Open source advocate is new gov Deputy CIO

 News today that Liam Maxwell has been appointed Deputy Government CIO, replacing Bill McCluggage.
Maxwell joined the Cabinet Office last summer, on an 11-month sabbatical from his job as Head of ICT at a Berkshire secondary school. Liam’s belief in open source is well documented, and it’s quite remarkable to have someone like that in such a senior position.
The Guardian says he will be retaining his responsibilities as Cabinet Office director of ICT Futures.

Open standards consultation now, er, open

I came away from this year’s UKGovCamp with an uncomfortable sense of there being an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.
The day opened with Dave Briggs declaring the event was different because, among various examples he quoted, it didn’t have a keynote address. The day concluded with a keynote address by a senior Cabinet Office civil servant, who proceeded to tell us what his team of hired specialists were going to do.
But the ‘us and them’ was even more apparent in the first session I attended, led by the Cabinet Office’s Liam Maxwell, on the subject of open standards. The substance of the presentation was:

  • we think open standards are very important;
  • we’re doing lots of very important things, none of which we can talk about;
  • but we’d value your input when the time comes.

I voiced a certain amount of frustration in the questions which followed, so it won’t surprise Liam if I say it all felt thoroughly unsatisfying.
Having said that, I did – and do – have some sympathy. Open standards are commercial dynamite: software lock-in is worth £££millions to the big vendors. Enough for those vendors to put up a hell of a fight, in defence of an unsustainable and #unacceptable status quo. And to extend my metaphor just one step further, Liam and his colleagues were keeping their powder dry.
The aforementioned time for our input has now come: the Cabinet Office has opened its consultation process, with Liam asking for ‘as much feedback from the IT community as possible… There’s a lot of strong opinion on this subject,’ he says, ‘so I’m urging people to take this opportunity and let us know what they think.’
The consultation ‘document’ is online, and it’s been done on WordPress. 😉
The interactive part of the site comes in three pages of questions, two of them very long and very scary, powered by a bespoke plugin (by the look of it). At the very top, it declares:

which may not be quite what they meant. Based on the error message displayed following a blank submission, it looks like only name and email address are actually required, plus an answer to at least one question. And if there’s an asterisk anywhere, I’ve yet to find it.
The exercise itself is all rather semantic, and the language inevitably technical. It goes way over my head, to be perfectly honest. But my feelings on open standards are easily summarised:

As open as possible, as standardised as possible, as soon as possible.

Based on my experience in the Civil Service, it’s that final point which is probably most important. I’ve been scarred by past experiences – notably around the Government Category List and eGMS, which both took several years, went through numerous iterations, and yet seemed to deliver no tangible benefits. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)
This time round, hopefully, things are different. The ‘cloud computing’ narrative has been widely accepted; and implicit in that is the belief that government’s needs are not unique. Government should be looking to embrace standards that are already being widely adopted – and where there are any (perceived) deficiencies, it should play a part in their development.
Exactly how it does that, frankly, is up to smarter people than me.

22 more well-paid GDS jobs up for grabs

In addition to the five Government Digital Service product manager roles I mentioned at the end of last week, I’ve also had my attention drawn to several other roles being advertised on the Civil Service jobs website:

  • Two creative leads (eh?), with salary package up to £80k
  •  Two technical architects, £90k
  • 12 developer positions, with salary quoted at ‘up to £65k’
  • Two ‘web ops’ (I’m not even sure what that means – guess I’m not suitable), £65k
  • A delivery team manager, £85k
  • Three interaction designers, £59k

All the above positions are based in Central London, are ‘open to UK, British Commonwealth and European Economic Area (EEA) Nationals and certain non EEA members’, and are offered on a Fixed Term basis. The closing date for all positions is 4 November.
Potentially totalling £1.5 million (and that’s without overheads, NI, etc), those look like very generous salaries indeed, particularly in an economic downturn. They’ve clearly set their sights very highly indeed: justifiable, arguably, given the importance of the positions, and the (net) savings they’re meant to generate.
Additionally, they’re advertising for the SCS1-level position of Deputy Director Digital Engagement: a permanent position this time, with salary in the range £58,200 – £72,000 – ‘with an expectation of joining at the lower end of the payscale’ , which seems slightly odd given the other positions on offer at the same time. Closing date on that one is 8 November.
There’s plenty of detail in the ‘person specification’ for the role, listing among its responsibilities:

