No such thing as a ghost?
Scroll down to the blogroll on the right hand side of the screen and take a look at the first entry. 'BIS Blogs – Building an Intellectual Property regime for the 21st Century', says this voice from the dead, as it has done ever since 21 December 2012, when the clock stopped.
BIS is the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and it is their website that has died – under the Government Digital Service (GDS) Single Government Domain project, BIS disappeared into GOV.UK.
GDS promised that the change would be smooth, all links to the old site would be re-directed so that the original content could still be seen. Baloney. Try clicking on the link down there in the blogroll and, instead of learning about 21st century intellectual property regimes, what you get is:
BIS used to email their press releases directly to anyone who registered an interest. No more. That service is gone, along with the website and the blog. Now BIS speaks only through GOV.UK, which is managed, like 10 other government departments so far, by GDS, under just one brand, Inside Government.
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Something has died. There was something wonky about the death and that's what the unquiet spirit stalking the blogroll is telling us.
Ms Jeni Tennison was trying to work out what that something wonky is nearly a year ago. It's a safe bet that we're going to hear a lot more about her and so, for the moment, let's just say that she was working as a consultant with GDS and on 10 March 2012 Ms Tennison wrote in her personal blog:
It's worth reading her post and the 22 comments added in the following 26 hours or so. One parameter in the debate is the extent to which, looking at the web, the public is confused about the way government works. GOV.UK is supposed to reduce our putative confusion. Does it? Some commenters on the blog think that standardisation might actually increase public confusion.
The Single Government Domain policy, indeed GDS itself, is about control. It is "we will do it for you", not "we will help you do it". It is about managing the output of institutions that might keep in check an overmighty State. It is anti-web and it is anti-democracy and I cannot remain quiet about it any longer.
The issue of public confusion is a long way from the main topic of debate proposed by Ms Tennison, viz. over-mighty states and anti-democracy. One commenter avoids being sidetracked and says:
After a day of lively debate, someone had to step in and cool things down. Enter Tom Loosemore, Deputy Director of GDS:
Putting services online, creating new digital services, recreating organisations as online entities—approach or describe it how you will—this has always been seen by influential policymakers as a magic bullet to “transformation”. If, the argument goes, the future of information and interaction will be online, control that experience and you control the soul of really big, important things like public administration and democracy ...
... be aware that "single domain" and other talk of simplification is but the veneer on a far more fundamental project. Be honest about that, and you might just have a chance of making such change happen.
GOV.UK is intended by the end of 2013 to incorporate not just the 24 big departments of state but also over 300 other public bodies many of which are meant to help to make government accountable. In her answer to Mr Loosemore, Ms Tennison makes the point that even if GOV.UK does (yet to be proved) save money, reduce public confusion and improve the user experience of transacting with the government, that's no justification for diluting accountability:
I will admit that the frantic tenor of your post made me wonder for a moment as to whether we'd done the right thing in making this phase of the beta public ...
And I'm afraid [you're] just plain wrong about GOV.UK being "about managing the output of institutions that might keep in check an overmighty State" ...
You've jumped to an entirely wrong conclusion ...
We will nurture the exceptions, but not at the cost of the level of confusion currently suffered by users. Or the £100m/year this chaos currently costs each and every one of us [sic].
A year later, Ms Tennison has moved on, Tom Loosemore hasn't and only the ghost of BIS remains.
I am not frantic, but I am concerned that in a year it may be too late and I do not want to be wishing that I had said something sooner ...
A view of government that does not give space for these differences [between departments] may be less confusing to users but it is hardly accurate or transparent or accountable ...
... shifting the balance so far towards the overt user requirements for department websites ... comes at the cost of losing something essential in our democracy ...
... innovation within the government web space and outside GDS has more or less ceased while everyone waits to see what GDS will do, and my impression is that people are in some way scared to question or discuss the GDS vision ...
... we do all need to be having this conversation rather than suppressing it.