Directgov returns to the Cabinet Office

I couldn’t help smiling at the news of Directgov going back to its original home in the Cabinet Office. Funny how things go full-circle: launched from within the Cabinet Office in April 2004, to COI (an ‘ideal location’) in March 2006, to DWP in April 2008, back to Cabinet Office in July 2010.
The Cabinet Office press release says it will ‘sit in the Government Communications team headed by Matt Tee’, with oversight from Francis Maude and Danny Alexander; but will also have celebrity input:

Today’s move puts new energy behind the drive to get more people and public services online. Martha Lane Fox, UK Digital Champion, will drive a transformation and redirection of Directgov as part of her role advising government on how efficiencies can best be realised through the online delivery of public services.

That’s quite a curiously worded sentence when you look at it. In terms of traffic at least, Directgov is doing well – so you could argue that a ‘transformation and redirection’ of Directgov would be breaking what has so far been a winning formula. But then comes the key word – ‘efficiencies’. I think we know what that means.
And so, Directgov continues to be shuffled around government every two years. But maybe now, with Matt Tee’s Cabinet Office government communications unit holding responsibility for all the key strands of activity, it’ll get the kind of clear, authoritative leadership it’s perhaps been lacking.
Let’s all meet up again here in 2012, and see how it went.

Remember to say thank-you

A bit of a tricky moment this morning. As you might have spotted, Downing Street has launched an initiative asking ‘public sector workers’ to help the government find ways to implement the massive spending cuts proposed in Tuesday’s budget ‘in a way that is fair and responsible’. And as has become the norm for such initiatives, there’s a comment-enabled website dedicated to it, built on WordPress. A ‘hooray’ is obligatory at this point, although to be honest, that’s getting a little predictable. 😉
In fact, it’s a return to an initiative launched by Nick Clegg last summer:

The people who are best placed to tell us where money is not being well spent are the teachers, nurses, social workers and other public servants who work so hard day and night on our behalf. Politicians should stop talking over the heads of public servants. We need to listen to the people in the know on how we can better run public services, making sure that every penny of taxpayers’ money is well spent. That’s what ‘Asking People In The Know’ is all about.

… but since it’s all happening again, and since the 2009 website is now giving 404 errors, one must assume it wasn’t especially fruitful.
Anyway… If you have a look at the new website, you’ll note a startling resemblance to the Programme For Government site which I built a few weeks back. It’s very obviously a derivative work, based on my code. I didn’t build it, and I didn’t get paid for it. My contract gives the Crown the right to reuse my work; and in fact, I’m very glad they did. It’s entirely in keeping with the open-source spirit… not to mention the need to find cost savings.
But as anyone following me on Twitter may have spotted, there was one slight hiccup. By convention, WordPress themes include details of their author. The original PFG theme notes me as its originator – obviously. But the derivative theme didn’t. My name had been deleted, and replaced with the names of two people I’ve never met or spoken to: at least one of whom appears to be a direct commercial competitor.
I was not best pleased. I sent out a tweet to that effect: and to the credit of one of the individuals concerned, he subsequently added a line of acknowledgement. My name is duly checked, and I’m happy again.
I am absolutely not suggesting there was any attempt to infringe my intellectual property rights, or deprive me of a deserved payment. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that it was a simple oversight. But I needed to make the point.
Acknowledgement is the currency of the open source movement. There are communities of developers spending their free time building these tools, not to mention businesses freely handing over the fruits of their labours, resulting in you getting phenomenally powerful tools for £0.00. Saying ‘thank you’ is really the least you can do; and it’s often the only ‘payment’ that the open-source contributor receives. Don’t forget.
Not for the first time, Steph Gray lays down a good model to follow. On every page in his Commentariat theme is an explicit credit for the Whitespace theme by Brian Gardner; and there’s a note of thanks to my regular collaborator Simon Wheatley in its style.css file.
And in case anyone’s interested: yes, I do plan to write something for the consultation – it’s also open to ‘private sector partners working within public sector’. Now, I wonder what I might propose?

