Comments for Directgov Review An independent review of Directgov led by Martha Lane Fox Fri, 03 Sep 2010 21:56:37 +0000 hourly 1 Comment on Question 4: Trends in digital delivery by Paul Clarke Fri, 03 Sep 2010 21:56:37 +0000 I’ve offered some thoughts in my response to Questions 2 and 3 that also reflect on future trends. Specifically, give more thought – real, deep, tested thought – to whether some services are suitable for digital delivery at all. Don’t try to solve all political problems and philosophical citizen/state problems by defining them as digital ones (the issue of digital identity management is a case in point here).

And above all, be flexible in how and where services are delivered. Directgov describes itself as “public services all in one place” – are we not now at the point (or even some way past it) where this should be “public services all in the right place”?

Disclosure: as Question 1.

Comment on Question 3: Sharing the platform by Paul Clarke Fri, 03 Sep 2010 21:48:07 +0000 I’m not entirely convinced by the question. As others have pointed out, for central government services there are economic and consistency advantages in having a platform that can be used by many areas of government activity. I am wary of the word ‘platform’ though – it can have too many interpretations for my liking. cf ‘Framework’!

What I think might lie behind the question is: should more be offered centrally to help more disparate public service players (public, private or voluntary) deliver digitally? And I’d offer a big ‘no’ to this. How many infrastructure rollouts have failed because they offered something that became too big to specify, too complex to procure and ended up being so slow that other alternatives had already got there ahead of them?

Digital technologies are fast-developing and fast-flowing. Good services will find a way to their audiences, and poor ones won’t. We’re not in 2001 now, where having a clearly navigable structure of websites was at the heart of digital strategy. We’re in a networked, modular world. To a great extent it doesn’t matter where services are hosted, what they are co-located with, or who actually operates them. If they are findable, and deliver benefit, then they thrive. Interfere with those natural mechanisms at your peril. (And please don’t use a ton of my taxes in trying…)

Disclosure: As Question 1.

Comment on Question 2: Who should do what? by Paul Clarke Fri, 03 Sep 2010 21:38:59 +0000 Central government should make policy and set the rules by which services are delivered. It is also very likely to deliver a large number of them (by virtue of trust, security or scale issues). I will not stray here into commentary on how it should make policy – that is more a matter of political style and judgement in my opinion.

The mechanics of delivery will also be hugely complex, with public and private sector participation both playing significant roles. Again, there is no single, trite answer in a forum such as this to ‘who does what’.

I will however suggest a few tips: government needs to get better at assessing what can and cannot be achieve in practice using digital services. There is no end of theoretical modelling that will show us how x transaction can be reengineered in y ways to deliver z savings. But apply that theory to the reality of 60m citizens with an almost infinite variety of personal circumstances, motivations and behaviours and previous solid business cases start to crumble. It is extremely unlikely, in my view, that a mechanism can ever be constructed which will allow for single sign-on to a trusted relationship with lots of areas of government at the same time, such that meaningful and useful transactions can be carried out. The drawbacks and pitfalls scale much, much faster than the benefits. I can draw you a theoretical model of how a single identity and PIN could do the job, but I wouldn’t be able to implement it (even accounting for the fact that much of what we understand about rights and privacy would have to fundamentally change to do so). But that is a much deeper debate than suits this comment box.

Rather than barking up the same old trees, government needs to improve in other disciplines – I’ll offer two for consideration. 1. Smart service design – whereby real-world cases, cutting across many departmental areas of responsibility, are used as a starting point for developing solutions. Strong leadership, to ensure that such smarter services can be pushed through to delivery, even where this means some flex in departmental ownership, or amendment to policy. And 2. Risk assessment – simply replicating offline services online doesn’t work. We know this. Much is changed simply by the act of providing a service in a remote, anonymous, scalable and rapid channel, such as the web. Reliance on old forms of ‘friction’, such as the filling in of complex forms, or the use of a physical signature, don’t have the same meaning in a digital channel. Risks, of fraud or error, need to be wholly reevaluated in light of the digital channel.

