All posts by AndyP

Hiring: Developer

Hello, we’re looking for an experienced Python developer to join us in Bristol, UK. We’re a small company but we build software that makes a difference worldwide. Delib’s products are used to connect citizens with government; our flagship product, Citizen Space, is used by over 80 government organisations around the world. Have a look at our Citizen Space Aggregator to see thousands of issues on which our customers are currently consulting the public.

We think we have a decent environment in which to write software. We have a big airy studio in a listed building in the city centre, and we’re a small enough company that everyone knows everyone else.  Of course it’s not perfect; there are never enough hours in the day, but we care, we say thanks, and we go out for lunches and drink together after work and I reckon that counts for a lot.

Typically we work well with people who’ve got a Computer Science degree and have been coding since at least their early teens. YMMV.  We prefer people who can communicate with humans as well as computers.

We need to get some web app, support and operations stuff done. All developers do a bit of everything:

  • For backend development we work with Python frameworks including Pyramid, Zope and Plone. You don’t need to have used these, but you must have substantial industry experience in Python development, and have worked with web frameworks in the past.
  • For frontend development we generally use XHTML, Less/CSS and JQuery/Javascript. We have to support a wide range of browsers including mobiles and tablets.
  • We have lots of devops things to do, including deployment automation for servers around the world. We use Ansible for this, along with a bunch of our own scripts. Again, you don’t need to have used Ansible, but it would be best if you’re not (too) scared of SSHing into linux servers, grepping logs and tweaking apache configs.
  • All our application code, automation scripts and configuration are version controlled using git, as is most of our test data. We all need to be able to modify, build and run each other’s code, so these days we’re pretty hot on documenting things too.
  • All developers take rotating fortnightly shifts as Developer on Support, which means we help our customers and account managers with technical issues via our online ticketing system, help sales people with quoting and tendering, and are generally available to answer questions without being excessively grumpy. This is actually really important – it means that developers get to see how the stuff we’ve built really affects our customers’ lives, and customers love getting a reply directly from the person who can fix their problem.
  • Unfortunately being on Support does also mean being on call. But calls/texts outside office hours are infrequent and if you do get called you get paid for it. Oh and don’t panic – you don’t get calls directly from customers.

These days we’re pretty good at using agile development processes like Scrum and Kanban. We also have grown-up things like continuous integration and Aeron chairs (or sofas to work on if that’s more your style). You’ll get a decent Macbook Pro, or an equivalent Linux laptop if you prefer.

Hours and Salary

Could be a full-time, part-time or freelance scenario (we’re a bit tight about freelance rates though eh?). Currently all Delib’s developers are part-time, with the option for scale-up days each month. We find that this arrangement suits our work/life/childcare/hangover requirements perfectly.

We’re offering £30-40k pro-rata depending on experience.

Contact Details

Sound interesting? Send us a covering letter and your CV to lorna@teamrubber.com.

We don’t place too much faith in CVs, the covering letter is really what we look at. If we like the look of yours we’ll get you in for a standard hiring interview.

We follow the HMG Baseline Personnel Security Standard and you will therefore need to satisfy basic eligibility criteria/certain conditions of employment (e.g. nationality rules/right to work); and provide appropriate documentation to verify ID, nationality, employment and/or academic history, criminal record (unspent convictions only).

No applications will be accepted via recruitment companies.

Cheers,

Andy (Director) and Jess (Developer)

Delib office, King Street, Bristol

 

Budget Simulator V 2.0 Launch!

At the start of 2013, Delib was awarded financing from Creative England’s dedicated South West Business to Business fund. Inspired by the proven success of Budget Simulator, our mission was clear: invest in the evolution of this awesome product to consolidate the needs of our customers with modern innovations in technology.

Over the past 7 years, we have helped our customers run successful budget consultations, and come to recognise the features and support they consistently need. The re-envisaged app strives to meet these needs in one standard, fixed priced product. It also celebrates ideas like responsive design, which makes mobile participation on phones or tablets a piece of cake.

