Tuesday, November 26, 2002
I'll be out of town the rest of this week and all of next week. I'm going to take some time out to come up with some new ideas, talk to some interesting people about what's new in technology and innovation and get some rest. I might post from where I'm at if I get the chance, otherwise I'll put what's new up week of the 9th December. To the Americans out there, have a good thanksgiving; the rest of you take care.
The e-summit last week prompted coverage across most media, including a pretty good piece in Tthe Guardian. I say pretty good, because it essentially rehashed old ground - the Self Assessment problems, the PRO problems, Iraq dossier and so on. All of those are good and true things, but they're a bit tired - it's not as if every time I read the Guardian (which is not often) I lambast them for being wrong so many times - wrong at spelling, wrong on opinion and wrong on page layout or whatever. The article did give some options for the future - a weekly webcast for the PM or a new hompage for No10. If that's the limit of innovation in the Private Sector who are so hot to trot on this stuff, then really we should be worried. People don't come to government sites to see the PM and they don't particularly go to No10's home page (although it is one of the more regularly visited sites, partly because it has regular news updates, speeches from the PM, briefs from Alistair Campbell and partly because it's a good tourist site) - they come to government for help in solving problems that only government can help with. So information on tax, setting up companies, claiming benefits, finding a job - those are all common search terms on ukonline. Now more importantly I suspect, over time they will come less and less to government sites for those problems because the services will be available through an increasing variety of intermediaries who take the base offer from government and wrap an additional layer of value around it. We're not at that point yet, but suspect we will be 2, maybe 3 years from now. So that brings me to the other post of the day, from James Crabtree over at Voxpolitics. "Hold the front page" he says ... and links to yet another turgid report on how awful government websites are. Same old, same old. Another company with a service to sell (in this case, about some large number of pounds for a full report on a big government website) issues a press release, vaguely touting their service and pointing out how they can help. Can they? Well only if you want to know that x% of the errors on the site are badly formatted HTML that remains invisible to the client, y% are other invisible errors and there are a few broken links. I can come up with a bit more than that without spending that kind of money. But so little innovation in thinking about what services to put online, how to make them easy to use, how to genuinely do new things that are not available offline. Now that would be good info and would help us tune our own work. Instead its open season on the easy target. James - I thought you knew better.
Thursday, November 21, 2002
I came across two great quotes from Niccolo Machiavelli today ... “Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime and only luke warm support is forthcoming from all those would prosper under the new” “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things” These two should be the mottos of e-government pioneers.
Posted by Alan at Thursday, November 21, 2002
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Out of all the press coverage over the last couple of days on e-summits and the like, only one article stands out for me. It's a small piece in a journal I don't normally read that tells the story seen from the Benchmarking report (and yes [Bill] I know that sometimes benchmarking is not a good tool but, in this case, it positions us clearly against some other countries and shows where we are weak - and gives us a legitimate focus for effort. That's far, far better than either no focus or focus on the wrong things). And then it goes on to say, referencing making e-government work effectively, "But it's a difficult thing to do" and "The scale and complexity of the projects are such as to make them challenge even the most battle hardened project manager. They are tackling these projects though and, gradually, they're delivering real value at grass roots and corporate level." Absolutely right. It's going to happen though. Thank you to IT-Analysis, I'll read you more often - or maybe it's just one author, "Jack Of Hearts" (the name gives it all away, he's obviously get a soft heart). And there's even a quote that I like ... "Everyone has his day and some days last longer than others." - Winston Churchill. When my day comes, I hope it's very, very long.
Posted by Alan at Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
There was a great article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal yesterday. I won't link to it as, although I subscribe to the print edition, I don't have access to the online version (you have to pay extra and since I read the WSJ every day in the dead tree version, there seems little point in paying extra to read it again on a PC). The issue presented is one of a dinosaur-like Sony experiencing slowing growth, strengthened competition across many fronts and a business where the bulk of profit for the last 2 years has come from the Playstation franchise. Idei-san, the chairman, thinks that that the head of the Playstation unit, Ken Kutaragi, may be the man for the future - the catalyst. He says "if his personal ego is stronger than his will to keep Sony prosperous, then he will fail ... [the question is] whether he can change, can be a god." Those are powerful words coming from someone like Idei-san who goes on to say "Most people think Sony in 2010 will be a continuation of today's Sony. I don't think so". Kutaragi will be charged with injecting the lessons learnt from the video game business into the rest of the company and will be part of the 3-man team that runs the whole Sony group. That's some promotion. But Kutaragi says he doesn't want to run the show - he would have "to sacrifice myself endlessly for the coming years. My health would be ruined ... [it's] not for me." Kutaragi is billed by one senior manager as the "Michael Jackson" of the business - quirky, but creative. Idei-san even told Bill Gates at one point, after an aborted (and secretive) plan to join up with Microsoft, that "he doesn't control Mr. Kutaragi." So, a dinosaur like operation is going to get consumed from the inside out by its own video game franchise, led by a maverick who has minimal respect for the overall sense of things who in 1999 declared (loudly) at a conference that "the old guys [in Sony] should make way for the young guys". Now there's something to conjure with.