Directgov’s flagship service, still – after more than 5 years – the car tax renewal, works so well because of decisions like this. There is no requirement to go through an elaborate identity-proving process every time you buy a tax disc. What’s the worst that could happen, really? You might buy a disc for someone else? Wow. And the car itself is oblivious to the fact that its details are being shared across MOT, insurance and DVLA databases. It’s a car. It doesn’t care. It’s because almost every other service is about a person that makes them so difficult, and the tax disc magic so hard to repeat. And although, generally, we need to be sure that someone is entitled to the services they claim – and that appropriate data sharing safeguards are observed – I still feel there is more that could be done in assessing service risk in a way appropriate to the channel being used.

Full disclosure: as per Question 1.

Comment on Question 1: Central Government’s objectives in digital delivery by Paul Clarke Fri, 03 Sep 2010 21:12:38 +0000 This is the essential question: Directgov could mean many different things, and indeed already does to many people – at least in terms of aspiration.

A search engine; a portal; an aggregator of easy-to-digest content; a two-way interface; a repository of content to be pulled down by people; a place for messages to be pushed out to them… the list goes on.

Realistically, it must do some of these jobs in concert. Equally realistically it cannot (certainly in the incarnation of a single site) do them all at the same time – not without great confusion and scope creep, in any case. There are trade-offs to be made, and compromises to achieve.

The first common challenge is “should there be a Directgov site (as central government’s web delivery channel for some services) at all?” Although there is a cogent argument that opening up all the ‘data’ would allow anyone to create a better alternative presentation of information, this is countered by the evidence of a desire for single, authoritative and trusted presentation. Directgov at least fulfils some of this role. Should it encompass absolutely everything that government does? I would argue no. A failure to set a clear boundary on what Directgov does and does not cover is one of the weaknesses of the current arrangement. I will return to why this might be so later.

Should it be led by the needs of its users? The answer is less clear. Government is not a retailer. It does not bend according to the market it serves (at least not in the delivery of established services – there are nuances here about improvement and feedback on those services, and of course in the business of democratic exercise of choice – but to dig into these would make this response unreasonably long). Let us just accept that there are some services that central government delivers in the interests of society, rather than in the micro-interests of the individual. Taxes, licensing and “social guidance” are such examples. You can argue that government has no role telling people how to bring up their children and so on if you like, but that is a separate debate, and if one recognises that large areas of government policy are devoted to just such activities, then delivery through Directgov (where web delivery is beneficial) must be balanced alongside the services a customer might more arguably ‘choose’.

So Directgov is neither wholly customer-led, nor importantly, led by the needs of government departments. It must balance both. Even for straightforward ‘information-based’ areas of government activity this is difficult. In a service organisation the presentation of the service is the service in the eyes of its users. There is scant point arguing that a poor piece of content is the responsibility of the department that ‘owns’ it. This is meaningless to someone in the real world.

So one of the most important challenges is one of control. Who ‘owns’ content that is presented within Directgov? The current, sometimes uneasy, compromise between ‘central’ control (as in the operators of the main Directgov site) and departmental interests (in the integrity of content) doesn’t seem strategically sustainable. Doing really clever stuff (like putting a range of services together that are all relevant to the same person at the same time e.g. school and childcare locations) will never really take off under such constraints of ownership. We can pretend they will, eventually, but the evidence tells us otherwise.

We’ve been here before, of course. Those with long memories will recall that UK Online (a distant predecessor of Directgov) tried to bundle up related services into ‘life events’ – having a baby, moving house and so on. Granted, it never tried to achieve more than just offering related links to deeper content elsewhere. But the aspiration of actually delivering more intelligent ‘bundles’ of services to people should still remain. It just can’t be delivered if there is uncertainty over who is in charge of the content.

