Developers

Updated on 23rd Feb 2012 to recognise government changes

Frustration is never a good reason to write a blog post, nor a knee-jerk reaction to something that has happened in your day – something that I am sure you will see I have learned during the course of my scribing here (and some seriously random posts in my early blogging years, sorry about that). So please believe me when I say that this is not a rash post, it has been a long time in the making.

It is the age old fannying about all day doing the distracting stuff that demands immediate attention, then lobbing the stuff on the ‘to do’ list to the next person down the line making the most noise about it: I think it is time that someone said: developers are no longer the 5pmers, willing to deliver for a 9am deadline.

The average view of developers and open data (from within government) is that:

1. developers work for free/very little because they are so driven

2. developers will do anything for early access to data

3. developers will do anything for kudos

None of the above statements are true. I can name perhaps two people who may fall into one or two of the above categories, but I know no one who actually fits all three. So let’s start from there.

What developers have been saying for the last decade or so, is that there is a better way. It is:

  • cheaper than outsourced IT and CMS contracts
  • faster and more agile
  • diverse and inclusive

The blockers are:

  • closed public data
  • procurement
  • change

Developers are indeed talented, and worthy of enormous academic respect – such as people reserve for scientists or those people on CSI. And yes, there are some developers who are so excited and driven by their talent that they will more than happily talk for hours, or work for a while – for free – explaining why they love their subject and how they could revolutionise the way the world works. Just as there are those who know how to code and do that as a day job, are brilliant and talented but it is a job and no more, and those who push and grow their talent to become super-developers, world-renowned futurologists and/or billionaires.

There are back end developers, front end developers, php, ruby, c++,  java, perl, (a list of programming languages are here), some are dedicated to open source and open standards, some are quite happy working with bespoke software – most write their own; some use agile programming and scrum mastery, others don’t; some fight the fight – most, to be fair, won’t.

Not only are developers talented, they are also human. I know it may seem facile to point this out, but they have relationships, own homes, or rent; eat food, not just vegetables they have dug up from their gardens – all of this costs them the same as it costs the rest of the world. Taking a girlfriend or boyfriend out for a ‘show off’ supper/date costs a developer as much as it does a politician, doctor or plasterer.

The only difference is that it has taken the world a little while to listen to what they have been saying for many years now:

developers can redesign the way the world works – they can make it cheaper and more sustainable

So developers have been working effectively as jobbing actors, working the poles whilst waiting for the world to realise what they had to offer.

A few have hit the headlines/Hollywood, but let’s face it – not many. For those who were determined not to waste any more of the worlds’ collective cash or resources – much of their spare time has been spent, in recent years, lobbying for open data and standards, fighting for a way to prove that they had the algorithm, the app, the simple interface – a new way of doing things that would not cost lots of noughts, or lives, but would revolutionise the way the world operates its business: government, corporate and social business. (But just because it did not cost lots of noughts cannot dis-count making lots of noughts, and for some developers making money is paramount; in as much as for others it is irrelevant – that’s not the point…)

To discount the revolution in open government data and standards over the last few years would be ridiculous – it has taken a massive amount of work and dedication from an increasingly broad community – but it has not reached a tipping point yet.

For a while, in 2009, there was a brief moment of illumination, in my opinion, where world governments in particular woke up to the reality of what had been glaringly obvious to the militant dev (as well as the jobbing dev, to be fair) and the studious few who were truly looking for future solutions to today’s problems.

Open data meant a new rich seam of renewable resource, upon which not only could there be built scrutiny and accountability in democracy – but also small businesses could grow, entrepreneurs could flourish, investors could be wooed – tech-cities could be born out of dead olympiad space, internally companies could revolutionise process design and service delivery – the whispered word was agile and it all suddenly seemed possible. At a cost to no one, seriously, no one. (Oh except perhaps those who had been exploiting an antiquated system for years, meh).

Until it all went a little bit wrong.

Somewhere, somehow, here in the UK, amongst the rise of the Coalition and loss of the tech manifestos – torn up in the aftermath of a hung Parliament – an ethos has risen based on the fact that developers will solve all the problems that can be resolved through technology – for free, for love.

What do you mean, you can’t?

