20 years of “online government” 101. Part 1: progress towards a single online presence (including pictures)

I’m going to bring together in a variety of posts (in no particular order and at random times) a very succinct summary of various aspects of the move towards online public services over the last couple of decades. This draws upon research we did at CTPR, along with personal engagement with some of these efforts, and discussions and debates with a whole host of people and organisations who have grappled with the problems and opportunities over the years. This first post isn’t intended to be comprehensive or definitive — it’s more of a quick 101 of work around a single online ‘portal’ or web presence for UK central government services for those not familiar with the story so far.

So it was nearly 20 years ago that open.gov.uk — the first UK online portal for government services — went live.

open.gov.uk

This was the work of the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), reporting to the Cabinet Office. open.gov.uk acted as a sort of government single point of presence “launchpad” through this new “Government Information Service”, helping users navigate multiple department and agency sites. The CCTA also hosted websites for departments and agencies, aiming to persuade them to work in a collegiate way to provide a more integrated online presence.

In 1996, the ‘Government Direct’ green paper positioned itself as ‘a prospectus for the electronic delivery of government services’.

Government Direct It promised to “… change fundamentally and for the better the way that government provides services to citizens and businesses … Services will be more accessible, more convenient, easier to use, quicker in response and less costly to the taxpayer.”

In 1998, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) conducted an extensive review of progress towards “Electronic Government”. It reported that the Government Information Service site had grown rapidly, but noted some conflicts between the desire for better, open data and the traditional pricing models of many agencies.

GIS

Amongst the many initiatives POST mention are the intelligent form (or iForm) pilot, for enabling notification of self employment through a single intelligent form that updated three separate government departments. It was also around this time the change of address demonstrator was busy being tested.

Change of Address

Then in 1999, the Portal Feasibility Study appeared.

Portal Feasibility

Commissioned by CITU (the Central IT Unit in the Cabinet Office), this explored the feasibility of developing “Government Portals as a potential, single, integrated means of access to Government information and services. This will allow information from different sources within Government to be brought together at one point, allowing the creation of new “joined-up” services with a standardised presentation.”

In 1999, this was followed by the Modernising Government initiative, which included a commitment to develop a single electronic presence aimed at opening up a range of “one-stop-shop” services.

Modernising Government

As a result, in December 2000, the GIS/open.gov.uk presence was replaced with the new UKonline citizen portal.

UK OnlineUKonline didn’t restrict itself solely to an online web presence, but also reached out to other digital channels — including television.

UK Online TV

Rather than limit itself to replicating online versions of transactional paper forms, it also modelled what it called “life episodes” — which aimed to bring together a bundle of services based around events impacting citizens so they could be dealt with in a single place.

UK Online life episodes

In November 2003, a sister government portal for businesses — ‘businesslink.gov.uk’ — was launched to provide access to information and services for businesses.

Business Link

Then in March 2004, we see the first phase of the government’s next portal, ‘Directgov’, launched, revamping and replacing the earlier efforts in its memorable orange livery.

DirectGov

This was followed in 2010 by digital champion Martha Lane Fox’s review of government digital services entitled ‘Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution’.  As a result, an initial prototype of a new site, named Alphagov, was launched in May 2011 and invited feedback as part of work building towards a replacement for both the Directgov and Businesslink sites.

Alphagov

In August 2011, Alphagov moved into its beta phase, further refining and testing an all-encompassing single UK government presence. In October 2012, the site went fully live and operational as gov.uk, replacing both Directgov and BusinessLink.

GOV.UK

Work is currently in progress to continue refining and improving the site, with a particular focus on the delivery of an initial 25 exemplar services to demonstrate the art of the possible.

I think the official 20th ‘birthday’ of the original open.gov.uk/GIS site will be in October of this year — but if anyone knows better or has a more specific date, comments are open below………..

UPDATE: Part 2 — “e-government”architectures — is now available here.

Images from my personal collection (how sad), the National Archives, Wikipedia and http://alpha.gov.uk. Sorry, some of them are the best resolution I can find — if you have better ones and are happy to share, let me know.

Posted in future Britain, IT, IT strategy, open government, public services, technology, technology policy | 4 Comments

London Streets

I’ve been taking some of my earlier research into techniques for interacting with the past of place and moving them into the mobile domain. The result is an app, for both Android and Apple’s iOS, named ‘London Streets’.

The app is now live in Google Play — and going through the Apple review process.

