Just a bit tired but can you help me?

There have already been many amusing moments with this new cabinet office job. When I get time to string a few paragraphs together, I’ll blog about them. Top of the list must be the security guard who nearly escorted me off the premises for using a mobile phone (fair cop). I managed to make an escape but I’m checking for wanted posters at the front door each morning. So far, so good.

I have some responsibility for technology projects and want to use the blog to ask for some advice and ideas. Assuming you’ve already got world peace, free beer and legislation to save Scrabulous on Facebook as ministerial priorities, what should I be working on? What can I push the techies who work for the government to do that will make a practical improvement to people’s lives?

It’s at times like this that I wish I was smarter at all this stuff. If I was, I’d design a one page “Tell Tom” site where you could describe the project you think the clever people at the Ministry should be working on. A sort of “Fix my Street” for government web sites. All ideas welcome and who knows, you might actually make a difference.

45 thoughts on “Just a bit tired but can you help me?”

  1. The biggest change you could make would be to drive high speed internet access. We still have a much higher proportion of connections through DSL than countries like South Korea. At the start of last year, fibre subscribers alone in Japan outnumbered total broadband subscribers in 23 of the 30 OECD countries.

  2. I would say this because I’m a webby, not a techie. There’s too much focus on technology and IT, and not enough on users and user experience of technology generally. There are always simpler ways of doing things and that starts with those responsible for the customer insight and interface design, not the the technologists who have an unfairly strong voice at the table.

  3. Hi Tom,

    First you can keep listening to Tom Seinberg, but he’s not alone.

    On Saturday a bunch of government web and comms people gathered at Google for an open conversation with specialists in the social web. 80 people turned up (on their day off). The plan is that we meet again in about 10 weeks time. There’s load to think about and change. You’re welcome to join us.



  4. Tom, many moons ago we sat on a panel at an event organised by James Crabtree et al at Westminister. Since then E-Democracy.Org was brought over by the then UK Local E-Democracy National Project to set up some “Issues Forums.”

    I’m interested in seeing someone connect the dots between the neighbourhoods and local empowerment agenda and ICT. E-democracy seems a bit pigeon holed as an off shoot of e-government when it is really more connected to the motivations tied to active citizens and devolution.

    While we still do council-wide forums, we’ve found quite good success with neighbourhood forums in Oxford (2) and Bristol (1). Let me know if you want to learn more. I am interest in how you promote thousands of these specifically local, “public life” spaces online (and wouldn’t mind a few more places in our globally local network.)

    Steven Clift

    See links top left: http://forums.e-democracy.org

  5. Perhaps ‘telecare’ may be worth pushing further.
    Elderly people in their own homes monitored (oh dear) for heating,and being out of bed.
    Sounds very George Orwell but lifeline is very limited and usually involves a third person which isn’t alwyas practicable.
    I’ve only heard a little of this but the possibilities are in fact, endless.
    This would have a wide ranging effect for the families of the elderly and may rest assured that an internal system is keeping an eye on basic environments.


  6. Something simple that would make life simpler and more economical for those of us who don’t have predictable schedules: get TfL to make Oyster card capping extend to weekly, monthly and yearly travel cards.

  7. What a breath of fresh air it is Tom that you’ve been chosen to take on this important role.

    We’d be more than happy to give you regular in-depth briefings to bring you fully up to speed on all issues within your bailiwick, along with the inside track on what’s really happening on on the ground (perhaps above and beyond what certain advisors may feel comfortable letting you know!).

    Some of course you will find in our weekly bulletin which is freely available, but rest assured only a small fraction of what we unearth ever makes it into the public domain!

    As regards the Tell Tom idea, the Delivery Council and its younger sibling the Local Government Delivery Council are tasked with gathering that kind of data and I hope you will be minded to share your findings – they could do with all the help they can get.

    Lastly where engaging the technies is concerned look no further – we have several thousand of them as members of our online and offline community. I believe I can speak on their behalf to say they would be delighted with the opportunity to feed back to you their suggestions.

    Hope this helps.

