Digesting the Government Digital Strategy

Today the Cabinet Office launched the Government-wide digital strategy that marks another step closer to the Martha Lane Fox vision of a ‘digital by default’ government (from where the name of this blog sprung!).

There is *alot* to like in this strategy I think – though it does in places closely coincide with my 4Ps stuff and makes me wonder if its worth continuing that!

Also its great that it was published as HTML be default using a responsive framework. I read it on my Nexus7 and it worked perfectly.

The one thing that struck me as off was the figures around cost-savings. I know everything these days needs to be couched in those terms but in a document that is proposing basing decisions on reliable management information it all feels a little bit ‘back of the fag packet’ and immediately leaves it open to criticism. I also think the comparisons of GOV.UK vs Directgov are a little previous and ill defined (I am a massive fan of the new site and always struggled with Directgov but it still seems too early for those comparisons.)

All that aside there are some things I really, really liked about this strategy.

The focus on people is spot-on I think. In fact I pretty much made my feelings clear on how important I think the right people are for success in digital recently and this really lives up to that.

Actions 1 – 4 in the strategy are a really important step I think. All the improving ‘transactions’ stuff has got all the headlines but from a personal point of view having a high level strategy that endorses the idea of having digital represented at board level, integrated into the Fast Stream programme, digital literacy to be a key component in training for civil servants (at all levels) and a Service Manager role to be created where not only will they be empowered to properly run digital products but will also be recipients of a custom training programme to improve their skills is all music to my ears.

I particularly love the idea of these Service Managers being ’empowered’. There are loads of great people working in digital in the public sector (still) and a constant challenge for all of them is being given the freedom to do what is needed to improve things. The culture of bringing in an outsider to tell the powers that be what you already know is alive and well. Giving these folk the authority (and tools) to make a difference can only be a good thing.

[I will be honest here I *really* like the idea of this Service Manager role and will be very jealous when I see them popping up!]

I’m very pleased to read that GDS are going to be putting these training courses together and generally offering support and advice to projects beyond Aviation House. I think this is vital to help embed all these ideas in organisations a little further away from Holborn.

I am glad to see procurement addressed again in the strategy. I think it is good but not sure it goes far enough – there needs to be much more proactive education of procurement professionals in the public sector about these opportunities to make sure the right advice is given and attempts to be a little more innovative around procurement are supported not stifled.

The ‘Inside Government’ timetable is even more challenging than I expected – getting all the Departments into GOV.UK by March 2013 is one thing but all the NDPBs/ALBs etc by April 2014 seems a little crazy. Good luck though!

There is a lot more in there and it is all worth a read (if you are interested in this kind of thing!). I’m sure there will be lots of feedback from smarter folk than me but for now I say well done and ‘power to the people’ 🙂

Open Gov Summit #opengovsum

This morning I dragged my weary self to the bus stop at 06.15 to get the 07.01 train to London – for some of you I realise this seems like no major achievement – however for me it was something of a miracle!

The reason behnd this early start was the Open Government Summit (organised by the team at Zaizi) which I was lucky enough to stumble across on Twitter and grab a ticket for. Unfortunately I was only going to be able to make the morning sessions so wanted to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

After the introductions Tariq Rashid (who sports the rather impressive title of Lead Architect – Information, Applications, Infrastructure, Open Standards, Open Source at the Home Office) started the day talking about the status of open source software in the UK Government. It was an interesting talk with a few particularly useful takeaways;

– The policy is not to enforce a certain % of open source uptake in the public sector – it is however designed to ensure there is a level playing field and that open source solutions are always considered.

– The idea that the ‘customer gets what they deserved’ and that it is a failing of the people specifying and procuring the products that open source has taken so long to make in-roads in the UK. There has been a culture & history in feeling safe with expensive systems backed by large ‘systems integrators’.

– There is a ‘Open Source Software Options for Government‘ document that gives examples of ‘proven’ open source alternatives to a number of software types available from the Open Source Procurement Toolkit which is designed to help people realise the breadth of the optuions out there. Also to help challenge existing suppliers!

