Launch of legislation website; Government skunk works

Launch of

The Con-Dem government launched its new website today which has been touted as holding every single law ever made in the UK since 1267.  It is effectively a consolidation of the old OPSI and Statute Law databases.  Yes there will be some efficiencies delivered by the merger and at a cost of £419,000 for some 6.5 million web pages and a similar number of pdfs it probably doesn’t represent bad value.

The PR blurb suggests that it will allow us ordinary citizens to scrutinise laws like never before and have our say.  It also suggests that it will enable us to view how laws change over time and that folks will be able to use the data to make mobile apps or add data to their own webapps.  I have had a quick look round the site and the APIs aren’t immediately apparent.

Update: Thanks to @johnlsheridan for pointing out that the site uses the RESTful API.  According to him the easiest thing is to append /data.xml or /data.rdf to any page (/data.feed to any list).  Code monkeys will know what to do. 🙂

At first glimpse this would appear to be another step in the right direction towards more open government but lets be clear here, it ain’t going to radically change the way laws are created or repealed any time soon.

I was part of the Bill team that worked on this little gem.  I can say with some certainty that the level of scrutiny, posturing, scope for ambiguity, tradeoffs, and politicking that goes into practically every line of a piece of legislation would frustrate all but the most political of anoraks so a bonfire of old laws and creation of shiny new ones on the back of this is unlikely to happen.  I would like to be proved wrong though.

Government skunk works

Most IT industry respondents in the TechMarketView report published today have given the new coalition’s plans to reform the place of technology in government a guarded welcome.  I guess they actually don’t have much of a choice really.  It is obvious to all that a greater level of scrutiny will fall on all major IT contracts so the sooner these suppliers try to ingratiate themselves with the new government the better as far as shareholders are concerned.

Of most interest in the responses were the areas of concern raised.  These included a proposed £1 million contract size limit, the increased use of open source software and the creation of an experimental “skunk works”.

It will be interesting to see how rigidly the £1 million contract size limit will be imposed.  Does this apply to the original contract only or will it draw a halt to the practice of sealing the deal at a perceived low level then gouging on change requests and deviations from the original specification?  Everyone knows that’s were the real bucks are made on contracts not to mention 5 or even 10 year support and maintenance contracts, upgrades and all the fringe benefits that come with being the incumbent.

The increased use of open source is a double edged sword.  Yes cost savings can be made on licensing but generally that will only make up a small percentage of any deal.  Careful consideration also needs to made with regards to ensuring development, support and maintenance skills are readily available in-house to ensure open source based systems can be supported.  Many public sector organisations I have come across have been only to willing to pay for training on proprietary systems in the past meaning there might well be a skills gap when it comes to supporting open source technologies.  I suspect many proprietary vendors have had their PRs working overtime on spreading FUD in this respect.

Skunk works is perhaps the most interesting area of concern that the IT industry has.  Coming from the JFDI school of thinking I have worked on several such projects in the private and public sectors and they pose quite a threat to systems integrators (SIs), independent software vendors (ISVs), software houses and large consultancies who are the usual suspects when it comes to government IT projects.

Skunk works logo
Skunk works - JFDI

Once projects go out to procurement they take on a life of their own.  There’s the ITTs, RFPs, decision by committee, change controls, outsourcing, subcontracting, margin stacking and all sorts of other things that conspire to increase the price, reduce the numbers of potential suppliers and drag out the lifespan of a project.  Skunk works of course shorten this process considerably and eliminate a lot of the fat on projects with the result that good solutions are delivered quickly and efficiently and bad ones fail quickly as well  before they develop too much inertia.

Even if skunk works don’t work out the government body is likely to be a lot more savvy from the experience when it comes to a full blown procurement.  Skunk works can only be a good thing for this country in terms of innovation.  Remember where the phrase originated.  Skunk works was an official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs.  It was responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor.  The key to skunk work projects are that they tend to be unburdened by bureaucracy and that can only be a good thing.