I wrote about Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of e-government (shortly thereafter to become digital government, though Martha referred to it all as “government online services”) in November 2010. The recommendations were not particularly new but they were tightly focused and provided the impetus to set up GDS and give it a power that had previously not been available to either a Cabinet Office technology-led function or, I think, any other cross-government technology-led team.
Handily, the EU have published their “Digital Economy and Society Index 2019“, and there’s a specific report on the UK. Perhaps the last one of these that we will see. The upside of that is that we may be top of the table in the next one that we self-publish, if only because it will be a table of one.
What, then, have we accomplished? I’m afraid it doesn’t make for good reading.
We rank 11th overall in the EU. The authors kindly say that this is “showing a somewhat above average performance.” I take that to mean that given there are 27 member states, we are just above the mid-point. If you were to measure performance by GDP, or by capital invested, or by expectation of position, I’m quite sure that this is a well below average performance.
It gets worse. We are 18th for online service completion and a woeful 27th for pre-filled forms. Put to one side the idea that “forms” are still the vernacular more than 20 years after we started down the online path.
Our best ranking, by far, is “digital public services for businesses” – I may be biased but I would put that down to the original work by HMRC as far back as 2001 followed up by good work by Companies House (which chose to do things their own way but nevertheless did a very good job – far above average one might say). It is perhaps interesting to note that GDS has never paid much attention to business transactions – Verify ignores businesses (in the too hard box), the work with RPA around payments to farmers was abandoned after a disastrous launch etc. And yet there we are in 2nd place.
Estonia I hear you cry.
Would be a good guess. They’re 2nd. Finland is first.
Estonia is let down by open data (where they are 25th); Finland is let down by digital public services for businesses (16th) and open data (19th).
There are some lessons to learn here. Trouble is we just never seem to learn them.
Strictly speaking, this is a little more than 10 years after the 10 year mark. In late 2005, Public Sector Forums asked me to do a review of the first 10 years of e-government; in May 2006, I published that same review on this blog. It’s now time, I think, to look at what has happened in the 10 years (or more) since that piece, reviewing, particularly, digital government as opposed to e-government.
Here’s a quick recap of the original “10 years of e-government” piece, pulling out the key points from each of the posts that made up the full piece:
At the Labour Party conference in 1997, the Prime Minister had announced his plans for ‘simple government’ with a short paragraph in his first conference speech since taking charge of the country:
“We will publish a White Paper in the new year for what we call Simple Government, to cut the bureaucracy of Government and improve its service. We are setting a target that within five years, one quarter of dealings with Government can be done by a member of the public electronically through their television, telephone or computer.”
Some time later he went further:
“I am determined that Government should play its part, so I am bringing forward our target for getting all Government services online, from 2008 to 2005”
It’s easy to pick holes with a strategy (or perhaps the absence of one) that’s resulted in more than 4,000 individual websites, dozens of inconsistent and incompatible services and a level of take-up that, for the most popular services, is perhaps 25% at best.
After all, in a world where most people have 10-12 sites they visit regularly, it’s unlikely even one of those would be a government site – most interactions with government are, at best, annual and so there’s little incentive to store a list of government sites you might visit. As the count of government websites rose inexorably – from 1,600 in mid-2002 to 2,500 a year later and nearly 4,000 by mid-2005 – citizen interest in all but a few moved in the opposite direction.
Over 80% of the cost of any given website was spent on technology – content management tools, web server software, servers themselves – as technology buyers and their business unit partners became easy pickings for salesmen with 2 car families to support. Too often, design meant flashy graphics, complicated pages, too much information on a page and confusing navigation.
Accessibility meant, simply, the site wasn’t.
In short, services were supply-led by the government, not demand-led by the consumer. But where was the demand? Was the demand even there? Should it be up to the citizen to scream for the services they want and, if they did, would they – as Henry Ford claimed before producing the Model T – just want ‘faster horses’, or more of the same they’d always had performed a little quicker?
We have government for government, not government for the citizen. With so many services available, you’d perhaps think that usage should be higher. Early on, the argument was often made (I believe I made it too) that it wasn’t worth going online just to do one service – the overhead was too high – and that we needed to have a full range of services on offer – ones that could be used weekly and monthly as well as annually. That way, people would get used to dealing online with government and we’d have a shot at passing the ‘neighbour test’ (i.e. no service will get truly high usage until people are willing to tell their neighbour that they used, say, ‘that new tax credits service online’ and got their money in 4 days flat, encouraging their friends to do likewise).