Version 2.0 of the app is still in development and it’s really exciting to see it coming together. So exciting, in fact, that we couldn’t wait to share it and decided to hold a party in our offices on Thursday 19th September, as an opportunity to present our work so far and get some feedback from friends, customers and colleagues.

One of the main features of the event, besides the app itself, was sharing our ‘Agile’ approach to product development…

‘Agile software development is a group of software development methods where solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organising cross-functional teams.

It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development and delivery, an iterative approach, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.’Wikipedia

Why was Agile a featured part of the event? Agile means a lot to Delib: it enables us to develop products that continuously adapt to our customers’ needs! The event itself was an agile exercise to gain insight and feedback we could channel back into the production process, so it made sense to give it a bit of the limelight.

Ben, one of our consultants, and Andy, product owner and Delib founder, took us on a trip down memory lane, visiting the last 7 years of Budget Simulator – good bye Mr. Simulator *sniff*:

Ben and Andy

And through some of the features of the new one:

All in all we had a great turn out and it was an exciting night to receive the first verdicts from the outside world. We are currently reflecting on all the feedback we received and look forward to cracking on with the final stages of development.

Watch this space: multilingual, responsive Budget Simulator is not far away!

Quick Consult helps NHS practitioners give their views

Quick Consult consultation for the NHS

The Health & Social Care Act requires all general practices to become members of a Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). CCGs will manage the commissioning of NHS healthcare from April 2013, when Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities become defunct. The Department of Health has published a model constitution and recommends that CCGs incorporate its guidelines into their aligned practices.

As a part of this incorporation, NHS Swindon Shadow Clinical Commissioning Group used Quick Consult to run a one-off survey. The consultation was aimed at getting feedback and insights from practitioners and stakeholders about the proposed structure and constitution of the Shadow CCG.

The survey ran from 21 May to 10 June 2012, and had 50 responses. The survey was created by the Delib team in collaboration with the Chair of the Shadow CCG, Dr Peter Crouch. The questions included:

  • How happy are you with our proposals for the new Clinical Commissioning Group?
  • How well do you think the proposals reflect the views of local people?
  • Do you think this plan is enough of a shift towards GP-led commissioning?
  • How happy are you with the balance of different clinicians on the Board?
  • Do you think the proposed CCG is sufficiently transparent?
  • Are you happy with the arrangements for handling conflicts of interest?
  • Do you have any suggestions for improving our plans?


The engagement exercise revealed that approximately 80% of respondents were either ‘very happy’ or ‘happy’ with the proposed changes. Around 78% of people felt the proposal reflected the views of local people. The full report is available here. The results will help Swindon CCG move forward with confidence in their plans.

Dr Crouch says, ‘we would like to thank Delib for the highly professional way that they handled the creation of the consultation with Quick Consult. They delivered precisely what we wanted, comfortably and within the challenging timescale we were operating within. We would highly recommend their services.’

Cookies, Delib and the EU e-Privacy Directive

“The Cookie Law” has been extensively covered elsewhere. If you’re not familiar with it, the website of the Information Commissioner (ICO) is the best place to start.

The e-Privacy Directive is broadly intended to prevent abusive, invasive and malicious behaviour by website operators, where information is gathered about individual website users without their informed consent. This is a worthwhile goal. As a side-effect, the law also prevents website operators from using practices which are widespread, and undertaken with no malicious or abusive intent.

Compliance with this directive is a process, and ICO guidance has been clear on what steps need to be taken by website operators. Here’s what we’ve been doing about it.

Recognition that is both a technical and legal process

We have:

  • – Taken legal advice about this.
  • – Read the law and the ICO guidance for ourselves.
  • – Looked at the technical implications.
  • – Made a plan for compliance.

