CEO Bloggers

Jonathan Schwarz, Scott’s number two at Sun Microsystems, has a blog. I’ve met Jonathan and, each time, come away impressed. He has a different idea about where to take Sun now and whilst there are people who will challenge that, he has thought through the angles and can debate impressively the pros and cons.


I’ve resolved the problem with my intermittent lack of connectivity after a restart from standby. I’ve turned off ZoneAlarm and left the MS firewall on. I can’t say I’m happy about that, as ZoneAlarm has served me well for ages and it does more than the MS one. I will wait for the production candidate SP 2 and then see if I can get ZoneAlarm working with that. Beware those of you who try RC2.

More on being only one

A couple of interesting comments were posted recently on my theory of one, I thought I’d promote their points to the main blog to make it easier to cover them. I’m delighted, though, that people are taking the time to comment – it helps me think through the issues and figure out the right things to do next.

Paul Miller suggests “Create [info] on cold weather payments, say, once, display it n times; on DirectGov, on my local authority’s site, and on yours, on the Citizen’s Advice site, etc.”

and Ben says “the energy put into trying to stop the proliferation of brochure websites would be better spent on reaching the goal of 1 in another way – by making it possible for me to bring all my transactions with the Government into a single place”

To Paul’s point first, this is a kind of “super syndication” model where definitive content is clearly marked (wherever it is, and that need not be in a government domain) and then “borrowed” by a site when it needs it. I’ve been on this page for a while, in November 2002 for instance, I wrote:

“I want to know if I can use RSS to pull up “definitive” content from another site – say I want to find out exactly what “Disability Living Allowance” is, could I use RSS with some parameter or other to a “definitions site” to get the right words? Could I also extend that to delivering personalised content, based on a few keywords, from sites around government in a single consistent thread – i.e. not just links or teasers but the whole text presented in a seamless way?

I still don’t know that it’s practical. I don’t know how anything would be labelled as definitive and, for that matter, what would stop 2, 20 or 2000 people claiming to be “definitive”. I don’t know how you look up content based on Metadata and how you ensure that it’s consistent in voice and tone with the text the surrounds it. In short, I think it sounds great, but I don’t for a second think it will work with this level of technology. RSS is about the last 10 posts, the last 10 newsfeeds or the last 10 things I think the world should know about. A while ago we conjured up the idea of an XML database that would return content to the query source based on tags, but we couldn’t find a way to make it work – not least because everyone out there would have to subscribe to our standards, unless someone else conjured up the standards first (and government is the last place that should be writing content sharing standards for the web). If I’ve got this all wrong and it is, in fact, very do-able, I’d love to know about it.

To Ben’s point, I think directgov will ultimately be the place to get all your transactions into a single place; not this month, not even this year but one day. It won’t necessarily mean that there is no Inland Revenue tax site anymore or that DVLA’s driving test site disappears from view, but it will mean that transactions are easier to find, less onerous to complete (relying instead on historical data, shared data or stored data) and perhaps that they’re more proactive (i.e. government comes and finds you with a service rather than waiting for you to find it). But bringing the transactions together is probably harder than bringing the content together, so don’t hold your breath.

Moving Home … the wired and wireless world built in

I’ll be moving house shortly. Actually, it’s been “shortly” for 6 months or so now. The builders are making progress but they are quite possibly the most incompetent planners I have ever seen. No need to criticize government IT when there are builders around. The latest date I have is the 7th, or maybe 8th, “handover” date yet – and it’s in a week. But, this last weekend, I tried to have somem furniture delivered a bit early and they wouldn’t allow it. So maybe it’s shortly and a bit.

One of the things I’ve had done is a wired network in every room – full ethernet – along with sound capability in every room (control point and speakers). I haven’t bought the sound setup yet so I’ve been polling around for what might work nicely. Before I make a major purchase, one of the wireless gadgets might be interesting though. I came across Squeezebox via Dave Winer and then Scott Rosenberg. I’ve seen Roku before (thanks to my friend Felix who has one) and this looks to be an interesting alternative. Of course, they can only be bought in the states. Given how much spare bandwidth there is in the average wireless network, it would be a shame not to fill it up by beaming music all over the place.

On a related point, while I was in the States the other day, I came across a company that’s sort of in the streaming music/video business – BravoBrava. These guys are worth a look – the pitch is that wherever your music and video is (even your Tivo), you can access it via any broadband connection, without having to worry about leaving your system at home open to the outside world. It was pretty neat to take a photo with my camera phone and then have it on my PC 30 seconds later, available for viewing on my Ipaq that was Wifi to the ‘net separately. Any device, any location; very impressive. I hope it works out for them.