A new plan
• Rationalise massively the number of government websites. In a 2002 April Fool email sent widely around government, I announced the e-Envoy’s department had seized control of government’s domain name registry and routed all website URLs to UKonline.gov.uk and was in the process of moving all content to that same site. Many people reading the mail a few days later applauded the initiative. Something similar is needed. The only reason to have a website is if someone else isn’t already doing it. Even if someone isn’t, there’s rarely a need for a new site and a new brand for every new idea.
• Engage forcefully with the private sector. The banks, building societies, pension and insurance companies need to tie their services into those offered by government. Want a pension forecast? Why go to government – what you really want to know is how much will you need to live on when you’re 65 (67?) and how you’ll put that much money away in time. Government can’t and won’t tell you that. Similarly, authentication services need to be provided that can be used across both public and private sectors – speeding the registration process in either direction. With Tesco more trusted than government, why shouldn’t it work this way? The Government Gateway, with over 7 million registered users, has much to offer the private sector – and they, in turn, could accelerate the usage of hardware tokens for authentication (to rid us of the problems of phishing) and so on.
• Open up every service. The folks at my society, public whip and theyworkforyou.com have shown what can be done by a small, dedicated (in the sense of passionate) team. No-one should ever need to visit the absurdly difficult to use Hansard site when it’s much easier through the services these folks have created. Incentives for small third parties to offer services should be created.
• Build services based on what people need to do. We know every year there are some 38 million tax discs issued for cars and that nearly everyone shows up at a post office with a tax disc, insurance form and MOT. For years, people in government have been talking about insurance companies issuing discs – but it still hasn’t happened. Bring together disparate services that have the same basic data requirements – tax credits and child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit etc.
• Increase the use of intermediaries. For the 45% of people who aren’t using the Internet and aren’t likely to any time soon, web-enabled services are so much hocus pocus. There needs to be a drive to take services to where people use them. Andrew Pinder, the former e-Envoy, used to talk about kiosks in pubs. He may have been speaking half in jest, but he probably wasn’t wrong. If that’s where people in a small village in Shropshire are to be found (and with Post Offices diminishing, it’s probably the only place to get access to the locals), that’s where the services need to be available. Government needs to be in the wholesale market if it’s to be efficient – there are far smarter, more fleet of foot retail providers that can deliver the individual transactions.
• Clean up the data. One of the reasons why government is probably afraid to join up services is that they know the data held on any given citizen is wildly out of date or just plain wrong. Joining up services would expose this. When I first took the business plan for the Government Gateway to a minister outside the Cabinet Office, this problem was quickly identified and seen as a huge impediment to progress
With gov.uk’s Verify appearing on the Performance Dashboard for the first time, I was taken all the way back to the early 2000s when we published our own dashboards for the Government Gateway, Direct.gov.uk and our other services. Here’s one from July 2003 – there must have been earlier ones but I don’t have them to hand:
This is the graph that particularly resonated:
With the equivalent from back then being:
After 4 years of effort on the Identity programme (now called Verify), the figures present pretty dismal reading – low usage, low ability to authenticate first time, low number of services using it – but, you know what, the data is right there to see for everyone and it’s plain that no one is going to give up on this so gradually the issues will be sorted, people will authenticate more easily and more services will be added. It’s a very steep hill to climb though.
We started the Gateway with just the Inland Revenue, HM Customs and MAFF (all department names that have long since fallen away)- and adding more was a long and painful process. So I feel for the Verify team – I wouldn’t have approached things the way they are but it’s for each iteration to pick its path. There were, though, plenty of lessons to learn that would have made things easier.
There is, though, a big hill to climb for Verify. Will be interesting to watch.
It’s a long time – ten years – since I first put this slide on a screen:
DWP Conference 30th January 2003
In later iterations, I modified it a little:
Dan Jellinek Transforming Government Conference 13th May 2004
And sometimes I added this slide to try and emphasise the point:
Also Dan Jellinek Conference
And just to make it clear it was about the citizen (the user in today’s words):
13th May 2004
There was also a post, “There Can Be Only One”, in July 2004 showing that the debate about how many sites were needed was still in full flow.