Directgov unveils syndication API

In one of his final speeches ahead of the general election campaign, Gordon Brown announced plans to offer Directgov’s content via an API ‘by the end of May’. And whilst other announcements in the same speech, such as the Institute of Web Science, have since faded or disappeared, the commitment to a Directgov API didn’t.
Bang on schedule, the API has been launched – and it looks quite marvellous. You’ll need to go here to register – but all they ask for is an email address. Once you’ve received confirmation and a password, you’re away.
Pretty much all Directgov’s content is available, and in various formats. So you can request (for example) articles by section of the website, or by ‘keyword’ (tag); or articles which have been added or edited since a given date, optionally restricted to a given section. You can pull down contact information for central government organisations and local councils. Data is made available, dependent on the query, in XML, JSON, Atom or vCard. (There’s also a browsable XHTML version, from which I’ve taken the screengrab above.)
This stuff isn’t child’s-play; but to those who know what they’re doing – and despite a few successful experiments this morning, I don’t really count myself among them – the potential here is huge. Reckon you can do a better job of presenting Directgov’s content, in terms of search or navigation? Or maybe you’d prefer a design that wasn’t quite so orange? – go ahead. Want to turn it into a big commentable document, letting the citizens improve the content themselves? – well, now you can.
There’s quite an interesting back-story to it all: I had a small matchmaking role in joining up the ideas people in Downing Street with the delivery people at Directgov. And whilst I’m told Directgov did have it in mind for some time this year, the Brown speech on 22 March rather forced the pace. Six weeks (so I’m told) from start to finish isn’t half bad. And whilst I’ve certainly had the odd dig at Directgov in the past, I’m happy to say a hearty ‘well done’ on this one.
It’s a potential game-changer in terms of how the content is presented to the public; but it may also have implications for those producing it. A quick look at the nearly 15,000 ‘keywords’ reveals, perhaps inevitably, a rather chaotic picture: bizarre and inconsistent choices, typos, over-granularity, and so on. My guess is, it’s not been used for front-end presentation before, so it hasn’t had much editorial attention. However, now the data is out there, it has to be taken seriously.

Directgov starts seeking feedback

To their great credit, Directgov have added a feedback box to the bottom of nearly every page on the site, asking how useful you find the page contents. Responses are anonymous, and there’s some nice javascript to aid usability: a jQuery-based character count and validation check prior to submission. The language is maybe a bit formal, and it looks like the rating is mandatory without actually saying so; but I’m nitpicking.
My suspicion is, it’s actually a pretty modest email form: nothing particularly advanced. But it’s a significant step forward, and perhaps, a step closer to the Tories’ stated vision of government websites as ‘places where people can come together to discuss issues and solve problems’. (And don’t forget, Directgov’s API has been promised ‘by the end of May’.)

Don't watch that, look at this

Tom Watson (West Bromwich East, Labour)

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what the total cost to her Department was of the directgov advertising campaign, Go DirectGov.

Jim Knight (Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs; South Dorset, Labour)

The cost of production and airtime purchased to date combined is £2.05 million.

Why? According to Mike Hoban: ‘Television advertising works and is an effective way of building recognition.’

A Lot Of Orange

Doing a bit of research for my presentation in Oslo tomorrow (of which more later), I came across a somewhat surprising figure in Hansard.
Directgov cost us £30.7 million in the year 2008-09 – well over double what it cost us the previous year. Of that £30.7 million, £7.48 million went on ‘advertising, public relations, publicity and marketing’. As one wag pointed out on Twitter, that would buy you a lot of orange.
Did it work? Well, the best comparison I data I can lay my hands on is Hitwise market share, courtesy of Public Sector Forums – and Directgov went from 9.14% of ‘central government’ traffic in March 2008, to 17.02% a year later. Of course, that doesn’t mean traffic has doubled… and it has to be seen in the light of web rationalisation, whereby Directgov is eating other websites.
Sadly, the last PQ on Directgov traffic seems to have been in December last year; and DG’s own traffic page only quotes the last 3 months. And even then, the numbers are curious to say the least. They can’t provide a unique user figure for August this year. And somehow, between September and October, unique users more than doubled, whilst visits fell by 8%, and page impressions fell by 11%. Eh?

