Sunday, August 29, 2010

Question 3 - Sharing the Platform

I posted my thoughts on Question 3 of the 4 asked by the directgov review. The question is:

To what extent should Central Government provide a platform for the delivery of digital services by other parts of the public or voluntary sector – for example, local authorities, councils, voluntary and community sector organisations?

Here's what I said:

Let me start by declaring my bias. In 2001 I ran the team that either built or operated (sometimes both) UK gov’s central infrastructure (the government gateway, ukonline.gov.uk, knowledge network and the GSI; later we built other capability – direc.gov.uk, secure email, the criminal justice exchange and so on.

Almost a decade later I still believe that any government needs a core of central infrastructure. That doesn’t mean that there’s only one of everything or indeed only one of anything. But it does mean that there are enormous economies of scale (for government) in having only a very small number of things and enormous efficiencies (for the population at large) in being able to access definitive, joined up, secure content and services provided by government.

A good example of how a platform can be developed in central government are the various tax services offered by HMRC. Sure, they come in for lots of flak from those who will happily throw rocks from the doors of their rickety greenhouses, but they work and work well. HMRC provides self assessment as a service (SAaaS?) yet publishes the schema and the rules so that other providers can do the same; likewise with PAYE – you can fill the forms in online at HMRC if you want, but there is a vast market in providers of integrated accounting systems that provide far better PAYE than HMRC could (or would want to).   We’ve come a long way since the debacle of the online fishing licence.

It’s 5 years since I stopped running central infrastructure and, whilst I believe I left it in a pretty good state, those who followed have made enormous strides that I only wish I could have done. That must be allowed to continue, with direct.gov.uk at the centre of it.

When I started in UK government, the website count was already over 1,000. It climbed soon after to over 3,000. Only recently has that trend been arrested and the count, whilst still too high, is being managed down.

As a consumer of UK government information, I want to be sure that I am accessing the most up to date, most relevant content. I don’t want to learn how government works and be forced to remember which department operates what services or how I need to access them. Likewise, I only want one password to access government services (via the gateway) although I understand why some would want more.

Direct.gov should certainly act as a platform and extend what it already does – it should aggressively aggregate and distil content so that the chasms between government organisations are largely hidden from my view (this was always the point of direct.gov of course). It should make that content available to those who want to reuse it (as it does now through its syndication engine) and it should continue to close down non-specialist government websites. All that remain should be specific departmental policy sites such as those for accountants where arcane policy advice needs to be made available but where usage is low.

Direct.gov should then re-open its search engine, taking it back to the original instance where search was pan-government. Any government website should be able to use that engine to search its site but also to provide links to direct.gov’s content (as sponsored links or “ads” down the side) so that any one on any government site can find content on any other site all through one managed engine.

Direct.gov should provide (and perhaps already does) mini-campaign sites for every department that wants to launch an online initiative, and provide a centralised ad engine that allows ads for those campaigns to be displayed on other sites (by provide in this instance I don’t mean some monolithic central capability but access to tools and services that can do this quickly and cheaply).

I applaud those who have navigated around central bureaucracy and used tools such as WordPress to create, often within hours or a few days, sites that meet specific needs or that handle sudden reorganisations of the government machine. But, that said, I innately believe that fragmentation of government content is a bad thing – I don’t want to figure out which of the 310,000 instances of the phrase “disability living allowance” is the right one. I want to be taken to the right one by direct.gov. And I don’t want different government departments spending money trying to keep each of those 310,000 instances up to date as the rules change.

The last part of being a platform is transactional. Should direct.gov move into directly providing transactional services into government? We always imagined it should and would. It hasn’t so far (short of providing skins for those who do provide such services). Increasingly I think this is a step too far and that it is better for departments to be required to open up the rules for their transactions and to provide white label forms that can be used by others alongside their own branded ones. The trouble here is that when sending information to government, I think I’d want to be sure that it was definitely going to government and that there was a near-zero risk of someone else seeing it (the napster version of Self Assessment where you could briefly share tax forms caused some chaos for a while). So there needs to be some kind of kitemark or audit process but, at the same time, people have to recognise the need for their own diligence as evidence by the recent iTunes problems where compromised accounts were used to boost the chart ranking of books and applications.

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