At the same time, I was able to show that thinking in action:
BITS Conference 13th May 2004
I remember only too well how we took the sprawling content on the Department of Health’s then site, http://www.doh.gov.uk and turned it into something with a far greater consistency and user focus on a new site, http://www.dh.gov.uk. So when I read a post on the GDS blog from Alice Ainsworth who was doing it all over again, 9 years on, I knew where her head was at. DH has now moved 4 times in ten years – from the original platform to DotP, to Stellent, to WordPress and now to gov.uk. Let’s hope that there are not as many moves over the next ten.
Ten year, or more, then, to crack the problem of delivering a single, comprehensive site covering all of government – ok, there are some stragglers to come on board in the centre and the job of taking on the agencies and NDPBs is massive and only just starting. But certainly more progress in the last year than in the previous ten. It’s an impressive job, no question.
Shaping the transactions so that they make sense to the user … delivering the green line’s upward slope in my original slide … how long for that now?
The blog post announcing the formal launch of the Government Digital Service closed with this paragraph:
Next year we look forward to a faster pace for delivery. While our roadmap is not finalised, and indeed will never be given the agility to which we aspire, we can look forward to some major releases.
Since reading it I’ve been wrestling with what I think of the approach that GDS is taking. Several times (at least) I’ve decided that I agree with it; several other times I’ve thought it wrong – the issue I’m debating stays the same and, that is, whether it’s wrong or right for government to build a team in-house to design, develop, deliver and operate a system.
The early deliveries from GDS are interesting markers but not definitive about capability – e-petitions was fast and did what it was supposed to (but there was already a perfectly adequate solution in place; replacing it doesn’t seem to have achieved anything new); alpha.gov looked nice and stirred up some interesting debates (accessibility, IE6 and so on) which needed to be had (I’m looking forward to the debate on whether Welsh will be supported and at what cost) but, to the casual viewer, it was just a website (to the techs i spoke to, it was just a custom-built website and many wondered why anyone had bothered to build from scratch again); and the identity programme has been relaunched (early days yet but my fingers are firmly crossed). It’s good and right that if you’re going to try a new approach you don’t take on something big for your first deliver of course.
The thing that I debate is whether, in an environment where the strategy is reuse, commercial products, British SMEs and frameworks like gCloud (plus PSN and others), should part of government be building a team who will deliver a website that will be the view that almost the entire population has of government online?
An argument for doing it this way might be that the single domain game plan is so different from what the market already has that custom building is the only option. That would, indeed, be the argument that I used in 2002 when we built a new platform for direct.gov the first time round. We took a different approach then – we built a team to architect the strategy and then we partnered with commercial companies to design, deliver and support the site. That didn’t mean that I didn’t get called at 3am if there was a problem, but it did mean that I wasn’t the first person to be called (the suppliers own escalation chain made sure I was called when it was necessary). We ended up having to build a substantial service management wrapper around our suppliers though – some cared more than others for customers, some cared more than others about paying away service credits and some didn’t seem to care for one or the other.
Ultimately, we had top designers/architects on the team and a world-class service management team – and our suppliers fielded top class people in the design and architecture space too. But we didn’t have a team coding, building user interfaces, handling style sheets, deploying code on servers, thinking about performanace optimisation, worrying about how much RAM was needed on a server or whether we had enough disk space allocated and so on. We did, for quite a while, have a great team building trial versions of applications that we thought might be useful in the future, but everything that went into production was built and managed by suppliers under contract.
Our contracts were not of the traditional “come up with all the requirements, fix the price and wait for it all to go wrong” variety – we managed our projects in tight phases with agreed deliverables (and agreed assumptions) and we built in flexibility to change direction if an assumption proved wrong or if we needed to trade features coming up to a deadline. In an early 2000s sort of way, that was probably agile or something like it.
GDS, of course, are huge proponents of the Agile process. Having your own team isn’t a pre-requisite of being agile but it probably makes it easier – if you can switch direction and take your team with you without thinking about deliverables in a contract you can probably move faster (of course, if you have to switch direction too often, you probably should spend more time up front thinking about what it is that you want to get done first). Brent Hoberman at Lastminute told me once, whilst he was still running the show there, that he revelled in his ability to walk out onto the floor and have the developers change something – if the sales numbers had dropped, for instance, and he needed to raise the profile of a particular promotion. You can, of course, do the same with a team provided by a supplier – a lot depends on how you structure the contract and how much resource you have available for “pool” work or support work.
