Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Be civil, be beta

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With the new Facebook-style Civil Pages in the news this week, I stopped by the civil service website and was somewhat taken aback to see the logo above - it's a website in beta. Funny perhaps - but also good. Why launch a fully working version when you can get something out and see how people react to it and then iterate it. I said something similar back in May 2000 when I first joined government:

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I was actually looking, though, for the Civil Pages service ... I couldn't access it from inside the department where I was today so was hoping to find and internet-facing entry point (on the basis that not everyone is on one of the internal government networks and so it was probably set up with 'net access too).

The Telegraph had this to say

The social networking site was launched days after personal details and photographs of Sir John Sawers, the new MI6 chief, were posted on Facebook by his wife.

The new site, called the Civil Pages, is set to cost taxpayers £1 million and has been dubbed 'the Facebook of the Civil Service... without the man in the Speedos' by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell.

The service is said to include a Wikipedia-type Civil Wiki application, a Civil Blog to let public servants share their thoughts and a Twitter-like feed known as Civil Talk.

Which reminded me of this post from December 2007

  • What if government took facebook into the inside? What if we ditched every intranet there ever was in every government department and allowed everyone to create, instead, a facebook page for themselves? The same tools and applications would be available; groups joined would be centered on areas of expertise & experience (desired or actual) and room to play would be allowed to - no point in making it all business, there needs to be some kind of trade. Straight away, links would form between people doing similar jobs in different parts of the government (or different parts of the same department but spread around the same country); experience would be shared; job-postings would be easy to find and could be matched by a talent inventory that could draw on all 4-5 million public sector employees (that number could be anywhere from 250,000 to 7 million depending on how you cut things).
  • What if government took a licence for wikipedia and built an internal version? What if that site became the place where all reports from every consultancy that's ever worked for government was published? Where people edited topics that they were interested in and added statistics, links and sources that were verified by the armies of others that were also interested in those topics? What if this became the hub of knowledge were people found out how to do their job, what they could do to develop in their job, where they would find information from others doing the same job, where they could see what consultancies and others had recommended could be done to a given process, function or organisation in another, related part of government. Or even a completely unrelated part of government. Many of those reports, the many hundreds every week, month or year, end up gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere. The very best are 50% implemented with the remaining actions getting swamped by the pressure of time or money, or the clean sweep of a new broom coming in with different ideas. That leaves perhaps a billion and a half worth of ideas left unimplemented every year. That's a lot of intellectual property left on the shelf. And let's not wonder aloud, at least not here, how much of those reports are repeats of what has already been bought and paid for by a government department somewhere else.
  • Next, what if we took every FoI request - and its response - and published it online with a simple search application, driven by google or windows live or any other engine- so that before you asked your question you could see what else had been asked that was similar; you'd then either just use that information and not bother to ask your own question or you'd refine yours to get a better take. Smart journalists would use the search tool to bring together previously unrelated questions and draw even more conspiratorial conclusions. Smarter ones would phrase their next question to take advantage of the freely obtained knowledge that they already have to find something new. Government would respond, one would hope, by getting smarter about its operations and processes and would use this leverage to drive greater change and efficiency. [update July 2009: This is largely handled by what do they know dot com]
  • And lastly, maybe all of this would be turned inside out and put online, not just FoI requests, but reports and consultancy work that government had paid for, so as to act as the single greatest source of pressure for change and, dare I say that ugly word, transformation (the single best example of which continues to be Optimus Prime in Michael Bay's recent Transformers film). The deluge of information would be enormous. The fragments of data would require an entire army to stitch it together into meaningful conclusions. But, let's be honest, government itself is never going to have a big enough internal army to do this stitching but, the outside world, those who want to be part of an open-source government, now maybe they'd have the willing, the time, the intellect and the energy to sort, distill and publish the very best pieces - and government, of course, would pay for such pieces once and once only. Sadly, the name YouGov is already taken by a very clever chap called Nadhim Zahawi, but maybe he'd be open to offers. Failing that, we could always go back to me.gov, the vision of access to government coined in 2000 following the [necessary] demise of open.gov.uk.

And I thought, not bad ... that's potentially quite a lot of that list done. I hope Civil Pages works, i.e. that it lets people within and across government find each other and harness what has already been done elsewhere rather than doing it over and over again. If it does that then a million quid (or even 50 million quid) would be a cheap deal. Maybe the powers that be do read this blog.

7 comments:

  1. Whitehall Webby10:36 am

    I remember your post from late 2007 and there were several conversations going on at the time to produce something like that. The surprise is that its taken so long. I do wondersometimes if the "beta" tag is being used just as an excuse if mistakes are found in the design, code functionality etc - especially when some projects take so long to come to fruition. Beta to me always seems more real when projects are developed in agile ways.
    Anyway, I'm glad its now running and would love to finally see it sometime.

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  2. Harris9:59 pm

    Sad to see that civil servant have so much time on their hands that they want to bring timewasting tools in house and give it the air of seriousness. It is really Dilbertesque to imagine this.

    Time to downsize Mr Cameron the public sector, get them sweating for their job and pension too.

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  3. time to perhaps get over yourself ... productivity tools used the right way can benefit all sorts of people. i doubt you'll see too many people inside the civil service poking each other or sending each other zombie fests or whatever.

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  4. i've taken a look .. it's interesting but plainly early days.  a few blogs up, a few discussion areas, an internal twitter that also picks up external twitter feeds. early days and a long way to go.  what will be important is that people other than the digitally excited take it up - at the moment it seems to be mostly those you'd expect to be using it.  but early days for sure.

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  5. Whitehall Webby10:26 pm

    Harris, if you really think these are timewasting tools, then what are you doing here?

    I can assure you that 99% of public sector workers that I knew were hard working, dedicated people. It is very easy to attack what you don't know, I was the same before I joined the civil service. But the truth is that it is a tough job. Why don't *you* try it?

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  6. Guest5:57 pm

    here's the link but you need a validated .gsi email address to join :)

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