Hooray for another high-profile UK government website based on an open source content management system: the new National Strategies website from DCSF, built on Drupal. It’s big, bright, bold, and once you’ve registered – a remarkably painless process for a government site, without any apparent checks on your membership of the target audience – it offers significant social functionality: commenting on articles, bookmarking pages to your own personal homepages, group discussion, page rating, sending links to Delicious and the like. Nothing exceptional for a Drupal site, perhaps, but pretty impressive for HMG.
There’s particular significance to this particular launch, though. The National Strategies, and much of this ‘2.0’ functionality, were due to be part of Schoolsweb, the ambitious plan to rationalise all schools-related sites into a single mega-portal, to be built on the same Stellent-based infrastructure as Directgov (known as ‘The Club’). It was initially scheduled to launch in late 2005, with eight-figure budgets quoted; the last public reference I’m aware of was in February 2008, when Jim Knight responded in a PQ: Work is currently being taken forward to bring these sites into a single new website for schools – ‘SchoolsWeb’. (Note the present tense.) And as I noted some time ago, the guys who did the visual design work for Schoolsweb are still quoting it in their online portfolio, with the caveat: ‘We are currently supporting the project through a challenging build phase pending the full launch of the website shortly.’
To paper over the cracks, a temporary signposting website was launched at www.schoolsweb.gov.uk, labelled ‘Schoolsweb Locate’ – but even that has been taken away now, replaced by a slightly clumsy redirect to the long-established ‘Standards Site’.
On this evidence, one would have to assume that Schoolsweb, as initially conceived at least, is dead. In its place, we have a feature-rich online community built on open-source tools, and making use of pre-existing functionality – either in its core platform, or via plugins. My understanding is that the Drupal site came together in a matter of months, and seems to offer most (if not all) the functionality envisaged for Schoolsweb.
Somewhere in there lies a great case study just waiting to be written.
I’m not sure we learned a lot from this morning’s Lords Communications Committee session with Michael Ellam (the Prime Minister’s official spokesman) and Sir Gus O’Donnell (head of the home civil service), part of the continuing review of government communications, and reforms proposed in 2004’s Phillis Review. It wasn’t an intense grilling, and as you’d expect, it was deftly and professionally handled.
Perhaps surprisingly, the internet took immediate centre stage. Chairing the session in Lord (Norman) Fowler’s absence, Lord (Tom) King asked about the apparent doubling of government communications staff. You can guess the response which came back: difficulties of definition, 24/7 demands, more channels, new channels. It was this final point which was picked up by Mike Ellam, who noted the growth of Downing Street’s digital communications operation.
He took as an example the recent ‘Ask The PM’ exercises on YouTube: but it was particularly telling to note the language he and the Committee used. Members of the public asked questions ‘via webcast,’ said Ellam. Lord King checked what he meant – ‘on film?’ Well, er, technically no, but… When Ellam finally dared to refer specifically to YouTube, it seemed almost apologetic.
Asked if it had been worth doing, Ellam said he felt ‘anything that improves direct communications with the public has to be a good thing’; O’Donnell agreed, saying it was ‘good for society as a whole if we can increase engagement in the political process’, and this was one way to reach young people in particular. And since the PM was already being briefed weekly for PMQs, it was ‘not a great extra burden’ for him to answer questions on camera occasionally.
And that was that; things moved swiftly on to familiar matters of the Lobby system, impartiality, the role of special advisers. (Although Ellam raised the subject Robert Peston’s blog, in response to a question about off-the-record briefing, noting how Peston had quoted unnamed bankers as his sources.)
The morning’s proceedings had started with two ladies from the Citizens Advice Bureau, who were asked specifically about the ‘digital divide’ and their experiences with government websites. They were actually very complimentary about Directgov: Fiona (didn’t catch her surname) said she was ‘impressed with the presentation’, and praised its ‘accessible language’. She took a particular interest in search results, noting that DG offered a ‘meaningful list’, unlike many others. But Directgov had its shortcomings: it was quite fragmented, although she acknowledged that it might be a reflection of fragmented systems in government, and it lacked detail on ‘extent issues’ – namely, differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
They talked about their ‘complete dismay’ at the reduction of leaflets being made available in hard copy: if you went to a library to print off a 100-page document on employment rights, for example, it was ‘like buying War And Peace’; and with libraries charging per page printed, the cost could soon mount up. Interestingly, they noted that whilst 35% (ish) of people nationally didn’t have broadband at home, 70% of their customers fell into that group.
But if we’re going to talk about the Lords and technology… I can’t resist pointing you to the apparent death threat (in jest, presumably?) made by Radio 4 Today Programme presenter John Humphrys this morning, when Lord Desai’s mobile went off mid-interview. (Fast-forward to 6m30 for that familiar Nokia refrain.)
COI has announced details of the bidding process for the contract to promote Directgov. Four agencies are on the shortlist – Chick Smith Trott (incumbents), Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, Clemmow Hornby Inge and Farm. Now folks, remember, these are advertising agencies: don’t click those links unless you’re ready for a full-on Flash assault.
And what’ll it cost? The contract ‘is expected to last two to three years with a budget of up to £15m.’
Directgov currently receives approximately ten million visits per month. Already.
