If there was ever a field in need of a little resourcefulness, it’s public sector IT. In the past the UK’s government has had the dubious honour of awarding some of the largest IT contracts in the world. Some of these have been simply too big to manage, and have failed at significant cost to the public.
On Monday, the Cabinet Office launched alpha.gov.uk. In response to digital champion Martha Lane Fox’s recommendation, this is a prototype of a single domain for all government information and interactions with the public. The parallel is with the BBC’s single domain website (ie bbc.co.uk), on which you can find everything from the latest table tennis results to instructions on how to roast a chicken. The result looks something like a Google for government.
But what’s more notable than the idea of a one-stop-shop for digital delivery of public services (having had Directgov, and Gordon Brown’s MyGov idea etc.) is the process behind its creation. An alpha site is usually a pre-release version (ie. bits of it might break), but the team behind this one have taken the unusual step of releasing it to the public to gather feedback. This is particularly unusual for the public sector, which has often been described as a bit ‘1.0’ when it comes to the internet.
The team have written about the ethos behind the project that have guided the site’s development. The ‘agile’ approach they have taken emphasises a much faster and iterative approach (as well as being people-centred), in stark contrast to large IT programmes which become too big to fail, soaking up ever more money.
There are similarities between their approach, and a paper we recently published on ‘ingenuity’, which defined ingenuity as a sort of creativity on a budget. In this paper we defined ingenuity as the ability to solve problems by combining few resources in a surprising way.
So is alpha.gov.uk ingenious?
Well, it’s been developed in three months on the fairly minimal resources of 261k (not at all a fair comparison, but Directgov’s design and build costs came in at over 6 million). It may (time and the results of their feedback will tell) solve the problem of how to help people interact with government more successfully and cost-effectively. I’m less sure whether it uses its resources in unexpected ways, but seems to have at least used off-the-shelf rather than expensive custom technology.
Verdict? Too early to tell, but promising…