In With the New: open, flexible, user-centered

The 2013 Eduserv Symposium, was held in the impressive (and very much ‘keep in with the old’) surroundings of One Great George Street in Westminster, the home of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

‘In with the New’ covered new skills sets, new modes of engagement and new ways of working.  With such a wide topic area, the conference took quite a broad-brush approach. Andy Powell of Eduserv introduced the day and talked about dealing with change, change that may be imposed upon us from the outside, as well as being driven internally.

image from Digital Govt ServiceDavid Cotterill from the Government Digital Service gave the opening keynote, which is what I want to focus on here. He said his talk was about ‘my exciting life as a civil servant’….the audience weren’t convinced about this at the outset, but maybe for those interested in open data, there was some shift of opinion by the end!

He talked about the old consensus, which was built around long-term contracts for IT in government; contracts that were consistently awarded to a limited number of suppliers and not to smaller and more innovative suppliers.  IT was not defined as a core function, so out-sourcing was considered appropriate. But in the 21st century things have changed. There is recognition that IT covers very diverse areas. For Government (and for many other organisations), it covers digital public services, mission IT systems (i.e. more niche or specialised systems for government departments), desktop, infrastructure, connectivity, etc. (the more general IT), and, within government, there are also ‘shared services’ (such as for financial systems). David talked about the need to structure mission IT systems and digital public services so that they can run on different desktops or infrastructures and not be tied down (as often used to be the case).

David went on to argue that the Government really has taken up the open agenda, and showed some quotes: “The latest step is the publications of this report on open standards. And once again the government has got it right.” (Wall Street Journal).  He argued that in order to have flexibility to progress, to upgrade, to move forwards, you need open and standards based systems. You also need to look at specific needs in specific areas and not think of IT as some kind of monolithic thing.

It was surprising to hear him say that “this is a great time to be a supplier”, but he said that many of the current deals within government come to an end over the next few years, so there is opportunity for new suppliers and creating a more diverse set-up.

What is 21st century screenshot about? David said it’s about things like, built using a platform approach (rather than a CMS) which allows the Government Digital Service (GDS) to build products onto it that meet user needs; products that enable the government to engage with citizens. David gave a sense of how this approach is working across UK government, with multi-disciplinary teams including developers, designers, product and service managers, policy, communications, etc.

His core message was to start with the user need. Of course, this is something that we can all agree with, although whether it always happens in reality is debatable, even if it is the intention. We need to shape things in terms of user requirements  right from the start, and not bring it in once all the policy, requirements and  development work is done. We should think about capturing requirements and developing alpha and then beta versions before going live. This may mean that what is initially developed is chucked out after the alpha stage, because it doesn’t meet needs, and then there is a need to start again. I think one of the problems with this approach is that funders do not necessarily facilitate it. How easy would it be to get funding for a project where the iterative process may go on for quite some time, and there is a risk of starting again several times in order to get it right? A further difficulty with this from a funding point of view is that it is much harder to specify what you are going to end up with, because you necessarily need to keep an open mind; you’ll end up (hopefully) with what users want, but it might be different to what was envisaged and you’ll only know after the testing and refining process.

It makes we think about archival software systems, for example.  Surely you should put the user needs at the heart of the development of your system? Ideally you would start out by gathering user requirements for a system, maybe looking at other research done in this area. You’d end up with a specification, listing priorities for your system. Most archives can’t then build it themselves, so they would go out and look at what meets these needs. But would it be possible to test a system out with users, to see if it really does fulfill their needs, and if it doesn’t go back and try something else? The problem here is that if you are buying a system, its hard to apply an iterative approach. However, it may be possible to move to a more user-centered approach. You should have clear evidence that the system does meet key user needs, and, in the absence of an ability to chop and change, you should ensure that the system does not tie you down and that it provides the flexibility to build and modify, so that changing priorities can be met.

It’s good to see Government leading the way. David showed previews of some services that are being developed, working towards a more transparent approach to things like transactional services and he highlighted a government manual about building services that people want to use.  There is now a ‘Standards Hub‘, to promote open standards and also to encourage wider participation in solving data challenges. It is amazing to see Government code onimage of keyboard 'save' key GitHub. Somehow that really brought home to me home how different things are now to 10-15 years ago. David, as well as other speakers at the conference, believes that open standards encourage a more efficient approach, so it becomes a cost-saving venture as well as encouraging public engagement and transparency.