On Direct.gov


I’ve been hunting for where the single web portal is in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory and Effects of Good Government (to be found in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy). The frescoes date to the early 1300s and there are a series of 3 panels (in the Sala della Pace, or the Hall of the Nine as it is also known). Why am I hunting in seven hundred year old frescoes for portals? Because there are no good ideas, only good implementations. And, of course, because Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of direct.gov (and perhaps more precisely on the future of the whole of online government in the UK) has been published. The recommendations are not new – indeed I had a small hand in publishing a similar report, then known as “Transformational Government” in early 2004 (tricky to find online now) which was followed by a different “Transformational Government” report in November 2005 (around a year after I had left goverment) which was, in turn, followed by the Varney Report aka “Service Transformation” in December 2006 which recommended, amongst other things:

… moving customer facing content across to two supersites www.Directgov.gov.uk for citizens and www.businesslink.gov.uk for businesses. Both sites involve substantial process re-engineering behind the scenes to produce high quality information in language targeted at the customer, not the producer.

It feels a little like the old saw of “everything that can be invented has been invented” attributed to Charles Duell of the US Patent Office (and, as far as I know, a complete misquote of what he actually said, in 1843, which was “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.”
My views on this topic are well known. I’ve been writing them here for getting on for 10 years (in a few weeks, this blog will be that old), for instance:
From my own blog in October 2002

… we need to decelerate the rate at which we acquire domain names. And, as quickly as possible, slam the engine into reverse and start shedding them, merging several together and generally thinking around how the citizen might want to access data rather than how we might want to organise it. It’s not tagged correctly. Most content is tagged with the basics of the “dublin core” – i.e. who edited it, when etc. But it’s not tagged with anything that we might recognise as being customer focused. Our metadata standards will need to be expanded to pull this off … in fact, we will need to accelerate the rate at which we develop the standard, so that it quickly becomes sufficient to describe client segments and sub-segments, geographic locations, age groups and so on. It’s presented badly. Well, not badly as such. Presented differently every time. Every department has its own look and feel – their own style, navigation, templates and so on. As you move from site to site, you have to look for how to do things; not for what to do. That’s not an easy thing to address.

A move to content management (remember, something you do, not something you buy) is overdue for the big departments – for it is they that have the biggest problems (and, I suspect) the same holds true for most government sites around the world. I don’t see much evidence yet of dynamic content management, although I do see a lot of procurement requests for them coming out. These issues, as far as I can tell, apply pretty much globally – most governments have 100s if not 1000s of websites; few orient their content to “needs” and fewer still do anything more than aggregate lots of links to point to the variety of content.

And then, this slide, the first outing for which I trace to November 2002 at a conference in Northern Ireland


From The Guardian, April 2002, quoting the NAO:

Just 3% of services allow the public to conduct internet transactions, such as providing grants or benefits, even though these offer the most potential for efficiency gains. At present there is no service that allows collection of revenue online.

“The major challenge is to get services online and to encourage and enable people to use them. Otherwise the considerable potential gains in departments’ efficiency will not be delivered and large amounts of public money will have been wasted.”

So, to the report itself … Broadly, I agree with the recommendations – after all I’ve been saying roughly this kind of thing for 10 years so how could I not agree? Well, I don’t agree in toto – and, inevitably, it’s about the implementation. Where is the plan for how these recommendations will be made to happen? Is Martha Lane Fox staying on or is this considered the sign-off point? There is form behind these kind of reports – they’re published and then forgotten when the publisher is no longer around. It’s good though for successive reports to say the same kind of thing – and for them to introduce new twists on the ideas and thinking from previous iterations so that they try and figure out why it hasn’t happened so far and then solve those problems. This report really needs an implementation plan.