There is a case for change: the current operating model isn’t delivering transformation. I would argue that it was always talked up as having more of a transformational role than it was given power to deliver, and we shouldn’t judge the current organisation too harshly. But I suggest there is a strategic choice facing Directgov here: a real, difficult one. Reconstitute it as a ‘real’ central delivery arm of government, capable of ‘owning’ and being accountable for services – in line with ministerial policy within departments, of course – OR disestablish a central organisation and have departments responsible for their own services, but delivered to a common set of standards (of design, of user experience, of functionality etc.) There is no reason incidentally why the latter option couldn’t still be called ‘Directgov’ – it would just be a reading of ‘Directgov’ as a term referring to excellence in practice of user experience, rather than a single site.

Both options have drawbacks, of course. Both involve considerable change. This costs money and takes time. If the driving force emerges as being financial, the second option is more likely to emerge. If it is truly transformational service, the first will hold more sway. Tough choices, with long-term consequences. But if this review is serious about achieving transformational change, then these options should be explored in more detail.

Full disclosure: I was the interim head of Directgov’s strategic proposition from 2007 to 2009, and had some involvement with the life events design work of UK Online. Proposition here refers to the scope and nature of the services in the web and other digital channels. I have omitted any discussion of mobile and TV for reasons of brevity.

Comment on Question 4: Trends in digital delivery by Jeremy Bennett Fri, 03 Sep 2010 16:02:21 +0000 I urge the government to look to two technologies

1. Use open standards, free of royalty. This ensures that anyone can interact with the government’s digital program, in a clear way, and without having to pay a fee to a third party.

2. Always use open source software. Where a government service requires software it should be free and open source. This gives two benefits. First the barrier to adoption is at a minimum – no money to third parties for the tools required. Secondly, being open source, others can contribute to improving the software. This latter reduces the costs to government, and seems a practical example of the “Big Society” philosophy.

As an example, my small business cannot currently use the full facilities of online tax filing without buying specialist software. With an open source solution, based on open standards, that cost is removed, and the potential for continual improvement of the software is readily available.

Comment on Question 1: Central Government’s objectives in digital delivery by Liz Azyan Fri, 03 Sep 2010 13:39:59 +0000 Currently the public need to “find” Directgov each time they “know” they need information or a service. Directgov could be much more proactive by offering personalised targeted updates so the public are automatically notified when content that’s relevant to them changes.

Directgov doesn’t currently put citizens in control. You could do this by letting visitors choose when, how and where they get government information and receive this automatically when new or updated information becomes available. Providing personalised automated alerts via the Directgov website, email, SMS, Social Media and text-to-voice services will make Directgov more “inclusive” even for those without direct or immediate access to the internet.

An example of this in action can be found on (comparable with Directgov) which uses subscription services. Users are encouraged to register for topic based alerts based to information that interests them. Once registered, citizens are automatically alerted through email, social media, and/or SMS message whenever the content they are interested in changes or new content is added to the website. The level of granularity on provides far more relevant alerts that cater to specific citizen need rather than the current emphasis on basic news alerts or monthly newsletters that have historically been the focus of UK government attempts at proactive digital outreach.

· Subscription Services –
· Notifications Dashboard –

Subscription drives engagement, offers inclusive access to government information and (where relevant) increases usage of other online content. Citizens who receive timely, accurate information are able to make more informed decisions and are more likely to return to Directgov seek other information on a more frequent basis.

A key success factor for is that it offers collaboration through its subscriptions platform to many other US agencies – providing joined up government and greater access to information. Citizens who subscribe to information on can easily subscribe to related information at other US agencies. This network has approaching 18 million US citizens who are now actively engaged with US government.

Similar systems are already in place in the UK. For example, DSA, Highways Agency and the Met Office have similar services linked via a collaborative subscription network. However, they lack the level of joining up that has been put in place in the U.S. via Directgov could play an exciting role in joining together proactive digital outreach across the entire UK government.

