Reading the tea-leaves of government communications

There’s been a lot happening in the world of government digital communications over the last few days, and I’ve been watching developments with fascination. Still not sure exactly what to make of it all, though.

First up there were whispers on Friday about the CEO of Directgov (the government’s public-facing web supersite) having quit, first ‘broken’ by a tweet from Mark Flanagan and then followed up with wonderful tenacity by Simon Dickson of; soon there was confirmation in the form of a tweet from the CEO herself, Jayne Nickalls, and then rumours that the whole board of Directgov had been dissolved as well which ended up in a Sunday Express story claiming that Nickalls had quit over concerns that Number 10 was undertaking a “politicised power-grab” of the site. It’s hard not to conclude that all these developments don’t mean something is on the cards, but I don’t seem to be able to read the tea-leaves accurately enough at this stage to know what.

In any case, all of this was really just preamble to the publication of Tuesday of Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov’s role and function. Entitled “Revolution not evolution“, its conclusions seemed to extend far beyond just a review of the Directgov site and make major suggestions for the whole of government communications online, specifically:

  1. Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and businesses, with the teeth to mandate cross Government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
  2. Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services and content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties
  3. The model of government online publishing should change radically, with a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.
  4. A new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office should have absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

The publication of the report was accompanied with the official Cabinet Office response (PDF) from the minister, Francis Maude, and some felt that its tone was rather lukewarm in accepting the report’s gung-ho recommendations. I was certainly among those surprised that the official response wasn’t more decisive, but I suspect that’s more because there’s an awful lot of things going on right now and a lot of pieces to slot into position – including a decision about the future role of the Central Office of Information (COI) – and that it simply might not be possible to be any more specific about things quite yet. Again, that makes the tea-leaves annoyingly hard to decipher this week.

In several respects the recommendations simply endorse the current direction of travel: the positioning of Directgov as the main interface for all transactions with citizens is long standing, although the extra and businesses may cause a chill to run through everyone working over at Business Link since it threatens to terminate the reason for that sibling site. The call for APIs is welcome (to my knowledge, it’s not possible to access Directgov’s site content through any feeds or APIs which makes them appear to be hoarding their data, so a commitment to making everything available for reuse just as the wonderful does for government datasets in general is a very good call indeed.) [Actually that’s unfair, and I’ve been reminded about Directgov | innovate which has been doing much more on APIs and syndication than I had appreciated. So again, the report’s recommendations generally endorse the existing direction of travel here, too.]

The issue of setting and enforcing standards is an interesting one. The Digigov team working out of COI has been creating standards for a number of years, albeit with limited time and resources, but their ever-evolving set of guidelines is hugely impressive (and at this point I should disclose that I’m not exactly impartial, having authored one of the most recent standards on service availability before I left COI.) The team has probably been frustrated to have produced all these guidelines and then not had the clout to mandate and enforce them across government, so if this gives the team a higher profile and more muscle to do so then that’s all to the good.

Currently that team is part of COI, and reading these recommendations I can’t help but wonder what they might mean for my old employer. Will the standards role be taken away from COI and made part of a new or moved team (under a Digital CEO, or ‘Executive Director’ as the role was subtly rechristened in the Cabinet Office response) at the Cabinet Office or within Directgov? Or does this point to a new role for COI in the digital ecosphere, combining this standards enforcement with “the power to direct all government online spending” currently held by the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group? This decision could swing either way, and result either in a hugely empowered COI at the heart of government digital, or else emasculate COI and leave it with a significantly reduced function to play online. Obviously I am hoping for the former here and that COI gets that key new central role.

It was the mention of a new central team in the Cabinet Office “in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments” that has caused most ripples, especially I would assume from those departmental web teams that are fearing their jobs going up in smoke before their very eyes. Neil Williams, head of digital at the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills, has produced a characteristically wonderful blog post on the implications of the report for his team, while his former BIS colleague Steph Gray tackles his concerns of recommendation 3 head on in the excellent “A window on the wormery“. The latter is particularly significant because it provoked a lengthy comment in response from Tom Loosemore who worked with Lane Fox on the report and whose clarifications on this blog rather transforms how recommendation 3 comes across:

The *last* thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nuts to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office.

The review doesn’t recommend that. Trust me! It does, as you spotted, point towards a model which is closer to the BBC – a federated commissioning approach, where ‘commissioning’ is more akin to the hands-off commissioning of a TV series, rather than micro-commissioning as per a newspaper editor.

Here’s where I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s no denying that without central direction, web presences can proliferate like weeds, all of them looking and working totally differently with wildly varying quality of writing and technical standards, making them a nightmare to use or find anything on. But trying to come up with a single site architecture, design and workflow process that works for dozens of different teams even within one department can be a real headache, and trying to extend that approach out to every department and non-departmental public body (NDPB) in government is almost impossible to contemplate. The struggles that Directgov have had to make it to where they are on the content side of things, and how The Club/Steria and before it the DotP CMS advocated by the Cabinet Office tried but ultimately never really managed to deliver on the technical integration front, speak volumes.

