Finally content?

Firstgov.gov, the curiously named but highly visited US government entry site, is getting some content management. I guess that’s not to say that it had no management before, just that it was all hand-cranked …

Currently, GSA employees have to manually retrieve relevant information and write HTML and Java code for each individual page. Ugh.

The pain of not having such a system is graphically presented with this quote …

When the Columbia shuttle tragedy happened, we took 24 hours to get up what we needed to get up,” Jameson said. “If we had had this content management system, the people who do that for FirstGov could have done it from home within 20 minutes.”

The OMB have paid $525,000 for the software licence and …

The new system should be running by summer. The contract covers the software license and maintenance for one year and includes four one-year options … [and] .. The license is governmentwide, so other agencies can use the Vignette system as well, she said. All of the technology contracts associated with FirstGov are governmentwide, including AT&T’s hosting services. Use of the site soared from 7 million unique views in 2001 to 37 million in 2002, a 444 percent increase. Several factors fed the spike.

I’m delighted that the OMB have made this move; delighted for a couple of reasons:

1) It gives me a good excuse to talk to Dan about the issues with implementing content management, what he’s going to do about them and what he might learn from what we’ve done and vice versa. $525k for a software licence is a big chunk of change (for one year especially), add on top of that the integration and consultancy costs, the need to do the business process work (which is the hardest part in our experience), additional hardware and so on and it mounts way higher than that. I’ll also be intrigued if it’s planned as an XML delivery system, or whether it will all be TCL.

2) The “pan-government” nature of the deal is similar to what we’ve done and are doing in the UK with our DotP platform (check www,ukonline.gov.uk to see DotP in action – particularly look out for the neat use of cascading style sheets throughout). We’ve gone bespoke rather than package, which is a topic for some other time, but the principle is the same. Delivering “pan-anything” is pretty hard, it needs a lot of commitment (from top to bottom) and a lot of passion. The US doing what we’re doing is a vote of confidence in the strategy.

Content management is not a solution out of the box, as I’ve said before (I know, you’re bored with hearing that now), yet pretty much everyone goes out and buys the disk expecting a smooth install. The challenges that it presents to the business; the hassles of running a complex system; the need to maintain and manage infrastructure and the pain of moving a big old site to a new site (changing it in flight no doubt) are all big, scary and under-estimated in every project. Anyone taking an implementation on needs to go in eyes open, otherwise there is more pain than benefit.

I’m looking forward to watching how firstgov progresses with the implementation and comparing notes with our own approach. Now that we have ukonline live on DotP, we can move ahead with the implementation of other departments – all on the same infrastructure, with no additional licence costs for new entrants.

Death of the password

It may be premature to announce (again) the death of the password, but at least for users of Covisint, it’s on its way out. Fascinating short piece in ComputerWeekly this week on a programme in Covisint to replace passwords with “tokens” – I assume USB type tokens or RSA smart cards.

The reason it’s fascinating (for me at least) is that there are some numbers quoted that I haven’t seen before. It costs, apparently, about $100/year to “run” a token (for their community of 120,000 users in 11,000 companies (growing to 200,000 this year). Delphi, they note, has 20 staff just to administer IDs, with many handling calls to help lines no doubt, where 70% of calls are for forgotten passwords and each call costs between $40 and $60. It seems pretty easy to me to do the maths on that and come up with a sound business case.

In the past when we’ve looked at tokens like that for government there have been two issues that stopped us moving ahead: training and technology compatibility. Training is reasonably easy to solve in a closed user community, but can you imagine how hard it would be to educate the UK population (or the online one at least) on how to use an RSA token? Technology, though, would screw you first – the wide variety of browsers, operating systems and whatnot would mean that the help desk would be full of calls complaining that the thing doesn’t work.

This is a problem that needs to be cracked and lots of people have had a go at it. It might, one day, be smart cards or bank cards with the EMV application in them, it might be some other kind of technical solution but, whatever it is, training and compatibility issues are going to be big costs.

Nice bio if you can get one

Just found Mark Forman’s bio while looking for something else on the Whitehouse site … his key achievements are listed as:

– Simplifying the Firstgov.gov portal using a “three-clicks to service” model that led to Yahoo’s recognizing Firstgov.gov as one of the 50 most incredibly useful websites;
– Creation of the first IRS free filing website, using a unique private-public partnership
– Regulations.gov, the world’s first government sponsored e-democracy initiative that allows citizens to easily find, read and comment on proposed regulations;
– Definition and deployment of a rigorous cybersecurity improvement process;
– Consolidation of Federal payroll processing centers to save over $1 billion; and
– Restructuring federal training through the Golearn.gov website, which has trained tens of thousands of federal workers at pennies per course

That’s not a bad set of things to have on your CV.

It doesn’t write the novel too

Talking to a few people around government over the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised that there are some misconceptions about central infrastructure – things like the Government Gateway. I’ve been doing a paper on the opportunity that it presents, with the risks, issues and routes forward. Too many people have the view that it will do pretty much everything for them – “out of the box” as it were. Central infrastructure is like Microsoft Word. It gives you a great environment to write in, but don’t expect it to write a best-selling novel for you too. That’s where the business comes in, using what’s there and exploiting it to deliver great services.

POVs and ROVs

Points of view – so often so opposed. So easy to find others that disagree. I went off to the London Imax cinema today to see “Ghosts of the Abyss”, James Cameron’s 3D film of the Titanic. Had I read Edward Porter’s review in the Sunday Times beforehand, I might not have gone … “hard to get hugely excited”, “recreations of the ship’s former glories … weakens the verite”, “3D effects only compound failing”. Thank God I don’t listen to other people, especially ones with views as warped as this. Go and see this. It’s a beautifully filmed, magical film that transports you 3 miles down to the bottom of the Atlantic, getting shots of the interior for the first time using very clever remote cameras (ROVs). The overlays showing people moving around on the decks, in the rooms, stocking the fires are exceptionally well done. I was left filled with wonderment, awed at the majesty of the vessel and of how much remains startlingly intact. I could have watched six hours more of footage. It’s poignant, transfixing and truly magical.

I mention this here for two reasons, (1) so that you go and see it and (2) because POVs are fine, everyone has one, we all have arseholes too, but we don’t get them out and show them to everyone at the slightest opportunity. Care must be taken in expressing a point of view, checking the facts, making sure the argument hangs together. That’s not always the case sadly. I refer to the marker I left a week or so ago on the recent article in the Grauniad. Factually wrong and consisting of a single point of view. Unbalanced and misleading. But there you go. POVs are a vital part of how we make progress. If we all thought the same, noone would ask questions and we would not move forward. That would be no fun at all.

Why do people blog?

Is a blog the same as any other writing? Why do people do it? One view here, from onepotmeal.

We’re not writing an account of our lives just as a record of our lives, we’re trying to say something about our lives, and that can’t be done if we stick only to ‘facts’: the facts that will speak to me about my life—me, with all kinds of insider knowledge and secrets—is hardly going to speak to you in the same way.

We can’t read weblogs the way we read other literatures—it isn’t appropriate. They aren’t the same as novels or memoirs or what not, because of the play of time and because of other factors that would only serve to muddy the waters of my present point.

And from burningbird, a response.

Be not afraid those who would be afraid of what I write. I try only to write about what I see and what might be done about it.