  8. Funny you should ask but only just this weekend, at BarCampUKGovWeb (http://barcamp.org/BarcampUKGovweb), I was asking for government to:

    1. publish all consultations in one, central location
    2. publish notifications of consultations in one, central location and make the list available as a feed and/or via an api
    3. use a uniform structure for consultation documents using consistent, meaningful semantic markup
    4. publish consultation documents in machine-parseable format, preferably xml, as well as in human readable form

    My desire is for consultations to be easier to find and for it to be easier for people outside of government to “do stuff” with them (see TheyWorkForYou.com for an example of “stuff done” to Hansard), hopefully enabling consultations to reach a wider audience and elicit a greater response and therefore make them more representative and informative.

    It’s a shame that you missed BarCampUKGovWeb, it sounds as though you would have found it really useful. In essence, it was a coming-together of democracy geeks and civil servants who want to improve eDemocracy in the UK (http://www.flickr.com/groups/barcampukgovweb/).

    I think you might still find it useful to join the Google Group (http://groups.google.co.uk/group/BarcampUKGovweb) where the discussion continues and keep your eyes peeled for follow-up events (http://upcoming.yahoo.com/group/4057/).

  9. I think the first thing would be to clarify whether you are talking about technology, communication or policy.

    My suggestion: Archive the lot and start communicating using social media from now on. Websites can sit in storage for reference over at TNA. One place for all online transactions/interactions with government, multi-surface through existing social media channels. Let Google/other search engines work closely with government to enable everything to be found easily. Ensure that offline and online standards are reflected. Let local government deal with local community issues, central government can then concentrate on its touchpoints, which are fewer… breathe 🙂

  10. Dear Tom

    Is UK government policy on the use of open source software in your portfolio? If so I have a well-placed contact and party member whom you might want to talk to.

  11. This is a big subject – my last two Satuday’s were spent at Government organised BarCamps discussing related things.

    The first one was by John Sheridan at OPSI, to discuss the design of a website to let people ask for changes in public sector information policy and implementation by showing the benefits they could get from it.

    You could make a similar public “bug tracking” site for Government IT – find all the tiny, niggly annoying things about Government websites that drive people mad, or small features that would help them loads. Market it in mainstream media, away from techy circles. Get people to vote up the ones they would like fixing most, and then get them fixed. mySociety can help you design it.

    (And when the OPSI site is live, you could push to get all the techy (as opposed to licensing) ones implemented straight away (new file formats, RSS feeds, APIs etc.))

    The second Bar Camp was largely Jeremy Gould at MoJ’s fault, and was full to the brim of ideas. Have a chat to him, or anyone else who was there.

    If you have cash of the order of millions, then, commission Tom Steinberg’s idea of multiple experiments to do more imaginative consultation, to find that hybrid forum/wiki/petition format that will really work at collaboratively forming good policies.

    Finally – some cultural things are needed. Can we get the techies under your charge as excited as, say, mySociety volunteers are? I’m sure lots of them already are, but we can’t see it out here, and we don’t communicate with them. Could you get Government programmers to start blogging what they’re doing, from a technical and a public service point of view (big corporations like Microsoft allow this, so why not the UK Government)? Could you get them to make their code open source, so out here we can help them hack on it?

  12. The things I’d most like to see are more open data, less ridiculous artificial commercialisation of public data (eg OS maps, postcode database, data on public transport), mandating open file formats etc… all things to help _other_ people do Cool Stuff, rather than govt techies necessarily developing actual Cool Stuff themselves.

    Also, I’ve got a nagging mistrust of any kind of tech-related govt projects… I’m not sure how much of that is justified and how much is just paranoia fuelled by media coverage of high-profile govt IT flops. But my feeling is that mySociety (the folk behind FixMyStreet.com, WriteToThem.com, TheyWorkForYou.com and many other fantastic services) has shown pretty conclusively how effective a small bunch of motivated people can be when you compare results to similar ‘official’ projects…

  13. How about a “Where’s my money going?” website, like they’ve just set up in the US: http://www.usaspending.gov/ A brief background of the legislation is at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Funding_Accountability_and_Transparency_Act_of_2006

    Over in the UK the powers that be believes that this information is “commercially confidential” ie it might interfere with their ability to make lots of money. However, the American experience has definitely proven that you can still have truly awesome levels of government pork, and publish where it’s all going.