Let me just be clear: there is a better way, it is not free, but it is massively better! R&D through hack days is a very valuable thing indeed, of course :) (see Rewired State, we are doing some good stuff but we are a very small cog in a very large change machine) but actually delivering what developers have been talking about for the last few year takes time, money and talent.

Developers need to live, and actually the world needs to woo them. To romance a developer you need to be willing to listen and willing to pay where they say it is fundamental to invest – feel free to get a second/third opinion – in fact I suspect they would demand it. But for now, please remember that:

  • developers have accommodation that costs money – not data
  • developers love open data but mainly to show *you* what you are missing
  • developers will help – but don’t take the p***

Disclaimer: I run Rewired State

Young Rewired State – it happened

Young Rewired State is now over. The good news: 16 applications/websites were developed enough for presentation (within a weekend, with roughly 12 real time hours of dedicated work) <- that is pretty impressive. The projects will be uploaded here: http://www.rewiredstate.org/projects (and most are, the apps developed by the 15 to 18 year olds are from ‘how’s my train‘ onwards, no need to separate them on the site yet).

We diverged the Rewired State *thing* into a second event for young people, simply because we were curious, what would a different age group do? This curiosity built into something else when we found, through talking about the concept, that there were a few useful things that could happen:

  1. government wants to bridge the gap with young people, (by ‘government’ I mean both civil service and politicians)
  2. there are some scarily good coders, scientists and statisticians out there – and they are aged 15 – 18
  3. someone needs to boot someone else in order to make the connection

We’re quite good at that.

The event happened – and you can follow #youngrewiredstate on twitter or !yrs on identi.ca to catch the tweets over the weekend (and prob after) or google *young rewired state* for the blog/tech press coverage.

Lessons learned

  1. the society that we live in does not start at 18
  2. we had a grand aim to *get young people to engage each other*, simply meaning give the tools and information and see what happens – in fact, the frustrations addressed the basic frustrations of life that government could solve (*for example* by giving up the data and letting the talented/passionate make it less horrendous to *for example* wait for a bus)

Interesting things and the most important things to note

  • our message is harsh but the reality is that government departments, ministers and civil servants took time (Sunday afternoon) out to come and see what young people were taking their own weekends doing to try to help/make better things
  • this event happened, as in we could afford to do it, because we were sponsored <- and a greater percentage of our sponsors were government (costs were food, travel, accommodation <- for the 15 to 18 yr olds outside London, server, printing)
  • there were three girls (out of 50) this was not for lack of trying, Dan Morris and I spent a painful three weeks on the hunt for more girl geeks aged 15 to 18 (something needs to be looked at there, but…)
  • Directgov are brave – we got funding from Directgov, and they sent a judge: Mike Hoban, and their directgov Innovate man: Brian Hoadley, proving their support and proving that they are listening <- this is good. We dedicated our one donated prize (an X-Box) to a recasting of the Directgov homepage, just to see what young people did with it. The reality was that they had little exposure and we have a raft of free feedback plus a few redesigns (here’s the winning one http://twitpic.com/f09io)
  • the catalyst effect of #youngrewiredstate means that all we do is chuck a rock in the pool; but we do it with friends, colleagues, communities, Ministers and civil servants and see what happens
  • we can inspire, Julia Chander from DFID (who already is doing awesome stuff in the social innovation space but really struggling with data, as in ‘what do you need?’) blogged her first post <- super chuffed about that

We can all see the 15-18 yr olds did what they signed up to do <- so much so that they were up and working, ahead of their mentors, on day #2 and perhaps ahead of the RS and Google people.

Government and the industry signed up also and has to be applauded for stepping wholly up to the plate.

It’s super hard to make these practical connections. Everyone is there for differing reasons, but the same goal: let’s make stuff better (we can worry about the *how* afterwards). A fact that is pondered in the Public Strategy blog.

Update: two blog posts that really round the weekend up for me are: from one of our *rather clever* mentors: Christian Heilmann’s and one of the 15-18 year olds who was involved in the dev: TFHell Jordan Hatch.

Homework

There have been two publications this week that have caught my attention, and I have been a bit surprised by the lack of reaction to them. The first was from the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit, entitled Power in people’s hands: learning from the world’s best public services and the second from the Lords Information Committee on creating connections between people and Parliament.