This video gives a brief overview of some of what it’s about …

I’ll be providing more details about the work that went into this — on multiple fronts: from sourcing images and maps, the various theories about the origins and history of London street names, the design of sounds (music and sound effects), through to some of the techniques and technical aspects of working across both Android and Apple mobile platforms.

This all forms part of continuing research and development into the past of place, and how we might better interact and engage with it.

Let me know what you think of the app if you download and use it — user feedback is an essential part of helping improve and enhance the user experience, as well as often providing insight into new and better ways of doing things. And if you spot some mistakes — there are bound to be some, the volume of words, images and maps has been no simple matter to research and incorporate — please let me know!

In the meantime, here are a few screen grabs…

London Streets main menu

London Streets - street explorer

London Streets - more details

London Streets - some curios 'Victorian inventions'

Update: also now available on Amazon

Update 2: now approved by Apple and available in the App Store

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escaping government IT groundhog day

Political interest in using information technology (IT) to improve the UK’s public services shows little sign of abating — but it’s also getting a bit long in the tooth. In my December 2013 CIO column Pantomime villains and heroes I used a few political soundbites that show how all the major parties have been broadly in agreement on this topic since at least 1996.

Some people have asked about the sources I reference in my CIO article, so I thought I’d put the list below together — and also add a few more recent political references.

[IT will] provide better and more efficient services to businesses and to citizens, improve the efficiency and openness of government administration, and secure substantial cost savings for the taxpayer.” Year: 1996. Government: Conservative. Source: Government Direct
 
[IT will help us] make sure that public service users, not providers, are the focus, by matching services more closely to people’s lives … [and] …deliver public services that are high quality and efficient.” Year: 1999. Government: Labour. Source: Modernising Government
 
[IT will] allow us to give citizens what they now demand: public services responsive to their needs and driven by them. It provides us with the means to deliver public services in a way that maintains their quality but brings down their cost.” Year: 2009. Government: Labour. Source: Putting the frontline first: smarter government.
 
[IT will enable us to] deliver better public services for less cost. ICT can release savings by increasing public sector productivity and efficiency … [and] will enable the delivery of public services in very different ways to the past.” Year: 2011. Government: Coalition. Source: Government ICT Strategy.
 
… technology can be a powerful tool and reshape how government and citizens interact with each other. We must see digital government as a way of empowering people – service users and public sector employees, citizens and consumers – and enabling cost reduction in the process.” Year: 2013. Labour Party announcement of a Digital Government review – “Digital Britain 2015.”
 

All of these sentiments seem to echo an even earlier political interest in science and technology — Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s 1963 speech, which asserted that:

“The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.”
(Walden, 2006)

Wilson’s speech is often used today as convenient shorthand for the idea of the “white heat of technology” being harnessed to help modernise and improve the UK. While that’s a useful summary, it risks missing Wilson’s important recognition of tackling out-dated models “on either side of industry” — both private and public sectors. In many ways, the failure to modernise and reform out-dated models in the public sector — and its private sector supply chain — has been a major contributory factor to the failed attempts to use IT as a lever of public sector modernisation.

The lethargic pace of improvements in the public sector compares poorly with the significant revolution in the private sector that has been enabled by IT over the past few decades — everything from on-demand music, films and TV to iPhones and iPads, to ATMs and 24-hour online banking, to Twitter, Facebook, Tripadvisor and Patient Opinion. IT has disrupted and changed beyond recognition numerous industries and businesses, challenging once dominant brands such as HMV, Kodak and Blockbuster and replacing them with organisations such as Netflix, Flickr and Amazon that are byproducts of the digital age. It has also developed a range of IT models — everything from agile to six sigma — rather than the one-size-fits-all waterfall model that has all too often been (poorly) applied to government programmes in the past.

The leisurely progress of the public sector has certainly not been caused by any lack of ambition or public funding — quite the opposite: eye-watering amounts of public funding have been thrown at IT over many decades, yet with remarkably little to showcase in terms of meaningful, widespread improvements in our public services.

This apparent inability to exploit IT in a genuinely transformational way in the public sector sits uneasily with the UK’s reputation as a pioneer in computing. After all, it was the UK that brought the world figures such as Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, and innovations from Colossus to the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX-80 and most recently the Raspberry Pi. Add to this the fact that the civil service itself was an early pioneer in the use of computers and something has clearly gone seriously wrong.

