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Update on realhelpnow.gov.uk

In Correspondence, FOI, Governmental stupidity, Politics on Friday 17th July, 2009 by Guy Tagged: , , ,

The Freedom of Information request I sent concerning http://www.realhelpnow.gov.uk — the stupendously pointless Government website I first noticed back in February — was responded to back in April. I was quite bamboozled by it, but seeing and chatting to the inesteemable Heather Brooke — the FoI-exploiting journalist who did much to bring about the delightful MPs’ expenses scandal — at OpenTech has encouraged me to look at it again full on.

In response to my request, the Cabinet Office, the unfunny jokers behind the site [and I’m not sure what else the point of the Cabinet Office is; a naive person might conclude, going purely by their name, that they’re supposed to support the Cabinet, but I can’t see how realhelpnow fits into that], told me the following:

1. Emails discussing the reasons for setting the site up and what content to include;
minutes of meetings discussing the same issues

The Cabinet Office does hold information within the scope of this part of your
request. This information is however exempt under Section 35 (Formulation of
Government Policy) of the Act. Consideration has been given to whether it would
be in the public interest to release the information we hold relating to this part of
your request. We have decided that the public interest in maintaining the
exclusion outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

Now when I first saw this, I was utterly confused. They can tell me this information exists, and it does… but they’re not going to give it to me. None of it. First off, I can’t see how deciding this site should exist and what to put there when it does is “formulating Government policy”. Secondly, I also can’t see how what is in the “public interest” can be decided by them. It is the public that funded this stupid site! Aren’t members of the civil service also members of the public? Were they blinded and corrupted by the process of discussing this site to the extent that they now wish more than anything else to protect us from it? Lastly, even if they could decide on our behalf whether it’d be good for us to know just what they said to each other behind the scenes… how did they do it?! They just say they thought about it a bit and then, nah, they really don’t think it’s in our interests. Is that it? An internal review is on its way just for that, because apparently that’s what the next step is.

2. Stakeholders’ comments regarding the setting up of the site and/or its content

No such information is held by the Cabinet Office.

So no-one outside the Government was consulted. Great idea! It’s not like anyone else would have ideas for how you can provide “real help now”.

3. The budget relating to the setting up and maintenance of the site, and how this
was agreed upon

The Cabinet Office holds some information within the scope of this part of your
request. However under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act we are not
required to provide information in response to a request if that information is
freely available to the applicant. The information was requested in a
Parliamentary Question to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from Grant Shapps MP on 26 February 2009 and is available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/pahansard.htm under question number
259523.

The Cabinet Office also holds information within the scope of this part of your
request which is exempt under Section 35 (Formulation of Government Policy) of
the Act. Consideration has been given to whether it would be in the public interest
to release the information we hold relating to this part of your request. We have
decided that the public interest in maintaining the exclusion outweighs the public
interest in disclosing the information.

So an MP decided to ask about the site’s budget in Parliament, got a response — which apparently was not detrimental enough to the Government, the Queen, the country, and God to publish it — and the rest, well, is harmful to all that is good and great around here. Argh.

The MP, Grant Shapps, for what it’s worth, asked more than just one question about this site. I wonder why. Here are better links to his all of his questions, and the slightly evasive answers:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090420/text/90420w0083.htm#qn_729

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090316/text/90316w0030.htm#qn_306

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090320/text/90320w0004.htm#qn_37

The first question:

Grant Shapps: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what budget has been assigned to his Department’s Real Help Now website for each of the next three years; and whether other Government Departments have provided funding. [259523]

Mr. Byrne: The Real Help Now website brings together information about the range of support available during the economic downturn and makes it easier for people and businesses to access that support.

The development budget for the site in this financial year (2008-09) was less than £10,000 and falls within the existing Cabinet Office communications budget. Ongoing maintenance costs for the site will form part within the Cabinet Office communications budget which is yet to be agreed for the next three years. No other Departments have provided funding.

Less than £10,000. Does that mean they got a bargain for £9,999.99 at half the price?

The second question:

Grant Shapps: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what private sector support has been provided to his Department’s Real Help Now website. [259457]

Mr. Byrne: The Real Help Now website brings together information about the range of support available during the economic downturn and makes it easier for people and businesses to access that support.

No private-sector support has been provided to the website. A private-sector contractor was engaged under standard Cabinet Office procurement arrangements to assist in the technical development of the website.