Power in people’s hands

This is a very interesting report, driven by the fact that there is just not a great deal of money about and a recognition that the way out of any recession is innovation. This is good news for everyone, it means we are going to get creative. Liam Byrne MP writes the foreword and says that ‘in the next decade we need to be radical about power; realistic about money; and relentless on innovation’. The report has shown that there is a worldwide shift of power from the State to the citizen, but what excites me most is that Mr Byrne has picked out freedom of information and data to be the UK’s pièce de résistance : ‘We aim to be world leaders in making information on services accessible’. OK his words are not quite so dramatic, but in Ministerial speak that is quite a statement, the stall he has set out is the information one – and that is a huge win for the UK. We have a wealth of entrepreneurial and geek talent ready and willing to take such information and help create services that work at hyper-local and individual level. (You might just have to trust me on this one).

I suggest you skim read the whole report, but I am just going to cut and paste the bits that jumped out for me below if you need further convincing:

Overall, the importance of public services is likely to grow rather than diminish. For example, sources of increasing wealth creation – such as the emerging low-carbon, life science and pharmaceutical, and digital industries – will create new opportunities. But every person, and the country as a whole, will only have the potential to benefit fully if they have access to excellent schools, training and employment services.

… stepping up the drive to improve value for money by taking hard decisions on priorities as needs change, redesigning services, sharing assets better and cutting bureaucracy.

And for you working in local government and devolved: more exciting news, this does recognise you are the front-liners:

In considering lessons, it is also important to recognise that the public services that are covered in this study are delivered by the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and by local authorities. It will be for these bodies to consider the most appropriate insights. At a time of necessary innovation, however, the best organisations look outward – for practices which can be replicated and to spark new ideas and challenge existing ways of thinking.

Here is the bit that interests me most, Chapter Two expands and I recommend that you read all of it if the following interests you slightly:

Empowering citizens in the information age

A revolution in the use and re-use of information on public services is being stimulated by new online technologies, giving the potential to empower citizens to hold services to account far more easily than in the past. The leading-edge systems, such as StateoftheUSA.org and data.gov, are not only disseminating information rapidly. They are also breaking down government monopolies on information presentation and use by making it easy for people to analyse information themselves. At the same time, blogs, wikis and other web 2.0 tools are enabling citizens to get more deeply involved in validating information and collectively making decisions. In Cologne, for example, participatory budgeting uses new technology to give citizens a stronger voice over how public money is spent.

The shift required for governments to enable such changes is cultural as much as technical. It is no coincidence that American public services have been at the forefront of these changes,  for they already had an understanding that all government information should be in the public domain. Government should, however, do more than just liberate information. The global leaders will be those who invest in ensuring that information is high-quality and balanced, can be shared through common standards and facilitates joint working by professionals and citizens.

Fascinated yet? Whole report here.

So Cabinet Office is saying it needs to get revolutionary on us… and now Parliament, specifically the House of Lords, agrees. For those of you not clear about the role of Parliament and the role of the Cabinet, let me grab some explanations for you: can’t use my own words as I may explain it wrong, so forgive the use of even more quotes.

The Cabinet Office aims to ensure that the Government delivers its priorities. It does this by supporting collective consideration of key issues by Cabinet and its Ministerial Committees, and by working with departments to modernise and co-ordinate government, aiming at excellence in policy making and responsive, high quality public services.

Parliament is an essential part of UK politics. Its main roles are:

  • Examining and challenging the work of the government (scrutiny)
  • Debating and passing all laws (legislation)
  • Enabling the government to raise taxes

*more detail on Parliament here

And so the fact that the House of Lords has come to a similar conclusion about its own work is equally as important.

Creating connections between people and Parliament

The report has been written by the Information Committee which ‘considers the House’s information and communications services’. The report has the tagline: are the Lords listening; and if you read my explanation of the difference between Parliament and Cabinet then perhaps it is important to us that they are. The report is in such an easy to use format that it negates the need for me to pull out the interesting bits. Go and read it here it seriously is a very important report. You could just read Chapters 3 and 4 if like me you are most interested in communication and data, but I don’t recommend it (read it all!).