The cross-party House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report on Government IT (PDF) along with numerous National Audit Office and various Public Accounts Committee reports over many years have identified various reasons for this mismatch between political vision and its implementation. Much of this centres on the dual problem of the way that IT has not been seen as a core competence in Whitehall combined with its wholesale outsourcing to a small group of large suppliers. The cross-party House of Commons PASC report found that:

The lack of IT skills in government and over-reliance on contracting out is a fundamental problem which has been described as a “recipe for rip-offs” … government is currently over-reliant on a small “oligopoly” of large suppliers, which some witnesses referred to as a “cartel”. Whether or not this constitutes a cartel in legal terms, current arrangements have led to a perverse situation … benchmarking studies have demonstrated that government pays substantially more for IT when compared to commercial rates. The Government needs to break out of this relationship.

Earlier, the Digital Britain report of 2009 had recognised that:

Government will need to become genuinely “of the web”, not simply “on the web”. That means designing new services and transactions around the web platform, rather than simply adapting paper based, analogue, processes … Bringing about this scale of change will require significant leadership and focus and a willingness to put this reform at the heart of Government activity as opposed to tacking it onto the side of existing ways of working.

Here was public recognition that it was not IT that was the root cause of itself the problem — but reform of the very nature of our public services, and the way they were designed and operated. Yet how would such a major programme of redesign and improvements in our public services ever be possible if a major part of that programme — the IT — was outsourced and not under expert and experienced public sector control and design?

Martha Lane-Fox was one of several advisors on Labour’s Digital Britain report and went on to develop the influential “Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution” report for the coalition government. This led to the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and a move to bring expertise back in-house, moving away from the failed and expensive model of simplistic outsourcing of IT to large suppliers. 

The current programme is effectively a pincer movement that relies on two complementary initiatives to work together in support of each other — and which together seek to bring about the cultural improvements required to deliver on the long-held political vision set out in the quotes above.

On one side are the changes of the past few years that the NAO has examined — the efficiency savings that aim to remove waste and duplication and bad practices, including breaking up major contracts and making them into more competitive lots that more companies, including SMEs, will be able to bid for. The intent is to move the UK away from seeing everything as a procurement problem (and in particular its over-dependency on the handful of corporate IT suppliers that have dominated for so long), and to introduce genuinely open competition and innovation into the marketplace.

On the other side is the equally important focus on improving the design, operation and delivery of public services, spearheaded by the Government Digital Service. If the spend controls are the stick, the digital by default initiative is the carrot — encouraging a renaissance of skills and expertise within the public sector and enabling government to retake control of its own destiny. Although notionally about introducing best practices in user driven needs and the iterative development of solutions, this initiative also carries with it equally important aspirations to improve capabilities throughout Whitehall — including ensuring that Permanent Secretaries and their direct reports do not see technology as something merely to be thrown at a project later downstream as in the past, but as part of the very nature of how modern, twenty-first century services can be entirely redesigned from the ground up. Digital is becoming an integral, pivotal part of both public service and civil service reform — rather than something to be thrown at a large external supplier: its success would fulfil that long-held dual aspiration, of better designed, lower cost digital public services — and the redirection of  resource to our frontline services.

It is this attempt to address what Wilson referred to as the “restrictive practices [and] outdated methods” both within the private and public sectors that will determine whether government and its use of IT can finally succeed in escaping the groundhog day of repeated optimistic visions for its potential and failed implementation. Success relies on re-engineering and rethinking our public services from the ground-up based on users’ needs — not in merely throwing IT at a broken system.

If it is to succeed, this pincer movement requires very careful nurturing and dogged perseverance. The same type of cross-party consensus that has underpinned the vision for IT now needs to be extended to its implementation. Such a cross-party consensus is important to help expedite the necessary structural, organisational and cultural changes across both private and public sectors — finally holding out the prospect of delivering that long-held promise of better designed public services.

This is too important to be allowed to become a party political issue: if that were to happen, instead of meaningful delivery of better public services, we’ll probably find ourselves in another twenty years looking at 40 years worth of wonderful, aspiring soundbites — and regretting what could have been.

Posted in future Britain, IT, IT strategy, public services, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

UK Government ID Assurance Principles – consultation and feedback

… time to set out a few personal thoughts on the independent Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group (PCAG) — and our work overseeing and advising the UK government on various items relating to privacy, identity and security.

PCAG (which I chair) consists of (unpaid) members from a variety of academic, civil society, business, government and consumer groups. They give considerable time and expertise for free, and bring a wealth of experience and expertise from a suitably diverse range of perspectives.

Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we don’t: the purpose is not so much to reach some kind of pointless “group think” consensus as to ensure a robust and sustainable approach to these complex, interwoven topics that will enable the delivery of better public services whilst respecting the need for strong privacy and security. Neither does participation in the group infer any “endorsement” of any specific aspects of government programmes such as the identity assurance scheme from the individuals or the organisations they represent — they are free to dissent or approve of what is happening, in total or in part, as they see fit.

Our focus is on ensuring that the UK government works to provide users (citizens, businesses and the ‘third sector’) with an easy to use, trusted, secure and privacy-compliant way of accessing public services. This will require users to have control of their own personal information; ensure that information is not centralised into a vulnerable single honeypot; and provide a choice of trusted organisations to use for online identity services. (I’m going to ignore here some macro issues, such as recent revelations about the mass interception of private electronic communications by various government agencies …. that’s a whole encyclopaedia worth of blogs and a subject I’ll return to elsewhere).

The group has worked for some time on developing a draft set of identity assurance principles. In June this year, the latest version was put out for consultation. This was our second round of public, transparent consultation (kindly facilitated by the Government Digital Service, GDS) following on from an earlier draft published in April 2012. This open process is intended to help ensure the principles are designed to the highest standard and that all voices have a chance to make themselves heard.

It was also useful that the Scottish Government provided input via their Identity Management and Privacy Principles, which suggest a close alignment between both the objectives and some of the means by which identity can be made to work in a secure and privacy sensitive way. (On a point of transparency, I should point out I may be hopelessly biased on this point since I was also one of the members of the expert group that earlier helped the Scottish Government develop their principles. Yes, yes, I know – I really must get out more.)

As an independent expert group, PCAG has a mandate to challenge and question, as well as to receive detailed explanations of both the policy intent and the technology being used and the systems and the architectures being developed. To be frank, we have no formal power: the group can advise, question, criticise and comment, but the government’s identity assurance programme (IDAP) team and others we engage with are free to take or leave our advice. In practice, however, we have found the IDAP team receptive to our inputs and critiques.

The principles are to a large extent about re-establishing trust — and build on the premise that personal data should be effectively protected from those who would seek to misuse it either by accident or by design. Whilst an updated version of the principles based on recent feedback will be published as a formal “1.0” release once we’ve had a chance to integrate the recent round of feedback, we have always seen them as a living, breathing entity that will continue to evolve in the light of practical experience.

The range of feedback we’ve received during the most recent public consultation period is diverse, so it’s taking time to collate and action. It also spans numerous categories: some feedback provides material, important clarifications and will be incorporated into an updated draft of the principles. Thank you for this — sometimes it takes others to see the wood when you’ve been standing far too close to the trees examining the intricacies of the patterns in the bark. Other feedback has related to the principles’ wider context, and recommended communicating better where and how they fit; whilst other comments highlighted minor grammatical/presentational aspects.

Many other comments provided a mix of alternative views on the progress of the government’s IDAP programme itself and hence fell outside the scope and role of PCAG. For example, some comments were actually questions about progress of the early alpha and beta services using the new approach to ID, or about the identity providers and the nature of their contracts with government, or about departments and their plans for early adopter services. These questions are for the IDAP team and their work with identity providers and departments on development and delivery, not PCAG. Whilst we take an active interest in the physical realisation of the system, it is the definition of, and compliance with, the principles that concern us — from the low level technical and computational level to the policy and regulatory level. We seek assurance that across all of these levels that the principles are being delivered.

Some other respondents appeared to misunderstand the context of the principles, and sought to cover related, but mature and well understood ground, about the nature of identity systems. It’s therefore worth me restating here that the principles are focused on the operation of a user-centric, privacy-compliant identity assurance service. Their purpose is not to cover the many other, well-worn aspects of identity: much of the foundation for the new service is already well understood and covered in the Good Practice Guides. Likewise, some comments about biometrics having been “missed” for example, seemed unaware that this topic is well covered in GPG 44 (Authentication Credentials in Support of HMG Online Services).

Such comments usefully flag again the important issue of how to ensure a better understanding of IDAP, the principles and the way they will enable users to interact in a trusted way with online public services. We have discussed with the IDAP team the need for better, clearer and simpler communication and some less technical documents that convey the purpose and nature of the programme and the principles — something akin to a Ladybird Book or a  ’101 on identity, privacy and security’ for those who would like or need to better understand.

I hope that we’ll be able to publish the revised and improved principles early in the new year — and thank all of you who found the time to respond. It’s much appreciated.

