“Technology at least as good as people have at home”

devicesA quick pointer to an interesting project in central government in the UK.

It’s looking at redefining the technology used by civil servants to get their jobs done.

There are a number of interesting issues around this agenda. The experience people have at home with software – particularly web based applications like Facebook, Amazon and so on – means that the systems they use at work are increasingly clunky and depressing.

As Stefan Czerniawski says in his blog post:

Traditional software is big and complicated, packed with features which most people don’t use most of the time. That has two consequences. The first is that they need training and support to be useful, the second is that it is difficult and expensive to change them. Modern software tends to be lighter, more focused, more flexible and more social. That makes it much easier to match the tool to the job.

It will be good to see what recommendations emerge from this project in the future.

Government Digital Service blog, and e-petitions

The new Government Digital Service, the part of the Cabinet Office tasked with taking forward various elements of the digital agenda in Whitehall (and beyond) has a new blog.

Very nice it is too, and anyone with an interest in online innovation in public services really ought to subscribe. Simon has some background on the blog’s setup.

Simon also refers to the first project coming out of the GDS, with involvement from the Government skunkworks team of under the radar innovators, headed up by Mark O’Neill, is the return of e-petitions to central government.

E-petitions were originally on the Number 10 website, where I used to have an awful lot of fun moderating the damn things during my stint there. Now they are on the DirectGov domain.

Interestingly, the e-petitions system is using a new system, developed in the Ruby on Rails framework, rather than using an existing project like the MySociety system, or indeed WordPress which was used by Kind of Digital’s WP guru Andrew Beeken to build a petitioning system for Lincoln Council.

One issue with the e-petitions system I picked up quickly, as did others was the fact that it now requires the user to select which is the relevant government department to deal with the petition. As Stefan writes:

An eager e-petitioner clicks the button to start the process and finds themselves with a simple form to complete. The first task is to give the petition a title. Pretty straightforward. The second is to identify the ‘Department that looks after your issue’. That’s a poser. There is a drop down list. There is a link to a page which explains which department does what. But the list is of ministerial departments and the help page gives little more than mission statements. Many of the bits of government which people have at least some understanding of don’t appear at all – there is no HMRC, no DVLA, no NHS, no Jobcentre Plus. Might a petition be appropriately directed to the Scotland Office, or should it go to the Scottish Government instead?

It sounds like this is being worked on to fix – but I’d argue this is a major barrier to participation and probably needs to be fixed if e-petitions are to have a significant impact.

I’ve written before about my view of e-petitions – they’re a blunt object and the process questions they raise are far trickier than the technological issues. One of the first petitions to be submitted was by the blogger Guido Fawkes, demanding the return of capital punishment for certain crimes.

As Anthony writes:

What will it tell us, and tell the Parliamentarians who have to then debate the issue?

That lots of people support the death penalty? We know that – most polls (though not all polls, as Guido claims) show that a little over half of people still support the death penalty, though the number has declined over the years.

That a hundred thousand people want hanging back enough to fill in an online form? What does that add to the knowledge that twenty-five million or so want it across the country?

And what if Parliament debates the issue and rejects it by a large margin (as happened in the ’80s and ’90s)? Will signers, and Guido, go away happy that the issue has been given a good airing in the democratic forum of the nation? Or will it just be used as another example of the perfidy of elected politicians in refusing to do what fifteen-hundredths of one percent of the Great British People tell them to do?

In which case, what’s the point?

Government IT costs – the bloggers’ view

Once again, the quality commentary on the latest reports into government IT spending is coming from blogs.

Simon Dickson:

The real story, such as it is, is the Committee’s apparent recognition that the current process – reliant on a small number of large suppliers being given over-spec’ed, over-detailed, over-sized and over-priced projects – is the ‘root cause’ of the problem. And it’s quite nice to see them challenging the Cabinet Office, about whether its initiatives are tackling that root cause, or just the symptoms (paras 10-11).

Paul Clarke:

Can it really be that a single office computer can cost £3,500? Read that again. £3,500.

No. Of course not. And it almost certainly doesn’t.

Charges made for desktop computing in the public sector are invariably composed of an element for the hardware, plus a rather greater element to cover installation, support… in fact quite a bit more. IT managers (disclosure: I used to be one in the public sector) can play quite a few tunes on this figure; using it to cover centralised development work, packages of software and all manner of other “hidden” costs.

Dan Harrison:

According to the BBC’s article on the report issued by the public administration committee, departments sometimes pay up to £3,500 for a single desktop. What this figure includes, who knows? Undoubtedly there are some howlers out there—some costs that need to be called out and reigned in. Big time. But comparing desktop costs both within government and with those that you or I would pay on Amazon is bananas.

Open source gov

Last week, the Cabinet Office published a new action plan for government and open source, to level the playing field when it comes to procuring software.

So we consider that the time is now right to build on our record of fairness and achievement and to take further positive action to ensure that Open Source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT; to ensure that we specify our requirements and publish our data in terms of Open Standards; and that we seek the same degree of flexibility in our commercial relationships with proprietary software suppliers as are inherent in the open source world.

Excellent stuff. There is a Netvibes dashboard set up to help monitor what is being said online, some of which is a little cynical and critical. I tend to prefer to be relentlessly positive.

Anyway, the situation with open source is a little similar to that of social web stuff, in that knowledge about it, and its possibilities, are somewhat limited. We need open source digital mentors!

Alternatively, we just need a wiki.


OpenSourceGov is a simple MediaWiki site which aims to collect together all the information a civil servant might ever want to know about open source and the options it makes available. Hopefully it will soon be able to answer questions like:

  • Which licence should a government open source project be published under>
  • What is the best open source content management system to use for which purpose?
  • Where are the suppliers of open source solutions?

As well as many others.

Please do visit the wiki, and make use of the (currently limited) information on there. Even better, register for an account and add or edit some stuff you know about and share it with everyone else!

Now, this is nice

Steph has posted about the work he has been doing getting the Power of Information Taskforce report online for interested folk to comment on it before it gets published. It’s a lovely piece of work:

It is in fact a new theme, not the usual CommentPress which has been lying dormant for quite a while. As Steph says:

I think this is a small step forward from CommentPress and CoComment in terms of accessibility, Javascript independence and browser compatibility. It’s also marginally less laborious and slightly more purpose-built than the approach Ofcom took to their commentable consultations. And hopefully its muted style is slightly more pleasing to aesthetes than tools like CommentOnThis.

Best of all, the theme has been made available for other people to use – you can grab it from here.

This post is clearly about medium rather than message, so I’ll comment on the report itself some other time 😉