DONE

At the end of July, I will be deployed from the Government Digital Service. Like much of the government digital estate that has come through GDS, I am being shipped as a much improved product.

Formula for leaving

I’m leaving, I had a great time working here, I am proud of what I achieved, the team are wonderful, but it’s time to go in search of new challenges.

This post doesn’t stray far from that leaving post formula, so maybe you are done here. Or if you read on maybe you’ll gain an insight or two into the GDS ‘secret sauce’ from someone who has had a hand in its concoction.

Continue reading “DONE”

From Whitehall to Kingsway… my big move forward and back

Been updating my bio and my creds pages this evening to reflect the fact that I have changed jobs.

It’s an overdue refresh. I actually transferred to the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service in December 2011, but I saw out the remainder of my two-year secondment to FCO which. But now I am full time at GDS and loving it.

There’s a proper, serious start-up culture here; it’s an atmosphere I’ve been craving to work in. Everyday feels like a mission to shake things up and everyone is pulling in the same direction with the aim of radically and rapidly changing the way Her Majesty’s Government thinks and does digital.  Continue reading “From Whitehall to Kingsway… my big move forward and back”

Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government

Foreign Secretary William Hague answering questions on the situation in Libya and also on the Arab Spring on 9 June 2011 via Twitter

We’re not short of social media strategies in the government, neither are we short of social media guidelines for staff. But we are short of ICT access and on more than one occasion these social media projects have hit this same frustrating [fire]wall.

Organisations restrict access to social media for a number of reasons. The most common are concerns about creating security vulnerabilities, incurring spiralling technology costs, opening up reputational risks, losing sensitive data and suffering dips in staff performance (as they log on to watch the latest hilarious random video lulz).

It’s obvious that governments are particularly sensitive to these concerns and that this has caused them to be slower than other organisations to take advantage of social media. These days this lethargy is a problem for more than just digital teams; increasingly its policy and service delivery teams that are feeling frustrated by the blocks on their access.

Currently it is more common for access to be restricted than open. But there are a number of ways that the innovative people of the Civil Service have found ways to get the access they need –  be they in media, marketing, research, policy making, consultation, engagement, service delivery or even ministerial roles. These workarounds include:

  • Allowing staff to use their own devices – they would have it on them anyway but it does mean that they have to pay for it out their own pocket
  • Whitelisting domains – sometimes it is the stripped back mobile versions rather than the ‘full fat’ versions that get the OK
  • Permitting access through gateways, portals or virtualisation – it’s overcomplicating but it’s something
  • Monitoring and throttling usage – to encourage respectful use and keep costs down but breeds resentment
  • Requiring a business case – perhaps a bit over the top just to get real time information
  • Providing standalone machines – not terribly green or cost effective
  • Installing secondary browsers – to enable use of social web channels that couldn’t be accessed on the old browsers used as standard in depts

Continue reading “Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government”

Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?

Government’s use of digital media is undergoing radical change. As digital media use has become more mainstream  and critical – first to communications, then policy-making through engagement and more recently for transactions – so too has government steadily rationalised its digital operations. That trend is now coming to a head with the establishment of the Government Digital Service, which will provide centralised services, a single domain and web platform for all government departments and [most of] their agencies to use.

That each department and agency will no longer have its own, separate domain, CMS, hosting arrangement, support contract, analytics account and maybe central web team is genuinely radical. But could the delivery of government digital services be more radical still?

Frances Maude’s speech at Civil Service Live 2011 made me think so. In that speech he floated the idea of giving public sector staff the right to form new mutuals and bid to take over the services they deliver. Could government digital services be a candidate for mutualisation? In this post I suggest that it could.

Continue reading “Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?”

Crossover appeal… why we need to link GDS, GCC and ICT

'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett
'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett

March 2011 saw a bonanza for those of us with an interest in government information and communication technology marked as it was by the unveiling of the Government Digital Service, the publication of the ‘Review of COI and Government Communications‘ and the release of the new Government ICT strategy.

First came the Government Digital Service (GDS) which gave ‘Codename Martha‘ formal status, an official title, a boss, a timeline, and put money where before there were only words. Government will have its single domain and from this point onwards will be looking to deliver of all its services and communications through a digital lens. To prove as much, a crack (or SWAT for MLF Review afficiandos) team was introduced headed up by Tom Loosemore and a man close to my appraisal, Jimmy Leach, who are soon to unveil a proof-of-concept for the single domain, going by the nom de guerre, AlphaGov.

Next up was the ‘Review of Government Direct Communication and COI‘. This set of recommendations, pulled together in which the Matt Tee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary Government Communication, called for the exiting of the COI and the creation of the Government Communication Centre (GCC) in its place. The GCC’s task will be to spend significantly less people and money delivering fewer but better marketing communications by amplifying cross-government themes over departmental campaigns. Propositions are to be sharper, ROI will be taken much more seriously and digital will underpin it all.

And last but not least we got sight of the Government ICT Strategy. And a very enlightened and on-trend ICT strategy it is too. In it are contained committments to open source, interoperability, green credentials, cloud, web, use of Agile and even democratic power shift (which is a boon for the likes of an old worthy like me). Another departure from the norm is that this document is mercifully brief, very clear on the actions required and very exact on when they should be done by.

Each release demanded attention in its own right. But the commonalities also ring out.