 

How we’re tackling compliance

Steps we’ve taken or are taking include:

  • – Audit for cookie use of the apps we build and operate on behalf of our clients.
  • – Audit for cookie use of our own Delib-branded websites.
  • – Automation of auditing, to ensure we remain compliant over time (this is particularly important when 3rd party services can be embedded in to sites).
  • – Making it clear how cookies are used in our apps via their privacy and cookies statements.
  • – Technical work which helps our clients comply when embedding content from 3rd party services which may set cookies (for the end user we wrap an explicit ‘accept this embed’ choice around embedded content).
  • – Removing services on our own sites that set 3rd party cookies. We have already removed Google Analytics from a large number of our pages, and we’re working on removing further services that set cookies. For complete compliance, we are also planning to add an explicit cookies notice, similar to the solution implemented by the BBC.

We’ve chosen to see compliance with this directive as something that needs to be achieved and maintained, not simply a nuisance that might go away if ignored (as some website operators hope).

This work does use up limited time and money which could alternatively have been applied to features which help our clients, and to competing with other similar businesses around the world. However there’s a good case for users being informed about the use of cookies and similar local storage. Our practices are not abusive and malicious, but the prevention of those that are is important.

Seven interesting pieces of news about UK councils working with the community and voluntary sector

There’s currently lots of really interesting news and reviews about the UK voluntary sector, local councils and local commissioning. We’ve picked out some of the best links we’ve seen recently 😉

1) Community Development Foundation – ‘Community First’ funding stream
The aim of the fund is to ‘encourage people to do more to help each other out and give them the tools they need to make a difference.’ ‘Funding will be handed out by panels of local people so communities decide what’s important to them.’

2) Community budgets
‘A Community Budget gives local public service partners the freedom to work together to redesign services around the needs of citizens, improving outcomes and reducing duplication and waste.’

3) Best Value Guidance – duty to consult
Setting out the expectations of the way Local Authorities should work with voluntary and community groups, something that Citizen Space helps facilitate.

4) NCVO + councils + OPM
A piece from the National Council for Voluntary Organisation on best practice. Always good to hear suggestions on ways to make things better.

5) Pathways through participation – active citizenship
A great report from NCVO, IVR and Involve, which helps to answer the million dollar question ‘How and why people participate with society’.

6) Cabinet Office open letter
A letter from the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, putting the impact of policy changes on charities and social enterprises into context.

7) Transforming Communities – Success stories
Nice to finish with some good examples 🙂

Does Citizen Space fit in with this?
Yes. Citizen Space is great for local community engagement and consultation.

With no limitations on the number of users, departments or consultations, local authorities can open up Citizen Space to local voluntary and community sector organisations, providing them with a platform to engage, consult and involve people.

For more information on how Citizen Space can be provided to voluntary and community organisations get in touch with Gill Crea or Ben Fowkes on 0845 638 1848, who can arrange a free online demo for you.

Part 3 of “An open source business model for government software; how we’re making it work, in 3 easy parts”

In part 1 of this series I looked at the basics of open source for government, identifying some challenges in making it work. In part 2 I looked more at open source works, and how we met the challenges for Citizen Space (our open source consultation system for government and public sector).

In this post I explore why we chose an open source approach for Citizen Space, ask ‘does it work?’, and make a few recommendations that might help others.

A detour into licensing: Citizen Space is licensed under the GNU General Public License (v2), hereafter referred to as GPL. The GPL is a very elegant piece of law which uses existing copyright law to ensure that users of software have the rights to modify and distribute that software, whilst also protecting contributors from unfair exploitation.

“‘Free software'” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” – GPL ethos

(Disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer, nothing written here constitutes legal advice).

Why did we choose open source for Citizen Space?
Citizen Space is built on a software framework that is licensed under the GPL (v2).
Simply if we wish to distribute Citizen Space to our clients, we are required to use the GPL (v2).

‘Distribute’ is interpreted here as either actually providing a copy of the software (by electronic transfer or removable media), or as an agreement that gives the customer ownership rights in a copy of the software

Did we have any alternative to using the GPL?
No and yes. We have to use the GPL, but we could operate without distributing the software.

I’ll go quickly here, the detailed legal picture isn’t essential. We could have defined that the customer was paying only for the output of the software and not the software itself. The output would be delivered as a service, over the web. In that model, the customer doesn’t own the software, and it’s never distributed to them. Because there’s no distribution, the GPL isn’t invoked.

