Government Data Service Launch

The UK Government Data Service was launched in front of a small but auspicious gathering of around 100 people including the GDS staff crowding the doors to the office, at Aviation House, London on 8 December 2011. At 11:05 Mike Bracken, Head of the Government Digital Service, introduced Francis Maude MP, the Cabinet Office Minister. Mr Maude described the long way we had come from the days when providing PDF’s of forms online for signature and posting was classed as e-government. However, he said, we were now in a difficult financial position and government service delivery should be digital where they are capable of being done in such a way, as outlined in the Martha Lane-Fox Digital-by-Default report. He also stated that it will be a difficult decision to turn off conventional services, so the digital ones have to be better and cheaper. There will also be much inertia and resistance to be combatted and It was also necessary to design services from the citizen’s point-of-view, which was being done with Universal Credit.

Ryan Battles then followed on to describe the development of Directgov, from its original launch in 2004 to its current status with a satisfaction level of over 70% and receiving feedback in the form of over 40,000 comments per month, which were also being used by the Beta.gov team to assist in the new site. Tom Loosemore took over to announce that Beta.gov would launch early in 2012 but they wouldn’t be turning off anything yet. It would be small, simpler, cheaper and better than Directgov and covered in ‘calls to action’. They’d accepted that Google was the ‘home page’ of the majority of users i.e. how they got to subsidiary pages on any site. The Beta.gov designer is also working with the Universal Credit team to ensure they both used the ‘global experience language’, i.e. a consistent use of language and presentation of e-services across government.

Neil Williams, a Product Manager, came up to amplify the corporate platform aimed at saying there were five or so Departments involved in the Beta, and these were employing the intuitive new publishing tool to assist devolution of content management. Chris Chant, as Executive Director of Directgov is responsible for the GDS IT, took the platform next and described the rationalisation that had taken place in establishing the new service in a new building. The network was largely wireless, the computers were laptops (the presentations were on a MacBook), people used Google Apps unless security at IL2 was required when they used Office Libre. There was no telephone network, all staff were on mobiles. The only wired network was for communications at IL3. He stated that security had been dealt with last. A saving of 80% was stated. This was ‘Martini IT’ – “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”.

Peter Herlihy next described the e-petitions solution that had been developed in eight weeks from a standing start. There had been 25,000 petitions, 3 million signatures, six of the petitions had passed the 100,000 mark necessary to be raised in Parliament and action was being taken on them. The cost was now less than one pence per transaction per year and would halve in year two. Allon Lister then described the work being done with the Office of Public Guardians where a paper-heavy approach was being replaced by a digital-by-default one. Alice Newton described the development of the Tech City app(lication) that had been created for an area of London with a concentration of new media companies.

Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, described how the building’s origins as a church would hopefully bring the team the divine inspiration needed to do the job. He accepted that the car tax system and some local government are the best but that a combination of new technology would make public service easier and better. Martha Lane-Fox followed Ian by describing the move from a digital entrepreneur to being UK digital champion but with the expectation that the improvement to government digital services would assist the target to increase computer usage for 2012. In fact the team at the GDS have agreed to be out of the office three days per week in 2012 to work with colleagues across the country, such as those at the DWP in Warrington. Martha expressed her view that the Internet is one of the strongest levers for social change, and that it is important that we focus on people – “lives can be changed”.

The room then broke up into three groups for presentations on different aspects. I chose to hear the transition team describe how they captured feedback and used this to improve the way Directgov and Beta.gov were presented. An example was how some people paying for a passport complained that they weren’t sure who cheques were made payable to, this resulted in a change to wording and presentation, and a further change to tabular presentation after later feedback. Similarly interventions were made after comments were found on Twitter by staff, these prompted changes to the pages they had created during the national strike. A major focus had been on making the pages viewable on smartphones when an increasing number were identified as being used to access Directgov, and now 9% of Directgov is viewed on mobile devices (largely iPhone and Android).

Colleagues at the GDS and Cabinet Office are to be congratulated for this massive culture change in a few months. I wait to see it permeate the rest of government (local and central).

PS and there was no mention of avoidable contact (NI14) anywhere

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