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 team to assist in the new site. Tom Loosemore took over to announce that 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 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 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


Let’s start a petition!

November 23, 2010

According to The Guardian 22 November 2010, the e-petition feature that adorned the No 10 website prior to the election is unlikely to return. The feature, which became quite attractive to many trying to influence government was withdrawn during the election ‘purdah’, and then apparently stayed down as part of the DirectGov review by Martha Lane-Fox and so does not appear so popular with parliamentarians!

Whilst local government is still preparing for its petitions and e-petitions parade, which parliament commanded, it would appear that what is suitable for one is bunch of politicians is not for their Whitehall relations? Does anyone feel up to starting a petition about it?

Having said that, the above-mentioned report that Martha Lane-Fox delivered to Francis Maude on the 14th October was finally officially released today (23rd November 2010) as an eleven page letter entitled “DirectGov 2010 and beyond: Revolution not Evolution“. Following on the tradition of its predecessors in government the consultation was with “more than 50 leaders from business and the public sector”. Ms Lane-Fox also had discussions with a suitably brainy bunch from business and academia. So citizens were not worthy of consultation! I would ask how one can demand a service culture from government, when in terms of consultation one doesn’t do that oneself? Everything in Ms Lane-Fox’s world would seem to emulate the world of e-business before the great crash-and-burn.

I would have no arguments with the rationalisation and de-duplication, but it is rather stating the obvious, however ultimately what is needed with her concept of syndicated content is a little more than a kite mark to ensure the citizen has in their grasp the most up-to-date and official government content. There is a great deal of archived material on the Internet and getting to the correct version in a syndicated world is difficult, as any researcher will tell you.

Ultimately there is no mention of local government, which someone should remind her has the majority of dealing with citizens, so what is in store for us is entirely guesswork. With the 700+ services my advice is to ensure we have standards to enable links from any Local DirectGov find the correct information and start preparing now.  This means meaningful metadata, using the Local Government Service List, IPSV and all those other lists so arduously developed in the last 12 years.

Local e-government

October 17, 2010

Thanks to a posting on e Gov monitor I became aware of a conference to be held in Ghent and Brussels in Belgium on the 14th through 16th December 2010. One of the highlights will be the opening presentation by Vivek Kundra the US CIO, and the two of the break-outs on day three are chaired by Tom Steinberg and Martha Lane-Fox. The schedule can be viewed on the conference web site.

One of the interesting matters raised in the preview of a presentation on the e Gov Monitor site is the outcomes of research conducted by University College, Ghent around Flemish local administration. What it highlights is the tendency for each local administrative unit to develop its own ICT solution with no overall coordination, which is my experience in England over much of the last ten years.

Despite the numerous acknowledged benefits that are possible with e-government, the research identifies the major threats which include the ‘splendid isolation’ that departments operate within, with “no data, no-how or processes” being shared. This results in applications being developed in isolation and untransferrable to other departments. In addition, there is no evaluation of processes prior to automation. Further, the culture around sharing or working together is absent, similarly the bird’s-eye view of the entire organization is lacking, which affects the policy or strategy developed.

It looks like the blame for the outcomes of the research will be laid firmly at the door of senior management, who should have provided greater control and directed partnership working.

Now, where have I heard that before?

The technicist manifesto

July 15, 2010

The 12 July 2010, with a bit of a fanfare at 10 Downing Street, saw the launch of  ‘Manifesto for a Networked Nation’, the current output of Martha Lane-Fox’s Race Online 2012.

Initial thoughts are that although the pdf is only 2Mb, the maps on its central pages may make many a printer unhappy, as may the variety of colours and sizes of fonts affect anybody lacking a taste for concrete poetry. I’m also concerned that a document claiming support for accessibility and inclusivity (sections 9.1 and 9.2) dares use such a mix colour and seriffed fonts as to be almost psychedelic. On top of the visual abuse, I could also challenge some of the English language abuse within the text, but I’m off to a bad start already…

OK, my sympathies are with the intent of the report and getting more people online. However, whilst getting them to use government services online may save government some money and buying  goods may save the user some money, along with demonstrating the skills they’ve developed, what are the benefits?