What happens, I wonder, when the site is live (I was going to write “done” but I realise that the paragraph I highlighted from the GDS blog suggests that “done” is going to be all too subjective”)? Does GDS scale down its team and maintain a small dev/fix team and keep service management in-house? Does it move the operation to a supplier (transitioning live code developed by one team to another team can be very challenging – especially if the documentation and comments are less than complete)? Does it keep the team large because, actually, it’s true that a site as vast as this can’t ever actually be done and there will always be new features to add, things to tweak or things to replace because they don’t quite work how it was all imagined?
In the 1990s, government started outsourcing its IT. I’d like to think, had I been there at the time, that I would have argued for keeping it in-house and for outsourcing the handling of all of the paper processing (a set of processes with a low rate of change that cried out for being made more efficient – and that could have been made so with better control of the IT). Since then, almost every central government department and something like 40% of local authorities, have moved their IT to an outside supplier. They made that choice for a variety of reasons – some would have looked at their own organisation and decided it was too small to operate at an efficient price, some would have found suppliers able to stay up to date with new technology, others would have looked at what everyone else was doing and copied them, some would have wondered how to build a career structure for a role that increasingly looked like a dead end within their own organisation and so on.
So is the GDS strategy a reversal of 20 years of outsourcing? It is it a one-off aberration that will stand or fall based on the management team in place today? Is it an experiment that could lead to new approaches right across government in certain niche areas? Is it an attempt to do something new and the only way do to that was to build a team and, when it’s not new, the team will eventually disband? Is it a spot of empire-building? I simply don’t know.
The degree of transparency that GDS have opened up about their development process (and the debates therein) is very much to be applauded. No government team has said quite so much about what they are up to as this one, I’m sure.
I’d like, then, to see the same transparency about what the roadmap (incomplete as it may be) looks like – when does alpha move to beta, when does beta move to production (indeed, is beta going to be production itself), when will the service move to a UK host and to which one, what happens to service management? What will the team look like in six months, a year, two years? Sometimes the broadcasts need to step out of the weeds and show us the whole landscape so that we can appreciate the true majesty.
… and raise you a Perfect Storm says Mike Bracken. I do like the continuity of analogy around storms. GDS is certainly operating within a favourable environment with a wide range of factors aligned. Now is the time.
He goes on to say:
as one of our new recruits Mike Beaven, who is running our transformation programme put it more succinctly: “How often do you get the chance to digitise a G7 economy?”
The answer to that depends on whether this effort succeeds, building on the progress made by all previous efforts. If it does, the team may get hired to do the other 6. If not, it might be “How often do you get to balkanise the digitals?”
Is what Alpha.gov.uk (and the soon to be beta.gov.uk) are doing really different? I mean, it’s a website, right? We’ve had a few of those before, more than a few (thousand) in fact. As someone who used to do, in the Office of the e-Envoy, what the Government Digital Service (GDS) team (formerly the alphagov team) are doing, I watch their progress with interest, applauding the successes and wondering about the things still to do, occasionally scratching my head.
I was part of a team a lot like the GDS team. We had a bunch of hugely talented people drawn from inside and outside of government (plus quite a few secondees from major technology companies too); we published a lot of what we were doing; we took on some difficult projects (some right at the very edge of what was going on in industry let alone in government); we worked hard to draw other departments in (we often had to pitch for them to use what we were doing during a competitive tender process; we used open source products; we did work for other departments who commissioned us to build things; we put in place things that, 10 years on, are still in place now and drawing ever greater usage; we built things from scratch, used beta products, and integrated some complex stacks; we even used the first cloud service in government in 2001 when we paid by usage and didn’t own any assets; we worked across government to write and edit content; we dealt with accessibility from day one with the aim of creating the most accessible sites; we tried to lead the way in doing things in a different way; we, too, dealt with the long tail of the vast range of services that government offers; we did things, like MessageLabs anti-virus, that weren’t strictly in our remit but felt like the right thing to do; we lived and breathed our services, taking it personally if there were problems or if customer were not happy.
eDt vision, September 2001
So are GDS all that different? My sense is that they are, and they aren’t. They’re doing what we did, and more, and better. And they have some things to work on – based on current progress, I’m pretty confident that they’ll sort those out too.
