Innovation v transformation?

There have been several eye-catching Government site launches in the last few weeks, showing how seriously Government is taking social media. But is the drive for digital engagement at odds with another key online policy?

The most high profile of the recent launches has to be Real Help Now, the government’s new brand for tackling the effects of the economic recession by introducing and demonstrating the practical help available to families and businesses during the recession. In some ways it seems like the fulfilment of a Campaign story from January that reported:

Liam Byrne, the Cabinet Office minister … wants COI to consider branding the Government’s anti-recession measures in an umbrella ad campaign. Such a move could provoke allegations that an umbrella campaign would also aim to convince voters that the Government is acting to limit the scale of the downturn.

In fact COI wasn’t involved in this particular website launch and credit has to go to Simon Dickson, Dave Briggs and the rest of the Downing Street team who put it together in a very short space of time. Steph Gray notes that instead of WordPress it is “using the cloud as its CMS, via tagged items from Delicious and YouTube,”

Simon writes that:

We aren’t making any great claims for this site: it is what it is, a pretty front end, courtesy of regular collaborator Jonathan Harris, pointing to other people’s material, plus a (first person) message from the Prime Minister. But if it can establish itself, there’s naturally plenty of scope to extend and expand into something more communicative and interactive.

And a very nice front end it is too – the purple design is both striking and classy, reassuring yet dynamic – not an easy trick to pull off. It’s been criticised by the media as being merely an attempt to use a “coloured logo to convince public it is doing something over recession” but that seems very unfair to a site that is clearly doing a lot more than simply post a few PDFs of generic advice that no one will ever read, which was the approach of the first wave of websites “tackling” the recession. But at the same time it’s not a match to the US federal website either and Dougald Hine points out that there’s an awful lot more that social media could be used for to tackle the recession.

But Real Help Now isn’t the only site launch of late. There’s also The London Summit 2009, a website from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is a small masterclass in social media techniques which as Steph Gray notes:

In the emerging field of digital engagement for policymaking, this seems to be doing a lot right: a hub for news, early planning, serious resource invested original content (but not much new money thrown at technology), partnerships with innovative forums for debate, a strategy for engagement designed to work at the level of professionals as well as the public, and measurement.

And finally there’s the rather more low-key launch of a discussion site for the Digital Britain interim report consultation by the Secretariat for the Digital Britain Steering Board. This is more of a fix, if we’re honest, to the rather embarrassing oversight by the original report that made feedback to the report difficult: you had to hunt-and-seek the email address 72 pages in. There was none of the impressive interactive consultation you see on the likes of, for example, the Power of Information Taskforce beta report.

Now, okay, after all of that background, time to get to the point:

One thing that all these recent site launches share is that they are all … Well, recent site launches, with their own URLs. But hang on a minute, isn’t government supposed to be dramatically slashing the number of standalone websites across government? Isn’t Transformational Government talking about how website rationalisation has resulted in “another 712 government websites have been earmarked for closure – bringing the total to more than 900 since 2006 and making it easier for people to find the information they want and need online”? How can one part of government be working hard to close websites and discourage any new launches, while Downing Street, the FCO and Digital Britain are merrily opening brand new ones?

With Real Help Now, for example, the obvious transformationally-compliant approach would have been for Directgov to take responsibility for hosting this information, which is public-facing and bringing together information from across government – very much Directgov’s thing. So why wasn’t it part of the Directgov offering? Was it the need for a separate brand away from Directgov orange, needing its own URL? But many government departments have claimed that their pet project needs such standalone status and distinctive brand, and website rationalisation has put them in their place and told them “No” in the interests of streamlining the morass of websites the citizen previously had to traverse to find the information they needed.

Probably the short answer for why Real Help Now wasn’t done on Directgov is that it wasn’t technically possible to use the sort of social media tools on the Directgov shared CMS platform – at least not without spending a huge load of money to achieve it and taking far too long. I’ve worked with a client on a simple revamp of their website design on a similar shared services platform, and it took many months of delicate negotiations to achieve it when the IT supplier’s default response seemed to be “the computer says no.” And that’s just changing some cosmetic designs – who knows how long it would have taken to anything truly fresh and innovative?

But that opens up a whole new can of worms in this day and age of Web 2.0 fast track innovation: are we saying that the large “supersites” like Directgov, Businesslink and Schoolsweb (if that ever launches!) aren’t compatible with innovation, social media and fast turn around?

That’s an argument dangerous to the whole policy of transformational government online, for website rationalisation, and for Directgov: while all those initiatives seemed like a fine response to the out-of-control mess of online government real estate in 2005, it’s possible that it’s all already outdated and outmoded even before it completes its task, because with new in-favour initiatives such as the appointment of a high-level senior post of Director of Digital Engagement precisely to embed social media and innovative, cost-effective ways of using technology and the web, an infrastructure that impedes this or makes it too costly or time-consuming is going to find itself kicked into touch or into shape in the coming months.

