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's new Red Tape consultation runs on WordPress

The government’s latest crowdsourcing initiative launches today: the Red Tape Challenge takes a slightly more focused approach than previous efforts, naming a specific sector or industry ‘every few weeks’, pointing visitors at, and asking them what can be scrapped, merged, simplified or improved.
I really like the idea of targeting by sector, but I’m less convinced by the notion of chucking people rather randomly at various Acts of Parliament. It works OK when we’re talking about very specific legislation, such as The Bunk Beds (Entrapment Hazards) (Safety) Regulations 1987. But when it’s something as broad as a Criminal Justice Act, it’s not much help to be dumped at the table of contents, and told to find the clauses which might be relevant to the Topic Of The Week yourself. And even then, it’s the usual chaotic mess of cross-references and amendments.
The site’s been built in WordPress, by the in-house team, and uses a custom theme. There are a few slightly curious things in its configuration, which I can’t immediately work out; and the content (such as it is) is very formulaic, which makes me think it’s been done in a hurry. But it’s very nicely done, and suggests the Cabinet Office team are definitely finding their feet with WordPress.
However, whilst – of course! – I’m going to welcome further use of WordPress at the heart of government, I’m slightly bemused. When they moved their corporate site to Drupal, I assumed they’d be adopting Drupal as their corporate-wide solution… and in all likelihood, everyone else’s too. It would have been perfectly feasible to build this site, and various others they’ve done recently, in Drupal… yet they’re consistently choosing not to. I wonder why?

New govt IT strategy published

The new Government ICT Strategy has been published on the Cabinet Office website – and to their great credit, it’s been published:

  • primarily for web consumption, with the downloadable versions a click deeper; and
  • not just in PDF, not just in Word format, but also in OpenOffice format! The quiet symbolism is noted.

Much of the document will seem familiar, as it’s been (notionally) in place, or  certainly on the cards, for some considerable time. But I’m struck by the relatively strong language it uses, for example: ‘The Government will also put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision.’
There’s formal endorsement of Agile methodology; ‘mandation of specific open standards’; and a commitment that ‘Government will not commission new solutions where something similar already exists.’ That may sound like common sense… but the impact of such a black-and-white statement could be substantial.
The picture as regards open source specifically is somewhat disappointing, boiling down to little more than a restatement of the same ‘level playing field’ principle of recent years. Of course, as I’ve written here many times, that policy should be all that’s needed to kickstart a revolution; but it hasn’t happened. And I’m just not convinced that the creation of three new committees – an Open Source Implementation Group, a System Integrator Forum and an Open Source Advisory Panel – plus the creation of a ‘toolkit for procurers’ will do much to advance things… in themselves. But maybe that’s just how the Civil Service has to do things.
A couple of other points which jumped out at me:

  • there’s an apparent endorsement of Directgov as the ‘single domain’, along the lines proposed by Martha Lane Fox. As I wrote at the time, there are pros and cons to this; and I know there were some efforts to keep services and policy separate.
  • an explicit commitment that ‘departments will ensure an online channel is included in all government consultations’, within six months.
  • no going back on the notion of open policy formulation, including a pledge to ‘develop practical guidelines on departmental access to the internet and social media channels’.

Coincidentally, Francis Maude is just sitting down in front of the Public Adminstration Select Committee as I type this. I’ll be watching, and hope to provide notes later.

Commenting is not crowdsourcing

I’ve noticed a lot of people getting quite agitated by this Guardian piece about how the Programme for Government ‘crowdsourcing’ (sic) exercise has ended ‘without a single government department expressing a willingness to alter any policy’.
Now, I’m speaking for nobody but myself here – but what the Guardian piece doesn’t fairly reflect is that it was not a crowdsourcing exercise, nor even a consultation.
It was the definitive statement of the outcome of negotiations between the two parties currently forming the country’s coalition government. It was not ‘give us some ideas for what you think we might have agreed.’ The comment box provided an opportunity for people to voice opinions or ask questions, and government promised it would listen.
There was no commitment to take the responses back for a second round of coalition negotiations. To do so would have been quite ridiculous. So I’d argue that it’s entirely reasonable for the departmental responses to take the position of ‘well, we’ve heard what you say, but…’.