The team – there is a greater focus on people already inside government. In 2001 we tried hard to recruit civil servants into the team but often failed to attract many (or, indeed, any). The Cabinet Office wasn’t seen as the place to do what we were trying to do; it wasn’t a delivery department. We had some great civil servants for sure, but not enough to make them the core of the team. The GDS folks, and the Alpha team in particular, have attracted some terrific people into the team, even converting some outsiders into insiders along the way.
The process – this is open government in action. From 2000-2005 we published almost everything we did, but almost always to those inside government. We were amongst the first (and probably actually the first) to make available every detail of the volumes, the service delivered, the product roadmap and so on; the team often spoke at conferences but the audiences were mostly other government people (and the larger suppliers). GDS are publishing pretty much everything they do, including decompositions of decisions made (particularly the ones that have attracted criticism), via blogs, twitter, the press and doubtless other routes.
The roadmap – I get the sense, and I don’t know this for sure, that the alpha team don’t know where they’re heading with each piece of work they start, and I mean that in a good way. When we started work we had to bid for money, build requirements list, test the requirements with customers and deliver what we said we were going to deliver. We wiggled a little as we went but we pretty much got to where we had said we were going to, for better or worse. These guys are working in a much more iterative way, shifting left and right to work around some problems or to add in new capability. The beta will, I hope, evidence that approach even more.
Things still to see
Alpha tied itself closely to politics – the PM and Deputy PM were pictured smiling on the front page. The GDS blog has a banner picture of Francis Maude:
If we’d had any obvious political link there would have been a lot of trouble. Things change, of course, but my view is that these two shouldn’t mix (and I don’t mean the PM and Deputy PM). The public ministerial support is, though, a brilliant thing to have in your pocket.
A single great website is, of course, essential for government (I think my position on that has long since been clear). 27 million people a month visit the existing direct.gov.uk but it has remained largely untouched since I left it in 2004/5 (it’s had a technology refresh and significantly increased functionality, but it still looks and feels largely the same – that is meant as no slight to the team who have worked diligently to upgrade it and keep it fresh, just an observation that it’s still orange and looks much the same). For instance, the screen shot on the left is from 2007, the one on the right from 2011.
But transactions are where it’s at. We built the government gateway to support both single transactions and joined up transactions (that is, ones that would link more than one department and send each of them the relevant data. The vast bulk of those transactions come from sites other than direct.gov; the vast bulk of direct.gov’s transactions are for Car Tax. That all needs to change. We didn’t ever crack it. It needs cracking – integrated transactions, simple pan-device (and even pan-channel) authentication, pre-population of data that government already knows about you and so on.
We built tools and services for all of government to use. Our aim was to massively reduce spend on technology by building something once that could be used by many. It was a great aim then and it’s still a great aim. I don’t yet see where the GDS team are going with this. Folks in government are still building and rebuilding websites – I know of a dozen that have gone live this year alone and that’s only the ones that I know about. As Simon Dickson has argued before, there’s a great case for a lightly centralised service supporting government entities that still need their own site. I say “lightly” because I think there’s a need for two or three competitive offers working from consistent templates with each innovating and improving as well as co-operating and sharing.
We regularly confronted the question of whether to build something ourselves or to use existing products. With the gateway, we used a not-yet-released to market Biztalk which needed around 100,000 lines of custom code to get it to do what we wanted. Microsoft took all that we had done (under licence) and released a new version a year or so later which did all that we needed and left us with only 8 lines of custom code. When looking at the engine for direct.gov (and later dh.gov and several other sites), we looked at Vignette, Stellent and others but went with a custom build – that was a difficult decision and one that proved wrong in the end as the engine was subsequently scrapped and replaced by Stellent. GDS look to be going custom again which is likely to prove interesting perhaps 2 or 3 years from now.
We also confronted the issue of how much to do in-house and how much to outsource. We were lucky to have a great skunkworks team who could rapidly build proofs of concepts, but we went with suppliers for all of our production versions (and we hosted with them too, not having a real cloud supplier at the time – plus we were also tied in knots by the Critical National Infrastructure badge, one that we wore with pride at the time but one that, in hindsight, was plainly an albatross). Keeping everything in-house, managing turnover of staff, staying on top of emerging developments, dealing with 24 hour support, knowing that the only people in the way of criticism is your own team etc is a tough place to be – we were there too, but we had dozens of supplier people working for us too, so at least the load was spread.