  • Managing the use of social media within government, focusing on standards, acceptable use and engagement.
  • Engaging with other business units within Cabinet Office to assist in the delivery of key initiatives using digital channels to ensure that the GDS agenda is at the heart of government policy and execution.
  • Defining the GDS communication approaches as an exemplar of best practice in digital communication
  • Encouraging the maximum use of digital channels to access government information and transactions.
  • Designing and implementing the organisational development programme that will embed the Digital by Default mission
  • Actively promoting concepts of open governance through promoting the use of open government data, engaging actively with third party developers in conjunction with the partnership team
  • Establishing an approach to managing reputation risk across the digital domain with appropriate ownership by individual departments
  • Being the media spokesperson for GDS

But I’m having trouble confirming the position of this position in the GDS hierarchy. It reads like it’s a direct report to executive director Mike Bracken, but that isn’t made clear. (The paperwork attached to the job ad calls it ‘Deputy Director, Digital Engagement’ with a potentially all-important comma.) For the record, the last time we saw the words ‘director’, ‘digital’ and ‘engagement’ together, it was Katie Davis taking over from Andrew Stott on an interim basis… but she moved to DH in July.
I’d link to the various job adverts on the new Civil Service Jobs website … but it won’t let me. For some ridiculous reason, they’ve made the form submit via POST, not GET… so you don’t get any identifying data in the URL displayed by the browser. You’ll have to go here, and search for ‘Cabinet Office excl agencies’ positions.

Government publishes ICT Strategy implementation plan

Following on from March’s publication of the new government ICT strategy, the Cabinet Office has published its implementation plan – a long and detailed document, full of specific milestones, risks and nominated Senior Responsible Owner, leading to projected savings of ‘around £1.4bn of savings within the next 4 years’ (according to the press release).
‘Our plans are focused on standardising government ICT,’ states the foreword, with a pledge to ‘fundamentally change how government incorporates ICT into its everyday business. It will ensure the early factoring of technology considerations into the design of policy, increase digital inclusion, reduce the cost of our operations, and ensure information is shared and transparent where possible and always handled appropriately.’ Good news on all fronts, you’d have to say.
The document covers so much ground, it’s almost impossible to provide a meaningful summary of it. But to pick out a few highlights, based on the areas of particular interest to this blog and this blogger:

  • Open source: a ‘toolkit to assist departments in the evaluation and adoption of open source solutions’ is due for completion this month, although it will only be accessible by ‘100% of departments’ by next March. By March 2013, ‘100% of all department software procurement activity includes an open source option analysis’. The Senior Responsible Owner for Open Source is Robin Pape, CIO for the Home Office.
  • Open technical standards: the findings from the recent ‘crowd sourcing’ exercise will be published this month, with ‘the first release of a draft suite of mandatory Open Technical Standards’ to follow in December. Levels of adoption of these will be reviewed in six months.
  • App Store: will launch in March 2012, but rather unambitiously, they’re giving it until the following December to reach ’50 accredited products’. Sounds like it’ll be pretty empty until this time next year.
  • Single domain: The launch of a ‘Beta version of single government web domain for public testing’ is set for February 2012.
  • APIs: I’m pleased to see the statement that ‘Government will select common standards’ – as opposed to defining its own. But despite having apparently completed a review of existing cross-government APIs in March 2011, it’s going to take until September 2012 for a list of APIs to be published. Like the single domain work, this stream will be owned by Mike Bracken.
  • Consultation: This one looks a bit odd. All departments are to have established a ‘digital channel for online consultation’ by December 2011… but then in February, the GDS ‘online consultation product’ will have been delivered, which makes you wonder why they’re making departments spend time and money getting something together for December. Said GDS product will be ‘integrated’ into Single Domain by October 2012.
  • Social media: Maybe it’s me, but it seems a bit odd that the lead department on departmental access to social media sites should be the Home Office: they’ll be producing ‘final guidelines’ by March next year. Verification of existing government social media accounts ‘where appropriate’ is to be completed by next month.

