The creation of the government’s e-petitions site in just eight weeks was hailed as a rare success story in Whitehall. But Peter Herlihy, delivery manager at the Government Digital Service (GDS), tells Computer Weekly why it wouldn’t have been possible using the old route of a system integrator.
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“We had a really aggressive deadline based on the fact that ministers had made various government commitments on what we would be delivering, so in the end we had something like eight weeks to get it out,” Herlihy says.
“That forced us down the route of agile. We had existing providers we would normally go through, we were working with Steria which was the prime provider for Directgov, and they would normally be the people we would initially go to.
“But we didn’t have enough time to get them involved.” He says it would have taken too long to find a framework to fit the work requirements into. Instead they went to a number of small suppliers to put a flexible team together at short notice.
“Under the agile way of working, the skill profile needed differed each week, starting with design in the early stages and at the later stages moving to the database or back end,” he says. “We were able to change those things quickly, without commercial implications.”
The site is hosted by cloud services company SCC in its own dedicated secure environment. “Because of the nature and volume of data we had to put the infrastructure and applications through a security accreditation, which GCHQ looked at,” says Herlihy.
Pragmatism pays off
Pragmatism was necessary to get the basics of the site up and running. “We were realistic that everything we wanted was not achievable in eight weeks. We were happy to deliver feature like the complex back-end reporting at a later date.
“We made sure we never delivered anything we didn’t have a need for.”
Constant demonstrations as to how the site was developing were key in ensuring things were going in the right direction, with the team working in one week iterations. “Through a skeletal production tool we could show people what we were doing and they were able to give us feedback, which gave us confidence they were getting what they needed,” he says.
“There was an assumption at the start that we would need to collect certain profiles – name, address etc. But until we actually put it together we couldn’t see how much information we needed, as it was hard to visualise user experience.”
As a result the amount of information needed about users was reduced, as the original amount envisaged was too lengthy. These changes were made in half a day.
“Initially we put in Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn buttons. But when we shared this approach with others in GDS, we realised a few embeds could allow others to know who users were and get information on them. So we changed it to ensure that no personal information would be shared, as we had no control over what those organisations may or may not do.”
However, despite the success in getting the site off the ground, e-petitions crashed on its first day, after experiencing a surge of people logging on in response to the riots.
“After the site was launched it received intense demand around riots, there were phenomenal numbers trying to view the same petition, so we had capacity issues.”
The team had made a forecast for demand, and doubled it. “But that was still way too low. We’ve not received anywhere close to that volume of traffic since, it was something in the region 12,000 hits a minute coming to the site.” Most of that came through social media, in particular Twitter.
Close monitoring of the load and performance wasn’t put into the launch as it wasn’t initially a priority, although it has consequently installed more monitoring technology.
“It was a problem in the way the infrastructure was configured. We had to make a call to take the site offline during that period. That was awkward because the petition was getting close to the 100,000 target [the figure needed to hear it in Parliament]. So taking it offline at that point might have appeared undemocratic to some people.
"So we liaised with the Leader of The House and decided to wait until it was over the 100,000 before we took it down to fix the problems.”
The site has now been deposited in Github, so others can replicate its open source code base. Herlihy has also been liaising with the US, to bring its expertise to similar work underway at the White House.
“I’m really proud about how quick did it, especially as lots of bloggers were saying we would fail. And the ongoing costs of the service are only 0.6p per transaction,” he says.
GDS worked closely with Unboxed Consulting, an agile consulting and digital development agency, in its use of agile methodology on the e-petitions project