'The Emperor's New Clothes'

If you have any interest in the Directgov->GovUK transition, you are hereby ordered to make a cuppa and read this by veteran (sorry!) e-government blogger Alan Mather for a bit of historical perspective.
It’s long but it’s important. This isn’t the first time a new unified government website has made big promises. Some things are different this time; much, though, isn’t. ‘Some will take what I say below as an attack on GDS,’ he acknowledges; ‘that’s far from what it is, it’s an attempt to look ahead and see what is coming that will trip it up and so allow action to be taken to avoid the trouble.’

New gov.uk website hits beta

The GDS project to build a ‘single government domain’ website passed from alpha to beta phase in the final few hours of January 2012. And as with the alpha, it’s all open to the public – you’ll find it at http://www.gov.uk, which still looks rather odd, and feels very strange to type. I guess I’ll get used to it.
Writing on the GDS blog, Tom Loosemore describes it as ‘ the next step on the journey’, but of course, that’s a bit of an understatement. An ‘alpha’ build, such as was unveiled last year, makes no promises. By definition, a beta is much closer to what its creators consider to be their eventual vision. The stakes are higher, much higher this time.
Thankfully, it’s looking great. It’s no surprise to see the defining characteristics of the alpha still in place – notably the placing of emphasis on tools rather than text, and search rather than navigation. And it’s in these that you find the platform’s real strengths.
‘Quick answers’, such as this Student Finance Calculator perfectly illustrate the revolution that this ushers in. For too long, government websites have sought to provide inch-thick documents instead of single-sentence (or even better, one word) answers to the user’s specific question.
(Remind me to blog about the ‘do I need a visa?’ questionnaire I built in 1999, whilst at the Foreign Office – and still visible, hurrah!, via web.archive.org. And a dozen years later, presumably after serious reconstructive surgery, it’s still going strong albeit in a new home.)
And it goes without saying – the predictive search mechanism is excellent. But then again, it has to be. Once you’re beyond the homepage, there’s next to no clickable navigation. This is the ‘Google is the homepage‘ credo gone fundamentalist.
For those of a technical mind, James Stewart has listed the technology it uses; and I’m grateful to Harry Metcalfe for the tip-off that interesting things happen if you stick .json on the end of a URL.
I for one welcome our new online overlord. 😉

(Plus, it gave me an excuse to play around with the excellent Bootstrap web framework, open-sourced by Twitter last year. I love it, although it’s highly likely to make your website look a lot like Twitter.)

Public services white paper promises GDS 'app store'

With all the tabloid shenanigans going on yesterday, you’d be forgiven for missing the publication of the new White Paper on Open Public Services – launched complete with a WordPress-based consultation site, developed by Harry Metcalfe’s DXW, with rather cheeky advertising in the source code.
It’s worth noting a couple of references to the Government Digital Service:

7.9 We want to shift the approach of government from ‘public services all in one place’ (focused on how departments want to deliver) to ‘government services wherever you are’ (open and distributed, available where citizens want to access them). To take this forward, the Government Digital Service (GDS) will have the authority across central government to co-ordinate all government digital activity, including encouraging the commissioning of the best user-centred digital services and information at lowest cost from the most appropriate provider. This commissioning process will identify those providers who are the most appropriate to provide content on a particular topic. For example, the Department for Education has already taken this approach in funding some of its parenting support services through the voluntary and community sector – these online services provide in-depth counselling and intensive support as well as information and guidance.
7.10 The GDS will develop a digital marketplace, opening up government data, information, applications and services to other organisations, including the provision of open application program interfaces for all suitable digital services. All suitable digital transactions and information services will be available for delivery through a newly created marketplace, with accredited partners, including charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-led mutuals, all able to compete to offer high-quality digital services. In opening up this marketplace, the GDS will establish appropriate processes and consider a ‘quality mark’ to ensure that public trust in information and public sector delivery is maintained. This may go as far as including quality assurance of third-party applications.

Two concise paragraphs, but several interesting points in there.
The reference to ‘public services all in one place’ is a rather cheeky, and somewhat barbed reference to Directgov’s strapline, and is surely another nail in its coffin – well, in its current form anyway. I’m surprised to see the word ‘encourage’ for GDS’s role, as opposed to something stronger; and it’ll be intriguing to see how the trinity of best quality, lowest cost (note use of the superlative) and ‘most appropriate supplier’ plays out in practice.
The second paragraph puts some flesh on the bones of the ‘government app store’ notion. But the more I think about it, the more uneasy I get about the idea of QA’ing third-party applications. If an application hasn’t been approved, is it still permitted? Who exactly is doing the approving? Would the approval process become a bottle-neck?
I hate to bring it all back to WordPress (again), but it’s the best example I can personally think of, of a rapid, cheap and non-traditional solution being widely successful in government over the past few years. We – a word I use in the widest possible sense, covering myself and many other (rival?) suppliers – made our case, we delivered, and we didn’t let people down. The only approval we needed was the recommendation of the previous client.
We didn’t need no stinking badges. And if we’d have had to wait for delivery of our badges before being taken seriously, none of it would ever have happened.