    They think they have something to hide, but they really don’t have anything to fear. Just disclose the whole flow of cash from the tax base out to every cheque written by the government, and certain problems will go away.

  14. Technology really must look to close the social exclusion gap through promoting digital inclusion in local communities, as currently it is only helping to widen the gap.

    I, alongside an old university friend, have set-up a social enterprise working with local communities – by that I mean real people: old and young; male and female; black/asian and white – to show them how to use the internet/computers, understand the benefits – both as consumers and citizens – and to give them the confidence to build-up their skills, secure future employment and contribute to their surroundings.

    Technology has to be more than the preserve of us – the middle classes – and seek to reach out to the haves and have nots by people who know communities and communicate in a way that engages them – not looks down on them.

    Good luck Tom – but drop me a line if you want to know more.

  15. Tom is a minister for technical stuff
    I hope this time he don’t quit in a huff
    We got youtube face book and the rest
    He’s got to tell Gordon what he thinks is the best
    He’s tried and tried with all his might
    Now he’s asked for help on his web site
    He’ll get replies from geeks galore
    All screaming out to give me more
    I raise a subject I should not mention
    Who’s the new minister for the old age pension?

  16. It’s already been said above, but “open access to data in documented, usable formats” has to be somewhere high up the list.

    If the government techies can provide that much, they can leave the inspiring re-uses of that data to the likes of mySociety and Mr J. Public in general.

  17. Tell direct.gov.uk to publish all the XML information they get from local authorities.

    LAs spend a huge amount of time putting it together and giving it to direct.gov.uk in a standard format; but direct.gov.uk don’t share it.

  18. How about a Proper RSS feed to ALL ministry’s and parliamentary departments. (HOC/HOL commities and floor)

  19. I’d like to see more government sites that facilitate reuse as a core concept of their design.

    When a department is making something to publish information, I’d like to see them providing their data as XML, or using really good XHTML. I’d like separation between the layer that fetches data, and the layer that presents it — and the output of the fetch layer should be available to all.

  20. At an event in Parliament last week, Tom Steinberg (mySociety) and William Heath (Ideal Government) gave inspirational talks on the appropriate direction for government IT projects. Please watch the videos at the link below and follow their lead.

    The general thrust of the event is paraphrased at this link

    Great to see the Cabinet Office engaging in this way and hope these diverse responses are useful.

  21. Convince local councils to publish their planning application data in a nice format pls.

    Then us PlannignAlerts.com volunteers will be able to get on with their lives again and stop maintaining different screen scrapers for every council.

  22. For the Web sites, do what good practice says system developers always should do – 1. identify specific users, 2. identify a task they may want to carry out – 3. watch them trying to do it. I suspect the answer to the first task was ‘Our users are simply everybody’ – after which you’re knackered. Let me give an example:

    A. Dept for Children, Schools and Families site:
    1. Parent of a teenager,
    2. trying to find a Maths GCSE syllabus – to see a) what teenager is supposed to be learning b) whether said parent is likely to be of any use in this context.

    3. Assume parent has now found dcsf home page (how?). Look at all the top-level headings and ask yourself which one they’re going to select. Having given up, and perhaps making an unrealistic assumption about the level of web skills of the average parent, type “gcse maths syllabus” into the search box and hit the button.

    Who are the users for which this site was developed?

    Forget the technology as such, try and find a real person or two (If no real people around, maybe offer gainful employment to some of all those MPs sprogs hanging around the place doing nothing. Hahaha …(Sorry. No more bad jokes.) OK Find different kinds of people, ask them what they may want to use govt web sites for – then watch them trying to do it. Employ some Usability and Requirements Analysis people.

    Pete B

  23. Thanks all. I’m going to list all these and talk through with the people at the department.

    I’ve already got moving on the single spot for consultations. Keep the ideas rolling and once again, thank you.

  24. How about:

    Introducing Obama-style legislation that requires the government to publish online every item of expenditure over £25,000 – so enabling the public to “Google Their Tax Money”?

