Friday, July 26, 2002

I'm moving home this weekend ... to a place where there's no broadband connection (yet). I'll be off the air for a while, at least until I get the fast stuff installed. Meanwhile, you could do worse than read the US government's e-strategy. An impressive, coherent, highly probable document. If the folks over there can do as much as us folks over have done already and then do the extra things this strategy talks about, they can pull ahead of us within 12 months. And whilst the idea of falling behind doesn't appeal to me, anyone who can put together and then execute a plan like this will deserve admiration.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

Kable published an interesting piece this week on local councils and their status on implementing e-government, based on a new report from the Audit Commission, "Message Beyond the Medium" - nice pun that, not at all like auditors. Some good conclusions: it's going to cost more than they thought, they don't know where to start (it's everywhere!) - and 1/5 are still doing strategy, 1/3 think it's too hard for them to do and 2/3 think it's too expensive. Doom, doom and even some gloom. But then you see something like the Somerset hub, also talked about in Kable and you start to realise that all is not lost. How long will it be before all bits of government realise that just because they went solo for the first stage of computerisation (and pretty much ever since then), it doesn't always have to be that way. Joining up to solve common problems, develop common technology and infrastructure, reduce the implementation cost is how you crack this stuff. From the beginning. Joined up strategy, collective attention to issues, assigned leadership etc. The Somerset project is clearly only a start - it collects info from several different councils and pulls it together (in real time as you search as far as I can tell) - it's not clear whether this is all co-hosted (if it's not, it should be). And I can't find any transactions yet. But they will come - and because these councils are doing it together, it will happen faster than in other places and maybe give them a competitive advantage over others. That's not really the point I guess, but it could work out that way. If one set of councils make it easier to live your life with them, why on earth would you move and why wouldn't property values increase there and more people move? It must be part of the equation along with low crime rates, good schools and clean, country air. I look forward to seeing more from this project. And even more to seeing others do similar work.
Driving around in town today I was struck by how many ads there are for investment funds ... for a moment I thought it was April again. All of the ads have the line "Investments can fall as well as rise and you may get back less money than you put in" tagged at the bottom. Given the market conditions, how long will it be do you think before they start saying "Investments can rise as well as fall and you may even get back more money than you put in"?
Being driven mad today by my wi-fi network nodes suddenly losing contact. Well, that's not quite true. Everything can see everything else and I can even surf the web wirelessly - but I can't exchage files anymore. Harder than hard. No wonder no-one is buying new technology just now, it's got beyond the capability of the everyday person (if it was ever within that capability). A little while ago I bought a new phone, a Nokia 8910 and a I also got one of the new O2 XDA's to try out. Getting all the numbers off my old 6210 and into the new phone and PDA was a real challenge. The 8910 needs infra-red - the existing datacables I have don't fit; Sony have stopped putting infra-red on their laptops. Even if I do manage to get the numbers onto the new phone (which I haven't), all the settings I have (like which people are in which group, what the default ring tone is, what the speed dial buttons are etc) are all lost. Why can't I just send the config to a server in the sky (wirelessly of course) and then download it when I swop the SIM to the new phone? Is that really too hard? If Nokia and the others think that there's a new upgrade cycle coming, they'd better be ready for a serious backlash as people realise that their precious settings are long gone and non-transferable. Let's not even go into the XDA and getting the software off my Ipaq and onto that - changes in button mappings, new things to learn. What a pain.

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Absolutely, utterly, nothing whatsoever to do with e-government ... but this is just great. Well, only if you have flash. And you like kung-fu. Now, if only we had one of these on ukonline.gov.uk, we'd be bound to get lots of visitors.
A short (to the point perhaps) note from President Bush on e-government ... "Our success depends on agencies working as a team across traditional boundaries to better serve the American people, focusing on citizens rather than individual agency needs" ... If you can crack that Mr. President, you've cracked the hardest problem. I'll tell you what I've learned if you'll tell me what you've learned - and what you plan to do next to get your memo into the day to day vocabulary of government. I'm just reading the strategy and vision document for the USA's e-government programme and will update this post in the next few days with my thoughts.
I am of course all for more money for e-services, more money that is, provided that "in return for additional resources delivery organisations are therefore being asked to agree stretching targets for the take-up of e-services". The spending review comes once every 3 years and must be one of the most fraught times in government as depts bid for extra money for important projects. Top of the list this year are (healthily) NHS and (justly) Criminal Justice ... but e-government is in there too. The next 2-3 months will see some vigorous planning on how the roll-out plan can and should change now.
A few jottings around about Peter Mandelson's web site. Credit where it's due ... you can text him questions and he posts an answer on the web site. Nothing too earth shattering revealed yet but that might be because of the questions asked. Maybe he's brave enough to post the questions not answered? I wonder if you get him personally if you ring the number on the site.
The e-democracy consultation paper is out. There's no reason for me to comment on it when James Crabtree at Voxpolitics is so much more eloquent than me. "The shot that rang around the electronic world", says Steven Clift. Hmmm, one of many, but (apparently) this is, after all, the world's first e-democracy policy. I'm a bit confused about The Register's take on it ... something about sticky plaster, sick politics and whatnot.
Back on the 2nd June 2002, when the IR's Self Assessment service was taken off line for a security issue, I wondered how (if the IR can get it wrong) we would expect smaller agencies and departments to get it right. Major companies still get it wrong but I guess it's not front page news anymore when someone gives away billing details, account details or whatever. There needs to be a concerted effort on these issues to lock down environments to that there are no exposures. I can't believe that the public at large are laissez-faire about this - do we really "expect" it now and factor it into our plans? Maybe we don't expect to do much of our business online, at least none that could compromise us, so it's ok for their to be issues like this. I doubt it. Anyway, it was an article in The Register about a security issue at O2 that got me on this point.