CHAPTER 3: ONLINE COMMUNICATION AND ENGAGEMENT

CHAPTER 4: SETTING PARLIAMENTARY DATA FREE

And of course, always the best bit, the list of recommendations:

CHAPTER 11: SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS AND ACTIONS

Especially good is this one:

We recommend that information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords (including Bills, Hansard, transcripts of public committee meetings, evidence submitted to committees, committee reports, records of divisions, expenses and the register of Lords’ interests) should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data.

I am not sure that I need to conclude this post other than to say I hope that I have helped you find two very interesting reports! And apologies if I bored you…

UsNow film – opinionV1.2

I watched Ivo Gormley’s film UsNow (again) today at its launch – watch it here. (I posted about this after watching it in Brussels and wanted to revisit my thoughts, as I believe I still hold the same opinions :) (you never know!).).

I have a couple of updated thoughts, but pretty much what I wrote then is what I think now; for your viewing pleasure I have managed to copy and paste the old post below my updated stuff.

New points:

  • unfair Miliband editing (or not) but still as funny/uncomfortable today as it was when I first winced at it
  • it confuses public service and Politics, so much so that I cannot unpick it really; but I suggest you watch the film twice:
  1. with a Politics and politician head on
  2. with a public service/community head on
  • it still scares me: what are we actually inviting here? I would ask that anyone who reads this blog, and watches the film, has a really good *think* about the battle this film seems to wage. Before you take up arms and demand crowdsourced e-democracy, think
  • I agree and want crowdsourced public services, and proper consultation on policies that matter to me; Politics, politicking, catching Ministers out? I would rather leave that to the Press (as pointed out today, politicians are their staple diet) – this does not mean that it does not matter to me or you, but I don’t think I should be the one to monitor them this closely (I have a day job and a life)

As was reiterated today: don’t assume the electorate is thick, don’t assume everyone to be criminals… but, if we seriously want this to be the case, then we too must stop assuming that all Politicians are corrupt. (Hard, I know in the current expenses scandal – whole other post, that I will not be writing (not my bag)).

I know this may not be popular (and actually this is almost a direct copy from someone who commented in the Daily Mail on a post about MP expenses – and the comment was given a *boo* vote of at least -300 :) ) but: I would like to think that the country is run by people who know what they are doing, are paid well to know what they are doing and are given the relative trappings of success that come with being the most fervent in their field. I don’t like paying them; especially when I am absolutely terrified about mine and my children’s next ten years – but I seriously do not want to take on the country’s woes and debt too. I DO want to make my local community better, and I do still want to do stuff for charity (sponsor me here http://bit.ly/EydYT :) sorry) and I want to get involved in the stuff that I am passionate about – when government is debating/consulting on it.

I stand by my twitter update: @hubmum Crowdsourced public service management/delivery yes. Crowdsourced politics: No

Now… the old post, the stuff I wrote when I first watched the film:

Here’s the blurb:

In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?
Us Now is a documentary film project about the power of mass
collaboration, government and the Internet.
Us Now tells the stories of online networks that are challenging the
existing notion of hierarchy. For the first time, it brings together
the fore-most thinkers in the field of participative governance to
describe the future of government.

Now, aside from the fact that he is officially my new geek crush, Ivo has created an extraordinarily powerful and compelling film that leaves you pretty speechless and perhaps a little bit disturbed. Here’s why…

Take it as read that the best are interviewed in the film, Clay Shirky has much to say, as does Paul Miller, whom I rate highly, Tom Steinberg, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Matthew Taylor and so on, really, all the greats (although the decision to interview Ed Miliband over Tom Watson confuses me slightly, but hey ho).

So… we have about an hour’s worth of superb dialogue and compelling argument that leads the audience to a clapping crescendo, nodding and chuckling to themselves about how right they were to believe in this stuff. But… I am left a bit disturbed.

To reduce the whole film to the comparison between the crowdsourced management of the football team: Ebbsfleet United and democratic government would not do it justice; yet it is what sticks, and disturbs.

Without you being able to see the film I know I am being a bit annoying, but let me try to explain. At one point in the film, for a disproportionately long time it has to be said, Ivo follows the success of Ebbsfleet United: a football team managed by its fans; the fans decide who plays, and where… and this ‘citizen-management’ has got them to Wembley (I think, am not a football bird but that seemed to be the gist). There are many clips of over-excited and dedicated fans ‘planning’ the match, deciding who plays where, and when. Great for ticket sales and garments, I presume… also engagement and enthusiasm in a woeful world, granted.

