In response to Andrew Lewin (this should be a rap battle)

Andrew Lewin has written a superb post about what has happened recently in government 2.0 (I am doing it on purpose now) and the questions this raises with regard to innovation vs transformation. Do go and read it, I just wanted to address a couple of points, (and my comment on his blog became an essay so I deleted it and am writing it here instead!). Here’s the bit I want to talk about:

Maybe it’s time for Transformational Government to come up with its own version 2.0 to take into account how it should be working to promote open source, small inspirational and novel microsites? Behind the scenes it already is – coming up with ways of using the semantic web to deliver services while retaining the core commitment to Directgov, Businesslink and a small number of central websites and forbidding any new ones. But the evidence suggests this core line might be breaking in 2009 and that it needs to have a more fundamental root-and-branch rethink or risk becoming the sort of block to responsive, user-centred design of government services that it was created to promote and achieve.

I believe it already is. When you Google ‘transformational government’, which I have to do every time I am looking for that strategy document as I can never remember the CIO url, or even that it sits on the CIO website (:)), the first link you get is indeed the right one (hooray) and takes you straight to this:

CIOFollow the first link about Open Source, Open Standard and Re-use and  you get this, with a link to the PDF for the detail (wince) and a natty netvibes page for following the conversation. OK so this is not about website rationalisation, which is the bit in the Transformational Government policy to which I think you refer, but it is definitely a 2.0 thing, no?

To my mind, most people think that transformational government is just website rationalisation: it’s not, it’s just that that bit has had quite a bit of Press. Here is an explanation of all the areas covered by the TG agenda.

Yes there is the bit about reducing lots of websites and utilising Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk, but there is also the following:

  • empowering individuals to influence their services, with greater opportunities and direct involvement to influence the way they are designed and delivered

I say that this, alongside the opensource, open data commitment is the backbone to what you are proposing happens: without it being done in a brand new announcement that includes the words 2.0 :) Of course, this could be interpreted many different ways, but I would like to think that everything that has happened, has actually ALL been a part of transformational government: it is far bigger than website rationalisation (that did need to happen).

Steph Gray points out on Andrew’s blog that perhaps the measurement of website convergence success should not be urls, enabling WordPress sites to be thrown up wherever and whenever. I am not sure… I don’t know that rapid response to customer need, and engaging with people where they are already conversing necessitates MORE websites. The one site being pointed to is the much heralded Real Help Now: I think that this should have been done in Directgov, all it does in any case for the actual advice bit is deep link to Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk information; it should have been a Directgov campaign and I see no reason for it to have been otherwise under the TG rules. I don’t buy the argument that DG cannot do it because of tech, it can do maps and it can deep link… I think that in this case it was a Political decision.

Going back to the report by David Varney: Service transformation, a better service for citizens and business, a better deal for the tax payer (flipping difficult to find, but readily available as a PDF, prob because it is sold by TSO for £18!) upon which the TG strategy is based: it does look dated now.

Update: and would you take a look at this?! http://blog.helpfultechnology.com/2009/02/consultationxml-goes-open-source/ Now that’s exciting… and great

7 responses

  1. Hi Emma! Glad you expanded on your enigmatic comments about agreeing with the original blog post … except in parts! ;)

    You’re right that Transformational Government is more than just about website rationalisation; and indeed, the online part is only a small part of the Transformational Government strategy overall. It’s just that website rationalisation (and hence Directgov, Businesslink and the remaining “supersites”) are the parts that affect my day-to-day work and which seem to be most directly clashing with the increasing spirit of online innovation through the use of cheap and/or open source tools.

    (Quick diversion on open source: it’s my own failing, but I genuinely struggle to see the new open source standard as 2.0 – because it’s the position we’ve taken at COI for years. We were trying to persuade government departments to consider it back in 2001/2 but IT managers simply wouldn’t go with it. So it’s great that we now have this standard to use to try and persuade them, but I have to say that early signs suggest that many IT managers are still as anti-open source now as they were when I started.)

    My problem is that I do genuinely support both Transformational Government and the sort of innovation that we’ve been seeing take root in the last year. I don’t like it when they clash, when one seems to be obstructing the other. It gives me that same sense as when you see your two best friends having a fight and you just want to pull them apart and yell “Can’t we all just get along?” because we’re all after the same thing: finding new ways of delivering services to the citizen in a quick and cost-effective way.

    Transformational Government is seeking to do exactly this by cutting down the number of websites to reduce cost, duplication and confusion (I agree with you on the “more websites” front, BTW) and allow people to set up services which are then shared by pioneering initiatives involving the semantic web and RDFa to free up data. But this all means agreeing and adhering to standards, and takes planning and co-ordination and liaising across multiple government departments – something the bureaucracy finds hard to do at any speed.

    “Innovation” on the other hand (as evidenced by the WordPress sites, Directgov Innovate and the Real Help Now site) seems to be the online spirit of “Let’s Put On A Show!” fast and quick and try out new things without having to carefully tread between all those shared services and standards and different departments. It’s the anarchic version of Transformational Government, in other words.