Don't get a feed, get a blog

I didn’t write about Mash The State when I first heard about it, because the ambitions seemed embarrassingly modest: getting each council in the country to offer an RSS feed by Christmas. In 2009? – seriously?
And then I note that, of the three e-government super-sites – Directgov, Businesslink, NHS Choices, annual budget approx £30m each – only the NHS site offers RSS feeds (and even then, only a few). Directgov has recently started offering its first RSS feed, but if you look at the source code, you’ll note that the URLs all begin with slashes. In other words, they aren’t valid RSS. Or in other less diplomatic words, they’re useless. If a guid isn’t globally unique, then it isn’t a guid. Still, at least they’re trying. Businesslink doesn’t seem to have anything in RSS. At all.
Meanwhile, the rest of the web is racing ahead. I’m especially proud of the DFID Bloggers site in that regard: helpful as ever, WordPress offers pretty much every list available through the site as an RSS feed, if you know the right URL to call. Each category has an RSS feed. Each tag has an RSS feed. Each individual author has an RSS feed. Heck, you can even get search queries as RSS feeds: meaning, in effect, you can have a customised RSS feed of ‘every time that WordPress site mentions X’. All out of the box; at zero charge and zero effort. They just happen.
RSS continues to delight me as a website designer and builder. Recent WordPress releases have added some extra – undocumented? – tricks: for example, if you can construct the right URL query string, you can get an RSS feeds of all items except those from a certain category. (Clue: ‘cat=-1’.) And it’s going to get even better imminently, with the inclusion of the brilliant SimplePie, for consuming RSS, into the next WordPress release.
I’ve built entire sites like Real Help Now and onepolitics powered solely by RSS feeds from third-party sites. I’m even building a couple of WordPress sites now which will use their own internal RSS feeds to surface content, rather than me coding ‘proper’ PHP/SQL queries. It’s just easier. And when you’re doing something as an outsider because it’s easier than the ‘proper’ internal method, you know we’ve reached somewhere significant.
The truth is, if your website still isn’t offering an RSS feed, you’re falling further and further behind the rest of the web, and you’re depriving yourself of the magic which eager geeks might bring to your content. But before you go spending money adding an RSS feed to, say, your press release pages – don’t. There’s a content management solution which is optimised for delivering text documents on a rolling basis, presented chronologically. You’re looking at it.

Search tools for Directgov: Puffbox vs Microsoft

Directgov has announced a ‘partnership’ with Microsoft, promising to make it ‘easier than ever to find government information and services online’. In practice, this means they’re using the new ‘accelerator’ feature in Internet Explorer v8: you can select some text on any web page, then right-click to access a ‘search Directgov’ link which fires that word directly into the Directgov search engine as a search query. I don’t think it’ll be life-changing for anyone, and my suspicion is that there’s more in it for Microsoft than Directgov – but hey, it’s not a bad thing.
dgsearchBut how many people are using IE8? What about the much greater number of people using, say, IE7… or Firefox? Puffbox to the rescue! I’ve thrown together a quick search plugin for Directgov, which will allow you to search Directgov directly from the browser interface. You will have to do the copying and pasting manually though, so apologies for the lack of acceleration.
And if you’re using Firefox, and you happen to have Directgov selected as your browser-bar search engine at the time – behold! you’ll have the same ‘search Directgov’ option in your right-click menu! (Thx to Stuart in the comments.)
Visit this page on the MozDev website to find Puffbox’s brand new Directgov search plugin. Click on the word Directgov, and it’ll ask you if you want to install – say yes. If you then consult the list of search engines available from your browser’s built-in search box, you should now see a Directgov option. Enter a word, and it’ll take you straight to a search query for that word.
Puffbox principal consultant Simon Dickson said: ‘Directgov is taking advantage of long-established capabilities within Internet Explorer 7, and better alternatives such as Firefox, to make it easier for members of the public to find information on the Directgov website – whether they realise it or not. Directgov is among the forward-thinking organisations using modern technologies to benefit their target audience, and we are delighted to be helping them.’
I’ll link to the Directgov newsroom article as soon as it’s been posted.

