Challenges remain as government reforms Directgov website

The Cabinet Office is preparing to take control of the government's digital channels after an eventful week that saw the resignation of the DirectGov CEO in advance of Martha Lane Fox's review of the website.

The Cabinet Office is preparing to take control of the government's digital channels after an eventful week that saw the resignation of the DirectGov CEO in advance of Martha Lane Fox's review of the website.

Lane-Fox, the web entrepreneur appointed as the government's digital champion in June, recommended in her strategic review of DirectGov that the Cabinet Office "appoint a new CEO" to oversee digital publishing across all government departments.

The report came just days after Jayne Nickalls told staff last Friday she would be standing down as CEO of DirectGov, the government's central web unit. A DirectGov spokesman said: "Jayne has decided it is time for her to change direction and enable others to take forward the very important agenda set by the announcement and steer DirectGov through the next phase of its journey."

Computer Weekly understands Nickalls had not made plans. The DirectGov spokesman was unable to answer any further questions - he said they were being handled by the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office did not comment.

Directgov CTO David Matthewman, who had been closely involved in building the site, also left his role in August to become CIO at the Open University.

Overarching digital unit

A source close to DirectGov's former executive office said the Cabinet Office was preparing to turn it into an over-arching digital unit that would merge the transparency, open data and web strategies into a single blueprint for the whole of government. It would also drive plans for greater public participation in consultations. DirectGov had previously only overseen web publishing and transactions.

Lane Fox recommended in her report on Tuesday that the Cabinet Office take "absolute control" of online publishing across all government departments. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude accepted this and all Lane Fox's other recommendations without condition.

Maude should appoint a "new central team" headed by "a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office", said Lane Fox.

The new CEO should have "absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending," she said.

The DirectGov spokesman said Nickalls had been challenged with winning "cross-departmental buy-in" to the digital unit governing their web estates. Not all departments had agreed to it - at least six of the 24 ministerial departments had refused to co-operate.

But DirectGov now publishes 95% of all "government information to citizens" in a web convergence programme that is assimilating 213 other government websites and is due for completion in March 2011.

Cabinet Office role

The Cabinet Office had already taken charge of DirectGov before the report was published. The digital unit had previously reported to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but the Cabinet Office took control in July after Lane Fox's appointment. It put DirectGov in the Efficiency and Reform Group, headed by the Cabinet Office and Treasury, and put Matt Tee, permanent secretary of government communications, in charge of the unit.

The role and responsibility for Directgov had caused controversy within the Labour government. Former Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson had lobbied to stop its transfer to the DWP. In a blog post published this week, he expressed his frustration at the obstacles the civil service placed in front of him when he tried to make similar changes to those recommended by Lane Fox.

"Martha recommended a series of sensible, pragmatic changes to the government's web estate," Watson wrote in the blog post.

"These changes sound simple. They kind of are when you think about them. But remember, it's the UK civil service that has to deliver them. That why it's so hard and complex to achieve. As a minister, I couldn't get anywhere close to the kind of simple changes that make doing stuff with the government easier and more pleasant," he said.

"As Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with government online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise."

Nickalls was made de facto head of DirectGov as its delivery director in 2005, within a year of the organisation being formed. She took the title CEO as early as 2007, but was not appointed to the post officially until January 2009 after an open competition.

Visitors to DirectGov's website grew from under 800,000 to over 30 million during Nickalls' tenure, said the spokesman. The DirectGov website had 30.2 million visits in September, compared with 19.8 million for the same month in 2009. The DWP said in January that it had to date spent £2m on television advertising.

The unit has also developed mobile phone apps, such as a job finder.

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