Guardian man is government's new digital director

I have it on very good authority indeed It’s now been confirmed that the new (£142k pa) Executive Director Digital, filling the post currently held by Chris Chant on an interim basis, and advertised back in April, is to be Mike Bracken – digital director at The Guardian until last week.
Computer Weekly makes some interesting – and quite exciting – observations about the management culture he built up:

While GNM has outsourced some IT roles, the company has brought in information architects, analytics and product development managers as a discipline. GNM uses an agile environment for developing web applications and has scrapped project management and business analyst roles to replace them with product managers.

In fact, he sent a tweet to Steph Gray yesterday which seemed to suggest he sees a similar role for ‘product managers’ in government:
[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MTBracken/status/71234171762262016″]
To get a flavour of what to expect, fasten your seatbelt and watch this five-minute breakneck presentation on innovation, which he gave to a WPP event last year:

… or this slightly more corporate presentation on deriving benefits from social media, at a Gartner symposium in October. (Fast forward eight minutes to skip the extended intro.) You’ll like what you hear.
Interestingly, in both presentations, he uses the same quote from Simon Willison. How exciting is it to have a new digital director who actually appreciates that:

You can now build working software in less time than it takes to have the meeting to describe it.

Those who know Mike are very complimentary about him: I note William Heath’s description of him last week as ‘one of the UK’s very best new-style CIOs’. On the downside, though, he’s a Liverpool supporter.
Mike’s personal website is at mikebracken.com – and he’s done a post formally announcing the appointment. He runs a couple of Twitter accounts: you’ll probably want to follow his ‘work’ account, @MTBracken.
He starts on 5 July.

Permanent Executive Director Digital post advertised

Just posted on the Civil Service jobs website: the recruitment notice for the permanent position of Executive Director Digital, as proposed in the Martha Lane Fox review. It’s the position currently being fulfilled on an interim basis by Chris Chant.
The position is at SCS2 level, worth £142,000 per year, and promises ‘a rewarding role with a great deal of public visibility’. (Well, certainly if Puffbox has anything to do with it, anyway.) They’re clearly pitching it at a serious IT level, with references to ‘a track record of leading digitally enabled change at a strategic level, in a large federated organisation with complex delivery chains.’
The job description calls for someone who will:

  • champion the citizen/end user through the implementation of the Coalition Government’s digital strategy;
  • design the organisation and recruit people to establish a successful Government Digital Service;
  • manage the budget of the central group within the Government Digital Service;
  • direct all government online spending in a way that delivers value for money, makes use of best existing technology, that is both available commercially and also free and results in an improvement of the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs)
  • reduce the cost of providing the Directgov platform itself in line with efficiency plans; and
  • work closely with the Government Chief Information Officer to direct, set and enforce standards across government departments in areas such as  technical, content, design, process and customer standards.

Plenty to get excited about in there… citizen first, recruitment into the new GDS, APIs, etc… but I’m most particularly drawn to the explicit reference to ‘existing technology available free’. With everything else around it being so serious and high-level, it’s pleasantly surprising to see ‘stuff you can just get off the interweb’ getting a look-in.
The position is open to non-civil servants, and non-UK nationals. Slightly ominously, I note the job advert says ‘Language skills required: none.’ – but let’s hope that’s a quirk of the underlying database. Good language skills are going to be absolutely essential for this.
You’ve got two weeks to get your application in.
(And thanks to various well-placed sources for tipping me off.)
Update, 11:00
I’ve been sent the full job spec, and although it doesn’t add a tremendous amount, there are some interesting titbits therein.

  • ‘The budget for the central group within the Government Digital Service, which is currently £23 million per annum falling in line with other administrative budgets to £17 million in 2014/15.’
  • It talks about website rationalisation ‘through adoption of a single URL for all online services’ – er, really, a single URL? I don’t think that’s quite what they meant. Common parlance seems to have settled on ‘single domain’, but even then, I’m not sure that’s quite how it’ll turn out.
  • The lucky individual will be based at Hercules House, with hot-desking at the Cabinet Office / Treasury offices. As a statement of intent, that’s quite interesting in itself: they clearly want the person concerned to be close to the hands-on work.
  • The recruitment process will happen pretty swiftly, with interviews scheduled for the first half of May, in front of a panel consisting of Ian Watmore, Bill McCluggage and Martha Lane Fox (plus a Civil Service Commissioner).

