I am not really a political person. I care little for any of the political parties and their identikit leaders but that government thing is quite important intit?

This post is about the relatively newly formed Government Digital Service team. Set up following recommendations laid out in Martha Lane-Fox’s Digital by Default report. This excellent report proposes a wholesale change to the way Government does IT. Focusing primarily on the digital experience and how government services online operate it also calls for changes to the way IT services are provisioned with regards to large vendors. I am more interested in the customer facing elements but the back end stuff is certainly revolutionary for such a large and bureaucratic organisation. The report states the following about how Directgov needs to refocus (point 4 being the most exciting from my geeky point of view).

The Directgov organisation should reduce and realign its resources to focus on:

1. architecting and managing a more focused consumer proposition

2. providing easy-to-navigate information/guidance to citizens on obligations, entitlements and actions that require interaction with government

3. providing easy to use, effective services that help citizens transact with government online, to drive channel shift

4. creating & agreeing cross-government standards that support our proposed ‘retail to wholesale’ shift, including standards on APIs and use of open technologies to support channel shift, and the stimulation of an eco-system of 3rd party distributors of Directgov content, tools and apps.

I believe there are many parallels with what is being outlined in the report with lots of organisations, banks in particular, and the way they need to adapt to the way the web is evolving and its increasing importance on evy day life. For me the approach being taken with regards to agile development, APIs and service orientated architecure, open source, design at the core and just a general appreciation of doing the web right is what makes this vision so compelling. The fact this being tried inside the government is even more admirable.

Putting their money where their mouth is. Clever words in a PDF are all well and good but to execute that vision you need some talented and smart employees. GDS have certainly hired well. Mike Bracken as Executive Director,  Tom Loosemore as Deputy Director and most recently Ben Terrett to head up design. These are just a handful of the great talent they are amassing but it shows they mean business and this is not some half baked statement of intent but a real desire to improve how government is interfaced with by the majority of people in the UK.

I first became aware of what GDS were trying to achieve in May last year with the launch of the Alpha Gov prototype. This was the starting point for the vision of a single domain for government. They were seeking feedback from the off and it was not just some meaningless one way taking data in. Feedback works both ways and the fact they are using Get Satisfaction to collect it is also impressive. You could see from that early prototype that this was not your normal Government IT project. As well as the technical and design proficiency on show for me other elements showed that this was being designed by humans not some committee. The page for reporting stranded whales shows that humour could creep in and I am glad to see it has stayed in the Beta.

One concept laid out in the original vision is that the site must be designed around customer needs. We see this statement doled out by many organisations but I don’t think many of them really understand it. I love this statement from Ben Terrett’s post about why he joined the team.

The design challenge here seems to be – don’t avoid the obvious. Government websites are needs driven and what people want to do is get in, get what they want and then get out. Quickly.

The UI that gets out of the way will always be the best UI. Now the Government are in a lucky position in that they have no competitors and they don’t have to sell anything so they don’t need to plaster banner adverts everywhere but then again if you are designing a service for your customers and you have to put banner ads in the flow/UI then you don’t really understand the marketing value of a truly beautiful and ‘get out of the way UI’. You can also see from the photo on the left that this team take design very seriously.

 

Yet another area for praise is the use of blogging by this team has been exemplary, it is a real lesson in how to use a corporate blog. Sharing real detail on the what, how and why to their goals. I am not sure if one of the employment criteria was the ability to write well but they don’t seem to struggle for bloggers. The blog has allowed the culture to really come across to interested observers. You can tell that the people believe in the vision and you can tell they are bloody smart. I am not naïve enough to believe it is all a bed of roses, 120 staff means there will be some problems as humans will always be humans, but the clarity of the vision and purpose should at least mean everyone is headed in the right direction.

new GDS stickers

Photo borrowed without permission from Thayer Prime

For me the project should be part of a major technological/organisational case study (Gartner/Forrester should be all over his shit) looking at how IT can be done right in a large bureaucratic organisation not renowned for its IT successes. The starting vision was almost perfect. The way they built a team of real talent showed it was more than words on paper. Execution is always the benchmark and so far they are doing rather well.

The beta site of Gov.UK was launched on the evening of the 31st of January (for loads of detail on this and how they got there read this). The compliments flew by in my Twitter stream as lots of people shared their praise with the team. It was clear they had built on the successes of alpha.gov I n almost every way. The levels of transparency shown already in the project on the blog were trumped by two things they did on launch day. One they released a list of tools and technologies used Not one of these technologies tied them to a vendor. The only person it seems that is getting paid is Amazon who are hosting the site. They way it has been built means that it is portable to any cloud provider. The eventual aim is for it to reside on G-Cloud (the government cloud infrastructure that is being built as part of he wider project). UPDATE: I got this bit wrong, G-Cloud is a framework for buying cloud services, read this http://gcloud.civilservice.gov.uk/. The second thing was the fact they released all the code for the site to the open source repository, GitHub. Meaning anyone can inspect the code, take a copy and fork it to use it for themselves or if you are feeling brave try and make it better. For a government department to do this takes a huge amount of faith and must fly in the face of so many risk and security policies it is untrue. I really can’t imagine a bank ever doing this (Although (Bank) Simple have released some components there).

This post so far has been universally positive, as it should be, but I realise tougher tasks are yet to come for the team. Making the leap from direct.gov.uk to gov.uk will be a complex and tricky one. The flexibility built into gov.uk means that they can iterate constantly so I am guessing there will be no big bang migration just a ‘Well we have moved it all across now let’s switch off the other site’. Which sounds simple…

Looking back over this post it is at best fawning at worst blind slavish fanboy raving so I must find at least one thing to criticise but I have struggled. Here goes…the one thing I don’t like is the strange silvery pick arrow/banner on the home page. I can see how it ‘subtly’ points me to the big red search box but I don’t like the look of it. That is the only thing I have found so far that I don’t like and I really don’t care much about it.

It will be interesting to see how this site progresses over the rest of 2012. How the technology behind scales and improves. How the move to their own cloud goes. I am also interested to see what other elements they will bring to the site. Personalisation being one, especially as the identity used for a government website would be a very interesting thing indeed (NSTIC anyone?).

Lastly I must say a huge congratulations to the team for what they have built and to Martha Lane Fox and her original co-conspirators for creating such a well thought out and worthy vision. The desire to hire the best and the fact that the vision laid out allowed them to do just that has proved very successful indeed. I certainly think all big organisations (banks especially) with responsibility for customer facing IT should take a long hard look at this project and think why can’t this be done here? They would do well to drag themselves into the 21st century and try to emulate this model. The ones that do will be he ones that will begin to look like organisations fit for the 21st century which is exactly what the Government Digital Service looks like.