Where this all goes, which is a bit disturbing, is when Ivo transcribes the football playing field onto the Cabinet table, and starts showing us how we could be choosing who sits in what position, where on the table, what part they play. Cabinet Ministers becoming as suggestible/manageable as Ebbsfield United.

Visually compelling stuff indeed. But can you imagine what Sir Alex Ferguson would say? Let alone the rather confused Government of today?
I am not going to get into party politics here, but I absolutely believe that all Ministers sitting in Parliament, whether in power or opposition, are there because they are fundamentally driven to *do* something.

What scares me about Ivo’s film, or just this Ebbsfield bit, is that there is no way I would ever sign up to a society governed by crowdsourced decisions and I am terrified that the digital revolution might, if not managed properly, tip the balance of lively debate into anarchy.

Why?

Because I expect the government voted in democratically by the citizens of this country, to do their job. I don’t want it, I don’t have the time nor the where-with-all to do their job. I don’t want or need the responsibility of running the country, from central to local government, every morning when I wake up. It is enough for me to keep my family going. I *want* to trust the people my country decides are fit to run the country (every four years) to do their job so that I can do mine.

Yes, there will always be dissent, and there will be challenges to the decisions taken by those in power. However, I rely on the Press to keep on the case on this one. I *believe* that if there is a travesty, the Press will pick it up and expose it, I will read about it and believe that if there has truly been an abomination against democracy, that the person/party/people involved will be brought to justice. I do not want to be the person to do that, I want those in the know to do that.

At this point I can feel the groundswell of outrage at my naivety, but I am being a generalist on purpose here… I am really scared abut what *we* are trying to do with our digital enablement of government.

Running a country is a tortuous business, I imagine/assume. It is greater than running a consultancy, a bank, a hedge fund, a football club… all of which we accept requires skill that we do not question. The fact that I belong to a democratic country means that I cannot just sit on my backside and wait to be told what to do, I am allowed to affect the decisions taken, should I care to. The problem is that I don’t always know what these decisions are, where to find them and how to engage/influence.

Surely, the digital revolution is more about a release of shared responsibility for the governing of a country. It is not an abdication of responsibility for those we vote in: please let’s not propose governance that relies on crowdsourcing decision-making on a macro, mesa or micro level. What it is is a new channel for the decision makers (who are busy dealing with enormous stuff, like war for example) to understand what is concerning the citizens of the country, enabling them to address these without relying on expensive ‘citizen insight’.

It also should mean that us citizens will stumble upon apt policies in the making, that we can affect, engage with and potentially influence – because our government is able to understand our concerns and will act accordingly. (Effective consultation.)

That is what I want to achieve by working in this space in the UK government departments. To make sure that those needing to know what we, citizens, think, can do so without too much effort (monitoring of social space); assist engagement where appropriate and be a guiding hand in what is *frankly* a daily explosion of information and data.

Why?

So that they can do their job and we can do ours.

Please mind the gap

After a few weeks of unavoidably engrossing myself in work (and family) I have neglected to blog. This is partly because of busy-ness but also because actually there has not been much to say. I tend to use this blog to showcase what I notice happening around government and the digital space, and for a while it was a struggle to keep up, now however, there is a gentle acceptance, adoption and movement in the direction of the future. The door is no longer being kicked at, it is open; the job now is to help everyone working in departments to mind that gap of knowledge.

What has become glaringly apparent is the widening gap between the use of social tools for big ‘P’ Politics and Politicians, and then public service. This took me by surprise, but explains why I was slightly frustrated by the projects at Rewired State that tended to focus on Politics and Politicians rather than public service data mash-ups that would help us in our lives (I was about to say daily but that might be a reach too far).

