Betagov blues..

While in many (most) ways the great work going on as a part of Betagov and the wider Government Digital Service is inspiring it is also considerably adds to my frustrations at the moment. I am wondering whether I need to turn something of a ‘blind eye’ to the posts etc coming out of the project before those frustrations manifest into something more!

The thing is while GDS are embracing agile techniques, open source tools, recruiting great developers and actually really thinking about the user experience and content strategies things closer to home are still pretty different.

Budgets are tight, procurement rules are as difficult to navigate as ever and the requirements for reporting from those above remains a considerable overhead. Teams are small, access to developers is minimal and anything beyond just keeping on keeping on is tough.

Outside of Hercules House ‘digital by default’ seems a long, long way away and requires making compromises in order just to get some momentum. Small wins are achievable (and you can bet we celebrate each one!) but getting anything larger out of the door requires considerable patience and fortitude.

A friend recently told me that I needed to readjust my own expectations and that I had worked in this space long enough to understand the challenges and they are right I think. I choose to work in the public sector (and this academic/science/government corner of it in particular) and I’ve been doing it a long time so I have no excuse when I let frustrations build up. I walked away from the start-up life and didn’t much care for freelancing. It was clear this was where I was happiest and I need to remind myself of the considerable positives as well as some of the great projects I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in each time I get frustrated.

I think the work happening in GDS will have a real impact on web teams throughout the public sector but it will take a long time for it to leak through to those of us out in the NDPBs and I think I’ll switch to treating the work they are doing there as something as different to my job as that of a Silicon Valley start-up – they are just aren’t enough points of comparison to treat it as anything else!

7 responses to “Betagov blues..”

  1. Well said that man… and precisely the point I’ve been trying to get across in recent blog posts of my own. I think there’s a real risk that Betagov concentrates too much on its own deliverable – yes, I know that sounds like something it should be praised for, but bear with me – without considering how the wider public sector community could or should benefit.

    Even if the Single Domain team do publish their code, I just don’t think it’s realistic to expect the typical NDPB or local council web team to have the time, skills and experience to do anything with it.

    The team needs to be thinking about how to encourage easy reuse. I’ve already suggested they should have started with something like Drupal or WordPress, to give small teams half a chance of coming on board. The suggestion wasn’t universally well received; and if there are good, clear reasons why that can’t happen, then fair enough. But the question then becomes, so what can you do, to open it up to the hundreds of other public sector web teams out there?

  2. Matt, you have my respect and my sympathy. Here at @govuk towers we know exactly how lucky we are; we know how rare and special is the team’s freedom to delivery the right product in the right way. I suspect that in the short term the main thing we can offer you is to provide high-profile evidence of the benefits such an approach engenders.

    We can’t boil the ocean on day one. We’re part of a new department (GDS) which is still in the process of being formed, we have to focus on delivering the most important improvements first, and we can’t – shouldn’t – musn’t – ever aspire to ‘do it all’.

    So our focus is very clear: by early 2012 to have delivered a beta of a reinvented citizen facing site (30m visits/mth of user need…), a beta of a replacement for central departmental publishing and a first draft (and it’ll be very drafty…) of a shared user experience language (Global Experience Language).

    I make no apology for focussing on our own deliverables. And I make no apology for choosing the best technology to meet the needs of our deliverables, just as you should do for yours.

    Simon Dickson may disagree with our technology choices – I respect his opinion, even if I disagree with it in this instance. (and I’m sure it’s an oversight that didn’t mention he runs a business specialising in WordPress – he’s usually very careful to do so).

  3. Tom & Simon

    Thanks for the comments.

    I am a bit worried about whether the tone of my post was really right. I am very supportive of the ‘betagov’ project and have no problem with the focus on delivering a clear set of objectives. Like Simon I do tend towards WordPress as my solution of choice (and Simon probably didn’t feel the need to mention his WP leanings as he is aware I know that) but I have no trouble accepting the use of other technologies and have long since been converted to the ‘cult of Ruby’ by developer friends 🙂

    I think what I was really trying to express (poorly it seems) is that I’ve been hoping for something a little more inclusive and less top-down than the previous relationship with the centre and to date the wider GDS hasn’t really delivered that. I know it is early days and everyone has alot on their plate but I’d like some sign that those of us who survived the ‘bonfire’ aren’t being forgotten.

    I do have high hopes for all of it though – I think massive strides are being made in the right direction and I wish everyone well. I am just a whinger by nature.

  4. Jukesie, didn’t seem too whingey too me.

    Last week I had a chance to see how Betagov are working (it’s impressive). I also got a flavour of the (at times difficult) procurement environment in the centre, and some possibly irreconcilable tensions between a drive to centralisation and a drive towards autonomy and innovation. If the Betagov team manage to build their vision, they’ll have done it in the face of ten kinds of problem and obstacle

    I also see daily how local government, PCTs, NDPBs are working, and how disconnected that is likely to remain from Betagov (and much else in the centre) for the forseable future. So I get where you’re coming from.

    As we’re declaring supplier hats, I have central gov and non-central gov clients for our Citizen Space system. One codebase, two rather different client bases, I hope we’re making it work for both. It’s not easy, but probably much easier for us as a supplier to pull that off for a bounded problem than it is for anyone *inside* government or public sector.

    Like Tom said, ‘we’ can’t boil the ocean (by ‘we’ I mean all those of us who want to see this done better, faster, make a difference). But we can take lots and lots of small steps…each better than the last 🙂

    Mark O’Neill was talking about this at Agile Tea last Thursday (in response to some pretty stiff criticism about procurement). Mark’s view was (I hope I don’t misquote) – we just need to keep having the conversation. I reckon your post is part of that 😉

  5. Andy quotes me correctly, we need to start and then keep having conversations. It is going to take some time yet before we are able to engage with everyone we would like to but the early engagement sessions run by Tom and the Beta team and things like AgileTea represent our direction of travel and the fact that we do want to get those conversations happening. :).

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