(N.B this is specific to the GPL v2, which is what we must comply with. Newer versions of the GPL have quite different provisions for services provided over the web).

A service-only model might be a viable way to operate. We chose not to do this. Why?
We wanted to open source.

  • We think providing open source software gives us something distinctive from closed source competitors. It’s reassuring to our clients that they won’t be tied into a costly licensing regime, and that they can switch supplier if necessary.
  • It forces us to be innovative with our business model. This model emphasises creating sustainable recurring revenues by providing support services customers will value (and can also scale up or down according to their needs).
  • Using an open source license simplifies procurement. As we have no option but to use the unmodified GPL, we don’t have to negotiate with legal departments about clauses, or employ lawyers to do so (so avoiding pointless cost on both sides).
  • Open source opens the way for easier collaboration.

Moreover, for this kind of software I simply think that open source is the right way to go: Citizen Space is niche, highly specific to a relatively small market (hundreds or thousands of customers rather than millions), and it’s purchased and operated as a capital asset. Open source isn’t necessary for every system or app, but it’s good for this case.

Cartoon: 'I'd like to query clauses 7, 9, 13, 21, 23 and 49b.' 'Sorry it's just the GPL.  No changes.'

But…why isn’t it just a web app?
The simplicity of a pure web app (things like Basecamp) is appealing: choose a monthly billing plan, pay on a credit card, easy-in-easy-out; customers can export all their data any time, but can’t take the software with them if they leave.

I do see subscription web apps gaining adoption in public sector where they solve generic problems – for example Huddle or Basecamp for collaboration. I watch this with interest. It’s appealing, and operating that model would in some ways be simpler. But there are several factors that make me think the model we have is the right one for now:

  • When we talk to customers, they want to own their consultation software. For them it’s like commissioning a website. The procurement environment for this is typically weighted towards capital purchase. With Citizen Space, they get rights to the software as well as their data.
  • The ongoing service aspect of Citizen Space is comparable to a web app anyway, except we bill on invoice not credit card, which suits government better. We also operate flexible monthly, quarterly or annual billing, with no punitive contract terms. Simply our goal is to make it easy.
  • Compared to a collaboration tool (with millions of potential business users), Citizen Space is niche and sophisticated, with a relatively small customer base. If we tried to operate it from the ongoing service fees alone, there would be insufficient revenue to develop the product further, which wouldn’t be sustainable.

Is it working?
So far, yes. We’ve been operating this way since 2007.

Customers like the open source aspect, and the product continues to find new customers and be developed further. So I’m extremely positive about the open source aspects. Because I’m so positive I’m going to explore three problems with it 🙂

Three problems considered

  • “Is it free?”
  • Could we survive on this alone?
  • Procurement…

1. Is it free?
We frequently talk to potential customers who have an expectation that open source means free (as in zero-cost). This is understandable, but it’s also resolvable quite quickly.

When we explain how it works, people get it. They see pretty quickly that there’s no business model in ‘totally free’, and that for the product to be supported and developed there has to be a source of revenue. They also have no problem with the idea that if it’s valuable to their work, there will be costs.

So ‘is it free?’ is an issue we have to overcome, but it’s just an occasional bit of grit in the wheels, and doesn’t kill the model.

2. Could we survive on Citizen Space alone?
No. We’re a small, efficient team, but the income from Citizen Space alone is not enough to support an entire business. We have to reliably cover a range of roles, and be able to respond quickly to customer needs. This means a certain minimum number of people are needed.

The rate at which people are adopting Citizen Space increases, and this provides income which directly supports more of the roles we need. In that respect Citizen Space is on track to a point where it could be self-sufficient (it would need something between 80 and 120 customers, which we think is very achievable).

But as a business we wouldn’t want to be 100% dependent on one product. It’s not smart. We offer multiple products as well as custom projects because:

  • Not every problem is the right shape for Citizen Space. Not all clients need a system to manage all of their consultation and engagement. For example, for one-off projects, our apps like Dialogue App and Budget Simulator are better suited.
  • Some of our customers need customised or bespoke tools developed which we like to do (and in all cases we offer technical support and consultancy on how to get the best results).

