Revealed: how much the govt e-petitions site costs taxpayers


2:52 pm - August 26th 2011

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contribution by Andrew Tindall

After the rocky launch of the government’s new epetitions website, I started to wonder just how much was spent moving over to this system from the petitions on the old number 10 site.

In order to get this information, I shot off a freedom of information request to the cabinet office on July 28th.

Today I finally got my response.

The Cabinet Office have confirmed to me that a total of £80,700 was spent developing the new service, including “design; process analysis; development and testing; the warranty period; infrastructure setup and accreditation; and the SSL certification i.e. an extra layer of online security.”

I also asked for the expected yearly cost to maintain the site.

They have quoted a figure of £32,000 per year for “support, maintenance and hosting of the e-Petitions site.” It is unclear if the moderation of petitions is included within this.

So there we have it, they clearly paid too much for what was such an unstable service, but it’s still one of the cheaper government initiatives we’ve seen in recent years.

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Reader comments


If it does the job, seems pretty good money for an extra democratic voice really. I presume it was custom-built (unless there is a market for this sort of thing I missed out on).

I have a horrible feeling that the database I am determindly not using just now costs more than that, works less well and has far less social benefit (unless the world needs me swearing at the computer a lot more).

Let’s divvy up the issues here.

Personally, I detest the idea of a petitions website as part of a general dislike for direct democracy (more here):
http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/12/13/why-local-and-national-referendums-are-a-really-bad-idea/

I’d happily close the damn thing down.

However, I’m not sure that we have enough info here to know if it was *really* too much to pay for a development project such as this. It’s easy to measure this against, say, the money that the third sector would pay for such a site (my finger-in-the-air guestimate on this would be around the £30-£50k mark if a bit of good due-diligence is done during the procurement phase, but I’ve been out of this particular game for a couple of years now and that may be a bit high).

But would it definitely be the technical success that this was? I’m not sure it would be.

Put it like this: If a large well-invested private sector entity were to do a similar thing within a similar timescale, and there was a mission-critical element (in this case, reputational damage if it really b0rks) to it being developed in a durable and future-proof way (i.e. understanding the development trajectory of other related projects and being able to meet the demands they may place upon it), how much would they pay for it?

I suspect that they’d be looking at a similar figure.

Completely ridiculous. If they were devising a site which somehow accessed government data or systems then it would make sense to create their own site. But since it is, in every way, a bog standard petitions site, this is something they could and should have left to the market. There are plenty of ePetition sites around to host the signatures, surely?

Robert,

As this site has a democratic effect (all petititions with a certain amount of signatures get considered by parliament – not debated mind) you cannot host the signatures on a site outside the control of the democratic process (even if epetition sites could host the volume of traffic). Furthermore, most epetition sites are campaigning and therefore are hardly suitable for hosting a system which has to be politically neutral.

So that’s £91,000 less over two years than the one Labour set up? And a further saving of more than £75,000 every year after that?

http://anthonycooper.blogspot.com/2011/08/clearly-paid-too-much.html

Gotta say, I’m pretty much with Paulie(#2) on this one, the cost of the ePetitions site seems quite reasonable really, certainly nothing to get shocked about.

Anthony: i’m not saying it’s not cheaper than the previous one, I’m merely saying that for the price paid, and for a government website, you’d expect it to be able to handle a heavy load, and to work as intended.

@Andrew Tindall

I agree that a website server should scale rapidly to the usage spikes that can occur at often very random times, and hosting on distributed platforms such as Amazon or Mediatemple can help with that.

However, unless you are willing to pay for a huge platform that will sit idle for 99% of the time, it is simply not possible for any company to develop a webservice that is guaranteed to cope with massive spikes in traffic.

Even Amazon crashes at times – and if they can’t avoid it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

9. Leon Wolfson

@8 – Using a cloud platform for expandability can prevent 99% of that type of downtime. Especially new-launch downtime. It’s basic enough that I’d consider not doing so downright incompetent at this point.

Leon,

Can you guarantee security so well on cloud servers, especially as to the best of my knowledge the government does not run them (or more accurately, run them to host ‘frontline’ websites)?

I think that ‘just stick it in the cloud – it’s bound to save money and guarantee a high-uptime’ will prove to be cast-iron good advice in the near-future. But – as far as my understanding goes – not yet.

12. Shatterface

I’m so incensed by this waste of money I’ve started an e-petition.

The Cabinet Office have confirmed to me that a total of £80,700 was spent developing the new service

Somewhat less than the gazillions New Labour paid IT company execs to blow coke up their arses for an ID Register to stop Al Qaida cheeting on their benefits (or whatever: details are fuzzy now.)

13. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

Can you guarantee security so well on cloud servers, especially as to the best of my knowledge the government does not run them (or more accurately, run them to host ‘frontline’ websites)?

I’d take Amazon’s security over that of any state.

14. Planeshift

It’s a waste of money though. 100 000 sigs to get something debated in parliament.