Biggest disappointment of the day? Overnight fog. Last night we were supposed to get a 'stellar' performance as the Earth moved through the Leonid meteor shower. When I went to bed at 11.30pm fog so enshrouded London that I couldn't see the dome of St. Paul's (which is about 500' from my back door). At 4am, when the peak of activity was supposed to be, there was nothing to be seen but cloud. This was supposed to be the asteroids' finest performance for 100 years and something not to be seen again for another 100 years. So it was a huge disappointment. I felt like I'd just missed Halley's comet again. Second biggest disappointment of the day? The Prime Minister speaking at the UK's e-summit and not mentioning e-government. At least not in the sense of what we've done so far is ok but here's what we have to do to change it: fewer websites, greater focus on integrating personal, relevant information with intuitive transactions and so on. Prime Ministerial speeches come and go (hey, even Prime Ministers come and go); there'll be another chance to get the message across. The Leonids won't be seen the way they were today (in some parts of the world) for 100 years.
Larry Ellison spoke at OracleWorld last week, beaming in via satellite from New Zealand. He had a few things to say that are relevant to some of the points I've made recently. Rather than have you link, I'll post the quotes I want to highlight: He said the three biggest problems in information processing today are data fragmentation, incomplete software integration, and incomplete automation. 1. "You have so many separate databases all over your organization, all over your industry, that it's very difficult for you to know where to look when you need some information." 2. Customers have also bought too many software applications that don't work properly together, he said, leading to poor integration. 3. "It turns out that as we sell you these general ledger systems, these ERP systems, these CRM systems that, historically, they haven't been complete. By that I mean you couldn't just take them and plug them into your business and operate your system." 4. "We would like every one of our customers to run the same exact software configuration; that's how you get software quality," he said. Altering products too much makes them harder to support and maintain. So ... we have too many software products with too many databases, none of which integrate well, all of which have been customised. Well at last he realises. Of course, Oracle (just like every other company) has spent the last n years pitching us umpteen solutions for infinite requirements. Suppliers have not managed their customers to help create replicable solutions that could be widely deployed with minimal customisation and customers have not managed their suppliers to hone down the requirements and facilitate the deployment of simpler solutions. Today, we have a huge mess of systems and databases that we must now draw together. The graph I put up a few days ago showing my forecast for the trend in government website growth could equally apply to back end legacy systems and databases, although everything in me says that it will take longer to realise that vision. So, Larry does get it. A bit. But he wants you to buy the next version of whatnotgadgetrelease that will make it all better. Right. But then, on the other channel, there's Scott McNealy lamenting that buying products from one vendor alone is not a safe route either (he's talking about Microsoft, but it doesn't really matter who). One quote I've heard from Scott a few times is that Microsoft products are "integrated", not "integratable". Looks like Oracle wants to go the same route too. If it helps make implementation simpler, I'm all for it. No matter who sells it. But then, on yet another channel, we have McNealy again saying something different ... One of the first initiatives is to bundle Sun's applications onto Solaris servers by June next year. "It'll all work," claimed McNealy. "It will all be integrated: you don't have to assemble it; you don't have to do all of that integration." So just imagine ... perhaps it doesn't work today? But no need to worry whether that might be the case, Scott tells you it is ... "I'll let you into a dirty little secret," he confided. "We're not sure that all Sun's software all running on one Solaris machine actually works, so we're testing it." What? Testing it? About time. And, as for Microsoft, some veiled praise ... "The software is all welded together and welded shut," he insisted. "You don't get best of breed, [and] you can't mix and match." Fascinating stuff. But the clear point is that the IT industry has had an epiphany. Having fallen over itself to sell us, the customer, endless upgrades, endless databases, endless incompatible systems, endless functionally incomplete solutions (and I use that last word in its loosest possible sense), they've woken up. Maybe the lack of money available for investment means that the customer is being forced to get intelligent; maybe the failures over the last 2 years have been the catalyst to get that intelligence; maybe the focus on accounting shambles and CEO accountability is giving us that intelligence. I don't care where it's coming from, stronger performance from customers backed up by commitment from suppliers will get us there. Anything less won't. I'm in the middle of compiling a "Seven Deadly Sins" article - seven for customers and seven for suppliers. Be interested in thoughts from anyone, either on your blog or by email to me at the Cabinet Office.