It’s good to see so many specific dates and people in this document, and I think we can take a lot of encouragement from the plan as a whole. Personally, though, I can’t help feeling slightly excluded. I don’t see too many specific areas where Puffbox, or someone like us, can offer a contribution.

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 domains have been granted since the new government took office in May 2010. These were:

  • (which you might have heard of)
  • (replacing
  • (replacing, 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.]

New man in charge at Number 10

One of the most prominent WordPress installs in the UK is under new management: Nick Jones, formerly Director of Interactive Services at the (now doomed) COI, has been appointed Head of Digital for the (now merged) Downing Street / Cabinet Office operation. He replaces former Tory staffer Rishi Saha, who quit government for a PR job based in Dubai.
New Media Age reports:

As head of digital for the Prime Minister’s office and Cabinet Office, Jones will oversee all digital communications, including the Number 10 and Cabinet Office websites. He will also continue with his COI duties.

Both sites have, of course, been redesigned in the last 12 months: the former staying on WordPress, the latter moving to Drupal late last year. We’ve also had a number of WP-based microsites from the Cabinet Office crew. So they know their open source on that team, as does Nick, so there are grounds for optimism… although of course, the next six months will (in theory) see departments’ independent web presences being run down, in favour of the (ahem) bespoke unified presence. But I don’t want to prod that particular hornet’s nest again quite yet.
It’s interesting to see a civil servant taking up the role, following on from the political appointment of Rishi Saha: and given the imminent shake-up in government comms, not just online, it’s unquestionably the right thing to do. We need someone in that position of key influence who understands government as a whole – not technology, not politics – and there’s no questioning Nick’s experience in that regard.
Good luck, Nick. It’s a job which, publicly, can be more about limiting criticism than earning praise. But there’s no more influential role in digital government. Use it well, sir.

Cabinet Office finally confirms Alphagov transition to beta

If you’ve been following the whole Alphagov thing – and if you’re reading this, we can probably assume you have – then today’s Cabinet Office ‘announcement’ that the Single Government Domain project has now ‘progressed to the next stage’ won’t have come as any kind of surprise. I make it seven weeks since the team declared via Twitter:

We’ve moved on from developing the “Alpha” (prototype), so we’re no longer called @alphagov on Twitter. “Beta” now in development.

… followed soon after by Neil Williams’s revelation on his personal blog that he was now working half-time on ‘Betagov’.
Tom Loosemore’s blog post adds some detail, promising three things for ‘early 2012’:

  1. Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of
  2. Private beta test of a shared ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments (see for a flavour)
  3. A first draft of a ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single domain. (see for an example).

There will be a certain amount of dual running of ‘the beta’ and Directgov – ‘it will be constantly updated in order to trial the essential behind-the-scenes administrator tools & processes’ – indicating, at the very least, how serious they’re now taking it. Constant updating means, in effect, a ‘proper’ staff – and that’s probably the most difficult thing to arrange in Whitehall terms.
I’m glad to see Tom’s apparent acknowledgement that the ‘single domain’ approach only goes so far, and doesn’t perhaps sit too neatly with departmental representation. He writes: ‘the audience for such content tends to be more specialist and already engaged with the work of government than most mainstream users.’ Would departmental subdomains still count as being within a ‘single domain’, I wonder?
Of course, given my own experience with departmental publishing, it’s this aspect which I’m most interested in – even though it’s not the most important from the citizen perspective. And, to be frank, it’s the area where I feel Puffbox can be of most help. Throughout the past year (ish) working with Defra, we’ve kept in mind the possibility – increasingly, the likelihood – that departments would start to share a platform, and ultimately, share code within it.
We’ve shown how WordPress can be configured to bear the load, whilst still maintaining an efficient balance between centralised control and devolved publishing responsibility. And if you’re wondering why the Puffbox name doesn’t appear in Defra’s spending data on the No10 transparency site: that’s because we came in (well!) below the £25,000 threshold for publication.
Meanwhile, as highlighted earlier this week, we’re now up to four Whitehall departments (plus No10) using WordPress as their primary web platform. Thus far it’s been somewhat opportunistic; now it’s time to get a bit more strategic.
Update: The Register’s piece on the subject refers to a ‘Betagov’ budget of £1.6m: author Kelly Fiveash tweets to tell me it’s ‘an accurate figure the Cabinet Office gave [her] this morning’. Subsequently confirmed by Tom Loosemore: ‘yup, that’s the overall programme budget for single domain‘.