My focus is on the public service use of social media within the departments and by civil servants. This tends to cover four areas:

  • policy consultation – big lesson here is that the current digital environment requires earlier engagement (and more dialogue less monologue by the policy units)
  • marketing – obviously the marketing teams are already savvy to the fact that their online audience is collecting in community spaces (and most are supplementing traditional marketing media: TV, radio, print, with targeted online campaigns)
  • Press – press officers were probably the first to be baptised by fire and so now they are running with the crowd and monitoring what is happening in the social media space: following blogs, twitter streams and utilising flickr and YouTube (no comment); my dashboard-creating mates are very busy at the moment. I also think they should be the ones who gatekeep on behalf of the departments where they work, the tweeting/blogging areas of their departments should remain under the watchful eye of the Press Office (Although there is inevitably a cross over here with Political use of social tools)
  • corporate communication: in this I include information that the department/corporate produce for citizens/business/stakeholders/other departments (so transformational government and website rationalisation puts the onus here on Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk) however it is here that the most controversial arguments happen with departmental responsibility to the tax-payer: see the ‘free our data’/’give us RSS’ campaigns and the like (both of which I staunchly support)

That leaves a glaring gap for us working in central government: local government. Centrally this is the remit of the department for communities and local government, but in reality this is a whole different ballgame and the choice to engage using social media would lie with each council. (Not going there right now, that’s a whole other post).

It also has created an interesting conundrum for the strategy units, who are perhaps not used to working in a communication world that changes society/community in quite the same way or at the same speed as the digital revolution has created. More and more I see strategy units re-checking the future, not only because of the economic crisis, but also because of the communication landscape and technical revolution. This is a very exciting place to be.

So… the update is: this is now not something ‘new’, it fits, in a way that Second Life never did; it is an external catalyst for change within departments for comms teams, marketing and press; it is re-energising strategy units and more importantly, or beautifully, it is re-humanising the public service, assisting (IMHO) democracy – not so much for the world of Politics maybe, but in utilising the democratic idealism for making sure our public services work well for us.

It is a good place to be, and although there are battles to be fought and won, creaking changes to be made and mistakes, the doors are firmly open, we just need information gap monitors :) (See what I did there? I created a whole new job title).

Update…

So, the gaps are:

  1. Between Political use of social media and public sector/public service use
  2. Between central and local government
  3. Between the door being open and the knowledge needed to successfully use social tools

Put a big bow on it and say goodbye

Last year during the course of my postings I made a few decisions/explored some random avenues and then disappeared off down other paths, seemingly willy nilly. This year I was determined to tie them all up and then move on.

Here are the three that haunt me:

Right back at the beginning I promised that I was not ‘blogging’ that has been proved untrue, as Dave Briggs pointed out, it was indeed a slippery slope. SO sorry!

I also said that I was going to build a social media toolkit I have since realised that there can be no such thing – it belies the medium and actually the best I could do was a decision tree to decide how online content should best be delivered according to who was needing to read the stuff. Not very clever, but realistic.

Finally, I made a big brouhaha about the online consultation deal because something small turned into something big. It has now turned into something monumental. This is exciting but it also beyond me and my blogging here until the people who are now doing this get to a point where we can help further.

I know that this last one is the most rubbish of me, I yelled for help, got it, then went silent. However, the name of the game is getting stuff done and if the work that I do goes any way towards getting that stuff done, then I have to be happy with that. And for all of you who contribute to discussions here, well… your time is not wasted either as all of it goes into the pot and is used to influence how we move forward.

It is better to be honest about this, so if any of the above piss you off then please accept my apologies. If my role is posting here about stuff that is happening, that then creates energy and conversation, it is not wasted. My role is enabling change and assisting the reality of that change; officials and Ministers do everything else. (That sounds lame, but I don’t mean it in a lame way – feel free to beat me up).

Well, that is the true beginning to my year. I look forward to another one that is going to kick arse in the government online space, not only in the UK but everywhere else too – it is an exciting time.

Directgov franchise building – should anyone care to know

A part of my current job is to rebuild the two areas on Directgov: ‘Crime, Justice and the Law‘ and ‘Government, citizens and rights‘. (This is not the first time I have worked on Directgov franchises, my sticky fingers are all over ‘Money, tax and benefits‘ and ‘Disabled people‘ and ‘Caring for someone‘ – to varying degrees.) Any road, I am getting quite excited about how these two franchises (Directgov speak for a content area on their site) are turning out – it even looks as if they may become three if we listen to what our customer research is telling us loud and clear – and I thought the development of a new franchise, or even franchises, might be something of interest to those who read my blog.

If not, read no further, good day to you!