3. Procurement
I won’t talk here about costs imposed directly by procurement processes; it’s an issue, but too big in scope for this post. The short version is that we’ve stopped responding to some opportunities – especially where they involve onerous tender documents. We can’t do business sustainably if we spend too much time responding to onerous (and often self-contradictory) tenders.

This is a problem for the model. It’s not a problem arising from the open source aspect of the model. It’s just a problem with supplying to public sector, and it probably increases total costs for customers (by increasing operating costs of suppliers, especially on small contracts).

There seems to be an awareness of this as an issue in government, and that simply saying ‘you need to be a bigger supplier’ is unacceptable. Maybe it will get better.

Will we open source everything?
No. It’s not necessary or helpful to do that.

Some of the apps we sell are used on a per-project basis, and/or delivered purely as a service. It’s not only unnecessary to open source them, it’s also possibly unhelpful. They’re used by non-technical clients who want a simple solution to their problem. Discussing open source with this group is a distraction they would neither want nor welcome.

But it’s likely that over time we’ll open source more – because in many cases it’s a great route.

In summary then, I’m positive about open source as a model for government software
This series of three posts was in-depth – because I wanted to explore the issues carefully and give a clear indication of what can work well.

As a reminder the model we’re operating for Citizen Space is:

  • We built it with revenue from sales and our own investment.
  • After we’d proved it thoroughly, UK government saw value in funding extra development.
  • Ongoing support and maintenance are provided 100% commercially.
  • Some product development is provided for with a levy. But to reach our vision for the app, we’ll continue to invest and find customers who are prepared to fund or co-fund specific functionality.

Any final recommendations?
Yes.

What we’re doing with open source for government is reproducible.
There’s no magic, and we’ve had no special favours nor been especially lucky. Hard work and a bit of bravery carries us forward. Others can do this (and we owe a debt directly to other open source people who’ve inspired us).

Open source as a policy position for Government when purchasing or investing.
This has multiple dimensions. The case for open source has been made often; a couple of details of how to operate it are of more interest here.

1. When looking for off-the-shelf software, open source and closed source should have a level playing field. There’s no need to favour one or the other. However if open source is chosen, government purchasers might also want to look at how government purchasing adds value back to the ecosystem, especially where open source has a much lower cost than the closed source equivalent.

2. When commissioning bespoke or custom software, government should open source it (unless genuine security reasons preclude that). Traditionally custom software for government has been locked up behind default Crown Copyright. However Crown Copyright is entirely compatible with licenses such as the GPL.

The results of investment by government should be made available for reuse, providing benefits to public sector, to charity, or to businesses. Not all of these will see re-use, because as I’ve shown building a support and development ecosystem around a piece of software takes effort, but a relatively low frequency of reuse is fine, because open sourcing software is a low-cost and low-risk strategy, and there are good benefits to be had when reuse does happen.

Government doesn’t need to commit resources to building support and development ecosystems directly, but rather by measures like procurement rules, and easing the path for SMEs or social enterprises who can build these ecosystems. However government as a major customer (or in-house developer) should accept that it can play a vital role in these wider ecosystems and deliver back (to gain net benefits).

I hope this has been useful and interesting. I’d like to distill these posts down to a slide format that could be shared more widely. In the meantime, if you have questions or thoughts, leave a blog comment, email me (andy@delib.co.uk) or get me on Twitter @delibthinks

cheers,

Andy

Cartoon: 'What are you doing?' 'Planting a thousand flowers' 'They didn't all bloom!' 'That's ok.  It was cheap, and the ones that came up are lovely'

(Encore Jukesie) – or “three thoughts about Betagov and the wider public sector”

Yesterday Matt Jukes put out a “Betagov blues..” post on his Digital by Default blog. Matt reflected on a frustrating gap between what the Betagov team are doing (it’s pretty awesome), and what life is like for public sector digital people outside Whitehall (pretty frustrating a lot of the time).