There Can Be Only One

Ian D over at PSF was creative enough to pick up on a post here from earlier in June that noted that the battle was over for whether there would be only one government site or not, but that people hadn’t figured that out yet. He did am ad hoc survey of the regular visitors to his site who filled it up with great comments, coming out roughly 50/50 I think in either total support or strict opposition to the idea.

 I’ve been meaning to take the debate a stage further for a couple of weeks but time has just not been there to do it. I thought I’d do it a stage at a time and respond to a few of the more provocative and interesting comments that were made.

First up though, the thing that gets me the most is we seem to have an acceptance of either 1 site or 3000+ sites.

 I’ve always thought that aspirationally “one” was the right answer, but I’d settle for 100 or even 500 on the basis it would reduce the problem of information fragmentation. Noone else seemed to want a different number, from the posts that Ian summarised.

 One post notes that “The portal partners can’t even agree what should be in the A to Z which, I guess, just shows the absurdity of letting government design websites. A while ago there was an A to Z on a central government site. Where do you think the “Treasury” were filed? T? Ha! It was under “H”, for “HM Treasury”. People don’t think in alphabets and, if they do, they don’t think in government alphabets. Besides, with hundreds of services, each set of topics under one letter will cover 3 pages.

An interesting idea was this one “One site implies one entity, one controlling force, no local democracy. How about 4 sites – My Country, My Region, My County, My Local Council !”. Whilst I disagree that one site implies one entity (when you read a newspaper, apart from the Daily Mail, do you expect to get only one point of view from it?) as authorship can and would be spread across the entire constituency, I do like the idea of this kind of disaggregation. There’s probably a “My Community” site as well – people in or near my area with my interests. I wonder though how many people care what happens in their region versus their county, unless they’re local councillors?

Or how about this one “The practicalities of a central organisation doing this for the country make this idea a joke” – this is back to another comment that communism was as good an idea as the Sinclair C5 or the millenium dome.

 One site doesn’t mean one controlling entity – it might mean one “voice” in terms of style of writing though. We have 5,000,000 pages of content in government across 3,300 sites. How many of those pages are written in any kind of consistent, understandable, accessible style?

 One person, obviously well connected, said “like Andrew Pinder, I grew to realise that Departments will just not allow themselves to be joined up”. Tell that to the Inland Revenue and HM Customs (Filed under “R” for revenue and “H” for HM in the A to Z). The Government Gateway joins up a dozen departments today, the Knowledge Network over 40.

The days of Fortress Government or Super Silos are declining. The Roman Empire eventually fell (all because of the lack of a zero in their number system some people say, it won’t be anything so quaint for silos).

And, of course, I’m wrong because “Most people look for something via Google or some search engine or other” – go type in “disability living allowance” in google and restrict it to and count the occurrences (16,900 today, up from 9,900 a year ago). Tell you what, type in “I’m a new parent, what can government do for me?” and see if it works. Search engines are great when you know what you want, but they don’t find what you don’t know nor do they intuit what you might want.

But, actually, “The more there are the more competition there is, the better sites become”. I’d missed that – I hadn’t realised that government entities were supposed to compete against each other. I thought we were in the business of serving the public and making it easy for them to find things. Besides, the more money we spend competing, the better, right? We must spend north of £1/2 billion a year on websites right now – another couple of hundred million widely spread would get us what exactly?

 I’m delighted that so many took the time to respond and I have, in turn, responded largely in the spirit of the posts that were made. My contention is:

– 3,000 sites is too many; the right answer is closer to 1 than 3,000.

5,000,000 pages is too many; too many are out of date; too many are never looked at; the cost of maintaining a page that’s never used is infinite as a ratio against usage.

A central site doesn’t have to do all things for all people, it just has to get most of it right and hand over to specialist sites for things it can’t do – just like the tiers of operation in a call centre, e.g. 80% of calls by first line, 15% by second line, 5% by third line. If the third line sites were specialist ones for specific local scenarios, wouldn’t that make more sense?

Duplicating content tens of thousands of times increases the risk that it’s wrong, increases confusion for the customer and reduces the chance of landing in the right place first time, wasting time (for the customer), money (for government) and bandwidth (for everyone).

There can be only one, but I’d settle for 50 or a 100 to start with. I’d like there to be another round of comments on this, that would be fun.