Posted in future Britain, identity, IT, IT strategy, open government, privacy, public services, security, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

Updated UK Government ID Assurance Principles published

As I mentioned in ID Assurance Principles — an interim update,  the privacy-related principles that will underpin the UK Government’s identity assurance programme for digital public services have continued to be developed — and yesterday, the latest draft was published online.

This followed a constructive meeting between the independent privacy and consumer stakeholder advisory group and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP. At the meeting we presented the background to the principles and how they are intended to establish and maintain trust after the debacle of the earlier national ID cards and related programmes. (I also couldn’t help but notice that whilst the rest of us shuffled piles of paper around and scribbled with pens, the Minister was using an iPad — an interesting reversal of the usual norms.)

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is now seeking further feedback on these draft principles — see Mike Bracken’s blog here. Please do get involved if you have ideas for how they can be further refined and improved.

I’d like to express my thanks to fellow members of the group who have voluntarily given up their own time to work so diligently and productively on developing these principles into their current form over the past few years. I’d also like to acknowledge the positive and open engagement we have developed with GDS, and numerous government departments.

There have, of course, at times been occasions and areas of disagreement and divergence, both within the group and between the group and others — all of which I regard as both healthy and essential, something to be expected when discussing and developing principles of such importance. Good solutions rarely come out of sycophantic monocultural “group think” in my experience — far better to identify and face problem areas, working to resolve them pragmatically, rather than to deny or ignore their existence.

As the work of the group continues, our interest now is not just in ensuring the principles are as good as they can possibly be, but also to ensure they are consistently applied to digital services — to the benefit of citizens and government alike. More on this as our work develops …

Posted in future Britain, identity, IT, IT strategy, open government, privacy, public services, security, technology, technology policy | Leave a comment

more with Kinect …

Work on developing and protoyping with Kinect some of my earlier research continues.

The video below shows prototyping of the lens that can “see through time”, in this case allowing users’ hand gestures to move the lens around the screen to explore how it looked at an earlier time in the past.

The onscreen skeleton and hand silhouette are there mainly for prototyping purposes — and in part to illustrate in a single video how user movements impact the positioning and movement of the lens.

More soon ….

Posted in augmented reality, computer arts, creative computing, interactive digital technologies | Leave a comment

ID Assurance Principles — an interim update

I’ve had many requests for updates on progress with the status of the identity assurance principles intended to underpin the new UK government identity assurance scheme. So I thought I’d post a brief interim update on how things are going with the excitingly named Identity Assurance Programme Privacy and Consumer Stakeholder and Communications Group (a group of independent experts in all things identity, privacy and security related, spanning their legal, technology and citizen implications), which is providing advice to the Cabinet Office.

Mike Bracken, Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, posted a draft version of our work in March of 2012, as part of the open and transparent process of sharing progress and soliciting feedback on improvements. I also posted them here, although perhaps not in the most readable of formats.

Since that time, the group has been active on looking at feedback, inviting in various government departments and others to review their work, and generally trying to improve the principles to ensure they are pragmatic, useful and consistent, but most of all to ensure they will help build trust based on privacy, security and identity best practice.

We’re at the stage now where I hope the principles will soon be formally republished in their latest form — watch this space. There are no major changes, mainly just clarifications in an endeavour to ensure they are understandable even when discussing some of the arcane complexities that emerge in this space. The intention is that the principles will be applied to the IDA scheme: that all suppliers on the framework for Identity Assurance and all government organisations will conform with the IDA Principles (as they are equally required to comply with government security and other best practice guidance).

In any case, the principles are never likely to be ‘final’ and carved into stone never to be changed again. They will need to be a living and breathing thing, able to deliver their core intent over time, but equally able to flex and adapt based on real life feedback and the ever-changing nature of the interplay between privacy, security and identity — and trust.

On a related note, the Government Digital Service (GDS) recently published the “Good Practice Guide (GPG) 45 – Identity Proofing and Verification of an Individual” which is also worth a read. So is the earlier GDS overview of what they are working towards, together with some of the embedded links.

In the meantime, the principles as set out in March of last year are still a good steer — and as soon as it is agreed, the updated version will appear here and in a variety of more ‘official’ places too.

Transparency disclosure: I am the Chair of the above-mentioned Identity Assurance Programme Privacy and Consumer Stakeholder and Communications Group and writing this in a personal capacity that reflects no formal views of either the group or the Cabinet Office.

Posted in future Britain, identity, IT, IT strategy, open government, privacy, security, technology policy | Leave a comment