Wanted: consultation platform, £1m reward

I’m glad my former Microsoft colleague John McGarvey reminded me of Conservative shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s proposal of a £1m prize to develop ‘the best new technology platform that helps people come together to solve the problems that matter to them’. That’s what happens when you announce things over the Christmas holidays.
The plan is for a future Conservative government to use it ‘to throw open the policy making process to the public, and harness the wisdom of the crowd so that the public can collaborate to improve government policy. For example, a Conservative government would publish all government Green Papers on this platform, so that everyone can have their say on government policies, and feed in their ideas to make them better.’ Why does that sound so familiar? ‘There are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by Government,’ says Mr Hunt; ‘this prize is a good and cost-effective way of getting one.’
Now I don’t know what kind of ‘scale’ or ‘depth’ Mr Hunt thinks he requires. If there’s a formal brief, I’ve yet to find it – and I’d be delighted if someone could point me in the right direction.
Because I’ve been building websites allowing the public to input their views on government green and white papers for some time now. Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme kickstarted the process: and I’ve since gone on to build reusable WordPress MU-based platforms for two Whitehall departments, for a few grand each. We’ve proven WordPress can handle (literally) thousands of responses – and in the only case so far where it’s wobbled, that was because of ISP throttling rather than the ability of WordPress to handle it.
Then on the academic side, you’ve got the work that’s been done by Joss Winn and Tony Hirst et al on JISCPress / / Their focus has been on the technical side, including some early steps towards community-building. It’s a bit lacking in terms of aesthetics, and it hasn’t yet been tested with huge volumes, but it’s doing some very interesting things.
And of course, barely a month ago, you had Mr Hunt’s own people at Tory central office proving the point by turning the government’s draft IT strategy into a consultation document using WordPress. Cheap and quick, showing signs of inexperience with the platform – but good enough to receive nearly 400 contributions.
So you have several independent operations in the (wide) UK public sector, already proving in the real world that WordPress is perfectly capable of supporting such ‘user feedback’ websites, and delivering some pretty sophisticated functionality and user experience. BuddyPress, meanwhile, continues to improve, and could certainly form the bedrock of a government-backed policy development community.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology is ready. And there are enough good people who have built up enough experience to collaborate on building something pretty special. For a slice of that £1m, I’m sure I could find time in my own schedule.
But the big question is… is Mr Hunt ready? What does it mean to receive large volumes of contributions from the general public? When do you ask for them? How do you deal with them? How do you ensure they’re representative? And what if you don’t like the consensus of the opinions expressed?
I’m all for the kind of revolution in policy development he seems to be proposing; and I’d be happy to play a part in it. But it isn’t the lack of a technical platform that will hold this vision back. If anything, that’s the easiest part.
PS Just a thought… whither Tom Steinberg?

New site for National Student Forum

Today sees the launch of the latest little site we’ve built on behalf of – or more accurately, in collaboration with – BIS, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. It’s a pretty straightforward WordPress build for something called the National Student Forum: a panel representing HE students’ interests, whose latest annual report was published this morning.
It started out as a fairly simple project, to do the ‘commentable document’ thing around the new Annual Report. But it soon became obvious that, for various practical and structural reasons, the only sensible thing to do was to remake the Forum’s entire site. (Er, all half a dozen pages of it.) And although it’s still a fairly small site, it’s been built with future flexibility in mind, should it ever be needed.
I’ve put a lot of work into the visual aspects this time: it’s a big, bold design drawing heavily on the style of the printed publication. There’s a cute little routine which allows you to specify the header image for a given page. We’re using to host the PDF files, allowing us to embed them back into our pages with Flash; but I’ve used a bit of Javascript to hold it all back until it’s required. The site will use comment threading, which isn’t (yet?) the norm: I’ll be watching to see if the users are comfortable with it. And all turned round in less than a week. A fun job.