Maybe it’s time for Transformational Government to come up with its own version 2.0 to take into account how it should be working to promote open source, small inspirational and novel microsites? Behind the scenes it already is – coming up with ways of using the semantic web to deliver services while retaining the core commitment to Directgov, Businesslink and a small number of central websites and forbidding any new ones. But the evidence suggests this core line might be breaking in 2009 and that it needs to have a more fundamental root-and-branch rethink or risk becoming the sort of block to responsive, user-centred design of government services that it was created to promote and achieve.


  1. Yes, yes, yes – although I don’t think it has to be an either-or situation. I’ve long been arguing for COI, or whoever, to see this coming, and ‘rationalise pre-emptively’ – by giving government a hosting space for these lightweight, agile, experimental projects. Pick a few sociable tools, WordPress being an obvious candidate – and let departments innovate ‘within the fold’.

    We need a couple of people to ‘own’ the space, and build up some serious technical skills and experience with the chosen tools. Oh, and recognising the market cost of hosting, the platform needs to be offered free of charge. You heard me. No cost, and no paperwork either. If you want to do something in the space, the default answer has to be ‘yes’.

    (Interesting to note Steph reaching exactly the same conclusion in his post on the Real Help Now project, by the way.)

  2. Good points, and a nice overview Andrew. Three points I’d make in response:

    – The concept of a ‘site’: web convergence has been driven by counting URLs to date, rather than the true cost. rather neatly makes the point that you can host a lot of different-looking websites via smart domain mapping at low cost. So London Summit may be a new URL, but it’s part of the FCO’s existing CMS; the POI Taskforce report was a new subdomain, but pointing to an existing piece of DIUS-run infrastructure. Should convergence really be about the number of URLs (a curious measure) or about cost/quality/consistency?

    – the technical platforms for innovation: Simon Dickson has raised this repeatedly before, but we lack a central hosting platform for small scale innovation online. There are obvious potential economies of scale from doing this, as well as massively lowering the barrier to innovation for people who want to try out a tool like our Commentariat theme on a consultation. This platform would also give us a focus for publishing government-produced open source software, and a much more resilient, sustainable approach than the current picture of cheap, isolated virtual servers.

    – URL strategy: I’d be interested to see what the evidence shows about perceptions of URLs by users in 2009. My hunch is that people look less and less at the URL, but simply use it as a search term and a shorthand when signposting. Hence a PR agency (and maybe an SEO agency too?) will tell you that can be a hindrance to driving traffic, which outweighs the cross-sell potential when they get there. If we were to focus on website cost/quality rather than URL, we might find that a new campaign site at its own .com URL may deliver better value than a PR agency-hosted microsite mapped to a Directgov URL.

  3. I agree about the strangeness policy wise of yet another URL but the directgov CMS just sounds like an excuse. couldn’t it be branded as part of directgov and be under their URL?

  4. Re the Digital Britain/Writetoreply stuff, there’s new things coming from BERR that will be Commentariat powered a la POIT beta report. Basically because I’m there now 🙂

    But (which Ofcom is running, by the way) *was* planned before the Writetoreply thing came along, as opposed to being prompted by it. Just resource issues that delayed the engagement.

    I am so glad you’ve written about this transformation vs innovation issue, but like the other commenters I don’t think we need to throw any babies out with the bathwater. Fewer government sites remains a good strategy, and nobody would argue with that.

  5. Andrew, this is beautifully crafted, and in the main I agree with you: certainly wholeheartedly in your final points about how website convergence goes now.

  6. andrewlewin

    Wow, hadn’t quite expected the kind of response this has produced. Thanks so much for everyone’s comments, ideas and suggestions.

    I hope I don’t come over as anti-website rationalisation – I’m anything but. I’ve been a strong supporter of the online element of Transformational Government, because the morass of websites that were out there in 2005 was a complete tangled mess. The work needed to be done and it’s very satisfying to see it progressing so well now. The “counting URLs” approach may seem irrelevant now, but it’s actually a very important element in simplifying the government online real estate to make it work for the public. (I suspect I’ll have to do another post just on this aspect; it got a bit trimmed out of this post as I tried to keep focus.)

    I’d love to see a central “sandpit” as Simon proposed. But it does cost and someone would have to front up the money; and I know it’s traditional to say COI should do it, but that’s because people don’t understand COI is a business – it has no cash reserves, only the income made from the services it sells to clients. The cash would have to come from Cabinet Office or HMT to make this viable, and these are lean times for getting extra funds for things.

    Paul – I don’t actually know why Directgov didn’t run with this, the CMS is just my best guess based on similar projects I’ve been involved with that have been throttled by technical constraints. It could well be wide of the mark in this case. If anyone knows more, I’d love to find out.

    Neil – I agree, we don’t want to throw any babies out with the bathwater. It’s why I hope innovation and transformation can be fused together and made to work in tandem, rather than one of them potentially risking throttling the other. That’s what seemed to me to be a real possibility, with the likes of Real Help Now apparently showing the two of them on a collision course.

    And now excuse me while I head on over to Emma’s site to reply to her thoughts over there. Pop on over and join us

  7. Andy: if CMS is an excuse, it’s an excuse.

    I also noticed elsewhere that there is dupli/triplication – regional efforts link to businesslink as this follows a ‘rationalisation’ meme. doh!

    grist to the ‘digital champion’ mill perhaps but really speaking to a larger failing IMO

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