I’m reluctant to write this solely on the basis of a piece in the Mail (on Sunday?), but it seems Civil Serf has been identified and suspended by DWP.
Investigators hunting for the blogger summoned her to a meeting last week, when it is understood that she denied responsibility. She was told she was being suspended regardless and, when she was ordered to attend a subsequent meeting with the inquiry team, she finally confessed.
She was caught after the Government dedicated a team of computer experts to track her down across the internet. A source in the DWP said it was an extraordinary outlay of resources as the team was told to clear their desks of everything except their hunt for Civil Serf.
OK, if we try to strip away the inevitable tabloid hyperbole, which isn’t necessarily straightforward… this is almost the worst possible conclusion. Denying responsibility was a bit daft, and probably only made things worse. It also leaves DWP looking just a bit reactionary.
What message are they trying to send, I wonder? And what signals does it send about DWP senior management’s appreciation of the way communications are evolving?
Reminder: DWP takes ownership of the government’s flagship web project in a couple of weeks.
You know the way all government sites are meant to be merging into Directgov… does that or doesn’t that cover externally located subdomains of direct.gov.uk? I did a quick bit of Google research and uncovered the following non-authoritative list:
- ema.direct.gov.uk (plus moneytolearn.direct.gov.uk and yp.direct.gov.uk)
- countdowntouni.direct.gov.uk (plus unimoney.direct.gov.uk and bursarymap.direct.gov.uk)
Several (although not not all) of these sites clearly required functionality which the Directgov platform couldn’t offer: database integration, mapping, etc. And that’s where Directgov’s problem will come. If you’re going to bring everyone on board, you need to be offering adequate functionality – or at least, access to adequate external functionality – to meet everyone’s perceived needs. As it stands, we risk ending up with a proliferation of subdomains.
When the Guardian’s Michael Cross interviewed Directgov chief executive Jayne Nickalls in August last year, he wrote:
In its response to the Power of Information report, the Cabinet Office proposes that Directgov embraces Web 2.0 technology by incorporating a blog in which users exchange their experiences.
Now if it’s really in the official Cabinet Office document, ‘The Government’s Response to The Power of Information‘ (PDF), I’m damned if I can find it. But that’s not the point. We were promised a two-way communication channel with Directgov… and nigh-on six months later, it’s still not here.
Tom Watson’s ‘minister for e-government’ role still hasn’t been explicitly confirmed, as far as I’m aware. But if he’s looking for ideas, there’s one for a start. I hear the Directgov people are waiting to be given official guidance. But now we’ve got a blog-literate minister in charge, it’s as simple as three little words – Yes We Can – and a quick trip over to wordpress.com. We could do it tomorrow. What do you say, Tom? Jayne? Anyone?
The mere fact that Saturday’s BarcampUKGovWeb happened at all would have been enough in itself; but the assembled group of influential, inspirational and interesting people made for a fantastic day. At one point in the afternoon, I remember looking at the schedule and getting depressed at the countless interesting sessions I’d missed. It’s been a long time since I thought that of a (more conventional) conference. But I left with a slightly empty feeling: lots of questions, some of them very deep indeed, but no simple answers, and very few ‘action points’.
The best lesson I can draw from the day’s proceedings is this: Just Do It. The day itself was proof. We all arrived with a common purpose, but no specific agenda. The framework was set in advance, and proceeded to fill itself. We all got stuck in, and it just worked.
You’ve got Steve Dale’s example of just getting a Drupal installation into place, within a fortnight, to shock the client into a response. Or the MySociety approach of accepting ‘The System’ can’t or won’t deliver, and just getting on with it. Or my own WordPress-based crusade, I suppose. How to decide if Twitter or Seesmic has a role in government? – start using it, and let’s see.
Since Saturday, I’ve heard of one person who’s started a blog, and one person who’s decided to get to grips with Facebook. Dave’s (relatively simple) Pageflakes example has drawn some interest. I wonder how many had ever edited a wiki before signing up for the event? These are all baby steps, but they are the only way people will get the big picture. (Welcome aboard, guys.)
I firmly believe ‘the shift’ has happened, and government risks being left (even further) behind unless it exposes itself to the new world out there. COI’s Transformation / Rationalisation isn’t a bad thing in itself: the worst excesses needed to be reined in. But if we can agree what not to do, can we start agreeing what we can or should do?
Let’s start small: a Directgov/COI blog, please. Then maybe a WordPress (MU?)-based blogging platform for Civil Service uses (like Microsoft did). A tie-up with Basecamp or London-based Huddle, to encourage lightweight project management methods. But the best idea of the day came (I think) from Graham from DIUS: a parallel version of Directgov in wiki form, allowing external experts to suggest improvements which might improve the ‘real’ version. Sheer genius. Let’s just do it.
I’ve found out a bit more about the recruitment of three non-executive directors for Directgov, mentioned a few days ago. There are three specific positions: one for a ‘Finance/ Large Corporate’ person, one for a ‘Customer Champion’, and one for someone with ‘Digital Channel Experience’. One of the three will chair the Audit and Risk Committee. For ten grand a year, you’ll be asked to attend ten meetings, two of which will be all-day away-dayers. Applications to be in by the end of January; interviews will take place in mid-February.