The post got a few interesting comments from people such as Simon Dickson (Puffbox), and Tom Loosemore (Betagov). Last week I had a chance to see more closely what the Betagov team are doing. I found that inspiring, but I get where Jukesie is coming from, so I stuck my thoughts on the comments too.

I had a few more thoughts that I wanted to put here. I came up with them while watching the toddler drinking the bathwater, so they’re not sophisticated, not finished, they may contradict each other, and I’m not even sure they’re true. But here we go. Call BS on them if I’m wrong. They’re free, and low fat, but I’ve sprinkled cliches liberally.

Digression – just do less
The money ain’t coming back. So the mantra is ‘do more with less’.

You can’t do more with less. Well you can. If you’ve got massive waste built into the system you can do more with less. But you do it by cutting out the waste. So you do less. Do less with less. Achieve more relative to the amount put in. But do less. ‘Do more with less’ is nice political speak, but it’s crappy engineering, crappy physics, crappy maths, not even good management. Just do less. But get more from it.

What can you cut out? What nonsense is sucking down time and resources to no good end?

Yeah, easy for me to ask – in my happy supplier world where I have few masters and lots of autonomy (although money is not raining from the ceiling here either) 🙂 But really, what can you cut out?

Meanwhile – no one big solution
My naive impression is that Betagov team have enough to do in the centre. To get the platform built for the core departments, and get successful adoption of it is a big enough task, and a thoroughly worthwhile goal. Betagov is one big solution, but it’s not the one big solution.

Not sure what I mean by that, but it’s something like ‘big problems may benefit from big solutions, but not everything is shaped like that big problem’. Also, really enormous national megaprojects can SUCK 😛 (so keeping Betagov focussed == win)

But that much might be obvious and not helpful. Meanwhile I’ve been trying to figure out how the relationship will play out between GDS, the rest of government, and the rest of UK public sector. And I guess that’s what’s on Jukesie’s mind too. And I’ve concluded that I have simply no idea, and that it will be interesting to see. Meanwhile I plan for sun, rain, and most things in between.

Still, it feels like right now, there is a chance to make the weather. Except that there’s also a really tiresome and distracting tension about central/devolved procurement, which is a mix of terrifying (because the implications of absolute centralisation are horrible) and stupifyingly boring (because it just is). Ultimately boring trumps terrifying, so I’ll park the procurement horror there. Let’s think about making the weather instead.

“Keep calm and carry on” keep talking
Let’s figure it out. There are good people at Betagov or nearby (in alphabetical order): @MarxCulture, @NeillyNeil, @NickJonesCOI @tomskitomski and others I haven’t met yet, or that my shocking memory has mislaid.

And there are good people not in GDS who want to make connections and make this stuff work better – @davebriggs, @dominiccampbell, @jukesie, @Lesteph, @simond, @stephenhilton @timjhughes and many more (blame my memory if I forgot you, it’s getting late).

Meeting is easy (and out of London sometimes please, it’s lovely in Bristol for example); talking online is even easier. Keep writing, keep talking. Let’s share examples of what’s great, and let’s renew each other’s enthusiasm when times are difficult.

Yeah, not my best ever post, maybe someone else will put it better. But enough, now I must go make pngs and do svn and other nonsense 😀

(I nicked part of the title from Steph, sorry)

Part 2 of “An open source business model for government software; how we’re making it work, in 3 easy parts”

In part 1 of this series I looked at the basics of open source for government, and identified that there are challenges in making it work, specifically:

  • Development
  • Evangelism and raising awareness
  • Ensuring sustainability, responsive support, and further development

In this post I look a little bit further into ways that open source works, and explore in more detail how we met the challenges above for Citizen Space (our open source consultation system for government and public sector).

“Scratching an itch”
When drafting this post, I wrote a lot of stuff about how open source works. Then I deleted most of it. This is a blog post, not a book. 🙂

A lot of open source development happens because people are ‘scratching their own itch’. The reasons vary: but they’re mostly related to “it’s fun”. At this point, no-one’s employed. No money changes hands. Sometimes a project will snowball and a community will form around it. This is great. Being social is even more fun.

