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Interview: John Sheridan, Australian Government CTO

Over three million people visited Australia’s e-government portal last month - with traffic increasing by more than 20 per cent over the past year. But Australian Chief Technology Officer (CTO), John Sheridan, is not resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s determined to keep improving users’ experience with an ambitious relaunch of australia.gov.au, while simultaneously transforming the backend of public sector websites by creating a single new open source platform.

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Relaunched e-government platform

Australia.gov.au isn’t changing in scope, Sheridan explains, but it will represent a change of approach for the country’s digital service delivery. “We’re not changing the requirements of it - we’re looking at meeting them in a more efficient and user-friendly way,” he says. “Improving user experience is largely the answer here. Basically we want to make it easier for people to find the information they’re looking for, faster, and give them a more uniform experience.”

Glimpses emerged of the first draft of the site last week, and it’s a simple and intuitive site that prioritises users’ ability to quickly find information.

A recent blog post by one of Sheridan’s team explained what has changed: the homepage offers a broad range of topics, but doesn’t “overwhelm with mass hyperlinks” unlike the cluttered current site.

There is also a greater use of keywords under topic headings “to increase user confidence about which path to take” and more jargon-free plain English because “not everyone understands how government works”. Finally, there has been a ‘simplification’ of the right-hand side of the page because that part of any web site - including the current e-government portal - “is often ignored”.

Changing to an agile approach

As well as changing the outward appearance of the website, Australia has changed its approach to web development. The development team is using an agile project management approach , where they constantly make small changes to the site according to user feedback, leading to rapid improvements.

This contrasts with the more traditional ‘waterfall’ method that previously was used on Australian e-government projects, where key aims are set out at the beginning of a project and everything is worked on quietly before being launched as a completed piece of work. Sheridan explains that: “By using agile we’re getting better results. That’s not surprising, because that’s a common finding of people who are using agile. It’s not the only approach but, particularly in terms of web services delivery, it’s one that just seems to achieve results.”

Sheridan’s team recently wrote about why they had decided to take this approach (a key feature of Australian public sector ICT is an increased use of blog posts to explain their actions and detail their progress). In short, they had limited technical resources so could not make improvements unless they could get the funding for a big relaunch. Agile project management enables them to achieve constant, smaller improvements across their whole portfolio.

Splitting services to focus on user requirements

Sheridan explains that the work on australia.gov.au builds on a project conducted last year to simplify the site and consider end-user requirements. Ultimately, this saw one website split into two: a site focussed on providing citizens’ with information, and a separate transactional website (my.gov.au) for more detailed interactions.

This split was made to permit a greater focus on users’ transactional needs and to meet increasing demand via the new MyGov site. It also enabled the simplified australia.gov.au to be moved off an expensive proprietary solution and onto an open source platform.

This approach is the opposite of the approach being taken in United Kingdom - where sites are being merged onto a single platform, including transactional services. Sheridan notes that they were not in the same starting position as the Australian government: Australia already had the single website, while Britain had a fragmented landscape of complex transactional sites and information services split across departments and agencies.

New CMS for the whole of government

The former Army officer has a second key project this year, which ties in directly to the work being done on australia.gov.au: launching a content management system (CMS) and hosting platform that can be used across the Australian public sector.

Australia, with its devolved government framework, has accumulated a large number of public sector websites, with many running on different CMSs. Sheridan believes that creating a whole of government CMS has clear advantages: in short, it will enable agencies to share code, modules and applications, reducing development costs. It will also allow for development skills to be more freely shared across agencies, and deliver cost savings because multiple agencies will use a common and scalable cloud-based platform for hosting.

Over the past couple of years, Sheridan moved the two he is directly responsible for - australia.gov.au and finance.gov.au (his department) onto the same open source CMS - Drupal - instead of remaining on a proprietary solution.

Optional not mandatory

It is this platform that will become the ‘GovCMS’ offered to other departments later this year. Change will not be pressed upon agencies, though.

“This will be a choice that [agencies] will have, we’re not mandating the use of Drupal,” although “a lot of them do want to take advantage of this arrangement so we’re making it possible for them to do so.”

This approach differs from those taken in the United Kingdom, where departments are moving their web sites onto a single platform with a mandated deadline.

Australia’s CTO says that in five years time a number of agency sites may still remain on different CMS systems. For example, there is a Wordpress CMS system that over 40 agencies currently share, and may wish to continue doing so: “We’ve got a devolved framework here, and it’s possible for agencies… to stay on that particular arrangement.”

