Government Data Service Launch

December 8, 2011

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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What? More PASC

April 1, 2011

The concluding hearing from the UK PASC on 29th March 2011 heard evidence from the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer, Efficiency and Reform Group, Cabinet Office. The hearing lasted over 90 minutes and Ian Watmore pulled no punches about his previous employers, the Labour administration. His parting words from that job have already been reported here, along with other evidence given by Socitm and those behind the recent Institute for Government report ‘System Error’.

Unlike the Socitm evidence, the video is complete. In fact it starts with a minute or two of everyone entering the room and even the call of ‘order, order’! It is also occurring on the day of the official publication of the long-awaited Government ICT Strategy, so is appropriate and a certain amount of the evidence reflects that publication.  Initially Francis Maude expands a few vocabularies by describing the 25-page report as having a ‘lapidary’ style of writing, meaning that it is so short and sweet it could be carved in stone! Mr Maude also emphasises early on that whilst ICT is an enabler, the necessary cultural change requires a change in behaviours, and that is what is needed in government. The evidence also promotes the need for delivery to be considered when policy is formulated, since the claimed ICT failures were less a problem with the technology than failures project management and in the delivery of overly complex policies.

One concerning statement is that according to the Minister there is a project on identity assurance underway. Since considerable money has been and is being spent on the Government Gateway, which is rather unpopular but lives within the DWP, I suggest that since a number of large government departments employ it, along with a few local authorities, some thought is given to that, prior to pulling the Gateway’s plug.


Improved thinking

March 8, 2011

The new report from the Institute for Government entitled System error: fixing the flaws in government IT is a welcome approach to a long known issue, that of government IT project management. What is also welcome is that the report points to Canada and Australia, rather than the USA for best practice. I’ve frequently promoted the Canadian model on this blog, along with the occasional Australian example, but for far too long we have been taking our guide from the USA, the Canadian model has also had the benefit of being formed in an ‘age of austerity’.

Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer at the Cabinet Officer is one of those involved in this production, along with former Government CIO John Suffolk. Ian was reported by Computer Weekly welcoming the report at the launch event.

The word that reverberates through the report is ‘agile’, but also we are finally being expected to consult the user. The nature of agile is that it encourages ‘commoditisation’ of applications, and if the government were to follow the suggested Australian route of ‘opt-out’, there is more chance of not re-inventing wheels.

There appears to be a lot of buy-in across central government to the report, so perhaps we should wait and see what happens. However, I gather the ‘skunkworks‘ is in operation, so the fruits of their labours may soon be evident!


Where’s Watmore?

July 6, 2010

When the announcement came that Ian Watmore was returning to the Cabinet Office as Chief Operating Officer of the Efficiency & Reform Group it was interesting to look back at his last words. He’s only been gone a year so things won’t have changed much, apart from the Ministers, that is!

Intriguingly, Philip Virgo, considering the same matter in his Computer Weekly blog, announcing it as  “The return of the Jedi“, whilst he gets heavy and  considers it in the context of  Gibbons’ Decline of the Roman Empire. Philip then wonders whether Ian’s return brings us back to the ‘transformational government’ era or will we actually get the ‘new localism’ being promised.

I hope that  having John Suffolk and Ian Watmore back together may bring about an era of ICT-enabled change rather than the heavy-handed slash and burn expected, although some big savings will still need to happen. John Suffolk’s blog has remained remarkably silent since before the election (16 April 2010), I wonder what he’s thinking?

In any case, Ian’s move shows things must have been bad at the FA. But in my view, definitely a case of “out of the frying pan into the fire.”


Watmore’s wisdom

June 21, 2009

Reading Computer Weekly informed me there might be something tasty in the evidence given by Ian Watmore, former government CIO and more recently of the DIUS but shortly to be Chief Executive of the Football Association. I couldn’t find a transcript by my own efforts but got a link from Rage on Omnipotent!

The uncorrected transcript of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee of 20 May 2009 includes such gems from Mr Watmore as:

“people from the private sector – myself included – are always surprised at how difficult the business problems are that we are trying to solve.” Q10

“one of the challenges that we have always had is that people sit too often in Whitehall and do not get out to the front line enough and do not see the consequences of things that look good on a bit of paper in Whitehall but are not actually translating properly in the front line.” Q11

“I think there is a genuine problem of too many initiatives.” Q16

What a guy!

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