OK it has been pointed out to me by one or two people that my blog post yesterday might have been a little bit negative! I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been frustrated by elements of my new role but things are slowly improving and its just a case of trying to get in to a new mind-set I think.
The framework which all the e-gov activity works within is far more resistant to change than I have become used to working at JISC but it has well established reasons and procedures and is quite obviously dealing with a very different type of audience. Despite its own layers of bureacracy JISC and the wider area of ICT in Education (particularly HE) is far more open to innovation and taking risks, but then I guess thats kind of the point. Organisations like JISC and its many Services, programmes and projects are by their very nature early adopters and that willingness to push the boundaries gave my work in communications more space to roam.
While my interests continue to be mainly focussed on using the ideas and tools of Web 2.0 in enhancing (rather than replacing) more traditional communications models (blended communications?) the more disciplined approach required to take this current project forward is a timely reminder that some of my skillset has become rusty through underuse and it will be useful in the long run to get back into running a more standard web project. It will also give me an opportunity to polish up my diplomacy skills as well!
Later in the week I’m going to get back onto the topic of the amplified conference and more generally into my ideas about blended comms – you know, the more fun stuff!
Its becoming increasingly apparent to me that I have been living and, more importantly, working in some kind of bubble for the last couple of years. The great leaps forward in the web that I saw happening around me were actually an illusion and they had failed to take hold in the wider public conciousness (well certainly not the civil service part of it!!) I feel like I am in a particlarly dull and geeky version of Groundhog Day, having the same conversations, facing the same barriers and feeling the same frustrations as I did while at the ESRC five years ago or more!
The slavish commitment to WCAG 1.0 and the hugely outdated WAI-AA stamp of approval seems horribly mis-placed when taken against the Accessibility 2.0 agenda put forward by people like Lawrie, Brian and David Sloan over the last couple of years – plus lets not forget even the WAI realises the problems and has been chugging along on WCAG 2.0 for what seems like an eternity!
The traditional publishing metaphor is rampant as well, layers upon layers of editorial controls, workflows, sign-offs – basically a bureacracts dream! The idea of user-generated content, rapid publishing models, becoming a part of the conversation, social networks as another communications channel – basically anything that gives up control of the ‘message’ is looked on with distrust (to say the least!).
Major web projects are commissioned, project managed and developed with noone with any real strategic level web knowledge involved in the process and considerations like usability, interoperability, future proofing and things like archiving are seemingly completely bypassed.
This obviously a one eyed view of the world at the moment – born out of frustration rather than any kind of in-depth research! Things like the Power of Information report and the fact that there is a eGov BarCamp in the new year proves to me that there are like minded souls working in this environment but I wonder if they are in positions to makeany headway?
At times I complained about the lack of momentum at JISC and the fact that our Communications projects sometimes stalled due to what seemed like an overabundance of oversight and a slow moving committee system – I now see how lucky I was to work in an environment that was always looking to embrace new ideas and models for communications. JISC may not have led the way as often as I would have liked but it managed to stay in the chasing pack. Currently I feel like the chap who did the marathon in a diving suit – finishing days behind!
AArrrrrggghhhhh! Rant over…the thing is everyone is perfectly nice and reasonable and absolutely convinced they are on the right path and to be honest who am I to tell them differently??
No sooner had I finished mulling over the implications of the Power of Information report I wrote about earlier in the week when I came across another eGov/Web 2.0 article – this time from Richard MacManus at the Read/WriteWeb blog (based on a couple of Gartner reports).
In this case it is very much a US based report but as with all things web-based where America leads…all in all its pretty damning of the ‘one-stop portal’ concept (i.e. Directgov!) and supportive of the idea of reusable information supporting ‘mash-ups’ and the like through the use of web services (very similar to the Power of Information report). One qoute that is pulled out from the report is pretty damning of the portal concept “in the future, government single points of contact will become even less relevant than they are today”..ouch!
Also, like the Power of Information report, it supports making use of existing non-gov controlled channels and that government agencies “should make sure that their information, services and applications are accessible through a variety of different channels, some of which are not controlled or directly owned by government.”
I think this is the way the wind is blowing and that these two reports really demonstrate the way the web is changing to something thats less about pages and more about data and collaboration – unfortunately the UK model is still very set in a Web 1.0 world.
I think a new generation of digital confident civil servants are going to need to get out there and enter the conversation and accept that they won’t be able to control it. Thats not to say there is no place for something like Directgov – however it needs to be more flexible and less monolithic than it stands at the moment. The work I am doing for the HE section at Directgov is certainly valid in the short-to-medium term – we all know things don’t happen overnight in these circles – but I’d like to see more evidence of these more flexible, web 2.0 inspired ideas being embraced or at least discussed.
During the summer a pretty radical (well for the government) paper was published called The Power of Information. Brian Kelly recently wrote about it on his blog and it reminded me I had been carrying it around with me since I left JISC! It took a hard look at government information over the web and made a number of pretty forward thinking recommendations – a number of which could be important to the HE space online. The really amazing thing is the government accepted almost all the recommendations! I wonder whether this is something that DIUS is considering becoming involved with. I would suggest that the ideas considered in the paper would effect the direction of the Directgov offering in the longer term…and a department with Innovation so prominent in its title should be looking at this sort of thing.
Some of the things it recommends include:
- Working with existing user-generated sites rather than creating anything new ones
- Researching what user-generated sites exist in the space and where there is duplication terminating or modifying the gov versions
- Making more use of self-help fora online
- Encourage civil servants to become active in these communities (once given training and guidance)
- Publishing data in open formats that can be re-mixed and re-used
All of these ideas are very much of interest to me (as anyone who knows me professionally is well aware of!) and I’m very interested to see how the government and, more importantly, the individual departments take things forward.
Well life at my new job at HEFCE has certainly been eye-opening. As far as working environments go it couldn’t be much more different than I’m used to and the fact that I had to have a member of IT install Firefox for me after getting permission as it is not supported technology and it still comes minus Flash(!)
Still the project looks like it will finally start getting some momentum next week. I have a meeting with members of the DCSF – who run the Education and Learning Directgov franchise – and some of the Directgov team next Wednesday, am speaking to the Comms group for Aimhigher and other Widening Participation activities in Sheffield on Thursday and then continuing up to Newcastle on Friday to meeting with some of the team at HERO again (they currently manage the Aimhigher website) and also to Netskills who are going to do some user-testing work for the project (better the devil you know :] ).. In the weeks to come I also have meetings with the Student Loans Company and LSC to discuss their experience of running a sub franchise…
At the moment so much of what I am doing is educated guesswork really – as until I have met all the other players in this project I am not sure what direction things are going to go. Directgov is the real issue/opportunity – what direction they are going to take in the next couple of years is going to have a real impact on my work here…look forward to finding out!