– Perhaps the most important comment that came out of it was the statement from CESG (who are the guardians of information security for the UK Gov) which I had briefly seen before but didn’t get it written down;

Open source as a category is no more or less secure than closed proprietary software.

Tariq was an impressive speaker who clearly believed in the role of open source (and continued to ask insightful questions and add comments throughout the morning) so it got the day off to a good start.

Next up was a flying visit from Mr Mark O’Neill from the Government Digital Service. I’ve seen Mark speak before and previously he was known for having the most CIO jobs at one time in Whitehall but now seems to have settled down into just one job; Proposition Director for Innovation and Delivery at GDS.

Mark spoke a little about about the mission of GDS – one that is beyond just creating a few pretty websites but rather the ‘end to end transformation public services’! This includes fixing processes, operating models, infrastructure, culture, skills and alot else. Not much then chaps!

Mark stated that in the past UK Gov has tended to reinvent the wheel (and often that whell was square, gold-plated and five years late).

One of the [many] GDS principles is that they;

Do the same as successful people.

Which basically means speaking to providers of massive scale web providers and seeing what can be replicated.

The role of open source in allowing quick prototyping was also raised – being able to download software and actually try it out and experiment with it is vital to being able to work in an agile manner.

There was some talk about the e-petitions product and the fact that it was initially developed in just 6 weeks for £60k and now deals with up to 40 ‘signatures’ per minute. An API has been released and the code has been packaged up and added to Github.

As usual it was interesting to hear more about the work GDS are doing and also to get a slightly different perspective on it as I tend to follow the ‘single domain’ work most closely.

Unfortunately I missed the bulk of the Met Office talk due to a flurry of emails and a call. The one snippet that did break through though was the fact they had found it 3 to 4 times quicker to get contractors and interns up to speed with their open source software than the proprietary software they also run.

The final talk I was able to stay for was from Glyn Moody. I follow Glyn on Twitter and have read a fair bit of his journalism over the years but had never seen him in person til today. I’ve always admired his ideas around the open agenda but at times have found a little strident – especially on Twitter. However it was a pleasant surprise to discover he was much more measured and pragmatic in person.

He spoke alot about open standards and the current consultation (a topic the civil servants speaking earlier had carefully avoided!) and about the controvery surrounding it (potential lawsuits, lobbying, double-agents!). Time and time again it was reinforced how important this consultation was and the audeince was encouraged to have their say.

There was more talk about the need to create a level playing field for open source and also a nice line about how people get used to things and come to accept them as the default. *Everyone* knows that Government IT projects fail so *everyone* just accepts that!

He also raised the point that standards didn’t used to be ‘open’. In fact things like ISO now just look 20 years out of date as they have failed to grasp the changing environment in which they now exist.

All in all it was a really useful morning with thought-provoking talks in a nice environment. It was worth the early start and I think that speaks for itself.

GOV.US – the cousins catching up :)

Last week the Whitehouse released their digital strategy “Digital Government – Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People“. It is an interesting document (and nice to see it being released as a Twitter Bootstrap powered HTML5 site rather than just another PDF!).

Both O’Reilly and Code for America have covered the launch with insightful coverage and if you are interested in learning more I suggest you start there.

I think it is interesting just how big the US gov is betting on mobile – Government departments have essentially been ordered to ensure they have two significant functions available via ‘apps’ as soon as possible – certainly within 12 months. That will be interesting to watch and to see just what the take up of these apps will be like? I get the impression this somewhat goes against the government open data powered app economy that the UK government seems to think is going to spring up off the back of data.gov.uk etc.

Not surprisingly the thing I am most interested in is the idea of an open source, shared, ‘content delivery platform’. It seems like an aspect very much inspired by some of the work done by GOV.UK and just reinforces this as the model most likely. I’d speculate that any content platform coming out of the US Gov is likely to be built on a foundation of Drupal (perhaps an extension of Open Public or similar) which I think would be more ‘shareable’ in many ways than the direction GDS went in (though of course the InsideGov platform might yet become a package reusable by other teams – it just isn’t yet and I don’t know if that is the plan).