The Internet has massive benefits as a medium of communications, I rarely get a pen out and write a letter these day, when a quick email suffices. Information (of all sorts, including the bad, sad and dangerous to know) is at my fingertips. However, I would anticipate that it’s still may not be everybody’s garden of earthly delight and some will always need a mediated guide through some of its hazards. The dangers of phishing, viruses and incorrect information are probably far too advanced for many potential users, as can be seen by the numbers caught out in the assorted scams that plague netizens.

I would also question at a time of cuts, redundancies and uncertainty how MLF expects local authorities, charities and others to now launch out and support a government initiative when they are struggling with maintaining services? OK, we believe from Socitm research that 80% of councils restrict their employees’ access to the Internet but someone needs to convince them this is not risking the other pieces of government guidance such as child protection and access to the government secure intranet (the document has frequent mentions of the DWP – home of Government Connect!)

Now for another moan. In large print the report on page 14 states, talking about the Internet, that “it was an Oxford graduate who created this significant invention”. I presume this refers to Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the World Wide Web, whilst I was always under the impression that we could blame the Internet on Vint Cerf, a graduate of Stanford. I wonder if the information was sourced upon some of the dodgy data on the Internet?

To broaden the thinking and possibly add some robustness to the debate, I’d like to present a couple of quotations –

In an interview Oscar A. Ornati, Professor of Manpower Management at New York University (quoted in Deming 1986, p.198) states that:

“We have forgotten that the function of government is more equity oriented than efficiency oriented. The notion that we must be “efficient” in the same way in both sectors is fallacious. For government, efficiency must be subsumed to equity. If we do not keep equity in the forefront of the public sector, we will destroy our society. It is unfortunate that we tend to lavish so much praise on management specialists who laud the techniques of private sector management in the public sector.”

Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the Crisis, M.I.T. Press.

 In a joint Parliamentary and industry report, EURIM (2008, p.2) confirms this:

“It is too crude an approach to seek savings simply by replacing face-to-face services with Internet access to services that might engage more time-poor citizens. Many of those in most need (at least 20% of the overall population and a majority of the elderly) are physically unable to use a conventional screen and keyboard, even if they wished to.”

EURIM (2008) “How to Achieve Citizen-Centric Service Delivery: Let the People Speak.” EURIM Transformational Government Dialogues 8,

E-government and the volcano

April 25, 2010

Where was/is e-government during the current/recent travel crisis? Having been stranded in Tarragona, south of Barcelona, amongst a group of foreign nationals wanting to get home or elsewhere after a conference, I thought I should asked the question, what, if anything could or should e-government have done?

From my view, the first target on the hotel or university Internet connections were the airlines, then the home language newspapers, then the alternative transport modes, such as buses and trains. I don’t recall anyone looking at a government page or being directed to one. In Spain the confusion was compounded by lack of information on the French rail strike.

Whilst the  newspapers made claims about warships being sent and consular assistance at every airport, we saw none of this. First, one was advised to stay away from the airports and secondly, how was the true message supposed to dissipate through the bands of people divided between the practicalities of needing additional accommodation and finding alternative transport?

If Martha Lane Fox, founder of, is such a leading light for the UK government, couldn’t someone have scraped together the intrinsic information from IATA, ABTA and the rest and presented something? The newflashes were full of people developing applications for car-sharing across Europe, but part of the issue for travellers to and from the UK became getting across the Channel.

Much of the information available online or through the BBC World Service appeared inconsistent and focused upon travellers sleeping at airports, whilst what the travellers themselves need to know were alternative routes and whether they should take them. After failing to get a satisfactory solution from EasyJet we resorted to booking the earliest combination of trains and buses we could get onto, all done from an Asus EEE over very slow hotel wi-fi at midnight.

If incidents of this type are to become more frequent, as a result of natural occurences, terrorist action or civil disturbances, shouldn’t we prepare? The Internet was created for military purposes, the WWW for unifying scientific research, can we now use Gov 2.0 for joining up information sources? Perhaps it might be the making of e-government? Was it any better for other nationals? This, of course, is a UK opinion, although I did initially relate to my conference colleagues from across the globe!

I’m not forgetting those without access and one of the noticeable factors in the episode was how well verbal messages got around at bus and train stations and even the airports we weren’t supposed to gather at. I also noticed the prolific use made of the only available very dodgy-looking Internet cafes.