. Oh, and the money’s not bad either: starting salary of £120,000, plus 30 days holiday.

On paper at least, the resources available aren’t great: the job spec promises only a ‘small team’ and a ‘small budget’. But regular readers will know I’m actually quite happy to see that – and the spec justifies it  beautifully, saying one of the role’s key purposes is ‘to assist Government in making effective use of current digital spend, which runs into many millions, and to enable departments to save significant sums on their engagement activities through switching from expensive face to face and postal methods to cheaper digital techniques.’ Perfect.

On the flipside, the demands are sky-high. ‘This is not a role for a generalist,’ it warns – a statement clearly intended to scare off the bog-standard civil servant seeking promotion. ‘The professional skills required are formidable… Within a year the Director of Digital engagement should be able to point to two departments whose use of digital engagement are recognised in the digital community as being world class. Within two years the use of world class digital engagement techniques should be embedded in the normal work of Government.’

The applicants’ information pack spells out some specific qualities they’re after:

Essential

  • Is a highly credible individual in digital communications
  • Has run a public facing web site of significant size, for example for a broadscaster or newspaper; or has been a leading figure in getting a large organisation to engage through digital channels.
  • Has innovated in web, beyond ‘web publishing’ and can demonstrate concrete personal examples of changing how organisations carry out their core functions using digital channels
  • Understands the technology and software that enable excellent web development, and has experience of advising on its procurement and deployment
  • Has experience of achieving change through influence, especially with policy and delivery officials
  • Has the authority to be credible with Ministers and senior officials

Desirable

  • Has experience of the workings of Government

So who’s going to get it? It might appeal to people like DJ Collins, Google’s European comms director (with good Labour connections); or ex-BBC chief Ashley Highfield, although he’s just started a new job with Microsoft… but it’s probably a significant pay cut for those guys. Then again, whoever takes the job will have to be doing it for the love of it, not for the money.

PS: Full marks to that man Steph for setting up a UserVoice ‘idea storm’ to crowd-source the lucky applicant’s to-do list. 🙂

Reshuffle junior moves

Please, please, can we not have reshuffles on a Friday? The Cabinet positions were all confirmed by the end of the day… but the junior moves were certainly happening late into Friday evening, and one assumes, over the weekend. And whilst I’m sure a few government webbies were grateful for the weekend overtime, it does leave us in a situation where government websites left, right and centre are out of date – some more visibly than others.

I’m aware of two changes of interest to the blogosphere. Margaret Hodge, whose blog I only discovered the other week, will no longer be writing anything at all – having reportedly taken compassionate leave from her DCMS job to care for her sick husband, reportedly to return next year (?). And Tom Harris lost his junior position at Transport – breaking the news on his blog, naturally.

(Update: I’ve seen several suggestions that Tom H may have lost his position because of his blog; equally, there are numerous comments on the blog lamenting his loss. Tom picks out one particular comment, which is especially telling.)

I’m reliably informed that Tom Watson remains at the Cabinet Office, but has also been given a (party?) campaigning role. Details, though, are sketchy at best.

(Further update: Tom has now confirmed that he’s staying, and is happy to do so. ‘I’ve got some audacious plans for the digital engagement agenda,’ he writes. ‘It’s time to get people moving.’ Hmm, intriguing.)

It’ll be very interesting to see how it all pans out. The Guardian’s list is the most comprehensive I’ve seen so far (and yes, that does reflect badly on HMG). It’s immediately striking how many junior ministers are joint appointments across departments – perhaps most intriguingly Phil Woolas, whose role spans the Treasury and Home Office (where he’ll be immigration minister).

Tom Loosemore to Channel4

I’m probably the last to pick up on this news, but for the sake of completeness, I should note the announcement last week of Tom Loosemore‘s imminent move from Ofcom to Channel 4’s 4IP.

