How can UK.gov spend £35m on a website?
Comment The Central Office of Information (COI), the UK Government's centre of excellence for marketing and communications, has just published a report on the costs, usability and quality of selected UK Government websites in 2009-10.
It's a detailed report and the data is available to download. It shows how the UK Government spent £94m on website development and running costs plus £32m on web staff in 2009 - 2010. By looking at the analytics it's possible to correlate the costs of building these sites with the number of visitors. One headline statistic was that the UK Trade and Investment website averaged 28,000 users per month but cost over £4m to build - so each site visitor cost £11.78.
As an exercise, I took a deeper look at the websites in the COI report to see what technology they're using. These are leading central government websites so it's an interesting sample.
I wanted to characterise the sites from the information available on the Internet - were they built using Microsoft technology as evidenced by IIS web server, ASP.NET framework and Windows Server? Or were they Open Source based, with Linux OS and Apache web server for example?
In the end I extracted data for 38 of the websites, and found 25 were using Microsoft and 13 were Open Source. The majority of the Microsoft sites were running Windows Server 2003, with one instance each of 2000 and 2008.
That in itself bucks a global trend, in that over 60 per cent of all websites are based on Apache whereas IIS 5, 6 and 7 account for one per cent, 20 per cent and three per cent respectively. Microsoft and its partners have clearly had a strong influence over UK Government procurement decisions.
How much evidence was there of content management systems (CMS) usage? Very little. There was a small pocket of Vignette CMS (now owned by Open Text), some Drupal and Joomla, and one instance of Microsoft SharePoint 2007. There was a weak correlation between the age of the site and use of CMS - it's more common in recently published websites.
Were the Microsoft based websites more expensive than the Open Source based ones? I ran a non-parametric statistical test (Mann-Whitney) on the two samples and the short answer is that there's no significant difference. This shows that the overall costs of building these sites out-stripped the licensing costs.
Do these sites seem like good value for the UK taxpayer? At an average non-staff cost of £2.5m per website, absolutely not. I read the report many times to understand how HM Revenue and Customs could spend £35m on www.businesslink.gov.uk. I just can't figure out how.
What's the lesson? The licensing model of the underlying technology isn't a significant factor in determining website costs. Free and Open Source Software won't matter when a consultancy or outsourcing company loads up a contract with tasks requiring many person weeks of expensive billable time.
If there isn't a FOSS advantage, there's still clearly a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) advantage. One of the main purposes of these sites (apart from serving static information pages) is to provide a portal for file download.
Commercial open source software packages such as CogniDox allow you to do this in a completely secure and flexible manner. It costs thousands of pounds, not millions, and it delivers those features out of the box. And it has competitors such as Alfresco and Nuxeo that can also do the same.
Paul Walsh is the CEO of Cognidox, a Cambridge, UK developer of web-based document management software
This article was originally posted at Cognidox.
Here's why it's so expensive.
Why does a website cost £35m? Here's the answers
1) The website is possibly the main public face of the organisation. Therefore it's important.
2) Because it is important one needs to consult
3) Because it is a consultation there are many meetings, involving many high-level civil servants, costing tens of thousands of pounds in man hours
4) Because the initial planning alone cost tens of thousands of pounds there is absolutely no way the website can come to less. People paid as well as this can't be wasting there time with projects whose budget is smaller than the incidental costs.
5) The bigger the cost, the more planning, the more planning the more blame when things go wrong is diluted into a myriad of individuals. Big is safe.
6) Because the people who want the website probably don't know what it should do or how, but they do know that they should know. As a result all the expensive planning is poor.
The outcome of this process is that people like me who have traded successfully in the private sector for years have no chance in the public sector which simply refuses to believe that a website can be built by a small team, or often, an individual.
What was that title...?
"How can UK.gov spend £35m on a website?...Here's how..."
Only you DON'T tell us how!. You just say that that's what they spent.
If you have done a lot of in-depth research - where's the detailed costings...?
Ans: meetings - lots of 'em
Let's start with a weekly progress meeting. Invite the whole team, say 30 people (incl. _both_ developers). Reckon on funny money hourly charging at an extremely cheap £50/hour. That's 3 grand for a 2 hour meeting. Over a year and you've "spent" £150k without actually doing any work. Now if each team member has to attend another 2 meetings each week, you're close to half a mil'
Since your staff spend so much time in meetings they are pushed for time to do real work. So you have to bring in consultants - lets say £1k / day each. 5 of them for a year is another £1.25M.
We all know that the more people you put on a project, the longer it takes, so a project planned for 1 year now takes 2. Double all your people costs and viola! £35M down the tubes without even trying.