In the end, GDS will make their choices on each of these and a million more decisions. I hope that they recognise that, whilst it may all feel new/different/special, some of what they are doing has been done before (not just during the time of the Office of the e-Envoy around but by people in the 25 years before, dating all the way back to the computerisation of major transactions like PAYE). Lots of lessons were learned and lots more will be learned from here on. It would be good if the ones learned again aren’t the same as the ones learned before.
We, too, made decisions that attracted flak from armchair commentators, professionals and the press. Perhaps the largest flak resulted from choosing Microsoft to deliver the gateway (when the previous attempt had failed dismally). Microsoft were the only company willing to step into the fray – others suggested we scale down our ambitions and make use, for instance, of Windows NT and e-mail. That decision proved to be the right one, despite the seemingly endless flak,
Alpha and all that follows it needs to part of a long-term delivery plan, one that shows how the Government’s ICT strategy will be implemented (a document describing that is due out any day now I believe). But it also needs to be part of a wider delivery plan that shows what will happen within and across government where the real world services will be challenged in the same way as the technology ones are being (and have been). Technology can create a veneer of joined up capability but it can’t truly transform the services in and of itself.
I will keep watching with interest because the challenge they’re taking on is the right one to undertake and because I believe in it too. This is a new time in government. Maybe it’s even a new 50 year storm.
Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of direct.gov felt like a signing-off report to me but if it wasn’t, and she stays on, here’s what either Martha or perhaps the new CEO (digital) needs to grapple with:
1) Lubricate interactions with Government
The easy transactions are online already. Take up is mixed. PAYE and VAT are doubtless nearing their maximum potential as a result of Lord Carter’s March 2006 report mandating the move to electronic channels by 2012 for all businesses. Self Assessment is perhaps halfway to the maximum despite the fact that something like 50% of returns are filed by accountants (who you would expect to be ensnared in the Carter recommendations too). Then there’s “tax disc online” which is, I think, one of the few transformational services available – not only did it do away with the visit to the post office but it also joined up DVLA, car insurers and the MOT system so that you needed only one interaction to get your tax disc (I’m still not sure why they haven’t gone the final step and removed the need for a physical tax disc but perhaps that’s all about spot checks by bobbies patrolling the beat). Once you move away from those flagship services, though, I suspect that take up is much, much lower. The reason, in my view, is the high level of friction that government(s) generate.
Completing an online transaction requires too many steps. And the lack of cross-departmental trust means that those steps are repeated for every transaction. This makes for very high friction that discourages people from moving their complete set of interactions with government online. To break through this requires not only a better model for proving identity (The Government Gateway started this and G-Digital looks to be trying to complete the journey although I’m uncertain how) but also a rationalisation / simplification of the data items required by government. Years ago Andrew Stott (I am sure it was he – when he was in DWP rather than in his role as Director of Digital Engagement) told me that there were only 53 items of information needed by UK government to handle everything that was needed. 53 items isn’t a lot, but it is more than I would have thought (once I list out name, address, last address, date of birth, tax number, national insurance number, I start to run out of things that might be needed). But it isn’t hard to imagine a “page” – a secure place that you feel entirely comfortable with – holding that data where you can selectively send it to government departments that request it. Once one department has endorsed the validity of the data you gain credibility with other departments who then start to trust your data more and more. If you are paying money to government rather than receiving perhaps the trust level is higher. Back in 2001 I used to call this the “Green Shield Stamps” authentication model – the more stamps in the book, the higher the trust and the more transactions you were able to carry out. Perhaps the “page” for the data is held by someone you trust – your bank, Tesco, your home insurance company … even Amazon?
Having the transactions available online will not do anything to drive take up until this data friction is overcome. At the same time, government will have to overcome the infrequent interaction problem – many people, me included, touch government only rarely. Personal tax once a year, council tax once a year, passport every 10 years etc. A second aspect of friction to overcome, then, is the infrequent interaction. The longer it is between interactions, the higher the friction to overcome to make the next transaction online – because you have to remember how to navigate the page, remember your userid/password and so on. Those things are second nature for a site you visit regularly – except when they carry out a redesign (after years of being entirely consistent, how flummoxed were we all by Microsoft’s “ribbon interface” for instance? – but if you’re only on a site once per year, you might just reach for the paperwork because overcoming the inbuilt friction is too difficult.