Monday, November 18, 2002
A funny piece by Computing's Mole haranguing a big UK bank's system problems. I'm the last person to gloat over IT problems - we've had a few in government of course. But as we roll out increasingly complex systems with more functionality, cleverer widgets and increasing criticality for the customer, do we really have the ability to integrate, support and manage the IT we've got today? I was thinking about this especially because I'd just read a piece on John Gotze's weblog (who has been writing increasingly prolifically recently - I'm having a hard time staying up with him. He and I seem to be exchanging more and more links - we're not just in it for the search engine placings, honest!) . The note was about the future of web services and quoted an AtosKPMG consultant's theories. I've stripped out the ones that aren't relevant to my point (but they don't contradict it): 1. The standards underpinning Web services will hold up. 2. The financial services, travel, energy and public sectors will be among the first to embrace Web services. 3. Web services will dramatically change the software market. 4. Web services will become the basic building block of technology and business infrastructures. Point (1) is hard to disagree with - those standards are going to evolve but they work today and no reason to see why they should change, it's where and how they're used that will matter. Point (3) and point (4) are the ones that really scare me. Web services are only likely to be the building blocks of services inside the firewall (how will I figure out whether I can trust anything outside my own firewall as a corporate?), and the only way that they are going to dramatically change the software market is by giving us all something new to buy, something new to integrate into and something new to worry about schema standards, authentication calls and polling submissions. And then point (2) says it all ... two of the four industry groups (banks and government) have the worst records at implementing new technology - so unless someone else is going to do it for them (us), how will this work? And this comes from someone who led the team that built what you could arguably call the first public sector web service (maybe even the first?), the UK's government gateway. So, it's not that I'm against web services - I just don't want to see us fall victim to another oversold technology that will force us all into another sweeping upgrade path which most of us will fall off (and it's a long way down into the abyss from where we are now). I'm increasingly bothered that the new new thing (to quote Michael Lewis) becomes the be all and end all. But what matters still is "the perfect service". Please don't tell me that I need new new things to deliver services that match those criteria? Surely if Amazon can sell books with what it has today, I can deliver e-government services without a whole load of new new things? We've not even scratched the surface of delivering content managed websites with personally tailored information, let alone giving updates on services via mobile phone text messages? And now I have to build/buy/borrow/steal some web services? Agh.
The day after the last election I was onstage first thing in the morning, opening a conference. I'd been watching the TV and had just seen Hague's resignation speech and was fairly sure that few of the delegates would have seen it. I opened with an observation that the trend to prefix everything with "e" seemed to have just finished and that we were moving to "x" - xbox, Mac OS X, Office XP, XML and so on. So the previous day, I continued, we'd had the xlection and this morning we had an "x leader of the Tory party". This month's Edge magazine has managed to combine both "e" and "x" to come up with "ex-box" in reference to the likely future of Microsoft's games machine. And if games keep coming out like Blinx, those words will come true. Truly awful. And, yes, I realise that this has nothing to do with e-government, but the tenuous link was to my presentation speech nearly 18 months ago! Two years ago, I bet a senior exec from Microsoft UK that Xbox would consume more than $2 billion and then be dropped, a failure. It needs to sell 10 million units to get me out of the bearish camp and I don't see that happening. But what's more likely is version 1 will consume this amount and then will come version 2, launched at the same time that Sony launch version 3. Kutaragi versus Allard. I'd be long Sony again, but with less certainty this time.