The recommendations from the report, along with my comments on each are:

Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
This is hard to disagree with. Indeed, for me to disagree would go against everything I did in government from 2001 to 2004 (and quite a lot since then). But it isn’t the whole story. Direct.gov absolutely should be place where the average citizen goes to find out what they can get from government and how to get it. Likewise, it should include all of the content that the average small business needs (i.e. a business of less than 10 people perhaps). That said, there are specialised areas of content – detailed policy on tax, information on grants for landscape conservation, specifics on how to apply for additional funds to support R&D that are best left to the experts in that area. Sure the content can be provided to direct.gov but it will be much more likely found if it is in the domain of those who own it. The specialists will look where they know where to look. If everything moves, they will be more than a little surprised and the benefits will be reduced because everyone is hunting. Just as, later, the report recommends that data be made available on a publish and subscribe model from direct.gov, the same should apply to direct.gov. It doesn’t have to host everything in other words.
Many will say that the graph above (and many subsequent blog posts) suggest that I believe that there should only be ONE government website. I don’t and never have done. In the same way that I believed strongly in announcing a target to have 100% of government services online, I believe that the stark message of a single aspirational site sets the right tone. If, in OeE days, we had said we want 75% of services online, we might have ended up with 30% (see this post from October 2002 or this one from April 2003 ). If we’d said we want 100 sites, we might have ended up with 1,000
Back in 2001 I used to introduce the 100% target by noting that we had figured out that there would be a few services we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be putting online. One was burial at sea (see this post from February 2006 for instance and the same one from October 2002 I refer to above). I vaguely remember that something like 8 people a year choose to be buried off the shores of the UK. The return on investment for putting that online didn’t seem great – and it might be that had we made it more widely available, more people would have been encouraged to think about it, leading to a booming industry of sea burials (imagine my surprise to read in the FT this weekend that burial at sea is up 10% in Shanghai because of the shortage of burial sites – let’s hope they don’t put that online)
I was surprised to see a suggestion in the report that there might be other choices for the single domain name for accessing government content – hmg.gov.uk is suggested. We looked at a lot of those in 2002. We registered (it seems to be gone now), http://www.gov.uk for instance. But we also tested all of the other possibles you could come up with along with a thousand you wouldn’t. Direct.gov won the day – and, notwithstanding it being a reminder of John Major’s Direct Access Government of 1994, it still does, for me and for millions of others.
The question then, for me, is not really about the content – I think that battle is done with. Direct.gov has, Martha says, 28 million visitors a month (we used to publish the stats every month on the cabinet office website for how many visitors, how many page views, what was searched for and so on – I haven’t seen that data for a while, except in the COI reports which don’t appear too regularly). The question is about transactions. As my graph above shows, the focus on transactions only comes when the focus has shifted away from content proliferation. The bulk of the transactions served by direct.gov, possibly even all of them including car tax, are handled by departmental systems, but front ended by direct.gov with a simple style sheet. This was our plan at the outset anyway; I assume it is still the case. There isn’t any way that direct.gov should provide all transactions – it needs a way to display them and make them easier to find. And, above all else, it needs to find a way to make the Holy Grail of online government happen, joined up government. For some years I have had a blog post in draft that paraphrases Martin Luther King, Jr. and starts “I have a dream that one day this loose confederation of departments which operate inside government will rise up and join up”. I suspect I’m right never to have finished it.
Back in 2001 we looked at what Canada was doing with its “stripe” across every website, we looked at the BBC in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and we looked at every organisation grappling with large scale content management problems. Many were using bespoke tools – we too had been down the path of Vignette, Stellent and others and found them wanting – and just as many were trying with combinations of static and managed tools. Things have moved on since but I don’t think the problem has gone away. Much as I admire what Simon Dickson at Puffbox can do in his wizardly ways with WordPress, actually the entire technology toolset doesn’t yet seem to be mature enough to pull this off.
We are falling foul of each of the 3 great lies of technology (as told by Jean-Louise Gassee) still, (1) it’s compatible, (2) we’ll be in RTM tomorrow, (3) you can do it (out of the box). Direct.gov is, and should remain, the front end for all text interactions with government. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only place you can go. If you want to know information, you should go to direct.gov – or to a place where direct.gov has seeded the content (as the report says). If you want to transact, you should also go to direct.gov, but only because it has amalgamated all of the services that you will need to access and has sorted them in a way that you can easily find them. The joy of transactions is, though, deeply embedded in the very next recommendation.<<

Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services & content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties.
I believe it was John Yard, then Director of IT (in the days before CIOs) at the Inland Revenue, who first coined the “wholesale / retail” model in government terms. There is a little confusion in here in the example that is used in the report, of HMRC. HMRC doesn’t actually open up APIs – you don’t get direct access to its systems (which is how I understand an API to work, as technically incompetent as I am). When I was at the IR in 2000, I worked with many very smart people, drawn from inside the Revenue and across the IT industry, to look at the various schemas that would need to be put in place to allow 3rd parties to submit Self Assessment, PAYE and Corporation Tax online. The IR was the first to do this – we went live with the SA schema somewhere in late 2000, and PAYE was not far behind. The rules for validating the forms were published, although perhaps not all of the rules. All of the Revenue’s forms (not initially, but eventually) were then submitted via the Government Gateway with, hopefully, the right level of authentication (at least one chose entirely the wrong level of authentication and has never recovered from the consequences).

But yes, I agree completely with the idea that every form available from government should be made available at a schema and rules level to the outside world. Sadly, though, that pre-supposes that what we have offline will then be made available offline. I believe that only government can provide the joined up services that need to be made available to truly simplify goverment – because only government can establish the rules that run across and through departments and take the steps to resolve the differences.

We have, though, been at this for very nearly 10 years. The dictums proposed in 2001 that would have allowed online services to catch up and then overtake offline services by now have yet to be applied. As a result, we live in a world designed, for the most part, to be completed on paper – at a trivial level, try applying for a shotgun licence for instance. But what I really mean is that the world of government is still the world of forms: name, address, reference number, details and so on. Few transactions are truly transformational – the shining example is perhaps applying for your tax disc which truly links up different worlds and makes them seamless. I wonder, still, why we have a tax disc at all given that the police can rapidly check whether you do or don’t, but I do marvel at the change in the process.

What the report is asking for, though, is for transactions to be hosted anywhere. Again, the much-maligned Inland Revenue did this first – they put SA on various sites and within various programmes and did the same for PAYE. Few other government services have achieved the same level – despite our plans in 2001/2 to do the same for, amongst other things, pension calculations (so that you could compare public and private options side by side). We imagined, back then, that banks would do the authentication for you – after all, if your bank trusted you and government trusted the bank, then government should trust you. In 2002 that made sense. Perhaps in 2010 it makes a little less sense, but it is still something to go on.

Transactions must be made available in pieces that can be combined in different ways by different sites in ways that paper forms would never be able to manage. Perhaps one for the folks thinking about cloud-based services to resolved – circumstances engines, data owned by the citizen and so on. It’s a big task. It’s also not a self-funding task. There will need to be seed money and there will need to be a recognition that many government systems just aren’t up to this – that the very best that can hoped for is a veneer on top of a decades old IT system that really needs to be replaced, yet can’t be because the risks are just too great for now – especially in funding-constrained times

Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.

Tom Loosemore has already clarified what he says was meant by this. He says that “The *last* thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nots to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office”. That’s good. The direct.gov team should commission the content that they need for their own site; they shouldn’t go anywhere near what HMRC are publishing for accountants on the implications of the latest change in tax policy, or what defra are describing in detail on trends in Environmental Land Stewardship. Tom said it all really so I will leave this one be

Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

Big call. “Absolute authority … across government”. Well, there isn’t anyone with that in any other function right now, not that I know of. I like the idea though, but what would the controls be? A BBC-like trust? A board (oh wait, we tried that with direct.gov)?

This appears to be going the whole centralisation hog, consolidating power in a single individual yet where the true power will lie at the far end, within the departmental organisations. What sanctions would apply if, in a department, you went your own way? What would the true definition of “user experience” be and how would the remit be governed? what would the strict rules around “all government online spending” be – all new spending, all old spending, all capital, all opex? Very, very big topic. And a very interesting one that needs something thinking about.

One thought on “On Direct.gov

  1. Admit it or not there is no perfect government in any nation only good and bad governance. Guess, for now, if you look at how things are going now and how does the government particularly our leader and it's departmental agencies are directing us, it seems like they have been trying their best to reach out for us, they are sorting things out to make it a lot easier for us to do, say for example the filing of form 2290 can now be done online and every agencies can be contacted via net as well. Let's just give them some time perhaps to see about these changes.

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