The Government Digital Service

The Register has run a pretty brutal hatchet job on the Government Digital Service, which has, up until now, received pretty much universal acclaim. This is from a section on the visa and immigration website transition:

Despite all its much-vaunted focus on users and usability, the transition is now widely acknowledged to have been a disaster. GDS didn’t seem to know who the users of government services actually are. Specifically, the "jean-wearing Post It Note wranglers” at GDS (as some government IT types see them) didn’t realise that visa applications come not just from tourists, but from universities and business applicants too. Businesses typically use specialist agencies to accelerate the bureaucratic process and these were scuppered by the transition.

This certainly has strong hints of the old-school IT establishment pushing back - and pushing back hard - on an approach that completely upturns their old assumptions. The "jean-wearing Post It Note wranglers" is a give-away. In other words, read the article with a hefty dose of skepticism.

The gov.uk backlash

But it's an interesting counter-point to the general praise that I've heard internationally for the work of the GDS. And certain statements made by GDS personnel are certainly wince-worthy:

The response to that tweet - which was quoted in the article - was strong enough that Reichelt felt compelled to blog to explain what she meant:

What is equally problematic, though, is a team full of people who have extensive experience working on the problem space they are just about to tackle.

Teams like this have so many shared mental models and assumptions about how things work, what things mean, where the constraints are, and how people think and work, and, despite their experience, not all of these things are right.

All of which is a fair point - but is not really what she said up front. Ah, the dangers of tweets.

Khoi Vihn, designer and former New York Times staffer, as part of his lukewarm response to the new New York Times magazine:

It’s also true that part of my objection owes to the fact that I find the magazine format less than enthralling these days. With few exceptions, it’s my experience that magazines generally can’t justify why all of a given issue’s content is bundled together, why I need to bother with the obvious filler that so often consumes the “front of the book,” and why so many long format stories are as long as they are.

It's an interesting perspective. I think his comments certainly hold true - at least for generalist magazines, like newspaper supplement magazines tend to be. Niche magazines have a greater reason to exist, and have a clearer focus, meaning that all sections of it tend to have at least some appeal.

Now is not a good time to be in the generalist magazine business.

Blogger at work Fascinating read in the wake of Andrew Sullivan's closure of The Dish, in which Ira Stoll explores the present and future of blogging:

And while the ability to produce opinion quickly can be abused, blogs provide the kind of connection and curation that is necessary to understand a world with so much news and information. Successful blogs use hyperlinks to send us out into the web; the blog is guide and greeter. A great blogger can be a personal information concierge, and is likely offering that service for free. Blogs are often bargains.

It doesn't say anything fundamentally new, certainly nothing we haven't known for years, but Stoll brings a historic context and an eloquence to the argument that's compelling.

Kevin Anderson:

For too long we’ve been trying to find a market for the same products that we used to deliver in print, and that just won’t work. We can’t simply write that local council story the same way that we used to and hope that social media will be enough to market it. I’m really not sure that those incremental, process-based stories actually engage audiences. Instead, we need thematic stories and engagement opportunities that tackle big issues in sticky ways.

This is written in the context of local journalism, but I think it pretty much applies to all journalism. The era of just doing what we used to do, published digitally and marketed on social media is drawing to an end.

The interesting stuff now is figuring our the new forms of journalism that really take advantage of digital tools.

The radical politics of Peanuts

Franklin's second appearance in Peanuts

What happened when Peanuts introduced a black kid?

I remember telling Larry at the time about Franklin—he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”

A fascinating story of how one woman persuaded Charles Schultz to add a black kid to the classic comic series, that shows how much difference even a small artistic stand can have on starting to reshape cultures.

What would today's equivalent be?

[via Kottke]

Slaying the e-mail monster

I've been staring at an unusual sight on and off over the last 18 hours or so:

Inbox Zero, Yosemite edition

Yes, I've hit inbox zero. And I need to keep as close to this as I can. Here's why:

My working life is about as complex as it has ever been right now. I'm balancing a four day week with multiple clients doing different sorts of work for each. That's a secure position - it would take a lot of clients dropping me at once to create a financial threat - but it's hard to manage. Sequential "large jobs" are much easier that the rapid task switching I'm doing right now.