Doc's talking about the "Particulars of Bill", a plan for the USA to build a super-database, the mother of all databases to store everything that you ever do and any data that exists about you. The full story is in a piece in the New York Times. You'll need to be registered to read this - I have an account and I don't remember paying for it so I guess it's free. Doc quotes this bit: "If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you ... Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend — all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database." To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you — passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance — and you have the supersnoop's dream: a "Total Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen. " I don't think so. Look back to my piece from "Yes Minister" a few weeks ago - they were talking in 1980 about this kind of database and, more than 20 years on, we're not there yet. Government is not Walmart - it can't manage the legislation, the technology, the implementation or the operation of anything like this. Not 20 years ago, not today and (I'm confident) not 20 years from now. The procurement wil chew up the next 5 years during which time the requirement will have moved 500 times, the specification required ultimately will be far from what was procured, the vendor who wins will then start to plot the delta, the administration will change, the climate will change (the political one, although possibly the meterological one too by the time this is done - bring on the glaciers, because that's as fast as a project like this will move). And, net, nothing will be there. And if, by some miracle, it gets built then it won't work!
Sunday, November 17, 2002
I never comment on the political situation in the UK, but this quote in the Sunday Times caught my eye ... "I can see this going to Armageddon,” Cameron said. “Chief fire officers are shaking in their boots because Bain has unearthed things that the likes of Richard Branson would have done away with 25 years ago". This comes from an "independent" fireman who, I think, has come up with the right analogy. Government still does things that the big corporates stopped doing years or even decades ago - can you imagine Stelios running a business this way? (you'll need to have an account with the Sunday Times to read the whole article).
John Gotze's done it again ... he was first with the govblog (ok, so I was first with the egovblog), first with the XML feed and now he's got an XFML feed. I read what he said and then the links he refers to, I'm not sure I get it yet. Today I wrote to Dave Winer to ask him some questions on RSS. I want to know if I can use RSS to pull up "definitive" content from another site - say I want to find out exactly what "Disability Living Allowance" is, could I use RSS with some parameter or other to a "definitions site" to get the right words? Could I also extend that to delivering personalised content, based on a few keywords, from sites around government in a single consistent thread - i.e. not just links or teasers but the whole text presented in a seamless way? I'm hoping he'll fill in some gaps in my knowledge.
Just so you know, what got me thinking about the first post I put up today - getting a bunch of smart people in a room to work through the e-government issues - was this article from Jon Udell. He links to Brent (the more expensive the content management system, the crappier the URLs), Phil Windley (on finding data amidst the government morass) and others ... we need to harness all those links!
A while ago (October 12th) I noted that things in the USA had a chance to progress quite dramatically if the CIO that they were talking about appointing was given the authority and the money to get things done. Well, the House has passed the first stage of the bill to set that up. $50 million for each of the next 2 years looks in the bag - not a bad pot for a central organisation. Now, if along with that comes authority and the ability to stop others spending money where they shouln't, then the ante is upped for sure.
I'm going to get to my point via a fairly roundabout route, so forgive me. What does a perfect e-government service look like? Nowhere in the world is take-up running at dramatic levels - that is, levels where anyone could reasonably say that they have transformed their government, delivered something to their citizens that they never had before or mammothly reduced costs the way that we expect businesses to do every day. So, what would a service look like that would achieve that kind of take-up? A perfect service. It must be: - Easy to find - hunting for a service by trawling through hundreds of websites or by entering obscure terms into a search engine shouldn't be the rule. So that means it's either on a simple website (www.gov.uk?) or available through someone else's service that you are using (bank, insurance agent, pension provider). - Personal - the service needs to know who you are, so there must be a simple and effective way for it to know who you are and what rights you have over the service. That might be a digital certificate or it might be a userid/password or it might be a token that you already have (like a travelpass, entitlement card or identity card). - Relevant to you at the time - the service must be wrapped in information that you need at the time that you need it. That means that the service needs to know a little about you, either because you've just told it, you told it last time or it can intuit enough based on the path you took to get to it. So entering data that you've entered elsewhere is out. - Proactive - the service needs to tell you when something has progressed with your application or request; or it needs to tell you when something has changed in the process or in your interaction with it. So the service needs to know how to reach you by the way that you want to be reached (so mobile phone text messages, email alerts). - Reliable - when you need to use the service it needs to be there, it needs to work quickly and efficiently and it needs to do it on the system, device or gadget that you are using. So, if it needs to be all those things, how do we get to a service that might look like that. Well, one way (and I'm finally getting to my point) that occurred to me has to do with the authors of the weblogs that I read. Over on the left of this page you'll see the main ones - and there are others that I read less regularly and still others that I am sure that I would read if I could find them (back to that easy to find thing). The issue is that they write in their space, I write in mine - and we all wonder about each other's ideas and we try and interact, but it's all a bit remote. If we were to setup a forum that had Phil Windley with his views on authentication, Dave Winer with his technology ideas (and developments in RSS), Jon Udell just because he knows lots of stuff, John Gotze because he set up the first government-related weblog and also because he understands the issues that face government, Simon Moores because he's been around the block on this stuff for a while, James Crabtree and Bill Thompson because they are Vox Politics and probably Vox People. And there are others too I am sure. So if we put them all in a "room", virtual or otherwise, and had them map out the things that are needed to deliver services that have the features that I outlined above, could we solve all of the problems that we face, deliver services that people want and see, finally, transformed government? Just a thought.