Reading through it, I’m struck by the differences with the Director of Digital Engagement job spec, published two years ago. Then, the wording seemed to be implying that they were particularly keen on getting someone in from outside, ideally the media – but that didn’t happen. This time, there’s no such implication: if anything, it feels like it’s angling for someone with a Big IT background – quite possibly from within government, or somewhere very like it.
Another quick update, Fri am: Chris Chant has publicly ruled himself out – which is fair enough, as he’s got a pretty big job already.

Directgov meets 95% convergence target

A significant milestone in the evolution of UK e-government was passed last week – very, very quietly. The Cabinet Office had a Departmental Strategic Objective for the 2008-11 spending round, DSO4 if you’re interested, to ‘migrate more than 95% of the total identified websites to Directgov and Businesslink by 31 March 2011’. Well, Directgov’s Tony Singleton announced via Twitter on 1 April:

Remember target to converge 95% of citizen facing content and service to Directgov by end march 11? I’m please to say we did it @directgov

The truth is, I don’t think many people do remember it: the Martha Lane Fox review has since upped the ante quite considerably. But it’s a significant milestone to have reached, all the same.

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.

Loosemore leads Lane Fox vision work

Confirmation on the Cabinet Office’s blog of something that’s been known within the Whitehall webby world for a little while now: Tom Loosemore (ex BBC, Channel 4, Ofcom, Show Us A Better Way, etc etc) has been ‘asked’ to put together an ‘alpha’ version of what a Single Government Domain website, as proposed by Martha Lane Fox, might look like.
My feeling was that, although Martha’s principle was sound, I feared for its execution. With the ‘right people’ involved, it could be made to happen; with the usual people involved, however, it would almost certainly go the same way as previous attempts.
Tom Watson MP took a very similar view of things. Writing at Labour Uncut last November, he said:

As Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with HMG online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise. And Francis [Maude] is also humble enough to know that he’s going to need the flair and talent of Britain’s best web people. He needs the A-team.

… and indeed, one of the names Tom (W) went on to list was Tom Loosemore. It was a suggestion I entirely agreed with: indeed, I’d mentioned Tom as an ideal candidate for the CEO Digital position (although he himself didn’t agree!).
Tom and his team – which also includes FCO’s Jimmy Leach as the designated Editorial Lead, and has called on various ‘usual suspects’ from the gov/web field (including yours truly, briefly thus far) – have been working out of a deserted floor of COI’s Hercules House offices for a couple of months now, starting with a thorough analysis of traffic and search data from various sources, to identify exactly what the public wants from its government.
Subsequently, there’s been quite a lot of activity over at ScraperWiki, showing a combination of political material, consultations and general public information. There’s an alphagov account at Github. And intriguingly, there have been a couple of FOI requests made via What Do They Know, in Tom’s name, to get JobCentrePlus-related information out of DWP.
Some early visuals – rather bold, post web-2.0 you might call them – have been shown to senior Whitehall webbies, but it’s far too early to offer a judgement on them. The Cabinet Office blog includes a pledge that the team ‘will be making public their progress as they go’, and ‘will report when the first iterations are public’: which, I believe, should be in a matter of weeks rather than months. Meanwhile, you’ll probably want to start following @alphagov on Twitter:
[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/alphagov/status/52762689625268225″]
Whether or not you like the thought of this initiative, or its hush-hush approach (thus far), there’s no escaping the fact that Francis Maude had given his provisional approval to the notion of unification; and to get us all to a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’, we need exercises like this to test out what it will/would actually mean. And you’d struggle to put together a team with better experience, skills and insight to do so.
PS Don’t forget, Francis Maude and Ian Watmore are in front of the Public Administration Select Committee tomorrow morning (Wednesday). I suspect this may come up. Follow the action live at parliamentlive.tv from 09:45.
PPS I couldn’t resist a cryptic tweet this morning: ‘Tempted to register betagov.co.uk – it’s still available, and might come in, you know, handy.’ Amusing to note that it’s since been claimed by Richard Pope (aka memespring).

Martha's vision taking shape

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/Marthalanefox/status/47206064797659136″]
Monday saw a meeting of the ministerial working group tasked with considering Martha Lane Fox’s vision of a ‘single domain based on agile web shared web services’… resulting, as I understand it, in across-the-board approval. So it’s with commendable speed that just two days later – to prevent me revealing it first?! 🙂 – the Cabinet Office has announced the creation of the Government Digital Service, created by merging ‘Directgov and the Cabinet Office Digital Delivery and Digital Engagement teams’.
The Cabinet Office blog post states:

This new organisation will be the centre for digital government in the UK, building and championing a ‘digital culture’ that puts the user first and delivers the best, low cost public services possible. To deliver this vision and the government’s digital priorities requires a new streamlined, agile organisation and an operating structure with an integrated, flexible team of skilled staff.

According to FCO’s Jimmy Leach:
[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/JimmyTLeach/status/48078117000052736″]
Things are getting interesting.