With the demise of the notion of a Public Service Publisher online, quoted by Tom as ‘one of [his] areas of focus’ in moving to Ofcom, and 4IP’s stated vision of ‘re-inventing the way public service media is developed, commissioned, funded and delivered’, it seems like a natural move. Hopefully it’ll give 4’s efforts a sense of direction; I’m really not sure what their efforts are actually aimed at, and their new media efforts rarely shake the foundations.

Tom’s an occasional commenter on the Puffbox blog, so let’s see if he rises to the bait: does this affect your involvement with Tom Watson’s Power Of Information Taskforce?

Commons motion to free postcodes

I’ve just come across an Early Day Motion at the House of Commons, dated 1 July 2008, by Labour’s Khalid Mahmood:

That this House believes that the Register of Postcodes is a national public asset and should be freely available.

Short and sweet. And attracting healthy numbers of (mostly Labour) MPs willing to add their names in support. It’s one of the most popular EDMs tabled in the last couple of weeks.

Now, let’s bear in mind that EDMs are widely derided as little more than parliamentary graffiti. But given the Power Of Information taskforce‘s activity in this general area, the sustained traffic to my own recent blog posting on the subject, and favourable follow-ups from both e-gov minister Tom Watson and the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaignis this suddenly going somewhere?

UPDATE: OK, strange things happening now. ‘The Status of this EDM is Suspended,’ according to the Parliament site. Anyone?

UPDATE 2: Now showing as ‘withdrawn’. Curiouser and curiouser.

Mash! Mash! Mash!

The latest move from Tom Watson’s Power Of Information Taskforce, effectively a big BBC Backstage-style government mashup competition, is a master stroke.

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful. … We will take the best ideas from the community commenting on the website and put them to a judging panel selected by the Taskforce. … We are offering up to £20,000 to take your ideas forward with a development team. … winners by the end of the second week in October.’

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

The site has been built in Typepad – so it’s a very high-profile example of a ‘blog which isn’t a blog’. We like that. Users’ ideas are submitted via an entry form (hosted on a hastily-registered third-party domain), and if accepted, appear as blog posts with comments enabled. A great way to manage the discussion.

Plus, although there’s little reflection on it, the title of the initiative – Show Us A Better Way – implies an acceptance that government doesn’t know best. Having dealt with enough data managers and statisticians in my time, I can tell you, that would be a huge step forward.

Tom Loosemore‘s fingerprints are all over this. Great work, Tom.

Guido-Tom Watson consensus on gov jobs?

One senses there’s not a lot of love between Guido Fawkes and Tom Watson. So it’s all the more remarkable that, within a few days, they’ve effectively reached an identical conclusion on the need for a better approach to public sector job advertising.

A week ago, Tom wrote a blog post noting the lack of a consistent approach on publishing job vacancies. I was one of several people to respond by noting that (in theory at least) there is actually a central website for all job vacancies already. Mind you, if only us insiders know, then it may as well not exist. Questions like this don’t get asked without a reason, so hopefully it’s the start of something significant.

Now this morning, Guido Fawkes has published details of his plan to bankrupt the Guardian, part of which is this:

One of the first thing the Tories should do in power is set up www.jobs.gov.uk. All available public sector positions would be listed there free of charge, this would save hundreds of millions in advertising costs for the taxpayer and deprive the Guardian of a critical revenue stream.

Aw, isn’t it sweet? Next thing you know, they’ll be playing football between the trenches. 🙂

The central website has been around since 2003 (at least), and in 2004 I was talking to them about the idea of ‘saved searches’ as RSS feeds. Departments could enter their results into the central database, then power a ‘current vacancies’ list on their own corporate website using the RSS feed. At the time, I only knew of one website offering such a service (Wired): it would have been cutting-edge. Now it’s a feature of many websites – TheyWorkForYou, BBC – and the RSS-processing part is almost embarrassingly easy. That’s before we get on to things like plotting vacancies on Google Maps…

Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has finally come. With the existing site basically unchanged in 5 years, it’s easy to justify a refresh. There are plenty of recruitment sites out there, from which to draw inspiration. There will be benefits in terms of customer service, staff efficiency, and defining best practice. We need concrete examples to show Whitehall that yes, it can be done.