The only way I can keep on top of this is to let go of one of my worst habits: using my in-box as a "to-do" list, as Neil Perkin reminded me yesterday:

It's easy to get into the habit of using your inbox as staging for inbound tasks yet conflating email and task management is actually a really bad idea - not least because inboxes are not designed to be to-do lists, and using it as such means that you have to reassess every time you look at your email and also that what goes onto your to-do list is effectively at the behest of other people, not controlled by you.

So that beautifully clean in-box does not reflect a lack of things to do - just that I've moved those things to do into a better system for managing them. (I'm using a combination of Evernote and Clear at the moment - but that's fodder for a different post.) But it does mean that I'm feeling much more relaxed. I've got a lot to do - but I know what I have to do, and it's clearly delineated for me. Opening my e-mail is no longer a short cut to guilt and stress - and that's healthy.

We'll see how long I can maintain this, but in theory, if I maintain discipline in the period when I address e-mail, it should flow reasonably easily from here.

A panel discussion on the Freedom of Information Act after 10 years, held at City University, London.

The FOI at 10 panel at City University

As Chair Roy Greenslade points out, we're meeting in the shadow of Press Gazette being told that they should no longer make FOI requests to the Met Police, because they are being "vexatious".

The Journalists

Professor Heather Brooke was surprised that the public records she was used to using in the US just weren't available in the UK. It slowly dawned on her that they had other ways of getting the information - some legitimate and some less so. It's an advantage to any democracy to give the public access to information. The information is collected for us, so we should have access to the fruits of our taxes.

The police really are behind the ball in adapting to the information age. They're still very much of the "we'll tell you what you need to know' mindset. There's been progress over the last 10 years - but not everywhere.

Martin Rosenbaum wants to defend the UK now. The US system is even slower than the UK's FOI process. Roy counters with the idea that more is freely available in the US, compared to here. How would Martin score us now? 5/10. It's been the same for years, but initially it was poor bodies and excellent bodies - and now we're moving to more of an average.

We haven't got everything we want. We don't get the sort of internal communications we hoped to see, for example. We've also seen some bodies - like the police - become less reliable and efficient than they were. Some have gone the other way - like the Department of Health.

Tom Felle thinks that the Irish FOI came about because of the amount of corruption that was seen in the country. It worked so well that the government have neutered it. Looking globally, he's seen two versions of FOI. There's the public access to information that effects them, and that's good. But Britain invented official secrets and public bodies needed to become more open. But anything that people at a senior level can delay, deny or slow down, they will. After 10 years, the culture has not changed. In countries with FOI for decades - the culture at that level does not change.

The FOI Commissioner

Chris Graham, FOI Commissioner

Chris Graham, FOI Commissioner considers himself a "glass half-full" man - and 5/10 is half full. We're seeing many more datasets freely published than ever before, from MOT failure rates, to senior civil servants' salaries. It's not on to say that all local authorities have to do is say no. Already this year there have been 1000 decision notices from his office, and many are dealt within three month and six month time periods. Remember that these are the most controversial issues.

It's working and it's working well - but you have to keep pushing. He could do with more resources to police the act. If authorities were more nervous of his office getting to them, they'd have less motivation to game the system. He'd rather report directly to Parliament, rather than being a subset of the Ministry of Justice - because that's got a lot of other things to deal with.

His headcount nudges 400, split between data protection and freedom of information.

Martin: Chris has achieved something very important: the speeding up of the appeals system. Delay is not as bad as it was previously. There was one complaint that Martin made that took four years to process! But there's still a lot of delay within the system. If someone had said at the beginning that 92% of appeals were dealt with in six months, they would not have been happy. These are often the important, urgent ones. In practice, the authorities ignore the "promptness" requirement, and just look at the ultimate deadlines.

We need a culture change - that's in accordance with the legislation – to make FOI prompt.

Lazy Journalism?

