Commons committee's IT inquiry

Announced shortly before Christmas, and closing next week, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee is running a consultation on ‘the way in which Government develops and implements technology policy’.
They have produced an ‘Issues and Questions’ paper, posted online in PDF format; and they would like you to submit your responses ‘in Word format or a rich text format with as little use of colour or logos as possible.’ Oh – and they’re claiming ownership of all submissions, ‘and no public use should be made of it unless you have first obtained permission from the Clerk of the Committee.’ Not a great starting point, then.
The questions are as follows:

1. How well is technology policy co-ordinated across Government?
2. How effective are its governance arrangements?
3. Have past lessons from NAO and OGC reviews about unsuccessful IT programmes been learnt and applied?
4. How well is IT used in the design, delivery and improvement of public services?
5. What role should IT play in a ‘post-bureaucratic age’?
6. What skills does Government have and what are those it must develop in order to acquire IT capability?
7. How well do current procurement policies and practices work?
8. What infrastructure, data or other assets does government need to own, or to control directly, in order to make effective use of IT?
9. How will public sector IT adapt to the new ‘age of austerity’?
10. How well does Government take advantage of new technological developments and external expertise?
11. How appropriate is the Government’s existing approach to information security, information assurance and privacy?
12. How well does the UK compare to other countries with regard to government procurement and application of IT systems?

The thing is, this is a subject I feel passionately about. But I don’t see where I’m going to find the time – within effectively a two-week window – to give the Committee a free 3,000-word consultancy report. The only people who will find the time are those professionally engaged in the subject: and in a lot of cases, that means lobbyists (whether that’s their job description or not) from The Big Consultancies. And those turkeys won’t vote for Christmas.

MPs to lose Communications Allowance

Among the Kelly Report’s recommendations for reforming MPs’ expenses and allowances is the abolition of the £10,000 annual Communications Allowance. And quite right too. The report states:

8.20 The Committee believes that effective engagement between an MP and his or her constituents is of the utmost importance, particularly in the wake of recent events. The Committee’s survey research shows that the public expect MPs to keep in touch with what they think is important and to explain their actions and decisions.
8.21 However, with some commendable exceptions, the evidence that the communications allowance has really succeeded in promoting more effective engagement is very limited, even allowing for the relatively short time since its introduction. There is much more evidence of it being used in ways that are essentially party political or have more to do with self-promotion. It is also difficult to police.
8.22 For these reasons, the Committee has concluded that the allowance should be abolished.

It’ll only save between £2m (assuming some of the expenditure finds its way into other allowances) and £5m, a relatively minor sum. But I’m not at all surprised to read:

The Committee has been shown some good examples of the communications allowance being used  to engage with constituents in ways which appear to be both valuable and appropriate. However, the Committee has seen much more evidence of the allowance being used to fund material which is largely self-promotional, containing little information about local issues but a large number of photographs of the MP, or which mainly recites party lines.

I recently received a richly-designed mailing from my own Conservative MP. Lots of colour photos. Official Conservative colours and fonts. It may not have mentioned the word Conservative, but there was no doubt which party it came from. If it’s the last one I receive… actually, let me rephrase that. If it’s the last one I pay for myself, I won’t be sorry.
The lesson here, surely, is that you can’t sensibly separate party politics and Westminster business. I’m glad the Committee recognises this. As I’ve written here before (eg around McBride), the implications of such a conclusion go well beyond the few million quid we’ll all save.
PS: The Committee also appears to have added a new definition of greater London, based on a ‘reasonable commuting distance’. It calls for the new independent regulator to draw up a list of constituencies to add to those which meet the current rule: ‘constituencies wholly within 20 miles of Westminster’. The BBC specifically names Reigate, Slough, Runnymede and Weighbridge, St Albans, Welwyn and Hatfield, Epping Forest, Sevenoaks, Maidenhead, Broxbourne, Mole Valley, Windsor and Dartford.

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 condemn lack of usage data

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published its latest report on ‘Government on the Internet: Progress in delivering information and services online‘ a few weeks back. Much of it was pretty predictable: we know we don’t have an exact figure for the number of websites, we know we aren’t always brilliant on accessibility, and we’ve heard the social exclusion argument countless times (although we haven’t heard much from the Cabinet Minister responsible).
(Correction: I see Paul Murphy gave his first speech as Minister for Digital Inclusion a week or two back. Details on the Puffbox-produced Wales Office website… and hey, also available in Welsh.)
But its conclusions include some genuinely worrying data. ‘16% of government organisations have no data about how their websites are being used,’ it tells us – what, none at all? I’ve come across a few in my time, but never feared it was quite that many. Unforgivable in these post-Google Analytics days, surely. A quarter could provide no data on costs. Only 19% provided a full picture on cost and usage.
I’m not sure I can accept the assertion, based on NAO data, that ‘overall the quality (of government websites) has improved only slightly since 2001 and one in six sites has become significantly worse’. But it leads to an interesting aside, which seems to call for government departments to embrace user-generated content..?

The National Audit Office found that many government websites have yet to adopt approaches now commonplace among leading private sector websites. These include allowing users to post content onto websites and to provide comments about the services and information provided. … Some government sites are piloting such facilities, and some are well established including the online petitions facility on the 10 Downing Street website and the Department of Health’s feedback and testimonials site for NHS patients.

But perhaps the most striking recommendation of all is the proposal that ‘no new (websites) should be established without the agreement of the Government’s Chief Information Officer in the Cabinet Office’. That might be enforceable on a domain name level… but it surely can’t be workable in terms of subdomains or microsites. (And that’s before we think about areas on external community sites, whose usage was endorsed by the Power Of Information work.)

Commons flame war

I draw your attention to Early Day Motion no 1037, lodged yesterday by Peter Kilfoyle MP and signed by more than 50 MP colleagues: at the current count, 51 Labour and 1 LibDem (Lembit, before you ask).

That this House deplores the innuendo of the blog of Nick Robinson, the BBC’s lobby correspondent; calls upon him to substantiate the imputations he makes in his blog concerning the Speaker and hon. Members; and also calls upon the BBC to publish a full, itemised account of the expenses of Mr Robinson, in the name of transparency and accountability of public funds.

This follows Kilfoyle’s submission of a comment on the offending post on Nick Robinson’s blog, barely an hour after it was posted. Nick reflects on the kerfuffle here. Personally, I don’t see why Kilfoyle’s getting so worked up: if someone said I was crap at my job, I’d probably be less inclined to be nice to them. Still, I guess it’s all an interesting step forward.
Incidentally, Mr K: be careful what you wish for. BBC Radio Ulster presenter Conor Bradford was interviewing the DUP’s Gregory Campbell MP on precisely this subject. As the Belfast Telegraph reports:

During (the) debate on air, Mr Campbell had been jibing him about BBC secrecy policy on presenter pay when Mr Bradford defended his position. “Look, I earn £29,000 a year for my Good Morning Ulster contract,” he said. “That is not hidden, that is open for everyone to see. That is my salary. Have you got any problems with that?”

Mr Campbell, the article also notes, ‘rents his constituency office from his wife and employs her in a secretarial role.’