Such warmth in the snow

Pic by Andrew Lewin - (Creative Commons)

If there’s one lesson to draw from the unveiling of Directgov’s experimental School Closures site, it’s the sheer goodwill of the community towards them.
Quick précis for those who missed any of it: at 11.50pm on Sunday night, Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson publicly throws down a gauntlet. With the country facing snowy armageddon, could Directgov change their homepage to the only information people would care about – namely, ‘a host of travel info feeds and up to date advice’? A domain gets purchased before dawn, and within 24 (ish) hours, a School Closures mashup site is live. Happy Minister.
The site is, in effect, a dump of Directgov’s own Schools Finder data, uploaded into a Drupal CMS, with each school getting its own page; users are invited to find their local school(s) via a postcode or town name search, and then comment (blog-style) on whether the schools are open or not. It’s been put online using a domain, obtained from the FreeDNS service – presumably to get round the procurement process (and, one has to assume, the Web Rationalisation people). The precedents are duly noted. 😉
It’s really only a ‘proof of concept’ build. As commenters on the new Directgov blog have noted, we’re several significant steps – and a lot of public interaction – away from having a breakthrough service here. But just look around the web at the excitement and encouragement generated by the move. Harry Metcalfe, for example, recognises the same weaknesses I do, and yet still concludes:

It’s pretty rough around the edges: there doesn’t seem to be much RSS support, and there’s no access to the underlying data, and — well — it doesn’t tell you whether your school is closed… but it is still useful, and it’s very impressive that it appeared so quickly, and with such little prompting. Kudos to all involved — this is a fantastic and very encouraging start.

I don’t see this site ever being (properly) finished, certainly not in its current form. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it can (ever) tell me whether my local schools are actually open or not. But that wasn’t the point: as Brian Hoadley puts it in the blog post’s comments – ‘This prototype was the first in a series of efforts to create a process around which we can develop rapid ideas.’ (Followed up later by Paul Clarke: ‘its existence demonstrates an attitude, not a magic solution to a very difficult information challenge.’)
It was a concrete fulfilment of the principles Paul Clarke described at the weekend’s Barcamp, proof that it wasn’t just talk. Proof – to itself – that government can actually do this sort of thing. And just as importantly, it has proven how much we, the wider web community, have been longing to see this happen.

£10m/year for government web innovation

Pic by a.drian, found at Creative Commons licence.

I’m not going to say much here about the Power Of Information Taskforce report: the best place to do that is on the site itself. But I will pick up one point which stopped me in my tracks. The report notes that:

Successful leading high tech businesses will spend at least 10% of their budget on innovation… DirectGov, BusinessLink and NHS Choices should create an combined innovation pot of 10% of their budgets, focussed on improving the public experience of government websites, through outside-in innovation not internal requirements. Annual plans on how this £10m innovation pool is to be deployed should be published and agreed by a new Head of Digital Engagement.

Now let’s be clear: £10m is a heck of a lot of money, particularly in a world where the price of the tools is almost negligible. By my rough calculation, that’s more or less equivalent to a team of 36 consultants on a day rate of £1000 ex VAT, working full time. Even allowing a big chunk for ‘overheads’, which you’d normally look to minimise anyway, you’re still talking about maybe 20 full time people earning absolutely top-whack salaries.
(Note: I’m not saying anyone’s worth £1000 a day; just noting that many in government would consider that ‘the going rate’. It explains why people keep telling me I should put Puffbox’s rates up.)
It’s too big a sum for the Big Ugly Consultancies to ignore, and that’s what worries me. If we’re serious about getting serious innovation, we need to treat this as a venture capital fund, and start getting the cash out to dozens of small-scale, agile, hungry operations.
The big boys are getting enough cash out of the public purse already – and will continue to take the lion’s share of the remaining 90%. If they want to innovate, they already have plenty of opportunity – and arguably, have had it for long enough.