mySociety’s review of Parliament digital: a response

This post has been a long time coming, mostly because I struggled to find the time to respond to the mySociety report in the depth that I’d have liked to. So, in lieu of something longer, I hope this will do. I think it is imperative that the spirit and the substance of mySociety’s recommendations are implemented in full. This is a huge opportunity to bring about lasting, meaningful change to the way that Parliament operates – not just online, but more broadly. Bringing modern services to the web usually results in organisational challenges. Most organisations are not very user-centric, and creating services that genuinely put the needs of users first is impossible unless the organisation and its underlying processes do the same. I believe that the right person as Head of Digital, with the right team and the support of their senior leadership, could transform the way Parliament operates: ...(Read More)

“If it’s not save to breathe…”: let us count the ways

Inspired by a post on facebook, I thought I’d respond to this image, which is doing the rounds: There are lots of reasons why it might be safe to eat something, but not to breathe it. These are all conjecture, but not fanciful: Some things are safe to ingest, but not safe to inhale. Airborne mould spores might be a good example. (Edit: A better example, suggested by David Edwards, is flour, eg, Bakers’ Asthma) Someone breathing a spray will absorb whatever is being sprayed in much greater concentration than someone who eats some of the liquid after it’s landed on a surface. You would not inhale the spray from an air freshener, but you probably wouldn’t throw away the apples just because a little of it landed on them. Inhalation is a much more direct route to the bloodstream than ingestion. Ingested substances are acted on by numerous things ...(Read More)

Religious ideas, a tabula rasa and an atheist parent

I've been wondering a lot recently about what one should tell children about the world.

I get annoyed when Government is pushy, rude and aggressive

This is admittedly a fairly minor example, but it genuinely irritates me. And it’s by no means the first letter from HMRC that’s done the same. Click for a bigger version. For the most part, I find that ensuring my business complies with all the Government’s requirements to file and pay things is a huge pain in the arse. I do most of it myself, I try to get it right and mostly succeed, and when there have been mistakes they’ve always been genuine. So, when I get letters threatening me with penalties if I cease to do something I’ve been doing all along, I get annoyed. It’s unnecessary. I wouldn’t ever send a letter like this to a client or a supplier unless sorely provoked. So why is it HMRC’s default tone of voice? Why can’t Government talk like a human?

How government’s SME relationship should smell

Since I started dxw a few years ago, surprisingly little has changed in the way that we contract with Government. Now that the Government Digital Service has thoroughly arrived on the scene, I thought it might be a good time to write something about how I think contracting for digital ought to work. Or perhaps more accurately, how it should smell. I’ve never worked as a civil servant, and I’m not a legal expert. The only experience I have of procurement is that of a small supplier to Government trying to get things done. So, this post is neither comprehensive, nor a solution. More a statement of principle. There are many problems with the contracts under which Government currently works with SMEs (at least, all the ones I’ve seen). They’re too long. They’re not really being used for the purpose they were designed for. But, on a much more practical level, ...(Read More)

The only decent picture anyone got

Museums are the guardians of our cultural heritage, not the owners of it.

Redefining privacy

Or: how lots of bits of our private lives are going to get sucked into the public domain whatever we might think about it, so if you can't beat 'em, join 'em

System Error: fixing the flaws in Government IT

A few months ago, I was interviewed by researchers from the Institute for Government, as part of their work on the report that arrived, embargoed, in my email yesterday. I’ve now had a chance to read it. I’ve heard a number of opinions on the project over the last few months — I have to say, mostly not very complimentary ones — so I was glad to see what they finally decided. On the whole, I think it’s quite good, as far as it goes. It’s definitely saying the right kinds of things about the sort of change that’s needed: notably, choosing commodity options when they’re available, and using agile processes to innovate and develop bespoke solutions when they’re necessary. Good stuff. The report includes a now very-well-rehearsed explanation of the problems with government’s traditional approaches which is spot on, and some good recommendations for Government – it will be ...(Read More)

On £585 favicons…

Much noise has been made in the last couple of days about Reading Room charging the Information Commissioner’s Office £585 for a favicon – the small graphics that appear to the left of the URL in the address bar when you visit a website. This story provoked a rather predictable outburst on how Government spends far too much money, and doesn’t get value for money*. It’s a perspective that’s expressed frequently — most recently for the police.uk’s £300k price-tag. Often Government does pay too much. We all wonder why BusinessLink costs £36m a year. But this isn’t one of those cases. Reading Room charged £585 for the ICO’s favicon, and most people seem to be objecting to that figure on the basis that it would have taken them 5 minutes to do it, and therefore, that Reading Room must have charged £585 for 5 minutes work. But, as anyone familiar ...(Read More)

Number 10′s e-petitions can be better

We all know and love the Number 10 petitions site. The technology works and the experience is well thought through, as one would expect given that it’s a mySociety project. It’s not perfect, though, and as usual, it’s the human element that’s problematic. It’s the responses to petitions that don’t hit the mark, and don’t give any opportunity for people to engage further. It’s the top-down, message-driven, one-way broadcasting at people, instead of the collaborative, mutually respectful conversation that we should be having with Government. Having real, two-way conversations is hard. It requires time, patience, money, and a wholesale change in attitude — but Government say they’re up for it. Digital Engagement is the mantra du jour. And things are definitely moving in the right direction. So — given this background of steady and positive change — why are Number 10 still stuck in the mud? Why do we get ...(Read More)

Reboot Britain: We need open government interfaces

Very excitingly, Wired UK got in touch a few weeks ago to ask if I’d write a piece for this month’s feature, Reboot Britain. I wrote about open interfaces to government services: essentially, APIs for the government systems that underlie public services. Unfortunately, the article didn’t make it into the magazine because there wasn’t enough space. Disappointing, but it was still great to be asked, and they’ve published it online. From the article: Many of us have been campaigning for open government data for a long time, and I think we’ve won the argument. By the time you’re reading this, data.hmg.gov.uk – a central listings service for government data – should be live. But data taken alone rarely creates real, tangible change in the world. Data alone doesn’t get your rubbish recycled or your prescription filled. You need data to find out how or where to do those things, but ...(Read More)

Should there be copyright in NPG’s photos?

There’s a pretty good chance that there is copyright in the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs of paintings, which are currently the subject of a legal spat between NPG and a volunteer for the The Wikimedia Foundation. Intuitively, that seems like a bad thing — but is it? And if so, what does it mean for the future of digitisation? Others have done a much better job of explaining the legal situation than I could, so I won’t talk about that. I’m more interested in the policy position that we should be adopting than the one we’ve found ourselves in. Intuitively, I feel that there shouldn’t be copyright in the images that Wikimedia are using. That their importance trumps NPG’s desire to exploit them commercially: these paintings are an important and unique part of our culture’s history. This isn’t just academic: it has real impact. All that said, a policy position ...(Read More)

The Questionable Ethics of Dragons’ Den

I’m a bit of an addict of Dragons’ Den. It’s great TV — but occasionally, people get really screwed. I was watching Dragons’ Den on Dave the other day, when David Lees arrived to pitch for some money. David Lees was an engineer of many, many years’ experience. He designed things, invented things, created new and patentable ideas and generally made lots of money for his employer. Eventually, he set off on his own, producing high-end stands for Plasma TVs — the kind you see at conferences and other big events. He sought an investment of £225,000 for 10% of his company. So far, so good. A typical scenario. What makes this one different is that the company was very successful: it had consistent sales and was profitable. In fact, its success had already led to an offer from Panasonic to buy the company for £3.25m. Lees wanted a Dragon’s ...(Read More)