Why Drupal?

Sheridan’s team considered Drupal against Wordpress and 17 other CMS systems. They have published their decision-making process online : it shows that Drupal ranked joint top in the shortlisting, and consistently in the top three for all of the government’s key criteria. Wordpress ranked in the bottom three and was quickly eliminated.

The GovCMS project will be hosting two fairly simple websites to start with, so it may be that larger agencies and websites with more complex interactions are much slower to change, Sheridan admits.

Regardless, the GovCMS project is taking another innovative step by engaging with people in the Drupal community. “Open source licence arrangements enable the development of some sort of public good, where people contribute or benefit from it,” he says. He intends that agencies using that platform will share their code with the community to enable broader development of the system that other organisations can benefit from.

Shared hosting arrangements

Later this year, the hosting contract for Sheridan’s two sites will come up, so he will also move these sites onto the “public cloud”, rather than being hosted internally on government servers. It is now government policy to host web sites in this way, so these two sites will migrate over and then other agencies will be offered the hosting arrangements secured by Sheridan too.

It’s a fairly new approach, but one that could save Australia a lot of money. Shared hosting saved Britain billions of pounds in efficiency savings.

The interview wraps up with Sheridan highlighting a couple of achievements in Australian digital over the past year. “Some notable achievements have been the rollout of my.gov.au, there’s been some quite useful development by our colleagues in Human Services of mobile applications, there’s been an increasing use of social media to assist with the provision of service delivery, and there’s also a lot of behind the scenes IT work going on all the time.”

With that, the interview draws to a close, because as Sheridan notes: “The systems are always being upgraded, things are always being improved.” And by doing so in an agile, iterative manner, they’re looking to continually improve service user experiences, while saving money in the process.

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2 Comments

On 20 June 2014 Dan Craddock wrote:

Sheridan notes that they were not in the same starting position as the Australian government: Australia already had the single website, while Britain had a fragmented landscape of complex transactional sites and information services split across departments and agencies.”

This is a misnomer. The UK had it's own equivalent(s) of australia.gov.au, namely Directgov (for citizens) and Business Link (for businesses). GOV.UK replaced these two websites, AND all the departmental websites, AND is gradually replacing most agency websites. On the other hand, australia.gov.au does, and sadly will, continue to provide a similar experience to Directgov and Business Link, i.e. a portal to the approximately 1,200 websites in the Australian Government's portfolio.

I applaud the efforts to improve the user experience of australia.gov.au. But this user experience is and can only ever be as good as the websites to which it links, and frankly, Australian Government websites vary markedly in design patterns, accessibility, and usability. Having a government's web real estate reflecting its own structure is akin to the outdated and discredited practice of structuring intranet content along organisational lines.

The UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) recognised that exposing the complexity of government at the user interface level, was a poor user experience. They did the hard work of rolling as much of there web real estate into the one website, with strict user-centred design and content standards.

Also, having departments and agencies compete for limited finances and political mindshare for web, is costly and counterproductive. Again, the UK recognised this by establishing the GDS at the heart of government, providing focus, authority, standards, skills, and capability for whole of government, and is growing those outwardly.

Credit AGIMO for its work so far, but a fundamental shift in mindset and approach is required to emulate the kind of savings and user experience improvements achieved by the GDS.


On 20 June 2014 Joshua Chambers wrote:

Hi Dan,

Thank you for reading, and for your comment.

I've just moved from the UK, where I covered the public sector for the past few years, so I remember the transition from businesslink and directgov very well.

DirectGov was a first step towards Gov.UK, but it wasn't nearly as advanced as australia.gov.au at the time. This is partly because of the split between that and businesslink, but also because australia.gov.au had the mygov transactional services hosted on it. Further, it's worth pointing out that DirectGov wasn't at all easy to use.

I find it interesting that mygov was then moved off of australia.gov.au because it was simpler to produce two separate services. Equally, I'd note that some of the more complex transactional services in the UK, such as Universal Credit, aren't performing so well on the Gov.Uk site. I don't think the debate on moving all transactional services onto one website is clear cut.

That said, standardisation of presentation has in many cases helped the usability of government services. I didn't press further on that point in this interview, so I don't know John's answer on that.

The GDS has had benefits in Whitehall, but has also had a difficult relationship with some agencies, and in some cases this has caused additional problems in digital delivery. I'd point to Universal Credit as one example. I'd also be sceptical about some of the savings - many of the published figures have not been audited, and the National Audit Office has been critical of some of the data its seen.

All the best,

Joshua


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