Credit where it's due

The BIS All-Stars have produced something relatively small-scale in support of their new consultation on credit and store cards: but it works remarkably well.
Working with plain English consultancy Simply Understand, they’ve boiled the classic 80-odd-page goverment consultation document down to just 10 (and done a nice design job on it too). But then they’ve gone a step further, and reduced it to a simple web poll asking which of five issues is most important to you. There’s a short explanatory paragraph on each, hidden by Javascript thus forcing you to interact with it immediately. Concise, straightforward text which gets you clicking from the off… and makes you think a bit, but not too much. Modest in its ambitions, and all the more successful for it.
And then, when you’ve cast your vote, it offers you the option to send a pre-constructed tweet out on Twitter (as well as a few other sociable options)… which is how I heard of it, so at the very least, it’s worked on one person. Not rocket science by any means, but a wonderful little touch I wish I’d thought of.
Oh, and it all slots perfectly into their existing website. Another good reason to be using WordPress.
It’s not the only thing BIS have put out today… more later.

We care a lot

One of my bigger projects this year has been the website for the Care And Support green paper, aka The Big Care Debate. Basically, the country is in desperate need of a new funding model for long-term care of the elderly and disabled: and in July, three funding options were put forward for consideration. And we’ve been trying various things, online and offline, to engage people in the debate.
When the green paper was published, we did a Commentariat-style ‘commentable document’; there’s also an interactive on-screen questionnaire, with or without a ‘face morphing’ app which shows what you might look like when you’re old. (I can’t claim any credit for that last element btw.) Meanwhile, in the real world, there have been a series of ‘roadshows’ for public and stakeholders – as shown on the clickable homepage map. You’ll also note, if you click on places like Peterborough, Derby or Coventry, that the team have taken a digital camera with them, and are posting snaps on Flickr. Then there’s the Campaign Monitor email list, the Twitter account, the Facebook activity (official and unofficial)…
The response has been huge, and often angry. The site has received more than 3,500 user comments, the majority of which have been to a single page of the commentable document: there’s clearly been a concerted campaign among interest groups to make their opposition known. There’s also been a healthy volume of comments on the campaign’s blog, written – you’ll note – in the name of the lead official, rather than a politician (although that hasn’t stopped people constantly raising the issue of politicians’ expenses claims).
In truth, on occasions, it’s been too much. At one point, we feared the site had been hacked: in fact, we’d just hit the limit imposed by our hosting company on outgoing emails. (Turned out, it was too many people asking to receive email notification of follow-up comments.) If you don’t count Downing Street petitions, it must rank as one of the highest volumes of responses to a government consultation exercise.
Now let’s be honest: most of the feedback has not been complimentary. There are a lot of people who think the changes are designed to cut their current benefits; and anything the Government tries to do at the moment is being met with disillusionment, cynicism and antipathy. So is it a bad thing to have received so many defensive, angry, confrontational comments? Personally, I don’t think so. Negative feedback is still valid feedback. It highlights the areas where there have been problems, if only communication problems. And it gives you a mailing list of people you need to contact, to make your case.
We’re now into the final month of the consultation, which – for some people, I dare say – is a relief. By any volume metric, I’m confident the process will be counted a success. But of course, the only meaningful measure of success is whether or not it yields a workable proposal with general public approval. In the current political climate, I fear that may be too much to ask. Still, I hope the web element has done its bit.

Building DFID's new consultation platform
A few months back, I helped the Department For International Development set up an online consultation site for their white paper on Eliminating World Poverty. We used WordPress (obviously), plus Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme (with a few tweaks). The site was well received, and had close to 500 reader comments, many of them lengthy. So when a new consultation came along, into DFID’s plans to spend £8.5bn on education in developing countries, I’m delighted to say they were keen to do it again.
This time, we’ve done it slightly differently – creating a reusable platform for online consultations, instead of just another one-off site build. Rather than use the Commentariat theme itself, I’ve built a generic DFID-styled theme to fit almost seamlessly into their corporate look and feel; but the defining elements – reverse-dated posts in categories, the floating comment box – are still there.
And significantly, we’ve moved from ‘normal’ WordPress to a WordPress MU (‘multi user’) installation. This brings several important benefits for DFID:

