The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (2007-2009) did some great things on the web – and not just from Steph Gray’s social media desk. They were exceptionally quick to get a corporate website up and running: nothing particularly clever, but it was there on the day the department came into being . And when it (eventually) came, their ‘proper’ corporate site was clever, attractive and very well executed.
But at what cost?, LibDem MP Paul Holmes asked. The answer came in Hansard at the end of last week: ‘the Department spent £953,911 on the creation of a new website. This included the design of both an initial website launched shortly after the creation of the Department and a later improved version. This total covers the purchase of hosting and content management system as well as project management and content migration (i.e. staff) costs.’ Yes folks, nine hundred and fifty thousand… and taking the answer at face value, that doesn’t include day-to-day running costs.
(Incidentally, you might want to cross-reference this answer against Sion Simon’s response to Oliver Heald last November: £100k for design, £240k for hosting and content migration, annual maintenance of £85k. None of them small figures by the way, but they still only get us half-way to that £950k total. Hmm.)
Now listen, I’ve worked on the inside, and I know how the costs mount up. By the time you factor everything in – from staff costs to stationery cupboard – you’re left with a surprisingly high figure for ‘what a website costs’. But no matter how pretty your website is, no matter how clever it is, £953,911 over two years is too much… before we even get to the cost of then ditching it, in the wake of a reshuffle. I’m sure there are reasons, and I’m sure there were good people doing their best. But it’s very telling to look back over DIUS written answers, at references to how the website cost was lumped into larger IT outsourcing contracts, and couldn’t be separately costed.
On reflection, if you’re going to put two of the most forward-thinking people in e-government into the same department, great things are probably to be expected. BERR (as was)‘s Neil and DIUS (as was)‘s Steph put their heads together on Monday afternoon, and on Wednesday, they launched a new corporate website for the newly-created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It’s based on WordPress, with a bit of RSS magic, and the help of a few (free) web-based tools. And it’s brilliant.
Steph documents the work with characteristic modesty:
It won’t win any design awards, and the downside to Heath Robinson web development will no doubt be some quirks in reliability. But happily, we can say we haven’t spent a penny on external web development or licencing costs, and we got something up within 3 days. Compared to the static, hand-coded site DIUS had for the first 18 months of its life, it’s a start, and a little bit innovative too.
Actually, I like the design: it’s forcibly simple, but that’s no bad thing, and is something they should try to maintain in the long run. There may be quirks; but that doesn’t make it any worse than some of the £multi-million CMSes in Whitehall. Yes of course it’s work in progress, but isn’t everything – or rather, shouldn’t it be?
I can’t think of a better case study for the power of open source, web tools, pretty much everything I bang on about here. And if my work for the Wales Office was any kind of inspiration, I’m delighted to have been a part of it.
Oh, and just for the record… that’s now the Prime Minister’s office and the Deputy Prime Minister First Secretary of State’s department running their websites on WordPress. I’m just saying… 😉
There’s nothing explicitly technological in the announcement today by the National School of Government that ‘the Sunningdale Institute has established an Innovation Hub to develop know-how on stimulating and supporting innovation in government and the public services’ – as announced in the DIUS Innovation Nation white paper. (See Steph’s interactive version.) But since the Hub’s raison d’etre was to ‘capture and disseminate learning about public sector innovation’, it would seem insane for there not to be some kind of electronic communication component.
The press release, not yet on the NSG website (?!), says the Hub will ‘carry out research and consultancy, network formation and active learning events for departmental leaders, develop corporate mechanisms that will help incentivise innovation, and look to international government interventions that seek to support more innovative government.’ Um, I’m sure that all sounds great. Let’s see where it goes.
So it’s not the online innovation hub I’d hoped for, when I saw the headline. I still think there’s a role for such a group, perhaps along the lines of the Economist’s Project Red Stripe group: six people given six months, and a six figure budget to do something cool and web-based. It’s worth downloading the project wash-up they wrote at the end of last year, describing the lessons they learned for such initiatives.
There’s no stopping Steph Gray over at DIUS. Last week it was a ‘commentable’ White Paper, driven by WordPress. Today, they’ve launched a remarkably deep consultation site on Science and Society. In his writeup, Steph is kind enough to quote my own work for the Ministry of Justice’s Governance of Britain as an inspiration. But he’s taking things at least one significant step forward.
As with Governance (and indeed the new No10 site), there’s heavy reliance on third-party services, like YouTube and del.icio.us, with content being pumped in automatically via RSS. Steph’s following the Governance idea of using ‘famous name’ video clips to kick-start debate in the form of blog comments: both sites are in their earliest days, so we don’t have any meaningful evidence about its effectiveness yet, but it feels like a good way to work.
Here’s one I made earlier.
It’ll be fascinating to see what kinds of responses this move produces. I’m still a bit wary of the whole Big Questions approach to consultation: my own feeling is that the constant, small-scale exchanges around a well-managed blog will build something more valuable. But if Big Questions are the way you’re going, this is a very clever way to drive them further.
PS: Remember PlaySpace, the DCSF SimCity-esque consultation game? JonW wondered how much it cost; the answer’s in Hansard (well, TheyWorkForYou) this week. Good as the app is, there’s no getting away from the fact that £50,000 is a lot of money for a three-month consultation exercise.
I’m genuinely delighted to see the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills allowing itself some room to innovate. As DIUS social media manager Steph Gray explains, they’ve just published an interactive version of their white paper on innovation (published a few months back), using – wahey! – WordPress. Or more specifically, CommentPress: the theme which allows you to add comments on each individual paragraph of a document.
It’s a nice piece of work: I first referenced CommentPress in late 2007, saying it was ‘just crying out for someone to use on a White Paper or other consultation document.’ Lo and behold, Steph has done just that, and it really does work. It even looks quite pretty too. I actually find myself wanting to add comments.
But more significantly, as Steph clearly recognises, it represents ‘one of the first public outings of [their] sandbox server, designed to be at arm’s length from the corporate site and with greater scope to test innovative tools and approaches online.’
It’s not the first really smart thing to come out of DIUS lately, either. The work they’ve done with Harry Metcalfe, to deliver a full-on (customised) Atom feed of consultations. Unlikely to excite many people, to be honest; in fact, I doubt many people will ever see it. But it’s absolutely the right thing to do, delivering a comprehensive, well-structured data feed for interested parties (ie Harry) to use as they please.
We’ll only make steps forward if people are given freedom to play around, and somewhere to do it. It’s fantastic to see DIUS taking such a lead on this.