A license for every lobby group to spam people, and a low threshold to get anything debated. Furthermore likely to distract MPs as they become forced to debate things like “changing the national anthem to Napalm Death’s ‘you suffer’ ” and “a windfall tax on Paul Staines”, amongst the usual ban this and deport the darkies tabloid led campaigns. There are far better ways to develop effective mechanisms to force MPs to debate issues of public concern, and its far better and cheaper to use reputable polling companies to find out what those issues.

15. Mike Killingworth

I can’t believe people are cross about the money spent on this project. As a proportion of government expenditure, it’s the same as a pensioner on £12k a year spending one eigth of a penny.

16. the a&e charge nurse

[14] “Furthermore likely to distract MPs as they become forced to debate things like “changing the national anthem to Napalm Death’s ‘you suffer’ ” and “a windfall tax on Paul Staines” – don’t forget Hillsborough – the families of 96 killed at the game have only been waiting 22 years for full disclosure.

The e-petition (which has 110, 000 signatures so far) will force some sort of parliamentary debate.

I would imagine the cost of the various hearings and investigations into the Hillsborough scandal is far in excess of £100k – why £100k is the sort of debt two spotty students will accrue if they are brave enough to go to Uni for 3 years.

17. Leon Wolfson

@10 – Yes, there is a security argument, but. You can run the data storage back-end on your servers, and serve up the front end via the cloud. With a deacent storage model, that still allows you to absorb a LOT of front-end hits.

It just means that, say, you push out sending confirmation emails until backend server demand drops.

18. Comrade Tebbit

@12

Shh

Don’t mention the deficit.

19. Charlieman

In order to sign any petition on the government site, you have to submit an email address, full name and full street address. Clearly, that is personal data and under UK law it may not be exported outside the EU for “processing” (it’s complicated but that is the gist of it). Processing effectively means anything, including counting the number of signatures and online storage.

So the data has to stay within the EU. There are cloud service providers who can guarantee that data will reside at a particular data centre or in a limited geographical area. Or an organisation can create their own cloud service using tools from VMware or similar, which I presume is where sites hosted by direct.gov.uk are heading.

Any organisation that stores personal information about members needs to tread carefully when using cloud services. There are cloud services that you can use without concern and others that you morally and legally should not use.

Gosh, let’s get rid of that expensive democracy thing.

Sounds like it’s good value for money.

It’s also already had a positive effect on the campaign for truth around Hillsborough – which alone was worth the money.

Just that one fact also makes it more effective than Labour’s system ever was, although it’s slightly disconcerting when the government sets up a system to listen to the people and then they actually do – not used to that at all.

22. Charlieman

@17. Leon Wolfson: “You can run the data storage back-end on your servers, and serve up the front end via the cloud.”

Technically, that would work. Legally, it is very dodgy if personal information is cached or retransmitted by cloud servers wherever in the world.

There is a further security problem regarding DNS. If the front end is hosted in the cloud, floating between servers according to demand, the DNS name has to be managed by the cloud service provider. Who should decide to which IP address the name epetitions.direct.gov.uk resolves?

23. theophrastus

FFS, the expenditure is mimimal and encourages people to get involved in politics – without undermining the principle of representative democracy.

Far, far, far more money is wasted on benefit fraud…, for example…

Not to mention the billions that the 1997-2010 Labour governments ( in borrowing = deferred taxation) sprayed around to almost zero effect in health, education and regional development…

24. Leon Wolfson

@22 – Er, you can use cloud servers limited to physical locations within a single region. Amazon EC2, for instance, has it’s EU servers in Ireland, which is going to be legally acceptable.

Yes, it can be screwed up, but so can normal web servers, and it’s not significantly more complex.

@23 – Ah, so *everything* is (once again) an attack on (the relatively static and low levels of, compared to a 40+ billion tax gap) benefit fraud, and justifying slashing spending on the poor. One track minds…

24. Leon Wolfson: “Er, you can use cloud servers limited to physical locations within a single region.”

I do not wish to go to war over this quibble but I made that point earlier 😉

If you start at the point http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions you can dive into a bucket of crapitude. Look at the https page source, look at redirections. The name, the web address for epetitions.direct.gov.uk directs to a UK service provider, a private company. Which is fair enough.

But the SSL certificates, due to expire in October 2011 when I inspected a few hours ago, were owned by a private company, Speed Trap of Berkshire. They were Thawte certificates for a Speed Trap domain. New certificates have been submitted for epetitions.direct.gov.uk directs and I do not trust them.

26. Leon Wolfson

@25 – I think you’re talking at cross-purposes to me now. I’m talking about the fact it’s perfectly possible to architecture a site to use a cloud in the EU to handle overcapacity quite easily.

That’s all.

Well, and that I consider anything else incompetent at this point…

Those costs sound fine, for a trial balloon, or a pro to-type. I guess the budget should increase now, since there is obviously a tremendous demand for this service. It should get much more investment. At that low cost, it is unlikely to have been architected properly. And the maintenance fee would not cover new requirements.