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Monday, November 11, 2002
And John Perry Barlow talking at the "Beyond the Backlash" conference (best covered by Voxpolitics), comes out with another good quote "If we design [e-government] to serve existing models of business and government and to follow short-term goals we will be bad ancestors," he said. "Do not, I beg you, be bad ancestors." And that is absolutely true. Leafletsonline.gov.uk is not a model for 6 months out, let alone 6 years or more.
Definitely the week for e-government stories - this one even gets to quote C.K. Prahalad, Agile Is As Agile Does. C.K. says "all organizational change has at its root the insight of a single individual" and the article then links that with "the vision of these individuals has lead to real progress that gives palpable life to the notion of E-government". But another favourite quote from Ron Miller at the FEMA, "my biggest worry every morning is whether we're doing all we can to use technology the best we can". I'm nearly on that page. My biggest fear is that we're going to have to use more technology to get what we want, whereas I'd like to retrench with what we've got, make it secure, make it reliable, make it do the job. I'm not yet convinced that all of this stuff is ready for prime-time, mission critical status. And I think we're a long way from that readiness.
E-government seems to be getting a little more mainstream coverage, as evidenced by this feature in the online Business Week. I was a little startled to see this quote from someone at IBM ... "e-government has four levels. The first is slapping information up on the Web, something that has already happened. Next is organizing that information into more useful forms -- such as wizards that answer common questions in place of long lists of hyperlinks that readers have to search through to find answers. Third is transactions ...". About 18 months ago I put up a slide at a conference in London that talked through the "four levels" and how every time a new level was aimed at, there were a huge number of technical issues to cross (digital signatures, content management systems, more robust systems, access to back end databases and so on). Since then I've seen versions of the slide all over the place, including an almost exact clone delivered by another vendor in Romania. The article also shows that online tax is hard, even in an area such as Washintgon ... "More than 250,000 people have used Washington State's Revenue Dept. site to pay taxes, and 500 more start doing so each month. By yearend, the department will serve an estimated 18% of its 220,700 monthly and quarterly filers online. This will free staffers to spend more time on customer service and other tasks". You would have thought that the home of Microsoft and Amazon to name but two tech companies there would have a much higher take-up. 18% is, of course, still higher than the UK. Mark Forman delivers the same quote that he gave in my previous post today, "We are the most Web-savvy government in the world". Beg to disagree Mark. 180 million pages online across more than 30,000 websites does not make you web-savvy, it makes you web-heavy. And the ray of hope at the end? "That's a sign that the irresistible force -- the Internet -- is nudging government beyond its paperbound roots and into a more flexible, more responsive, and ulimately, more efficient era". I hope so, for everyone, everywhere.
Here's an interview with Mark Forman, the USA e-envoy equivalent talking shop about e-government. I don't think I've come across an interview with him before. Best quote? Easy. "We had 22,000-plus Web sites, and more than 30 million documents and Web pages. Now, it's up to 180 million documents and pages. We're online, but the issue is how effective and efficient the federal government is in serving the citizens." A week ago in Romania I guessed that there were 30,000 sites at a Federal level and perhaps 100,000 including state and local government. Looks like I might have been conservative. This is government's biggest problem. We still think like government when we talk to people - and noone takes the citizen's view. We need people who are going to champion the view of the people and lay it on the line to make sure that the services that are delivered are important for the citizen, not important for government.
Friday, November 08, 2002
Kablenet has picked up a story from a "senior downing street policy adviser" saying that the PM will talk, in the next couple of weeks, about the "Next Steps for Britain". I'm hoping that some of the stuff that I talk about will make it into those steps, but I haven't seen the speech. I'm theming my stuff on the "Next Stops for Britain", we need to stop a few things in their tracks before we can realise our real potential. We need a kick in the pants in the UK on e-government and the best person to deliver that is the PM. From there we can run with it.