Comment on Question 4: Trends in digital delivery by Glyn Moody Fri, 03 Sep 2010 12:42:36 +0000 Since technology is moving so quickly, and nobody knows exactly what will happen in the future (not even highly-paid consultants), I think the key issue is to ensure that whatever is done is not predicated on a particular way of looking at the world, which might turn out to be inappropriate (imagine asking this question about key trends just before the Web came along, and trying to solve it with computer technology of the time.)

The way to do this is through truly open standards – those that are open to all, and are made available under a Royalty Free licence if there are any patents involved. This will create a level playing-field that will allow all players in the computer sector to create solutions in response to changing needs and technologies. It will allow older solutions to be swapped out, and new ones to be brought in, with the minimum of disruption. It will also promote a competitive environment that will tend to reduce costs.

As well as this overarching strategic approach to dealing with important trends, there are some more specific areas that seem to be gaining in importance. However, it must be stressed that these will need constant review, since IT is as much driven by fads and fashions as any other domain, and what seems the way forward now may turn into a dead-end in five years’ time (push services are a good example of how wrong pundits can be.)

So alongside open standards, open source is clearly emerging as one of the most powerful forces in computing today. This is not to say that open source be used for every project, and in all circumstances: there may be particular requirements that simply cannot be met using such software. But given the flexibility that open source offers – and freedom from lock-in to one particular manufacturer’s set of technologies – it should always be explored as an option, at least.

Open data complements open standards and open source, but is different from them. Again, the power of making non-personal datasets freely available means that new systems should be designed with a view to making such data useful for as wide a class of players – governmental, corporate, NGOs and individuals – as possible. There should be no attempt to second-guess what those uses might be, since this will probably distort the way the data is made available. Better simply to maximise availability and to leave it to others to exploit that.

Comment on Question 1: Central Government’s objectives in digital delivery by Peter Jordan Fri, 03 Sep 2010 10:18:53 +0000 Yes, people do use Google and Bing to find information online, but most organisations invest considerable effort in making sure their content and services are 1) findable in search engines and 2) when you click through to a landing page it is readable and the call to action is clear. In my opinion, this is a clear part of Directgov’s role – to curate content and services to make them findable and usable.

Comment on Question 1: Central Government’s objectives in digital delivery by Kate Thu, 02 Sep 2010 19:18:53 +0000 As a jobseeker, I used to find easily dozens of potential jobs on the Jobcentreplus website. It was the best website for jobs in the UK. I could find any type of job in any area of the country at any salary level and get all the details in a few clicks. Since Directgov took over the site, it has turned into a disaster area, and after struggling for hours trying to find both local jobs and those within daily traveling distance, I have given up using it. Whoever designed the Directgov jobs website is an idiot, and obviously never tried actually using it to find a job.

Comment on Question 4: Trends in digital delivery by James Munro Wed, 01 Sep 2010 21:49:32 +0000 The web is changing fast and the pace shows no sign of slowing – so, like anyone else who builds things online, government must keep watching and responding to all trends if it is not to become irrelevant.
One significant trend not mentioned in other responses is that the web has enabled people to become active contributors rather than simply passive consumers online. Citizens gain a voice they did not have before, and increasingly expect to be able to engage with public services as active, thoughtful collaborators, not simply as “users” or “the audience”.
This poses big challenges to both government and public services, but it also creates new opportunities to engage with, improve and perhaps even transform the public realm – just as Wikipedia, through the voluntary contributions of many, has transformed the possible size and currency of the encyclopedia.
The web makes possible new forms of digital gift economy in which people are willing, given the right conditions, to help one another and contribute for the common good. Our experience at Patient Opinion – seeing people share often distressing experiences so that health services can learn and improve – is one example of this.
Government must understand, study and perhaps consider how it might support the trend towards an active, contributing citizenry online, especially in relation to improving public services. It remains an open question, however, whether and in what settings government itself should aim to be the author of such online initiatives.