I particularly liked this line in the Code for America piece;

But it’s evident today that at least government has gotten clear on one important point: content delivery isn’t a hard problem in the outside world.

Now if only I get get a few more people to understand and accept that!

This is just more evidence that this is an incredibly interesting time to being doing digital in Government – and once again makes me wish I was more directly involved rather than feeling a little bit like a member of the Ressies watching the First team from the sidelines.

The new social media guidance for civil servants

On Thursday, in a blaze of RTs on Twitter, the Cabinet Office launched their first comprehensive Social media guidance for civil servants [PDF]. This has the potential to be a hugely important document in the wider uptake of social media throughout the public sector – especially at a senior level where managers remain a little skittish about such things.

There is alot of like about the guide. The six principles (these GDS folks are a very principled lot!) are both ambitious and sensible;

Government should

  • Communicate with citizens in the places they already are
  • Use social media to consult and engage
  • Use social media to be more transparent and accountable
  • Be part of the conversation with all the benefits that brings
  • Understand that government cannot do everything alone, or in isolation
  • Expect civil servants to adhere to the Civil Service Code (online as well as offline)

Having forewords from both Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake giving the document a massive stamp of approval from the powers that be is a huge plus. To be honest just having people that senior supporting this kind of work is an amazing victory.

I do find the publication a little odd beyond that though if I am honest. It seems a slightly weird mix of vision, policy and how-to guide. Alot of space seems to be taken stating the wider case for embracing social media and presenting options and examples of how to do that. All good stuff but I wonder if it ends up with one publication trying to be all things to all people?

Section 7 about how social media and the Civil Service code interact is very good but seems a little lost in the wider document when I (and it might just be me) would think this is the most important information for the majority of people using, or considering using, social media (certainly in a semi-personal capacity).

I also find the second section (from the Home Office this time) Guidance on overcoming the technical barriers to accessing the Internet and social media really strange for a public document – I can’t imagine there are many decision makers working in IT in Government who don’t know how to fix the issues they simply haven’t been a priority til now. A single email from Sir Bob to all the CIOs would have fixed that I would have thought?

This sounds a bit more negative than it should as I think just the existence of this guidance is hugely important and demonstrates a real change in attitude from leaders within the civil service. This is bound to filter through to the rest of us in the public sector over time and this can only be good news for those of us who advocate embracing more social communications.

Thinking about the Inside Government alpha feedback

There is alot to love in the latest bout of extreme transparency blogging from the GOVUK team. Sharing the results of the feedback and user testing for the Inside Government product gives a real insight into the challenges they are facing and how they intend to front up to them. It also lets those of us with no chance of running such extensive testing (let alone getting the level of feedback they received) some useful pointers and things to think about.

Given my preoccupations at the moment I was/am particularly interested in the feedback [PDF] around the custom CMS they built.

[aside: in the post Ross discusses the fact it is *two* products – a CMS and a front-end website. This is obviously correct but in my own projects we are constantly conflating the two and I need to work harder to make sure everyone understands the dividing lines.]

The task completion comparisons they have done against existing CMS are particularly interesting and I like the way they have stripped things down to a very straightforward task driven interface. I especially like the idea of this if/when there is a more distributed publishing model – something I think alot of organisations are revisiting at the moment.

I still don’t believe that using Markdown is an appropriate solution for when a product like this spreads beyond early adopters (and judging by the comments on the post I am not alone) and I wonder if a whole new CMS needed to be built or whether this kind of editing UI could have been built into a more common open source CMS so it could be more widely shared? That said I haven’t used it and given the people involved I have confidence that decisions were made for the right reasons so I’m not really concerned.

The fact that users felt that the Departments themselves needed to be more visible and were key navigation aids was interesting to me given some of the early thinking going on at the moment around the relationships between my organisations website and its sibling sites. It backs up our own findings nicely I think.

Also the fact that the design itself was well received is nice to hear as we are planning to be heavily ‘inspired’ by that design when we ‘refresh’ in early 2013 🙂

All in all lots to think about again – and particularly timely as my own projects start to ramp up over the summer so thanks again guys!