The first snow of the year had fallen during the night but by the time I arrived in the centre of Bucharest it was already a grubby mush, swept away by drivers who have the alarming habit of using all of the road rather than just their lanes. The monuments of the Communist regime are easily visible on the way from the airport – huge, austere constructions (the “free press” building that now houses more than 200 independent publishers; the natural history museum, the military museum, countless enormous houses – presumably repurposed now, no longer the homes of the favoured few). It has been a while since I felt the cold drip of melting snow down the back of my neck as the water cascaded from the balconies and cornices high above. The Parliamentary Palace, venue for the conference, is just enormous - the link will give you more data than you ever imagined you'd need. Nothing prepared me for how big it is, but you would certainly not call it beautiful. To think that Ceaucescu constructed it for his home, although he met his end before it was finished. Almost every square inch of floor, stair, banister, wall and column (think of an Egyptian hypostyle and you won’t be far off) is white marble. After the revolution, it was finished off with minimal furnishings, but vast numbers of ornate chandeliers, occasional carpets and beautiful, religious-inspired, murals. Inside, it looks amazing – amazingly awesome and amazingly empty. In a country where the average monthly net wage is a little over $100 it was both inspiring and shocking. A red bull at the airport costs as much as a gin and tonic that in turn costs as much as the taxi ride to the centre of town – about $3. The conference got off to a late start and the speeches held to just a few minutes long. I noted as I opened mine that long ago I had ready the “one minute manager” but had not expected to give the “Seven minute guide to e-government”. My slides were not available so I adlibbed making just a few of the points that I had planned for my twenty minute talk. It turns out that seven minutes is about enough time to get across the essence of what to do next with e-government. Every few conferences I try and come up with a new theme, to stave off my own boredom and also to keep the regular attendees at these things thinking. The theme this time was “e-government is as much about what you stop doing as what you start doing”. There were some good points well made by other speakers: - The Italian Minister talked up the single electronic identity card; a government-issued extension of the existing ID card that will be the base for all e-government transactions. He also talked of reversing the previous trend of centralisation by giving power to the local municipalities, whilst maintaining control over standards in the middle. A risky path that is as likely to result in fragmentation as anything. - The Russian delegate noted the intention to learn from other countries that were further ahead. He said that 70% of e-government services are not used by the citizens for whom they were developed – I have no idea of the source or accuracy of that statement, but it is easy to believe that some number of that order is correct. Like his colleague from the Ukraine, he worried that there were issues around provision of “last mile” bandwidth (certainly insufficient to deliver multi-media), semantic search capability, auto-translation of content and a lack of regional content. - The Finnish delegate listed the various national databases (seemingly covering every possible piece of information needed) which are updated regularly (it’s mandatory) and used as the source for all necessary information. I’ve looked at these before and they are certainly a huge advantage in the e-government stakes. The most powerful quote came in this speech – “Don’t push new technology (it usually fails) but do be compatible with your customers”. Those working on digital signatures and certificates (and almost every delegate listed them as a priority), beware – if they don’t work in developed countries, they probably won’t work elsewhere. - A last minute entry came from Canada where Mark McDowell, custodian of the website “Aboriginal Planet” noted how far Canada had progressed. Take-up figures were impressive – some 75% of tax returns will be filed online next year; 20%+ of Canadians use the Internet as their PRIMARY channel to Government and 40% say that they will over the next year. I noted that all of the website pictures he showed displayed a very standard “common look and feel”, as opposed to a “consistent look and feel”; perhaps they have gone too far with that and need to re-introduce, albeit carefully, a little more sub-branding. Online consultations will be introduced next year. So, on the theme of “e-government is more about what you stop than what you start”. Here are my 7 principles, one a minute, for the next steps: - Stop putting online what you already have offline. If the online service is not sufficiently different, no one will use it and you will waste time and money. Leafletsonline.gov.xx is not a strategy. - Stop replicating within your own government what has already been done. Separate ministries implementing separate systems for key functions such as authentication, payments etc is a waste. If people have to do the same thing too many times to get similar results, they won’t use the services. - Stop building websites. The world probably does not need anymore and governments certainly do not. If you have one, that is enough. If you have more than one, start a plan to get back to one. Think how much easier it will be to focus on delivering content that is relevant to the citizen if you don’t have to piece it together from hundreds or even thousands of websites. If your people can’t find the service, they won’t use it. - Stop and think before you say you want to include citizens in the consultation process. If 10 million people suddenly give you their views online, how will you manage? How will you let them know their views are valuable and appreciated? If the feedback is not valued, people will stop giving it. - Stop designing services from the government view of the world and start designing them from the citizen’s perspective. If people have to think too hard about the structure of government, they will give up, use the ‘phone or go to an office for information. And while you're at it, design all your websites consistently. That doesn't mean make them the same, but do make them "consistently different". That means consistent navigation, consistent styles, consistent places for related links but it also means consistency of tone and voice. It doesn't mean make them all blue with grey text and yellow borders or anything remotely like that. - Stop putting online tax first in the list of transactions to go online. Start putting online benefits, pension management … anything that delivers direct value to the citizen. Tax can come later – once you have given them money online they are more likely to let you take it from them online. - Stop worrying about whether the target is valid and start delivering against it. E-government is primarily about benefit to the citizen. What follows from that is transformation of government, competitive advantage for the economy and probably a better environment all round (less money spent in one place means more spent somewhere else). And that was that ... back to the UK!