    Or publishing crime stats in an automated and standardised way, so they can be mashed up with mapping technology, giving the public unprecedented info about crime in their community?

    Or committing to introducing a level playing field for open source IT procurement in government – and getting Mark Thompson from Cambridge University to produce a report on exactly how to achieve this goal?

    Oh, wait – the Tories have already announced all these policies…

  25. For the past 2+ years I’ve been arguing with the government over why it won’t publish details of who gets what from the Common Agricultural Policy, exactly the kind of budget transparency that other commenters have been suggesting here.

    My case has been with the Information Commissioner for a long time now and DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency have fought me all the way, with a host of flimsy excuses. Hopefully a positive ruling will come soon.

    Government can and should publish this kind of information so citizens can understand what is being done with their money (£2 billion a year of it in the case of farm subsidies).

  26. Three things:

    Ban things being moved to different web addresses once published. Permalinks are everything. Especially when they change the names of departments.

    And ask the question over at publicsectorforums.co.uk . Those are the guys who have to implement it all.

    Data security, maybe?

  27. Standardised council and department sites – or at least standards in usability as well as the acessability ones – with requirements to tag, geo and otherwise all information in order to make to easy to find.

    Most of all moving communication online – and in particular to the social web – is a fine opportunity to cut the deliberate obfuscation by jargon. See how simple the T&Cs on Flickr are to understand for example.

  28. Friend, you have inherited quite a lot of IT which works very nicely, and a quantity of projects and systems that are disasters. If you weant to build a solid reputation for competence where such reputations are very scarce:

    1. Make sure that your civil servants are fully on top of data security.
    2. Get users to check and tell you directly if the web sires you are rsponsible for are working reliably.
    3. For every upgrade, make your people pilot and check out in advance every step from working reliably to working better.
    4 For every new system, make your people agree in writing that the specification will be frozen until the system is working as a proved pilot.
    5. Pilot test any changes to that specification, especially those before full implementation.
    6. Make sure that the supplier contract is always to deliver the system to specification, including dates when it will be operative, and includes stiff penalties for not delivering as contracted. (It will be worth pressing your civil servants when they suggest agreeing to progress payments. You are not interested in progress of the work, solely in delivery of a working system. Generally banks can lend the supplier the money needed to complete the system, and working with borrowed money will concentrate the suppliers minds wonderfully.)
    7. Very strictly limit the number of bright ideas for new services, for better services, and especially for tecnically more advanced services, that you will entertain at any one time. Remember that almost all bright ideas require really good implementation, and really good implementation is in very short supply.

  29. Use the potential of the Social Web to enable open source content. Encourage and enable departments to encourage and enable the passionate. articulate and involved people within their teams and outside to talk about issues N.B. not deliver messages. The new Live Web is about putting the human voice back into communications. Let the Gov’s IT underpin that broader cultural shift rather than be another excuse to centralise conversation.
    You’re talking like a human being here, enable the civil servant with 20 years thinking about public health to do the same. And then link that through to the countless health eating conversations out there. Don’t make them come to you, use the technologies to get out where the good conversations are.

  30. Require a vote in parliament for any IT project over [£50M] and a minister to be specifically responsible for it with a periodic report back to a select committee. If someone responds that they would just break big projects down into lots of little ones then that would be perfectly ok and would achieve my objective!

  31. Tom,

    Two suggestions:

    1. Speak out on national IT projects that are meant to centralize and standardize data. The truth is that they always go over budget, over time, don’t actually do what they are supposed to, and basically jsut end up wasting money. Whenever anyone says “wouldn’t it be great if we had a single system for managing all fire stations / ambulances / hospitals / etc everywhere?” I recommend that you take the nearest biro and stab them repeatedly in the eye with it until they shut up.

    2. (And this is going to sound harsh) resign. If you can’t figure out how to write a simple requests website, then I’m worried that you don’t know enough about technology to be responsible for it.

  32. Push for data security to be taken more seriously. As more details are collected (through the proposed ID card database and the CfH project) there is ever greater risk from data ending up in the wrong hands – accidentally or maliciously.

    Some concrete suggestions are

    1) Make sure data is ‘pulled’ to where it is needed, not ‘pushed’ to where it might be needed.

