Departmental websites: gone by Xmas?

My attention has been drawn to the commitment on page 42 of yesterday’s Budget 2012 document.

from 2014, new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they themselves can use the service successfully

It’s so simple, it’s brilliant. And quite funny too.
But don’t overlook the non-highlighted bit which follows. It’s a commitment, the first I’m explicitly aware of, that:

all information is [to be] published on a single ’’ domain name by the end of 2012

In other words, the Single Domain will at least be ‘dual running’ with all departmental websites within 9 months. But it’s surely more likely, given that efficiency is a key selling point of the Single Domain strategy, that we’ll see all departmental websites closed by then. There was no deadline mentioned in the Martha Lane Fox report of November 2010, or in last October’s ICT Implementation Plan.
Update: blogging on the GDS’s site, Mike Bracken adds some clarification:

We’re working with colleagues across Government to get all information for citizens and businesses (what’s currently covered by Directgov and Businesslink) published on GOV.UK by the end of this year and this gives us the hurry up. We’re also working towards migrating Departmental sites onto ‘Inside Government’ but that will take a little longer, with a more gradual transition as current contracting arrangements for individual Departments come to an end.

History lesson

My first workplace: photo from Wikipedia

I began my career at the Foreign Office, joining what was known as ‘Guidance Section’. Its job was to be the in-house newswire service for British embassies far and wide. The day started by editing down a daily news summary and press review, based on BBC World Service scripts; at the click of a button on a VT100 terminal (look it up), these were delivered to hundreds of British diplomatic missions by the best means available. Could be fax, could be telex, could be telegram, one or two had something called E-Mail. Cutting edge stuff for 1995, believe me.
We would spend the rest of the day gathering news items from around Whitehall – press releases, transcripts of speeches, whatever. We’d edit these down to the essential, decide which embassies would be likely to receive media enquiries on the subject, and send it out to them. Then, at lunchtime and 5pm, we’d produce a ‘shopping list’ from which embassies could request anything they were interested in, but hadn’t already received.
Departments were generally more than happy to work with us: often we’d get significant announcements ahead of delivery, so that Our Man In Wherever could have a head-start. The one massive exception was the Treasury, on Budget Day.
They would send an official on the short walk up Horse Guards Avenue to our office in the Old Admiralty Building, just by the Arch. He or she (usually he) would have the Chancellor’s speech on a floppy disk. He would sit stony-faced in our office, one of few in the building to have a TV, whilst we all listened to the speech. When the Chancellor’s bottom touched the front bench, the speech having been delivered to the House, he would hand over the floppy disk. And finally, we could begin the work of reformatting the text file, editing out the party-political bits, double-checking it, then sending it out.
Today, any Embassy press officer who’s interested will be reading the same advance press coverage we all are. He/she will watch the speech live – CNN, BBC World, streamed online, whatever – before hitting the Treasury website. And he probably won’t get a single call asking for a copy of the speech.

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?

Liveblogging the budget

It was described earlier as the biggest moment in modern political history that wasn’t an election: probably a bit much, I’d have said. But it’s no surprise to see so many websites ‘liveblogging’ today’s Pre-Budget Report: the TUC, the Spectator, Liberal Conspiracy, Iain Dale, among many others. Sky News is doing something especially interesting, with its ‘Unplugged’ online broadcast offering live commentary and analysis: effectively a live video-blog, I suppose.
Which rather begs the question, what should the Treasury themselves be doing? The Chancellor standing up in the Commons chamber, and (sorry) droning on for an hour or so, throwing numbers around like confetti, then BANG! a huge wad of paper lands on your newsdesk as he sits down – it’s simply not an effective way to communicate. There’s too much to take in, too many big numbers, too much jargon, in too short a space of time.
I’m wondering if the Treasury shouldn’t be running an enhanced live video stream, with bullet points appearing as the Chancellor makes his announcement; and graphs / charts / etc in a second window. I’ve worked in the TV channel gallery on Budget day; it’s chaotic, as a hapless producer tries to make sense of it all, picking out the headlines in real time. Meanwhile, of course, the Treasury staff are sitting on copies of the full text of the speech, with all the advance notice they need to make a really good job of it. It’s not as if they aren’t doing the production work already, with a consumer-friendly leaflet being a regular output each time.

Independent review wants free ID cards, minimal biometrics

I’m surprised how little coverage I’ve seen of the long-awaited report by Sir James Crosby (ex boss of Halifax/HBOS) into ‘Challenges and opportunities in identity cards assurance’, published last week by the Treasury. (See press release, full doc as PDF.) It makes a number of interesting proposals, none of which merited a specific mention in the press release.
Absolutely correctly, Sir James says the potential of any such scheme ‘lies in the extent to which it is created by consumers for consumers.’ He points to a ‘fundamental’ distinction between ‘identity management’, where systems are built for the benefit of the database manager (ie government, in this case); and ‘identity assurance’, which ‘meets an important consumer need without necessarily providing any spin-off benefits to the owner of any database’.
The national security aspect becomes a pleasant side-effect. As he rightly notes, ‘a consumer-led universal scheme would better deliver on national security goals than any scheme with its origins in security and data sharing.’
Effectively, he calls for a ‘Chip and PIN’ card with a photograph on it: three independent factors – something you have, something you know, and something you are’. ‘It is the combination of such independent factors, rather than their technological complexity and individual strength,’ he writes, ‘which largely determines the resilience of the verification process.’ Well, it’s certainly got simplicity in its favour.
He says explicitly that ‘full biometric images (other than photographs) should not be kept‘; that the scheme should be operated independently of Government; and that it should be provided free of charge. But no matter how welcome and compelling his recommendations might be, there’s little sign of the Home Office swaying.
If you’ve got any interest in this subject, I urge you to read (at least) the executive summary of the Crosby report. It’s the most articulate and balanced review of the subject that I’ve yet seen. And it’s a subject we all need to care about. Nothing right now cuts as deeply to the heart of civil engagement – both in terms of what it is, and how it gets rolled out. And the signs aren’t yet good.