Most of my time working in the public sector seems to have revolved around this tension of centralisation versus devolution. Quite often the two things pull simultaneously in different directions even on the same project, especially when the discussions get around to the sort of content management system that a new comms project needs. The people in the policy teams naturally want to be able to control the content they are responsible for, but rarely have the skills or be given the necessary time to do it justice; the people at the centre (comms teams in departments) usually want the control of overseeing all material before its published so that they can enforce standards, but then get exasperated when they’re inundated by requests from policy teams to make changes or add new material. It’s a tricky problem, but not impossible.

One of the projects I worked on for the longest time in the public sector was the Department for Education’s Standards Site, sadly now gone in the DfE’s sweeping overhaul of their web sites since the election but still accessible through the National Archives’ repository of government websites. It had the task of providing a single site for around two dozen different policy teams, ranging from massive amounts of content for the Literacy and Numeracy strategies and the Schemes of Work supporting the National Curriculum, to very small sites for policy areas such as Gifted and Talented children. The central team supplied the basic infrastructure (CMS and hosting), insisted on the same header and footer across all the pages and encouraged a design “harmony” across the site without mandating detailed branding guidelines other than accessibility standards, but otherwise allowed the teams to add and maintain their own content and define their own sub-site navigation. You might expect this to have devolved into a complete mess but in fact it looked like a perfectly integrated offering, blending a wide variety of designs and look-and-feels which made it visually interesting and appealing rather than ending up with a one-size-fits-all blandness. Where other supersites like TeacherNet (another DfE site of the time) or even Directgov have sometimes been accused of frustrating and angering the teams forced into conformity and becoming disillusioned by being separated from the content for which they are responsible, the teams contributing to the Standards Site never had any such concerns. (They had other complaints instead, for sure – nothing is ever perfect!)

I like to think that what Loosemore’s clarification alluding to a BBC-style federated commissioning approach points to is something along this line. At the time we took it for granted that the Standards Site wasn’t doing anything special and was just “getting on with things”, but as I’ve seen other integration projects come and fail and go, I look back to that project and still find it ahead of its time and a genuinely effective solution for the problems that government websites still face today. But if instead recommendation 3 ends up being misinterpreted as advocating dumping all government content into one huge platform and then putting in a Cabinet Office team as a gatekeeper, then it will be a sad day for public sector online communications indeed. It’s a real test of the Coalition’s understanding of and approach to the future of digital.

There’s an interesting coda to Loosemore’s comments:

One final point: The apparent absence of a strong cadre of mutually supportive, mutually respectful, Internet practitioners *across* departments is a major weakness. That’s probably a function of wholesale outsourcing, and Whitehall culture, but it’s a major barrier to nonetheless. Great products come from great culture.

That’s been something of a concern of mine for ages. As departments have tried to contain costs and not add to head counts even before the Coalition age of austerity dawned, more and more digital work has been outsourced to commercial agencies rather than have an in-house web team. It makes commercial sense not to have staff on the books that you might not need 100% of the time, does it not? It does until you need a lot of work doing, and especially if you need it doing in a hurry or if it’s unusual or a one-off, because then the agency costs go up. If you have in-house staff available who know the website and the department then it’s far easier to huddle around a desk and thrash out a quick and accurate solution to a comms requirement, whereas if you have to bring in an agency, brief them, find they haven’t ‘got it’ because they don’t know the ins and outs of the department, then it’s akin to doing brain surgery while wearing oven mitts: possible, but likely to be very messy and result in the loss of important capabilities.

Some government departments have taken the view that they need a strong in-house team to deliver: BIS is one such, and it seems to me that they’ve been a triumph as a result. But for every BIS there are half a dozen more that have little or no in-house web expertise, where the ‘web editor’s job is limited to cutting and pasting Word documents into a CMS and pressing publish, but having no web skills beyond this other than having the web agency’s telephone number in their rolodex. It’s hard to develop “strong cadre of mutually supportive, mutually respectful, Internet practitioners across department” in such circumstances.

On one level, COI has been working on this issue of a “strong cadre” for years ever since it ran the Government Internet Forum in the very early days of government internet activity (c. 2001) to bring together everyone working in the field. Sadly it faded away by 2005 and died an unnoticed death. More recently COI has been working side by side with the Government Communications Network to build a ‘cadre’ of comms people across all government departments and NDBPs, but the proportion of digital comms people (that is, in a more technical capability) still appears very low and so GCN does not have the strong digital focus to it that it needs to fulfil the role Loosemore seems to envisage. Maybe this will change if the government really does adopt Lane Fox’s headline recommendation of making digital the default channel of all government communications from here on? Somehow I see that as a slow process, and in the meantime there needs to be a knowledgeable, specialist ‘cadre’ leading, not following, this transformation. It’s not an easy knot to untangle, and as Loosemore says at the end of his comments: “Hard problem.”

Still, if it was easy, then it wouldn’t be such a fascinating, challenging and rewarding project, now would it? In the meantime I’m going to make myself a nice pot of tea and carry on trying to read the tea-leaves once they start to settle …


  1. 1 Profoundly non-trivial: Martha Lane Fox review of Directgov

    […] [Update 2] Public Strategist and Andrew Lewin […]

  2. 2 Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Martha Lane Fox wants to hear from local authorities NOW! | LocalGovCal | LocalGovCal

    […] from Steph Gray, Simon Dickson, Neil Williams, Michele Ide-Smith, Matt Jukes, Public Strategist, Andrew Lewin, Tom Watson, Wayne Smallman, Mick Phythian, Stephen Hale and Alan […]

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