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
I closed the speech I gave today with this slide: The audience were mostly private sector people - suppliers and vendors - trying to engage with the various offices of government in Northern Ireland. I tried to convey the impression of big opportunities available now to create services that would make a difference to citizens, leveraging infrastructure (such as the Gateway) that was already available. Things looked positive, hopefully we'll get some interesting responses.
Interactive Bureau, a web design agency, has published a survey of government websites. In 200 pages they've skimmed over about a 1000 sites and reviewed in detail 20 key ones. The first thing that struck me as strange is that they don't seem to have commented that 1,000 sites is about 990 too many. How can the citizen find their way around that many sites without being totally confused? Apart from that, the conclusions raised seem appropriate - sites have information that is difficult to navigate, use complicated language (a whole new meaning of govtalk) and, (for me) most importantly, they note that design is inconsistent. There's some talk about a task force to address the problem which is too small and being swamped - I'm not sure who they are, but it might be OeE I guess. The Register picked up on the story and re-iterated the point that the Number 10 website comes in for some of the worst criticism. One story picking up on it came to the conclusion, somewhat oddly, that the entire e-government programme should be abandoned. Rescuing themselves a little later in the piece, they nearly correctly concluded: "It is clear that the Government’s current Guidelines, despite their eminently practical approach to Web site provision, are not being adhered to. Therefore, it may be that the only way to do this is to impose rigorous standards on Webmasters, and to monitor their implementation, based on a Government-wide high level strategy". 'Nearly' because I think it will take a little more than imposing those standards.
Sunday, November 03, 2002
I've re-worked the slide that I usually use of the Gateway. I'll be using this in a couple of conferences that I have this week, one in Northern Ireland and one in Romania. Belfast I've been to before, but Bucharest is going to be a whole new place for me. I'm looking forward to it. Anyway, the new slide tries to convey the need for two types of access to government back end systems, (1) for thin clients and (2) for fat clients (aka Accountancy or payroll systems etc). I don't see anyone else in the world addressing these two needs with any degree of success on a cross-government basis (honourable achievers include the Australian Tax Office and the US IRS - but neither is cross-government). To do that, the theory is that one great piece of central infrastructure (the Gateway) is better than many departmental systems. On top of the Gateway you can initially layer rules engines and a variety of web services (say a payments engine, a secure mail server, a government-citizen text messaging service, an appointment reservation/booking systems etc) - but ultimately the Gateway-type system grows to include those too. Here's the picture:
A few days ago I rambled about the relative maturities of any given country's e-government attempts measured by the number of .gov websites there. I've thought this through a bit more and think it might be a fair reflection. The graph above shows what I think the relationship is. The e-government target is announced - everyone rushes to build websites and, because they are hard, few transactions get added. Websites grow exponentially, transactions arithmetically at best. At some point, someone realises this is dumb and more effort is put into transactions. But only when the effort on websites is actively countered and sites are shutdown is enough effort put into transactions to really make this happen. As the website count gets lower, better and better information is available with each transaction ... and e-government success results, i.e. high take-up. The trick, obviously, is to recognise early that this is going on and take steps to reduce the website count - that's the bit where good central infrastructure, consistent look and feel, well-researched customer feedback, focused content audits/rationalistion, content tagging (metadata and taxonomy) and RSS-feeds come in. Without those things, I predict that it's all going to be a bust. Of course, a consultant is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen today (borrowed from Laurence J. Peter who, googlism tells me, is the one that first told of the "peter principle").
