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The Emperor’s new clothes (and why it’s now OK to point)

Maybe Friday afternoons make people bolder. But I think there’s a longer-term shift happening.

Wrong Way

Last Friday, the ever-interesting insider @pubstrat published an interesting piece gently critiquing the new e-petitions service, arguing — rightly, I think — that requiring petitioners to specify the responsible central government Department for their issue is a step backwards:

A solution is not a solution if it does not support the right overall experience and outcome. The e-petitions site is partly about e-petitions, partly about showing what a skunkworks can do, and partly about pointing to the future of government services. It has done the first two admirably. I am not sure that it has done the third.

About the same time, Ross Ferguson from the FCO popped up in my RSS reader, with a great post musing on the potential for government digital communications to be delivered by a mutual, rather than by civil servants working in the traditional way.

Currently, each department’s digital team – to some extent or another –  provides account management, editorial, engagement, frontend development, analytics, standards compliance, user experience and skills training services to their department (with design, systems administration, hosting, applications management and design more often than not outsourced to commercial providers). Those services that departmental teams currently provide will be centralised into GDS and the departments will use that service in the same manner that they previously used their own in-house functions. So the business of a mutualised GDS would be to provide digital services to a customer base of government departments and agencies. In that sense the business model is already set.

I suggested to @pubstrat that the fact he could blog about such issues, and make such critiques, was a sign of how far things had come. That Ross could write a thinkpiece about privatising a civil service function — quite possibly fodder for a trade magazine story — is fascinating, and encouraging, too. And a few minutes later, up popped a ping from the new Government Digital Service blog, where the GDS team will be blogging about their projects, warts and all.

Things weren’t always this way. In late July 2009, as an insider running a digital team in government, I found myself in rather hot water at work after a wayward tweet during a reshuffle and a post rethinking the UX of the then hot-topic Swine Flu website which greatly upset a Director General. I was ‘uncollegiate’ and ‘trashing’, so the post disappeared… for a while. A week or two later, I had a heart-in-the-mouth weekend following some heated back-and-forth by Twitter direct message with a senior colleague unhappy with a further tweet of mine. You know, three strikes and… still, I lived to tell the tale.

So from where I sit now, it’s exciting to be able to blog somewhat fierce tongue-in-cheek critiques of Alphagov and get warm encouragement, comments and retweets from the team behind it (in public at least; who knows what’s on the office dartboard). But it’s even more interesting to see former colleagues more willing to use personal or professional public platforms think aloud, critique the projects of others, and as a consequence, raise the level of debate and the quality of government digital services.

A lot of this is down to broad-shouldered individuals like Mark O’Neill (Head of HMG Skunkworks), Tom Loosemore (Head of Betagov) and it seems Mike Bracken too (Head of everything digital, basically). The projects themselves feel more open: alphas and betas, sometimes with public feedback mechanisms built-in.

Some say the experience of the first year of the Coalition government suggested that the centre was more willing for Departments to run their own affairs, and maybe that more relaxed approach to managing government has trickled down a bit. In Parliament too, MPs are now asking for openness to ideas and feedback as part of government IT projects, alongside transparency about spend.

This is the proverbial Good Thing. Things get better when people talk about them. With people getting busier, and budgets shrinking, blogs and tweets and forums on the public web are absolutely the right place to be exploring these issues, with people around from inside and outside government explaining and suggesting, praising and critiquing. Fortune, and it seems, the Government Digital Service, favours the brave.

Photo credit: Bob.Furnal on Flickr

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  1. I think that (along with Ross F) you’re almost advocating peer-to-peer procurement here – and the possibilities stretch way beyond web-projects for this.

    But the biggest problem with the petitions website isn’t the requirement from users to know which department of government is relevant to their petition. It’s that it is a petition website.

    This is where futures markets would be useful for all government projects. If we could all be given virtual chips to bet on whether a project was going to work or not, it would provide active citizens with a very good way of giving government feedback.

    I’d have all of mine on a general recognition within a year or so that that petitions websites are *always* a bad idea.