    I love them both. I fully support Transformational Governments aims and hopes, but can also get frustrated and just want to “get out there and do it” and try new things without having to find out whether or not we’re allowed to set up X website.

    I wish they worked together better – and I think they could. And that’s what was at the heart of my writing the original post.

  2. Yes! I agree with you… and sorry… that was the length of my comment on your post, we are playing post tennis :)

    Point taken on Open Source, completely right.

    We have both been working in this space and I really do share your pain. I also do realise that there is great issue with the agility of the supersites (I can hear the collective groan from DG and businesslink.gov.uk from here), but it’s true. The Directgov Innovate site should enable it to happen, and should be allowed the space to breathe and find its feet.

    The logical step forward, as I see it, is for departments and policy areas to look at the space cleared by website rationalisation, and realise what a boon they have been given. With all basic, tier one information for citizens and business sitting on DG and BL, with the entry points for the tools and services limited to either site (but delivery of the service remaining within the department) – there is this beautiful space, where policy teams and departments have a true opportunity to work out when they need to engage in monologue, and when to embrace the opportunity for dialogue. (Let’s forget the barriers and risk averse whilst we talk through this theory!).

    When it is dialogue, I believe that it is absolutely right that this falls outside of the website convergence agenda: this is where all channels need to be considered, including engaging in the spaces where the target audience is already engaging/talking (online only for the purpose of this discussion); creating innovative ways to consult: usually crying out for social media tools, and this is where we should see a great leap in take up of web 2.0 stuff.

    Actually, consultation is the only space where I really think this is viable, and should not be bound by the transformational government requirements for url requests to be approved by a ministerial committee.

    Campaigns should be on DG or BL, (or the other agreed channels).

    As to the counting of urls as proof that website convergence has/is happening: well, I can see no other way to measure it really, and it works in a fashion. Other measurements of success or otherwise of a website, could be too subjective and pretty impossible to manage. (Perhaps the Press releases around the number of urls being closed could be toned down/stopped; as really – as you say – this is a pretty ‘last century’ way of showing off!)

    I love the idea of semantic web being used to surface the mind-blowing amount of info; it could work. And it is no secret that I am passionate about the fact that data needs to be offered up for people to do things with that might be useful to them. Of COURSE there needs to be severe governance around this: government’s use of data has always and will always be a controversial subject. Let’s see what happens at Rewired State. (Giant plug :))

    Looking forward to your next post on urls :)

    Blud

  3. @Andrew: quite right, but I’m not sure the two sides picture is really representative. There’s plenty of TG-compliant innovation happening too (like http://www.direct.gov.uk/maturestudents working with The Student Room, New Opportunities, Ask The PM etc). I wouldn’t – for now – cast Real Help Now as a site trying to be signficantly innovative (frankly it’s an outlier in this discussion).

    In general, there are practical problems if new sites spring up with indefinite lifespans, poor user journeys, unclear objectives and haphazard infrastructure or standards compliance. The issue is that with the admirably efficient focus on managing URLs, we’re at risk of expending our collective effort and a lot of money on simply migrating content into a structure which simply isn’t fit for purpose.

    Ultimately, we all want to see better, more creative and more efficient use of digital to engage. I think squaring this circle requires us, collectively, to:

    - make our core digital platforms better at supporting innovation: our CMS and hosting infrastructure need to be more flexible, and our roster suppliers in digital, PR and other areas need to be more creative.

    - develop strategies for engagement, not simply apply rules: starting from audiences, objectives and measures, ask ‘where should we engage online?’ The corporate site, DG, a user-led community, a social network, etc – and how should these work together? We’ve seen the trouble with attempting to throttle domain registrations, or mandate what strong departments should do from the centre. Let’s demonstrate what can be achieved with focus on the content, rather than the platform. And let’s ask for decent measures of effectiveness, rather than merely compliance.

    - show people a better way: in ministerial departments, there’s a palpable sense of enthusiasm, momentum and impatience right now for this work. To be frank – and speaking only on my personal account – I think this needs more action, expertise and engagement from COI. We won’t see semantic standards, open source, collaboration, continuity, accessibility, finadbility or usability embedded without friendly, helpful, practical engagement with the government community by the advocates of these programmes. That’s happening really well in some areas, but not all. When departments are ready to implement, we need skilled help to make it happen and ensure learnings from others parts of government are applied.

    And that’s the crux of it. Innovation isn’t a new site launch, or even a new technique. It’s the learning we acquire as a community from sharing in the successes and failures of others. TG is absolutely the right vision, but it’s good innovation that will get us there.

  4. What he said.

    Glad you mentioned the procurement in passing. But yes, standing ovation Le Steph. I know that strategies are being developed, some even with the two of us involved, so let’s see. And share :)

  5. …and meanwhile, what says the TG crowd over at Cabinet Office? You’ve got to wonder why they aren’t at least attempting to clarify their stance on the issue being debated here.

  6. Perhaps a totally dumb idea, but why not set up some kind of beta.gov.uk that allowed people to experiment with crazier ideas while still sitting under a single domain? If done properly, there needn’t be huge limits on platforms, coding or anything else, and stuff could be migrated to Direct.gov or the other supersites in managed fashion once it had proven itself.

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