Projects like this live as long as people find them fun. When they stop having fun, they’ll continue to support the project for as long as they feel socially obliged to, then they’ll stop. And they’ll do something more fun instead.

This gets a lot of software written, and a lot of people have fun. But it isn’t how all open source development happens.

Commercial open source
A lot of open source software development is paid for or supported by companies. These range from IT giants like IBM and Oracle to small software houses and web businesses.

How do they contribute to open source?

  • Development: employing developers and other staff to work directly on open source projects.
  • Ecosystem: supporting the community around a project through events, donations, improving things like documentation, marketing the project, helping with legal and governance issues.

Why do they contribute to open source?

  • Revenue: the business develops revenue streams based around using open source software on behalf of paying clients. This can include bespoke development, maintenance, support, training, hosting, and selling hardware that runs open source software.
  • Competition: an open source product is used to challenge a closed-source competitor.
  • Research & development: the business uses open source collaboration to improve products and do pure research.

Companies choose to work in an open source way because they can find both direct revenue streams and other benefits. What about government?

Cartoon: 'Good morning.  I'm from the government and I'm here to help'

Government and open source
I’m going to be prescriptive: government should get more involved in open source software. There are multiple benefits to this, and to an increasing extent, it’s happening. But as these posts explore, there are also multiple challenges for open source government software. Examples of sustainable operating models are needed.

We’ve had to meet these challenges with Citizen Space. How did we do it?

Development – how did we get Citizen Space from an idea to working code
Two simple things funded the majority of Citizen Space development; a third source of funding helped raise the game significantly.

1. Sales
Initial Citizen Space sales were effectively custom builds for specific clients. This is pretty common for software intended for a very specific group of customers (as opposed to mass-market consumer or general business software).

When we started selling Citizen Space in 2004, it cost much more than it does now, and it was less capable and less polished. It was used by early adopters who found it useful and could justify this spend. This provided income which directly supported building the product. Early adopters (‘customer of first resort’?) can be absolutely vital in getting a tech innovation off the ground.

2. We invested
Some of the early custom builds ran at a loss. We took profit generated elsewhere in the business and used it to fund this development. We also used debt-funding (bank loans) to ensure Delib had sufficient working capital to be around for the long term. This required us to build and run a successful consulting and custom development business whilst also developing our apps.

We could have taken the profit out of the business, but our belief is in building a product that can be used by every public sector organisation in the world. That doesn’t happen if we lift out the profits and buy a Porsche each.

Later we invested more to properly productise Citizen Space (because doing a custom build every time is unsustainable in the long run – it costs too much and is a nightmare to maintain). We continue to add custom features when a client needs them and can fund them, but they’re usually rolled back into the product to reduce long-term support costs.

3. Government invested
In 2010 UK government funded further development of the product to improve its suitability for central government. By this point Citizen Space was well established, with 6 years of experience building and operating the system for multiple public sector clients.

This wasn’t a no-strings grant for a nice-but-unproven idea by nice-and-plausible people.
We weren’t given a cheque, crayons and a stack of blank paper 🙂

Instead the project was an intensively managed software development process, consulting with multiple potential users in government, and rounds of testing and acceptance. This upped the overall game, and we were able to justify further significant investment of our own in Citizen Space.

The rationale for government was that by centrally investing, the cost of deployment to each individual department was then significantly lowered compared to typical pricing for a system of this type (from us or competitors). By going for an open source system, there was also the reassurance that departments could switch supplier if necessary, and that the system could be developed further in future.

Cartoon: 'Has my Porsche arrived yet?' 'No Porsche.  Software.'

Evangelism and raising awareness (“Hello, I’m from Delib and I’m here to help”)
In a nutshell, we do sales and marketing. In some ways, it’s that simple. I was going to cut this section out, except that it’s important.

The software won’t get used unless we tell people about it. Some software does go ‘viral’ – spreading by word of mouth – but I’ll just point towards the other two companies in our group; we know when viral does and doesn’t work 🙂

Our approach is pretty straightforward, and involves a lot of time on the phone talking to potential customers. The interesting thing is that it’s a significant proportion of our operating cost. It’s also time that (obviously) can’t be billed directly to clients. So it has to be covered from other revenue, which drives our day rates up. They could be lower if our spend on sales could be lower, but selling to government is expensive.