The return of e-petitions; a new home for the Govt Digital Service; and an ironic footnote

Two site launches today worth noting: the return of e-petitions, and the ‘new’ Government Digital Service blog.
E-petitions used to belong to Downing Street; now it’s moved over to Directgov, and thence to individual departments, rather than landing everything on the PM’s desk. There’s very little to see just now: just a submission form, and a few information pages. We won’t be able to see or ‘sign’ other people’s petitions for another week or so.
It’s been built by the Skunkworks team, now under the more full-time management of Mark O’Neill – or to be more specific:

#epetitions was put together by an onsite agile team of 3 devs, 1 PM, 1 customer + 1 part-time analyst, over three iterations. RoR stack.
tweet by @chrismdp

… and so far, (update: nearly) everyone’s been jolly nice about it, particularly as there’s so little to see. Maybe they’ve seen what else is coming.
The e-petition’s previous incarnation became notorious when 1.8 million people signed to protest against road pricing proposals. Its successor won’t have to wait long to face a similar challenge: the Guido Fawkes blog has already lodged a petition calling for the restoration of the death penalty for child and cop killers, and is planning a special campaign to reach the magic 100,000 signature barrier, (potentially) triggering a debate in the Commons. Good luck to whoever’s desk that lands on.
One slight downer for me is that fact that it’s been redeveloped from scratch, using Ruby on Rails, rather than extending the existing MySociety-built platform (now being taken up by dozens of councils throughout the land). Tom Loosemore tells us: ‘ if [the new] code base isn’t open sourced, it won’t be for lack of will or encouragement!’ – but I just can’t see that being enough to see the application being reused more widely, particularly at local councils. Mark assures me that they did look at using WordPress, which would have guaranteed a high degree of reuse; I’m looking forward to reading his blog post about why they opted for the alternative approach.

Speaking of which… the Government Digital Service has a ‘new’ blog, or rather, it has consolidated various previous efforts (including Alphagov and the Cabinet Office Digital Engagement blog) into a new home, located at (where it joins, among others, UKTI and both the Army and Navy).
They’re using the premium Linen theme, costing them $68, with a bit of graphic customisation; and a mapped domain for a further $17/year. And as it’s on, that’s pretty much all it’s cost them. (And purely because I’ve already been asked the question: no, I didn’t have any part in its creation. Well, apart from several years of ruthless evangelism.)
Meanwhile, with more than a little irony… the Cabinet Office has also published its list of the 444 government websites still in operation, 243 of which are marked for closure. Neither of these sites is mentioned.

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.

WordPress-based hosting solution in final stages of Cabinet Office cost-saving contest

It’s great to see some positive coverage of the Cabinet Office’s Innovation Launchpad process at the Telegraph today; and with it, a very positive writeup for a company we’ve been building a partnership with.
CatN first came to my attention when their commercial director, Joe Gardiner blogged last year about how the Department for Transport could save more than £750,000 per year by moving its website over to WordPress, running on CatN’s vCluster platform. A man very much after my own heart, clearly. And of course, last month, Transport – quite coincidentally? – migrated their website to WordPress.
Joe worked his Transport calculations up into an entry into the Cabinet Office contest, with a tantalising promise to save government departments an average of 75% on their hosting costs – a minimum of £17.88 million per year – by moving over to WordPress. And as he tells the Telegraph in their article today, ‘one of their concerns is that we are offering to save them too much and that we can’t be a sustainable business.’
The thing is – and this won’t come as any surprise to anyone reading this blog – such savings are absolutely possible.
We’ve been working with CatN for a few months now, and we’re in no doubt that their services, costing hundreds of pounds per year, are at least a match for – and in most cases, far better than – the services departments are spending thousands on. And arguably more importantly, their heart is in it.
So we’re wholeheartedly backing Joe and CatN in their efforts next week. For all the innovation going on around WordPress in government, there isn’t yet a strategic approach to hosting. It’s an idea whose time came a good while ago.
CatN and Puffbox are both sponsors of WordCamp UK 2011, taking place this weekend in Portsmouth.