Tom, Tories and Timing

Tom Steinberg’s blog splutters back to life after more than two years asleep, to confirm reports that he will be advising the Conservatives on IT policy. ‘I’ve been asked to advise the Tories on IT policy,’ he writes, ‘and I’ve accepted.’
He’s clearly sensitive to the issues this raises as regards his ‘day job’ as director of MySociety. He immediately jumps in to stress MySociety is ‘non-partisan’, and that he himself has no interest in party politics. That’s all fair enough. But it’s inevitably going to make life difficult, on numerous levels. Take for example this paragraph on’s ‘About’ page:

No, we are not party political, and this project is neither left nor right wing. It is about building useful digital tools for anyone who wants to use them. And unlike most think tanks that say they’re non-partisan, we really are – none of that ‘It’s not official, but everybody knows they’re really close to party X’ nonsense here.

Now of course, MySociety isn’t just Tom – but he’s its public face, and a very visible face at that. Can we really read that paragraph today, in the same way that we would have read it last week?
Let me be absolutely clear. I completely understand why Tom has accepted this offer. Direct access to (future?) Ministers at a policy development level is invaluable. You can, of course, get a lot done through the civil service; but a change of Prime Minister brings with it the kinds of opportunities you can’t ignore. And I have no doubt that Tom has accepted this role because he sees it as the best way to get Good Things done.
But – why now? The exact circumstances of the announcement, at the Conservative Party Conference, can only serve to offend current good contacts within Labour… putting Tom in an awkward position, for the next six months at least, and (conceivably, I suppose) beyond – for no obvious benefit. And despite his protestations of non-partisanship, it will inevitably be portrayed in party-political terms: a defection by a former Labour advisor, one of Gordon Brown’s Everyday Heroes turning his back, etc.
MySociety’s Francis Irving asked on Twitter, ‘how is steiny helping tories with bills any different from helping labour with petitions?’ My response is that we still have some notional separation between politics and government, and the petitions system was built for the civil service, for The Government Of The Day. I would have fully expected Tom and MySociety to engage with a new Conservative government, if and when. But I’d have expected him to wait until they had actually become the Government.
Tom is a good guy. A great guy, actually. I hope he knows what he’s doing. And I hope it pays off in the end. In the meantime, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

MySociety, outsourcing and precedents

Happy birthday to MySociety: five years old, and now talking in terms of 20-year plans. Tom Steinberg’s speech at last night’s birthday party contains much to ponder.
Our agreement on the basics is a given. You can do a tremendous amount of good with relatively little money, as long as you have good people involved. People who understand the context, who have a feel for the technology, and who have a passion for what they’re doing. That’s been the very basis of MySociety’s success, and (I hope) my own here at Puffbox.
‘So long as the cult of outsourcing everything computer related continues to dominate in Whitehall,’ Tom says, ‘little is going to change. [The UK government] fired everyone who could do those things, or employed them only via horribly expensive consultancies. It is time to start bringing them back into the corridors of power.’ Hmm… depends what you mean by ‘outsourcing’, and ‘bringing them back in’.
It’s an outrageous generalisation, but what the heck – my experience over the last five or so years has been that small computer-related projects done by small companies are generally successful, whereas large projects done by large companies aren’t. So if we’re talking outsourcing to those ‘horribly expensive consultancies’, by which I guess we’re talking six, seven or even (gasp) eight-figure budgets, hear hear.
But having operated as a consultancy myself for a little while now, I actually think the outsourcing of small jobs to small external operators is beneficial to all parties.

  • The client generally deals with someone at, or certainly much closer to the coalface. No account managers, business analysts, project support officers, etc etc. All these people and processes are introduced to reduce risk; but in my experience, they actually increase the risk of not delivering.
  • There’s an inherent benefit in doing lots of small jobs for lots of different people: you inevitably learn something new on every job, which then makes the next job even better. If you’re tied to one single government department, there just won’t be that many interesting jobs in any given year.
  • ‘Coming in from outside’ gives you the right to be a bit more contrary, provocative, arrogant even. You can say the unsayable, if you like. And whilst it’s never a desirable state of affairs, you do have the right to say ‘no’ to the more insane propositions which might come your way.
  • The rigidity of government grading and payscales is actually a disincentive for ‘doers’ to remain in a civil service job. To earn a ‘market wage’, you need to seek promotion to senior management levels… and with every upward step, you move further and further away from the coalface. More talking, less doing. Trust me, I’ve been there.
  • It’s invariably cheaper, and often better quality.

Given the more commercial edge to the new MySociety website, it looks like I’m pushing at an open door there.
I’m a little intrigued by Tom’s comment about the ‘repurposing [of] generic new communications tools like blogs’. That has become the core of what Puffbox does, and I make absolutely no apology for it. It allows me to deliver powerful, intricate websites in double-quick time – giving end-users what they want, how they want it, whilst maintaining a straightforward back-end interface. It gives people cutting-edge tools to do their work, and hopefully makes them ask more difficult questions of the inevitably bespoke IT projects elsewhere in their work.
I detect a slightly pessimistic tone to Tom’s remarks, and not just on funding. ‘We’ve shifted the culture of government internet usage less than we might have hoped over the last five years,’ he concludes frankly. I’m more inclined to see the upside; it has shifted, and it is shifting – slowly.
I’ve written and spoken before about the power of precedent: and with every MySociety production, large or small, the precedents become stronger. (I hope the same can be said of Puffbox’s work too.) Yes, it’s taking time to see the ripple effect: but it’s definitely coming. Some of the projects I’m discussing with people just now are truly mouthwatering.

Minister wants more social media

Tom Watson publishes (what looks like) a speech announcing the formation of a Power Of Information Taskforce, to be chaired by former LibDem MP Richard Allan (now senior manager of UK&I government affairs at Cisco), taking forward the Power Of Information report by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg.
An interim Progress Report on Power was published yesterday… but frankly, there’s nothing especially substantial to report. Plenty of talk about pilots and guidelines, though. I’m keen to see what Jeremy Gould makes of the report’s claim that ‘the government supported a Barcamp initiated by the Ministry of Justice.’ And I’m not sure I’d get too excited about an OPSI discussion forum with ‘over 70 messages’ in it.
This contrasts so sharply with the moves made by Downing Street last week, throwing themselves at the mercy of the Twitterverse – and winning quite a few friends by doing so. No need for lengthy stakeholder consultation, or strategy papers. It was clearly a good idea; so they just did it. (And believe me, No10 aren’t finished yet, not by a long shot. More on that later this week.)
The two most interesting lines in Tom’s speech are, I’d say, the ‘draft guidance on how public servants can use social media’ being put to the Taskforce ‘later this week’ (confirming a rumour I’d heard from elsewhere); and his call for:

more use of techniques commonplace now in the wider world, internal blogs, wikis, discussion forums, shared workspaces, all still quite rare within the machine.

Yes folks, the Minister actively wants you to use blogs and wikis. Your business case just wrote itself.