Charging for support – no bones about it, it’s a win-win for suppliers + customers
Complex software that is used to get jobs done to deadlines often needs support. Software often needs maintenance and upgrading, especially web software that needs to be secure and highly available to multiple users.

Businesses can live or die by their reputation for customer support. Charging for support contracts means an open source supplier can ensure that staff are available to respond to customers, and customers can have a clear expectation of great support.

There are businesses that manage to provide great support for free, but they’ll always have another source of revenue, such as license fees, or some other thing they’re selling (and how good is your broadband provider at support?).

How we’re operating support for Citizen Space
Our customers are broadly non-technical. Most are working in comms, public engagement and policy consultation. They need the reassurance that they will be able to get help when it’s needed.

So to be able to respond quickly to support issues, we have to have a certain level of staffing. Trying to do customer support for free won’t work and we stopped doing this years ago.

It’s good sense then that we operate support and maintenance contracts. We don’t charge excessively, and we’ve found a couple of smart ways to operate this.

1. We work flexibly.
Our developers are the key to looking after the software and our clients; they’re brilliantly flexible, and work 13 days per month out of around 21 possible days. This gives us three advantages:

  • We can scale up when needed.
  • We spread the knowledge across more people, so we’re more resilient and can cover holidays and sickness (and if someone leaves, although we hope they don’t).
  • Our developers like it – they have more autonomy over when they work, they have time for other things, and they don’t get jaded. This isn’t specific to an open source model, it’s just a smart thing to do.

2. We allocate time to support.
Support time is built right into our business model. And if that time isn’t used reactively for a specific client, then we use it proactively, in a variety of ways (which aren’t charged back to any client), including:

  • Improving documentation to help reduce support issues.
  • Improving our systems to streamline maintenance.
  • Developing the product further also to reduce support issues.

This is a result of thinking about what we’re doing in a lean way – identifying that support is a value-adding activity, not a waste, but being clear that reducing the cost of providing support is also good. It’s the attitude of stop cleaning, eliminate the sources of dirt.

Developing Citizen Space further
Citizen Space is good. But we know it could do a lot more. There are features that would be useful to clients, and there will be advances in technology to keep up with. In part 1 I described how we’ll continue to invest, but also how we tackle sustainability head on with a one-off product development levy which each new client contributes to.

A product development levy guarantees continued improvement of the product. By pooling it and ring-fencing it, we can fund feature development and enhancements. It also has an element of positive-feedback: improvements in the product make it attractive to more new customers, which brings in more funding for further product development.

BUT (and there is a but) – the levy has two further interesting aspects, which I’ll discuss in brief.

1. We vary the levy by country. Via central government, UK taxpayer has invested in Citizen Space (which is recouped by providing the system to UK public sector for much less than it used to cost). So quite simply the product development levy is lower for UK public sector customers than it is for other countries (or for any private sector organisation that wanted to use Citizen Space). It’s a fair and sustainable way to ensure development of the product.

2. The levy is not excessive. It’s a relatively small sum and the total raised this way will be useful, but not enormous. So to get more development done, we continue to re-invest profit. Some features will also still need to be funded directly by the clients who require them. This is fine. We’re also exploring how co-funding will work to the same end.

Cartoon: 'I'd like a new feature please'.  'Sounds great! Let's see what we can do.  Do you have any budget?'  'Maybe'

And now a summary…
Open source for government poses challenges. Here’s how we met these for Citizen Space:

  • We built it with revenue from sales and our own investment.
  • After we’d proved it thoroughly, UK government saw value in funding extra development.
  • Ongoing support and maintenance are provided 100% commercially.
  • Some product development is provided for with a levy. But to reach our vision for the app, we’ll continue to invest and find customers who are prepared to fund or co-fund specific functionality.

In the final post in this series I explore why we adoted an open source model for Citizen Space, and ask “does it actually work?”