Thanks for repeating the information in the first paragraph about the site, Mr. Byrne. That’s really useful.

The second paragraph confirms that they decided not to ask anyone outside Whitehall whether they actually want this site to exist and, if so, what they’d like to see there. The “private-sector contractor”, I found out by exercising some hard-core googleskillz, is some funky cool company called Puffbox, who admit their involvement for all to see here. The information they give about the project is revealing: It was set up by creating an account at delicious.com, the online bookmarking service owned by Yahoo!, and pulling sites added there onto the site, with positioning depending on tags. Videos are are pulled from youtube. And, er, that’s it. This took two weeks and £10,000? No wonder Government IT programmes are such a disaster zone. As the boxpuffer-in-chief admits:

We aren’t making any great claims for this site: it is what it is, a pretty front end, courtesy of regular collaborator Jonathan Harris, pointing to other people’s material, plus a (first person) message from the Prime Minister. But if it can establish itself, there’s naturally plenty of scope to extend and expand into something more communicative and interactive.

From what I can see, that doesn’t seem to have happened. Since the last time I checked three months ago there are now testimonials from Real People about how the Government has helped them with soft loans; PDF scans of leaflets for women, over 60s and, erm, communities (what’s the opposite of one of those, and am I one?); and oodles of links to DirectGov and BusinessLink, two of the larger Government portals. And that’s it. Hmm. Depressing.

The third question from the MP was

Grant Shapps: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how many members of staff (a) employed by the Cabinet Office and (b) seconded from other departments have responsibility for the Real Help Now website. [259747]

Mr. Byrne: The Real Help Now website brings together information about the range of support available during the economic downturn and makes it easier for people and businesses to access that support.

The development work on the website took less than two weeks and was overseen by the existing Cabinet Office website team, supported by one member of staff on part-time secondment from another government department. One member of the Cabinet Office web team has ongoing responsibility for updates to the website as part of their existing duties.

So more of the same. Literally so in the case of the first paragraph.

The last part of the response from the Cabinet Office to me was the most revealing of all:

4. The content and conclusions of any discussions concerning whether the site is a
cost-effective use of civil servants’ time and/or taxpayers’ money, and whether or
not it breaches rules concerning political neutrality

No such information is held by the Cabinet Office.

You couldn’t make it up.

A request for an internal review is on its way right now…

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3 Responses to “Update on realhelpnow.gov.uk”

  1. It’s not entirely fair to characterise (the initial build of) the site as purely a pretty front end on Delicious and YouTube. I’m actually quite proud of the fact that we were able to boil the project down to something so straightforward; simplicity is difficult to achieve, particularly in a civil service environment.

    We built a site which ran itself to the greatest possible extent, and made manual updating as quick and easy as possible. Was it an appropriate site to build? Was/is it successful as an initiative – in policy terms? or as a technical exercise? These aren’t questions I can or should answer as an external supplier. But if you don’t mind me saying, it’s a bit much to put this project in the ‘government IT disaster zone’. It was delivered on time and on budget, and it did what we said it would do. It’d be nice if more projects could say that.

  2. Do you mind me asking why you removed the comment I left here on Saturday morning? I thought I responded in a perfectly reasonable tone; believe me, if I’d been upset, you’d have known all about it. But you can’t really complain about people refusing to give you straight answers, if that’s what’s going to happen when someone finally does.

  3. Dear Mr. Dickson,

    First off, thank you for taking the time to reply to my post. I want to make it clear that I did not delete any of your comments at any point; rather, your first comment was stuck in the moderation queue that I apply to all new comments. I was tardy in letting it out of the queue, for which I apologise, but this blog is only an occasional hobby and I can’t spend too much time on maintaining it.

    My aim in this post was not to criticise the website for being, as you put it, a typical “government IT disaster”. Rather, it was, as you yourself hinted was relevant, because I don’t think it is an appropriate use of public money. I was also a bit shocked, as a naive powerless citizen, just how useless the response from the Cabinet Office was to my Freedom of Information request concerning it. The technical details of the actual site itself — which is a model of simplicity indeed — is far down my list of concerns.

    Basically, I was (barely) criticising you or your consultancy, and certainly don’t want you to take anything I say as a personal attack. Thank again, though, for stopping by and communicating your thoughts on the matter.

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