    2) Make sure that secondary users (policy makers, administrators, planners) only see aggregated data, not individual records. Only users dealing with the individual should see data that identifies the individual.

    3) Oversee a change in culture so that data users know that they have a huge responsibility, particularly with respect to sensitive data. Lending access tokens, sending data on disks through the post and leaving unencrypted data on laptops should be as frowned upon as lighting up indoors has become!

    If you can do this you’ll have done a great service. (declaration of interest – I’m working for the academic partners on the CfH data quality evaluation project – I’d be happy for you to get in touch)

  33. People are only going to sit up and notice when they start getting services that they like, in a relationship they trust.

    So I have used DVLA and car MOT this year because it saved me a trip to the Post Office , but not one other government on-line service. If the HMRC says its web site is not secure enugh for the “rich” why should I use it ?

    We need some respect by government for its citizens, who did indeed vote it in, or for another party. In the Netherlands this relationship is led by Matt Poelmans, Director of the Citizenlink – an initiative of the Dutch Government to improve the performance of the public sector by involving citizens.

    Please ask one of your civil service Grade 3’s to go to The Hague and bring back his methods ( summarised below )

    1. Choice of Channel – As a citizen I can choose for myself in which way to interact with government. Government ensures multi channel service delivery, i.e. the availability of all communication channels: counter, letter, phone, e-mail, internet.
    2. Transparent Public Sector – As a citizen I know where to apply for official information and public services. Government guaranties [sic] one-stop-shop service delivery and acts as one seamless entity with no wrong doors.
    3. Overview of Rights and Duties – As a citizen I know which services I am entitled to under which conditions. Government ensures that my rights and duties are at all times transparent.
    4. Personalised Information – As a citizen I am entitled to information that is complete, up to date and consistent. Government supplies appropriate information tailored to my needs.
    5. Convenient Services – As a citizen I can choose to provide personal data once and to be served in a proactive way. Government makes clear what records it keeps about me and does not use data without my consent.
    6. Comprehensive Procedures – As a citizen I can easily get to know how government works and monitor progress. Government keeps me informed of procedures I am involved in by way of tracking and tracing.
    7. Trust and Reliability – As a citizen I presume government to be electronically competent. Government guarantees secure identity management and reliable storage of electronic documents.
    8. Considerate Administration – As a citizen I can file ideas for improvement and lodge complaints. Government compensates for mistakes and uses feedback information to improve its products and procedures.
    9. Accountability and Benchmarking – As a citizen I am able to compare, check and measure government outcome. Government actively supplies benchmark information about its performance.
    10. Involvement and Empowerment – As a citizen I am invited to participate in decision-making and to promote my interests. Government supports empowerment and ensures that the necessary information and instruments are available.

  34. You may want to consider very carefully the balance between what can usefully be centrally designed, so that wheels do not have to be constantly reinvented, and what is really better designed locally. Local systems and work practices vary a great deal, even in apparently similar organisations (eg PCTs) and it is generally more effective to design the inevitable changes in work patterns at the same time as the new systems, and to have the right incentives in place. Otherwise a good deal of time and effort is wasted as people invent workarounds or boycott the system entirely.

  35. Another invitation…..The International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy will be happy to talk to you about its ideas going forward. Hope you feel less tired now 🙂

  36. Tom –

    The new policy announcement on procuring Open Source is a very positive forward step. If I may suggest a next step, it would be to identify the usage of Open Source in UK Gov, and consolidate. Where we are using Open Source, we should attempt to engage positively with the development and support communities. As an example of what I mean, some years ago, the eEnvoy sponsored development of a web content platform, DotP, with the intention of a wide government roll out. For various reasons it didn’t happen, but one can envisage a very different approach today –
    – Identify suitable Open Source base CMS platform(s)
    – Where commercial support exists, sign-up for a cross-government deal
    – Certify suitable development and hosting partners
    – Publicise availability of the supported platforms within government and encourage take-up
    – Build communities of developer and support expertise within government
    – Contribute financial support to the development community
    – Where government extends or develops on the base platform, release this back into the community
    In other words, don’t just use the software but actively engage with the community

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