28. Mike Thomas

In IT terms considered what it does, it is a very reasonable cost and also support cost; those costs wouldn’t look out of place in the private sector.

My suspicion is that on supplying the personal data and also handling the e-mail response to ‘sign’ your entry requires the SSL layer and also the need to securely hold the data for DPA considerations. The government is not liable for prosecution under the DPA which would suggest a private contractor running this in their data centre.

I’m also all for open democracy if it can bypass the lobbyists and special access types for the great unwashed to petition Parliament.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs the taxpayer http://t.co/p4RW9NQ

  2. Clive Burgess

    Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs the taxpayer http://t.co/p4RW9NQ

  3. Margaret Byron

    Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs the taxpayer | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/wSspdde via @libcon <– shameful!

  4. sunny hundal

    RT @libcon: Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs taxpayers http://t.co/yKDFX3d << Great FOI work by @andrewtindall

  5. sunny hundal

    RT @libcon: Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs taxpayers http://t.co/yKDFX3d << Great FOI work by @andrewtindall

  6. Matthew Sinclair

    REVEALED on @libcon: the RELATIVELY MODEST cost of new e-petition site http://t.co/Bys4ZbA

  7. Matthew Sinclair

    REVEALED on @libcon: the RELATIVELY MODEST cost of new e-petition site http://t.co/Bys4ZbA

  8. Shelley

    Who is starting petition to abolish e petitions? RT @libcon: Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs the taxpayer http://t.co/zr7NcZz

  9. Peter Lesniak

    RT @libcon: Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs taxpayers http://t.co/yKDFX3d << Great FOI work by @andrewtindall

  10. Sam

    re @libcon saying epetitions cost £80k and was unstable; maybe it should have cost a little more… http://t.co/F6aJcas (cc @sunny_hundal)

  11. sunny hundal

    RT @smithsam: re @libcon saying epetitions cost £80k and was unstable; maybe it should have cost a little more http://t.co/5zWJ7IA <agreed

  12. Fazey Pie

    RT @libcon: Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs taxpayers http://t.co/yKDFX3d << Great FOI work by @andrewtindall

  13. paulstpancras

    RT @smithsam: re @libcon saying epetitions cost £80k and was unstable; maybe it should have cost a little more http://t.co/5zWJ7IA <agreed

  14. Paul Clarke

    re @libcon saying epetitions cost £80k and was unstable; maybe it should have cost a little more… http://t.co/F6aJcas (cc @sunny_hundal)

  15. Paul Clarke

    re @libcon saying epetitions cost £80k and was unstable; maybe it should have cost a little more… http://t.co/F6aJcas (cc @sunny_hundal)

  16. Paul Evans

    Oddly, I've weighed in here on @libcon *defending* the epetitions website. Sort of…. http://t.co/3Ba3S0W

  17. Paul Evans

    Oddly, I've weighed in here on @libcon *defending* the epetitions website. Sort of…. http://t.co/3Ba3S0W

  18. Dafydd Vaughan

    re @libcon saying epetitions cost £80k and was unstable; maybe it should have cost a little more… http://t.co/F6aJcas (cc @sunny_hundal)

  19. Rikbut

    Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs the taxpayer | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/wSspdde via @libcon <– shameful!

  20. TheCreativeCrip

    RT @libcon: Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs taxpayers http://t.co/yKDFX3d << Great FOI work by @andrewtindall

  21. Julian L Hawksworth

    REVEALED on @libcon: the RELATIVELY MODEST cost of new e-petition site http://t.co/Bys4ZbA

  22. Ceara Rea

    Revealed: how much the e-petitions site costs the taxpayer http://t.co/p4RW9NQ

  23. Tim Montgomerie

    ePetitions site cost £80,000 to set up and will cost £30,000pa to maintain http://t.co/wXv42hm

  24. Craig

    RT @TimMontgomerie: ePetitions site cost £80k ..will cost £30k pa to maintain http://t.co/FDiHYDJ << About the amount Jaqui Smith's stole

  25. Mark M

    RT @TimMontgomerie: ePetitions site cost £80,000 to set up and will cost £30,000pa to maintain http://t.co/lUOgpd2 <– I'll host it for £1k

  26. Liam Stokes

    RT: @TimMontgomerie ePetitions site cost £80,000 to set up and will cost £30,000pa to maintain http://t.co/PonsHRQ -> Good value for money?

  27. Richard

    ePetitions site cost £80,000 to set up and will cost £30,000pa to maintain http://t.co/wXv42hm

  28. Rory Broomfield

    It's too much but might be worth it RT: @TimMontgomerie ePetitions site cost £80,000 to set up and will cost £30,000 pa http://t.co/3Hx9Y1T

  29. Diane Lawrence

    Revealed: how much the govt e-petitions site costs taxpayers | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/1oNPVGq via @libcon

  30. Nigel Cameron

    Cute effort, but potentially so bad for democracy: MT @TimMontgomerie: ePetitions site cost £80,000 to set up http://t.co/OtHDjPQ





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