Are journalists getting lazy because they just slam in FOIs? Sure, says Tom. Biscuit FOIs you see in local journalism don't add to our understanding of local government. But he doesn't have sympathy with local government who claim that they're overwhelmed with requests. We should have a culture where many of those request never hog to FOI - they're just answered by the press office.

The media and public bodies should come together more to discuss this issues. If they government bodies could be persuaded to publish more online routinely, there would be less need for requests. And too many authorities are forcing people to go through FOI when it shouldn't be needed. They're just not afraid enough of Chris's office, in the same way they are over data protection. Local authorities can quote chapter and verse on data protection, but roll their eyes at FOI. They see it as something extra - which is bizarre. They work for us - that's their job.

Chris counters with a list of the enforcement action they can take against recalcitrant bodies. He was taxed on Newsnight about it. The Department of Education was pushed into special measures, for example, and had answered Newsnight's request satisfactorily as a result. The Department of Transport didn't want to publish the HS2 study - and that's being fought through the courts right now.

There are exemptions for the Queen, and the two heirs to the throne - but that's it.

Heather Brooke and Tom Felle

Heather suggests that no lazy journalist will make an FOI request - because it takes so much work. That's why she teaches it to students interested in long-form investigations. It's a form of civic teaching, as we try to figure out how these bureaucracies work.

It's so short-sighted for local authorities to be hostile. This is a legitimate way of releasing information - that goes through a safe-guarding process. Without it, stories still come up, but in an unregulated, illegitimate way. Stories come with a spin, because they're leaked - and leaked with an agenda.

Time for an extension of FOI?

Roy asks if FOI should be extended to new bodies?

Chris: What do we do about services delivered on behalf of the public by private contractors or suppliers? There are services which were part of FOI and now aren't, because they've been contracted out.

There's work being done on model contract clauses to adreess that. Companies seem to be quite keen to play by the rules - as long as they know what the rules are. It's good to see Network Rail being broughti into FOI.

Centres of FOI Impunity

Heather wants to know about enforcement - there seem to be centres of impunity developing - the Met Police, the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice.

Chris: Why do you say the Met? I saw Roy's story - is that coming my way? They might like to think they can act with impunity, but they can't. We've made them publish information again and again. It took a year to get the Cabinet Office to incorporate our guidance. Using your Gmail account is a bloody silly thing to do - it's not secure - but it won't allow you to escape FOI any more.

Martin: In some cases ICO monitoring has improved FOI performance - including the BBC. But there's no evidence that the Cabinet Office has responded in the same way. They should be setting a good example, and they're setting the worst possible example.

Chris: To be fair to them, they have to decide how to deal with the papers of the previous administration in power, and have to go to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It's not a surprise the most senior bodies take longer - they're dealing with the knottiest issues.

Tom: I'm not sure I agree. They've had ten years to absorb some sense of responsibility. Government often claims that they have terrible decisions to make, and we'd understand if only we saw - but they won't tell us what they are. It's time for the Cabinet Office to start treating the public with respect.

The City University / Media Society FOI at 10 event

Governments pushing back against FOI

Chris: You can't accuse this government of not being in favour of open data. They've published a lot of it. But there are arguments for and against publication to be discussed - and it's the tricky ones that take time and come to the Information Commissioner. We're hearing about how wonderful Ireland is - but you have to pay there. We don't have fees, and you do have them in other countries. Around the world governments are getting fed up with this, and pushing back. In Australia, they've just snatched back FOI in a coup.

Roy: You get away with it in Australia, because it's not a mass interest concern. It's only journalists…

Heather: I believe it's campaigners, actually.

Tom: Journalists are only 1 in 10 of the requests - but they're the difficult ones that people don't want to answer.

Should data protection and FOI be seperated?

Chris: It's very useful to have one office to make both decisions: very often there's a data protection angle of FOI. If you split them, one decisions becomes tow, and you'll end up in the courts to resolve them.

Roy: Ironically, one of the biggest users of data protection are newspaper publishers.

Chris: The one thing everyone "knows" about data protection - that you can't tell anything - is wrong.

Best uses of FOI?