  • Money… set against the backdrop of the deficit, each sets out to save billions of pounds. £1.3 billion for GDS. £54 million for GCC. And an unspecified figure for Government ICT but a stated ‘presumption against projects having a lifetime value of more than £100 million‘.
  • People… There will be fewer people and the staff remaining will work to new skill sets and efficiency and effectiveness goals.
  • Digital… is an standout common theme but not one that is inevitable. Yes, you would expect the GDS to have lots of digital, but for the future of government marketing communications to be so acutely spearheaded by digital and then for the ICT strategy to talk in such ‘webby’ terms is a real watershed.
  • Centralisation… At a time when even the US Military is restructuring itself as a network, each of these HMG developments seek to put more strategic and delivery capacity in the centre. That’s intriguing, and like the point on digital above, is a real step-change.

Each release appeared independently and has been picked up by different practitioner communities. Colleagues in digital may have read one release and not the others, and the same goes for communications and IT colleagues. But they must be conversant in all three.

The trick is to understand them not as three separate entities but as a trinity. None can achieve its ambitions in isolation of others.

Regardless of the new budgets, new team sizes or new technology, it is this blurring of lines between three previously separate disciplines that is the point and the most exciting challenge of the next 4 – 5 years.

Evolution is alright by me – it’s what got us here

It’s not just in North Africa that there’s talk of revolution. I understand that over the next three months we should begin to see the Martha Lane Fox review of government digital move from the PDF to the browser.

The review proposed its recommendations were ‘revolution not evolution‘. But in practice expect the proposals to be much more of a progression than a drastic, fundamental restart. That is not to try to kill the buzz; the proposals are exciting, their acceptance at the highest levels is inspiring and there are very smart people running the development. Instead it is to argue that this development has a long lineage.

To demonstrate what I mean let’s compare the recommendations with one contemporary government site – a site I know well – www.fco.gov.uk.

[I paraphrase…]

1. Establish one standardised front-end… in 2008 the FCO launched the current fco.gov.uk, which brought 250+ sites and public services on to one platform and one domain. A central team (based in London and 4 regional hubs) was mandated to set standards and manage their development.

2. Become a wholesaler as well as a retailer… although it didn’t launch this way, nowadays the FCO makes its travel advice, news, speeches and other forms of content available as feeds and promotes their reuse.

3. Devolve editorial… FCO directorates and teams who had their sites rationalised still produce and upload content directly as and when they wish.  Around 400 staff have the ability to work the CMS while following centrally set objectives, policies and editorial plans.

4. Appoint a CEO for digital… FCO’s digital leadership comes from its Head of Digital, who has responsibility for editorial, engagement and technical aspects.

None of this to say that the FCO site gets it all right; the FCO has a long history of admitting its digital weaknesses and of making concerted efforts to address them, improving or rather adapting steadily to the ever changing environment. As have other departmental and public sector sites.

The intention here is to show the new ‘supersite’ (or, probably more accurately, the new digital service) will inherit features from current sites and services, and in this sense, the products set forth by the review will be ‘evolution not revolution’.

While it will resemble previous generations of government digital undoubtedly it will do the good things even better as a result of its heritage.

Where I hope (and hear) the revolution is more likely will be in the building of the thing.

Expect Agile rather than PRINCE2. More iterations rather than finished products. Prototypes and proofs of concept. User-centred principles and creative over corporate design. A preference for open source and extensibility. Decent, longterm investment.

It can’t be done any other way. Otherwise, today’s revolution will end up being tomorrow’s ancien regime.

[Yet more] Praise for Digital @ BIS

BIS Digital website screengrab

In the spirit of openness and transparency, there is a section of some government websites that deserves more of the searchlight. It’s the digital team pages, and one in particular has come under my scrutiny lately – Digital @ BIS.

bis.gov.uk/bisdigital has just recently launched. It’s primarily for webbies in the department and in its agencies, but it also serves to inform the wider public about what BIS does digitally should that public be minded to know more.

Not many departments have such sites even though more or less all have digital teams. Those that do are practicing what they preach.

The BIS example should be considered ‘best of breed’. It knows exactly who its audiences are and in what order. It’s design balances form and function. And it provides the passing novice or the hardcore practitionner with a wealth of content that taken as a taster or as a full course represents a hearty insight into a core function within a key government department.

Continue reading “[Yet more] Praise for Digital @ BIS”

Lessons for behaviour change communications in the age of austerity

'to the rescue' by fergaloid

Last week was One World Media Week, a week-long programme of events around the One World Media Awards.

I made it along to two of the fringe events organised by the Institute of Development Studies at the Royal Society, ‘Media as a Tool for Development’ and ‘White Man to the Rescue? International Development in the Media’. Discussions at both meetings ranged across international development issues, but it was behaviour change campaigns proved a consistent theme.

The delegates were mainly from academia, NGOs and broadcast and press media. Yet behaviour change communications is also a major theme for government. Having worked in both sectors, it struck me over the course that in this so-called age of austerity that there were many lessons government can learn from the way NGOs conduct their campaigns. That said, on reflection, there are lessons that civil society can learn from government.

Continue reading “Lessons for behaviour change communications in the age of austerity”

What might service transformation learn from the world’s most fearsome mammal and a wax-eating bird?

honey badger and honeyguide

My fiancée and I are hoping to go on an safari honeymoon in Africa later this year.

If we go, I would really like to see a honey badger and a honeyguide.

The honeyguide is a bird that likes beeswax but can’t break into bee hives. What it does is catches the attention of a honey badger, which loves honey but isn’t so good at finding the hives.

Off they go together, the badger following the bird till they reach the hive. The badger then rips open the hive and both get their reward.

Both these independent organisms can exist without beeswax and honey and without one another, but they combine their skills in a wonderful manner to achieve a shared goal.

These special symbiotic relationships happen throughout the natural world. I think that they ought to happen in the world of public services too, especially in the context of citizen engagement with public services online.

Continue reading “What might service transformation learn from the world’s most fearsome mammal and a wax-eating bird?”