Friday, November 01, 2002
Autonomous government agencies often have their own Web design, which can confuse users. I think "does confuse users" would be more accurate. I trailed this same thought in my Computing piece a few weeks ago. Darrell West has published what I think is his 3rd report on global e-government status, and the full report is here. The most startling conclusion is that, STILL, few websites offer transactional services. More than last year, but still not many ... "12 percent of government websites offered services that are fully executable online, up from 8 percent in 2001". That might mean that 88% of sites are not much use or that they haven't got round to transactions yet. We can sort that out by killing off the redundant sites of course and by making the sites that remain fully integrated with transactions. What would be an interesting number is how many sites each country has, perhaps measured per head of population or per million heads (or maybe per million people online) - I would imagine that the number would be lower for those countries both at the top and the bottom of the table (the top countries would have figured out that too many sites was bad and the lower countries are unlikely to be able to invest as much - or, if they haven't figured it out yet, they're going to have to soon). Plotting that on a matrix and showing the trend from last year would tell me if I'm right that countries start the e-government process with one site per department, quickly move to dozens (or even hundreds) and then go back the other way when they figure out how to consolidate to bigger, more capable portals. That leads, ultimately, to a single highly interactive, deeply personalised portal that can view across every government system. And that probably tells me that it's a step or three beyond the web browser. We're talking something pretty clever to get to that and if we have to figure out how to render pages that it shows in different standards and on different screens and whatnot then it will be too hard to do. So, what's the next UI?
I was pointed at this article to help me understand open source ... not a bad article at all, but it still talks mostly about operating systems. I'm past that - I completely understand why I would run an open source o/s, but I'm stuck on how to build a scalable, performance, high capability system. By the by, I liked the site that this piece came from (Newsforge) and have added it to my regular links on the left.
Not everything that needs to get done needs to be measured. A report on performance based e-government in the USA notes that "Excellent cross-agency coordination is seen in the priority e-Government initiatives, but stove-piped systems and processes remain an obstacle to an integrated e-Government" and "The Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) is recognized as the necessary, but missing scaffolding for all agency e-Government initiatives". I think everyone in government anywhere in the world will identify with those points. But what are people doing about it in government? The silo-based initiatives have been there forever and continue to proliferate. Only if we put strong controls in to prevent decisions being made on IT projects by silo can we hope to address the issue ... and couple that with an architecture that allows modules to be developed throughout government by whoever has the expertise and need, but that can be plugged in and made available to all.
The US Feds have announced that they plan to reduce the range of software that they buy. This is a fundamental and necessary step ahead of re-engineering backend systems - you want a stable, known baseline that you can upgrade from. The fewer systems in the baseline, the easier it is to consolidate. You can also start to amalgamate at a hosting level, reducing security and network spends (just how many firewalls does any government need?). Given that the US have a budget of more than $50 billion for IT I would imagine that they'd be looking to make some serious saves here. A small hump in costs for the replacement in year one and two and then dramatic reductions - with the suppliers held by the short and curlies to deliver. This latter point is pretty crucial - a failure in a system that is just one of many just affects that department, but a failure in one that supports 5,10,15 or 20 departments or agencies is a whole different world. I wonder if the suppliers are truly ready to deliver fully mission critical software to support this level of critical infrastructure.
What? Apparently Korea has indeed launched the world's first e-government. Service began at 9am today (in which case it might certainly be the first service to open on time). Apparently 393 services are available online and information on more than 4,000 ... and ... "Twenty or so administrative papers will be able to be issued at any administrative office, taking a large burden off people who would otherwise have to travel long distances to be issued them". Sounds like a big portal that links all the backend systems; if it's true, then that's not bad work at all.
What is it about online tax systems that makes them creaky. No sooner have we got past the problems in the UK and all of a sudden, we find it's contagious. Yesterday the Australian Tax Office had some volume related problems - with 20,000 users trying to send their returns - and the system failed. That said, this year more than 500,000 people have sent tax returns in via the 'net (about 25% of the total). Building systems to cope for peaks in demand while leaving capacity idle for the rest of the year is not a fun game. The two key things to do are to fully stress the system and build time to see what the breakpoints are; and to build a system that does several things so that usage is broadly even, making for less capacity wasted. This latter point is why we built the Government Gateway - we knew that personal tax would be annual, payroll tax would be monthly, VAT quarterly, student loans annual (But not the same time as personal tax) and other services (like Child Benefit) would be more ad-hoc. Overall, we thought that there would be a continuously moderate to high load with occasional peaks, but not huge jumps in volume. We're not there yet, but we will be.