I am going to assume that few of you reading this understand how Directgov gets its content and how it operates its franchises (for now). Here’s how it works (very basic version you understand):

Some time ago extensive research was done to see where the touch points were with government and the citizens of this country. This offered up the segmentation of content that you see now. Then departments were assigned areas of Directgov, franchises (so called because its modus operandi was similar to a department store) were created, with the appropriate level of funding and resource – in theory, and now (thanks to Sir David Varney and the transformational government agenda) becoming a reality.

So ends the brief history lesson – that is what got us to where we are now, and watch this space because although I am no longer a part of the central team, I do hear what their horizon-scanning work is offering up and it is good, revolutionary… and good.

Right, so where we are right now is in the research and customer insight phase. Late last year we canvassed all areas of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (the two main stakeholders in the franchises), to discover what the departmental drivers were, what information did us citizens NEED to know, regardless of whether we were aware of it. This was run in parallel with a series of focus groups across the UK to assess what people really wanted, what information we could provide that would make life a little bit more easy to navigate (when dealing with the public sector/government).

The outcome of these two pieces of work were then cross-matched for commonality and relevance and a series of topics collated that were then put through a ‘card-sorting’ phase – with real people :) us users of said service.

The results have been developed into wireframes (pretend title pages) to test the information architecture of the site areas – that means the navigation, the route through to content should you choose to click through rather than use the search function.

What we get next is an iteration of the navigation until we have found the architecture that works best. This will be developed into a full information architecture, with titles for each page and then we go about the task of re-purposing or creating the content.

Alongside this we are completing a full content audit of what is currently available, so that we can easily find, de-dupe, re-write (if necessary), everything that is already out there. A laborious task but one that will pay dividends in the end, for the cost to the public purse and to ensuring that there is a single source of information that is maintained, owned and accurate… online – a surprisingly mean feat if you consider how long the www has been going, and how much information government has provided over the years.

Of course some content may have to be written from scratch or re-purposed through interactive tools or flat HTML, whichever suits the need. But the point of both exercises is to streamline the delivery of the franchises on Directgov, and more importantly – provide the right information, in the most helpful way – it has to be said, that this is regardless of whether the message is a popular one or not, it is not our raison d’être to address the popularity or otherwise of what the current government policies are.

Within days we will have developed our planned content architecture and within weeks we will know how much work is involved in delivering this and how soon we can start getting the right stuff in the right place for everyone.

I look forward to sharing this with you.

Important to note

  • the current offering is working as a place-holder for us, so please do not send me useful tips on how to make it better; the point is that we know it needs to be a whole lot better
  • we may seem pedantic, but if you are going to do this well… do it right (and we can do so without it costing the earth)
  • This blog post is written from my own experience only

What can you do? Let me know if you want me to post further on this subject, please :) and in the future, it would be good if you could help us refine our franchise areas on Directgov.

Important to note, I am not delivering this single-handedly. Hereby listed the civil servants working on this with me in departments (not Directgov – too many to list):

Yasmin Diamond

Bill Reay

Phil Ramdeen

Fran White

Dan Berry

Atul Sharda

Jeremy Gould

Blogging sin: forgot to say Andrew Lewin has been integral to this process… damn it… forgive all future sins, I am sure I will add to this list



Cabinet reshuffle – what I understand has happened (from my Twitter and Facebook!)

Simon Dickson‘s twitter feed has been invaluable today:

Simon Dickson's Twitter feed

Simon Dickson

The new department’s url has indeed been registered http://www.ja.net/services/whois/lookup.php?query=decc.gov.uk&output=nice by the lovely Daniel De Cruz. But still nothing there yet.

The detail of the new Cabinet is on the Number Ten website.

A facebook update suggested that perhaps Tom Watson MP, our blogging e-Minister, was being re-shuffled. No official word yet, but Jeremy Gould managed to track down one blogging chap for The Telegraph who mentions him in the last paragraph. It says that he will be working on Government strategy. We don’t think this necessarily means that he is no longer the Minister of all things ‘e’, but who knows.

The new Minister for Technology, Telecoms and Broadcasting: Stephen Carter has an interesting history that seems quite apt in this day of financial chaos. Who knows how this will work out, but it will be worth watching. I wonder if the social tools he uses extend beyond golf now.

I don’t pretend to understand politics or politicians – but I am quite into my comms ;) – so this appointment probably holds the most interest.

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