A big day today in digital government. In case you missed it, the Martha Lane Fox review of Directgov and the wider government web estate went public along with a response from Cabinet secretary Francis Maude, so ending a period of furtive speculation by those with a keen interest in the way UK government does digital.
Here is a quick link round-up:
- Cabinet Office press release, MLF review and Maude response (PDF)
- Guardian, Telegraph, BBC coverage
- Blogger reaction from Steph Gray, Simon Dickson and Mick Phythian
- A must-read comment from Tom Loosemore on Steph’s blog (contains some clarification about that all important word ‘commissioning’)
- Twitter reaction
- [Update 1] More blogger reaction from Matt Jukes and Tom Watson
- [Update 2] Public Strategist and Andrew Lewin
- [Update 3] Stephen Hale and Alan Mather
As an insider, I’ve known what’s in the MLF review for a while and so am watching the online reaction with interest, especially in regard to recommendation 3 which, if taken forward, will have a direct affect on my work.
And, as an insider, I won’t say too much more about it in case my words are taken to be anything other than my personal view by the mainstream press, especially while the review is still being considered by Ministers. (And at the risk even that last sentence is open to misinterpretation: anything I would say would in any case be positive and constructive. MLF FTW!)
So I will say just two slightly tangential things:
1. I joined the civil service in 2003, having previously led a small web development team building sites (actually, e-zines – remember them?) for the likes of BP, Shell, Glaxo and Pfizer at a corporate communications agency in the Docklands. More often than not, any product we built for those big corporate clients was based on strict brand and layout guidelines, enforcing a user experience and navigation in common with the parent site. As such, my first impressions of how government was using the web were coloured by that experience and, coming to it cold (I guess like Coalition ministers, Martha and many others besides) I wondered why there were quite so many different looking sites doing quite such similar things across the .gov.uk estate. For me it has long felt like a question of when rather than if the government would become more BBC-esque in its online presence, and the work I’ve been leading at BIS (using consistent templates and a universal top bar to unify multiple sites on a shared CMS) has been a step in that direction.
2. It’s abundantly true that implementing MLF’s third recommendation will be “challenging”, as the Minister acknowledged in his response. Another phrase that has stuck in my mind today from an internal document is “profoundly non-trivial” – which I think I might start dropping into casual conversation whenever I can. Generally speaking though, projects that are the most challenging tend also to be the most worth doing. Complexity and risk are reasons to be careful rather than cautious – and some excellent careful thinking is already going on both inside and outside the machine about how to avoid the pitfalls and realise the opportunities in taking this bold ambition forward. (Although personally, while I’d like to be all strategic about it, it’s just about all I can do to stay my hand from working up wireframes for what a common look and feel across a single domain for government might look like.)
I’ve thought of a third thing, sorry:
3. One of the aspects I love most about digital is its tendency to lead the customer-centrification of organisations. We digital practitioners have been doing this on a micro level for yonks, persuading colleagues to structure intranet and website content based on what users want rather than organisational hierarchies; and reflecting customer feedback and insight back in. You can’t help but wonder where doing this on a macro level across all of government – not just with services à la Directgov of today but news, consultations and policy information – might one day take us.
As to what it means for us digital practitioners in government Departments and our jobs, it’s way too early to say. But – taken alongside the other announcements today about shifting more and better services online – there will surely be no immediate shortage of demand in Whitehall for people with practical digital expertise and the on-the-ground experience of getting things done in a public sector environment. It’ll take plenty of that to steer this thing home.