After the watershed – five reasons why nothing can be the same since the launch of Gov.uk/government

GOV.UK 100 days signed sign by @psd http://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/7649345008/in/pool-1873292@N24/

GOV.UK 100 days signed sign by @psd

On February 28th the hangar door of Aviation House opened and gov.UK/government took it’s maiden flight. It might not be up there with what happened at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but this will go down as a decisive event in the way government publishes and engages – digitally or otherwise.

Inside government is the second part of the GovUK beta to go live and although in the history books it will all rightly be discussed as one and same, for me at this stage in the development /government is the most radical and exciting part.

Your best guide to the project and the site is Neil Williams, the gov.uk/government product manager. But before I lose you to him, you might spare me just a couple of minutes to share an unofficial insider’s view (someone who has worked with, for and now in digital teams in the government; a hard-boiled sceptic, now convinced through first-hand experience of the gov.UK project)

So here are five reasons why I think the release of the Inside government beta is a watershed moment:

1. A site without precedent
The first  bit of Gov.uk to be released [on February 29th] provides service information and transactions. It does it superbly well and in genuinely innovative ways but it is built on the foundations of on an existing product –  Directgov.

/government, on the other hand, has no precedent on the HMG digital estate. Or looking at it another way, /government has hundreds of competing precedents in the corporate websites of central departments and agencies. Bringing these long-standing domains together on one platform for the first time – even in this limited beta – is a minor miracle.

Martha Lane Fox and Francis Maude wanted a ‘revolution, not evolution‘, semantics perhaps but what they wanted to be able to do is point to an instant when everything changed and would never go back to the way it was (with the ultimate aim to make massive cost savings while delivering a vastly optimised user experience).

I think that with /government GDS has demonstrated what was previously thought impossible and delivered not just one but four revolutions (or evolutionary steps), which are…

2. In-house build
In recent memory, nothing this big and webby has been built in government offices by government employees. Government digital teams have rarely if ever comprised so many disciplines or been as technical or as creative (in the strictest professional senses) as that behind the /government beta.

We tried to staff the exercise with as many owned, borrowed our stolen civil servants as we could, only stepping out to the private sector with very specific, time-bound requirements. We did it. We managed a build to time, to budget and to expectation on largely our own steam. And we’ve been able to develop and keep the experience in the Civil Service network to be reused.

As I’ve said, we did bring in outside help, in the form of the brilliant Go Freerange (who were teachers as well as team members). But the production was delivered collaboratively rather than in the traditional approach of running a tender for an agency to ‘work in partnership’ with but then paying them to go away build something and come back with a finished product 3 months later that hopefully meets our expectations bang on but most likely falls short.

You’d have to ask them, but I think the supplier in this case enjoyed working alongside their client, they knew what they were being asked to deliver, took pride in that contribution, and then handed over knowing that the product would be nurtured and developed further by the client and other parties.

3. Additive manufacturing of a CMS
Everything GDS produces is driven by user need, framed by Agile principles and built using dynamic development methods. That in itself is not so terribly remarkable.

But developing  in this manner enabled us to produce publishing software based only on the minimum of what is commonly needed across all the participating departments. The result of this additive rather than reductive process was a customised, lean and very cheap ‘content management system’ that is easy to understand and add to.

Previously, for a site of this nature we would have licensed generic proprietary software and then tried to retrofit it to our purposes with the obvious inefficiencies.

4. Collaborative editorial processes
With Inside government departments are sharing the same corporate digital space and working from the same style guides and editorial model for the first time. For the first time they are being asked to think not just as discrete publishers but as a cooperative. They are forcing themselves to think about what they are uploading with the others in mind, they have to think about the relevance and associations with the others.

There has always been this thinking in principle but this project forces it as a practice. So rather than say the same thing six times, we might collaborate on it and say it once with six times the impact.

5. Testing and developing in public
In the past a site like this would be launched into the public domain as a ‘polished’ product with hype and plenty ta-daa. But Gov.uk/government is different; it has been launched in beta (sections of it are arguably even in alpha). This is not the product, it is the prototype and it is being opened up at this stage to get feedback, criticism and ideas about the proposition and the product from the very people we hope will come to be its regular user base.

So before we bring it in for review and a service on April 11th, have a look, a click around, a read and a think. The feedback routes are open and we are eagerly waiting to hear and discuss ideas, bugs, praise and complaints.

The five factors might be quite subtle but they are nonetheless substantial. When Inside government launches for real, it will have evolved beyond recognition but regardless of what it looks like, how it functions or what content it holds, the way in which government develops its digital products will never be the same again because of the influence of this beta.

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