2) Are you in the mobile business or not?
Not long ago there was a lively debate about whether direct.gov should be in the mobile application business (and if it was, for which platforms). Stefan Cz took this debate a step further and asked who, actually, should be building government services (which attracted some thoughtful comments, particularly from Steph Gray).
My own view is that, yes, UK government should be in the mobile business but only a limited number of platforms should receive direct support, perhaps the top 3 by UK market share – with some novel measures introduced to support both the chosen platforms and others. It should also be in the business, as Martha’s report says, of publishing APIs (or schema formats) that allow others to access the data. It’s a big ask for someone to string a set of transactions together in a reliable way – and a bigger ask for that someone to be outside of government (and so dependent on an as yet relatively undeveloped [very] rigorous change control and notification process for changes to such APIs and formats that would need to operate across government, rather than just in a few silos, such as HMRC).
It is, though, time to say what government’s position is in the mobile market. Developer? Interface builder? Content provider? Open source advocate? And then for which platforms? iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Android, Symbian, Palm and Windows? Or some subset assessed through market share? And if only the top 3 as I suggest above, what happens to new entrants or new platforms?
Number 10 appears to be clear – they’re developing and providing content feeds, for the iPhone:
I think cracking the mobile market is going to require some new approaches. Plainly government can provide content and can publish APIs that 3rd parties can support. At the same time, government should develop applications, make them available at no cost, and publish the code for others to make use of. On top of that, perhaps some kind of X-prize type competition should be started that provides cash prizes to those who develop well-reviewed applications. £5,000 for the top reviewed application that solves a given problem – the list of problems needing solutions to be crowd-sourced or identified by government representatives themselves. Those who take existing applications and make them work on other platforms (outside of the top 3) would be eligible for prizes too – this would perhaps help ensure that new platforms could also receive early support.
3) Commentary, Petitions and Forums are difficult – so what to use instead?
Long ago I learned that running forums, consultations and suchlike in government was an awful job. No matter whether we left moderation to the community or ran pre or post-moderation, it didn’t work. We either rapidly deteriorated into Godwin’s Law scenarios or no one showed up to comment. Pareto’s Law neatly applies online although rather than 80% lurking and 20% participating I suspect it’s more like 98%/2% – and the 2% tend to be opinionated and strong-minded inevitably. This week’s announcement that “voters could get to shape laws which go before parliament” struck me, therefore, as an interesting move.
The Downing Street Petitions site, developed by the clever folks at MySociety, has been dormant since April 2010 when it was suspended ahead of the election. Some of the petitions setup had laudable goals although doubtless . Here were the top 8 as at the point of closure with over 3.5 million “votes” between them (those need not, I believe, be unique votes):
With over 12 million people watching the X Factor, 3.5m votes across 8 petitions isn’t perhaps a great result. The responses to some of the more peculiar petitions suggest that there is a large degree of misinformation that is acted on too. For instance:
On the Red Arrows: “This allegation is not true. The Government has not banned the Red Arrows from the London 2012 Olympic Games. The organising committee of London 2012 will decide what to include in the Opening Ceremony and other celebration”
On the Mosque: “With respect to the proposal associated with a site near the Olympic development in Newham, we understand from Newham Council that there is no current planning permission or application for a mosque and Newham Council do not expect a planning application in the near future. “
I wonder how many of the nearly 800,000 people who supported those petitions checked back on the response?
Allowing comments can get difficult too – here’s one from the Number 10 website
And one from the iTunes store reviewing Number 10’s iPhone app:
Personally, I think government is better off leaving these campaigns to existing social networks. Let people who want to campaign organise that campaign on Facebook or wherever else, let them get PR through volume of traffic and interest. Making space available on a government website will guarantee coverage of the more obscure, irreverent and idiotic ideas. Government websites are also exactly where the people aren’t. They’re on social networks – perhaps increasingly just on Facebook, it’s true. So government should look there if it wants ideas on policies (that said, I’ve worked with some of the smartest people I’ve ever known whilst in government, and I haven’t noticed a shortage of ideas for policies – so perhaps one should be careful what one wishes for).
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
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.