  • Heather's work on the MP's expense scandal
  • Access to inspection results on old people's homes
  • Tom's revelation of Bertie Ahern's expenditure on make-up
  • Failure rates of models of cars at MOT
  • The FOI Directory account and website are worth tracking
  • David Higgerson blogs about FOI successes

But Chris is keen to see the end of the "having a laugh" sort of FOI request from journalists - like contingency plans for dragon attacks - because every single one of them builds the case that authorities will make to stop doing FOI requests - or to do away with it entirely.

Tom suggests that "commercial sensitivity" is being over-used as a reason for redactions of disclosures. Martin adds that redaction is just a form of partial refusal and can be appealed through the system. Chris points out that there are genuine reasons for reductions - including protecting the identity or personal information of uninvolved people which are in the documents.

Heather has always been annoyed that politicians get to decide what is a worthy request and hat isn't. It's becoming an anti-FOI witch hunt. The solution is just to routinely publish more non-sensitive information. It's odd that bodies claim that they don't have time to answer FOI requests but they spew out information no-one wants all the time. The ration of Thames Valley Police press officers to FOI officers was 27 to 1...

Robert Cookson, for the Financial Times, reports that companies are paying their way out of ad-blocking:

Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Taboola have quietly paid the German start-up behind Adblock Plus, the world’s most popular software for blocking online advertising, to stop blocking ads on their sites.

John Gruber asks a pertinent question:

How is this different from an extortion racket?

It certainly blows any notion that AdBlock Plus is working for the user out of the window. The language on their site is careful - they talk about blocking "annoying ads" rather than all ads. But it still feels like holding publishers to ransom.

Marked: a blogging platform

Competition is good. For far too long WordPress has had too little competition as a blogging platform. This is no knock on WordPress: I'm a big fan. But competition drives innovation, and I'm always keen to see new ideas flourish, especially in blogging and publishing platforms. That's why I was an early backer of Ghost, and remain a keen user and observer as it develops towards the 1.0 release.

And it's also why I just backed Typed:

I'm a big fan of their Markdown writing app of the same name, which is great for getting long-form writing done in a distraction-free way. Plus, they're a local business to me, and I like supporting local businesses, as the coffee shop I'm writing this in can attest:

Blogging in Tom Foolery

I have a friend working at RealMac, whom I've spent some time in the past discussing blogging platforms with. (I'm now wondering if there was an…agenda…behind those chats. ;-) ) He gave me a heads-up about this a couple of hours ago, which is why I'm right in there at the beginning.

Mobile era blogging

Using Typed on an iPhone

I'm doing increasing amounts of blogging directly from mobile, and that's almost certainly the future for many people, as mobile switches to being our default mode of accessing the internet. Typed is designed to be mobile-friendly from the outset, which is one of the reason I'm so interested in new blog platforms. The mobile interfaces for existing platforms, including Movable Type, which is what lurks under here, and retrofits on top of platforms that emerged long before mobile become a thing. They're good, but not as intuitive as they could be.

I'm really interested to see what kind of UI ideas emerge in platforms built for the mobile age, both with my blogger and journalist hats on. The mobile phone is one of the most profoundly useful tools to emerge for journalism, and I'm really excited to see what happens when our publishing platforms start supporting it as their centre, not an add-on.

Backing Typed

Full details of what Realmac have planned for Typed are on their Typed Indiegogo page. It's a flexible funding project - which means that it will go ahead, however much funding they get. But there's some pretty good deals there on access to the platform for periods of time, so take a look, if it sounds like something you'd like to publish with.

Today, some of my students from City are busy livbelogging news:rewired. So, left at a loose end, I'm sat in Shoreham, doing the very necessary work of curating the unofficial, and potentially liver-destroying news:rewired drinking game:

Leverage/Engagement

Wifi Problems

Risky - but appropriate.

Platform

Two fingers of your drink.

Conversation

Struggling with this one. It used to be a core jargon word, but it's been in retreat in recent years. I'm going with a shot, for nostalgia's sake…

Interactive

Mobile

Two fingers of a pint, otherwise the liver damage would just be too much to sustain.

Any more for any more?