  • the ability to create new sub-sites in a matter of seconds, through the WP interface;
  • centralised management of platform / plugins / themes;
  • one sign-on for all blogs on the system: OK, it’s not ‘single sign-on’ via LDAP or anything, but it’s a start!
  • varying levels of user permission: you can give someone ‘admin’ status on a sub-site, and still keep the most dangerous options at the higher ‘site admin’ level;
  • once it’s in, you can avoid all the usual IT Department headaches – DNS being a particular problem, I’ve found;
  • and yes, it’s also cheaper for them in the long run. They no longer need to hire me to set these things up for them. (D’oh!)

Now having said all that, working with MU isn’t without its issues. Historically it didn’t get quite the same love and attention that ‘normal’ WordPress got; although to be absolutely fair, the delay between ‘normal’ releases and the matching MU releases has been cut right down. Some of its processes and language could be clearer: for example, when is an admin not an admin? When he/she’s a site admin, of course. And how do you make someone a site admin? You type their username into a text box under Options, naturally. (That took me a l-o-n-g time to figure out.)
Coincidentally, as I’m writing this, I get a tweet from COI’s Seb Crump: ‘@simond what’s the tipping point for considering WPMU? Plans for maybe up to 3 blogs eventually, but their launches spread over next 2+years
For me, it’s not particularly about the number of blogs being managed: it’s about the convenience of using the single installation. If those benefits I bullet-listed above are of interest to you, then MU is worth doing even if you’re only planning on having two blogs. Particularly in a corporate context, it means you can delegate quite a lot of responsibility to individual staff or departments, whilst still being able to wade in as and when. (And with automated upgrading now built-in, I’d say that’s a bigger issue now than it was previously.) But be warned, MU does have a learning curve. Even as a (normal) WordPress veteran of several years experience, it still beats me sometimes.
But in a 2+ year timespan, it ultimately won’t matter. It was announced in late May 2009 that ‘the thin layer of code that allows WordPress MU to host multiple WordPress blogs will be merged into WordPress’; I don’t believe there’s a confirmed timetable for it, though. That should mean that the MU elements get raised to the same level of perfection as in the ‘normal’ product: unquestionably a good thing, I’d say.
Anyway, back to the DFID project. I’m delighted with the first site to be built on the platform: and the DFID guys have done a great job dressing it up with imagery – it makes a huge difference. But the really exciting part, for me, will be seeing the next one get built. And the next one. And the next one.

COI browser guidelines: consultation works!

The final version of COI’s browser testing guidelines have emerged, and it’s simply wonderful to see a shorter, tighter, more standards-centric document than the draft I reviewed back in September. In fact, looking down my bullet-list of specific recommended changes, all of them seem to have gone into the final document. Cool.
The revised document is based on the principle of a ‘testing matrix’, showing ‘must test’ and ‘should test’ for versions of each leading browser, on Windows, Mac and Linux. Effectively it’s a direct lift from the BBC’s Browser Support Standards document (which, for the record, I highlighted in my response). You’re advised to review your matrix at every major website redevelopment, or at least every two years; and to publish your matrix on your site, within a ‘help’ or ‘accessibility’ section.
It includes a forceful statement in support of web standards in the very first paragraph, backed up by a full page on the subject (paras 17-24). But the 2% rule remains: ‘Browsers used by 2% or more of your users must be tested, and any issues resolved’, as does the insistence that you support Mac and Linux even if they don’t reach the 2% threshold. (And thankfully, the contradictory references on this have been removed.) There’s even a proper section on mobile devices – although I’d probably have made specific reference to the iPhone / iPod Touch; sadly though, nothing about games consoles.
And – hooray! – there’s a black-and-white statement that things don’t have to be pixel-perfect, killing off the draft’s notion of ‘semi-supported’:

There may be minor differences in the way that the website is displayed. The intent is not that it should be pixel perfect across browsers, but that a user of a particular browser does not notice anything appears wrong.

Quite simply, the final version is just so much better than the original draft. It stands as a great example of the benefits of opening these things up to the wider community. Who’s this Obama fella anyway?