Saturday, July 06, 2002

And here we are at 10pm ... VNU's site comes back up (strangely there's not a note saying that it was down and apologising for the inconvenience. It must be just as us government folks that try and react proactively to outages and manage them) ... and here's their [completely incorrect] article on the Gateway and its relationship (or lack of it) with the IR problem.
With all the stuff about Entitlement Cards going on here, I almost missed some stories in the US about a similar initiative being explored.
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments ... something really innovative (and again picked up by Kable) is the announcement that Alnwick local council made about using ASP services for its core applications coupled with an Intranet portal for its staff. Now what we need to do is watch closely and, if it works, scale the model across a wider range of local authorities. Alnwick report the news themselves on their own home page.
The upgrade of the Government Gateway took place as planned during the week. It took a lot of hard work to say the least. We're in a good position to build from here and add a range of new services over the coming months.
Kablenet posted a couple of articles about the Entitlement Card vision from the Home Office, including a specatularly obtuse comment from SchlumbergerSema. The points that they make are reasonable though as the plan calls for 'involve the creation of a high quality population register, assigning every UK resident a unique personal number that could be used across the public sector'. Setting up something like this would be a huge challenge and require a lot of IT focus - at a time when the NHS and Criminal Justice are going to be absorbing a lot of attention. My own sense is that a single number would make delivering real benefits through e-government much simpler. But the effort to introduce it is not something that anyone understands yet - cross-matching existing databases to the new number alone would be a huge task, let alone the logistics of issuing the new identifier and performing the necessary checks. One for a lot of people to put their thinking caps on for I think. And a lot of people have been doing that it seems ... The Guardian (twice in fact, once with 'people' and once with doctors at the BMA annual conference), The BBC, Computing and The Times. And probably loads of others, although I couldn't find anything in The Sun (but I couldn't find their search engine either). In my naive way, I thought that the point of going to consultation was to collect all these views together, see what the good and bad points are, whether the bad ones can be overcome and then go ahead. It would be pretty daft to publish a full strategy with all the implications boxed and costed before you went to consultation. Maybe I just don't get it. Anyway, I've got the papers (more than 200 pages or so) and plan to go through them to see what it's all about. My focus would, as always, be on the implementation end. The best thing about my job is that I don't get to do policy. That would be a bad place for me to be. So the logistics of "ID" or "entitlement" cards would occupy my thinking ... how would you number them, what biometric, what kind of reader would you need, which standards would you use (if there even are any), where would people get them, how would the new numbers be matched to old numbers in existing databases. Then the good bit comes, which is what would you do with them if you had figured them out ... 95%+ of people who are eligible for child benefit claim it, but only 77% or so of those who should actually claim child tax credit - is that a problem you could address with a single ID number? Could we reduce the amount of government mail that goes astray by having an ID number? Maybe if banks used it and when they sent dividend/interest records to the Inland Revenue, the address was checked against the one on file. Bottom line for me, in a very personal opinion, is I don't see how you do joined up, citizen focused government - whether offline or online - without something like this. It might take years to build it and roll it out and it would certainly stretch government's implementation ability, but show me another way to get the same benefits. I liked Steve Voss' thoughts on Kable.
John Lettice, at The Register, was the first to pick up on our recent launch of a trial service with MSN Messenger and it's "tab function". John's got a thing about me delivering a whole different kind of "e", although I'm not sure that government would be too impressed with those funny sweeties he refers to being stamped with a "UKonline" logo. And fancy even thinking I'd drive a beamer. John also spotted a glitch in our recent upgrade of the Gateway - we fixed that a few hours after he pointed it out. My favourite quote? This one ... "Given that a lot of people do use Messenger, it's difficult to argue that this is an experiment the UK government shouldn't be performing. But we'll try anyway". And try he did. Still, nothing sinister here - just trying to find new ways to reach people who may not know the UKonline brand and may have no idea what government has to offer online. And I loved the last dig - had I not mentioned the "monitoring of chat sessions", I'm quite sure John would have done it for me. I'd like to think that this could be huge if we can sign up AOL, Yahoo and any others. As we've often said ... "people don't browse government, they turn up for something ... and they expect it to be there for them". If we get this right, we can make it so that government turns up to people and tells them what's there. Imagine that.
Computing published an article on Thursday that blamed the Government Gateway for the Inland Revenue's issues with Self Assessment. They also noted that any department using the Gateway would also be at risk of the issue. This despite both Cabinet Office and IR's press offices doing their best to explain the issue. The problem was nothing to do with the Gateway and there are no known exposures for those departments using the Gateway. I really wanted to link to the story and pick it apart line by line, but unfortunately VNU's web site is down. And it's not just down - it's "page not found" down - no message, no reroute, nothing. Perhaps they're hosted at KPN Qwest or Worldcom or something.
Looks like there's a lot to cover today. Let's start with the news, from Silicon, that the Inland Revenue Self Assessment service has limped back to life. That's a little bit disingenuous. The IR had a problem with their service, they took the site down to figure out what it was, fixed the problem and have put it back live. Only when they were absolutely sure that the issue was resolved and only when they knew exactly who had been affected and how could the service be restored. Silicon quotes an accountant, Chas Roy-Choudhury (who is often quoted when the IR are concerned), as saying that the only proper response is to give people an extra month to file. I don't see the logic there - the unavailability of the service for a month doesn't mean that at all. Completing the tax return online takes only a [relatively] short period of time and the deadline is still the end of September (if you want the tax you owe or that is owed you to be worked out in your tax code), so there ought to be time. The biggest risk here is that the issue puts people off using the service and, if that's the case, an extra month here or there won't make any difference. The issue is resolved now and it's been fully resolved ("110%" to quote the IR!).

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

At last a first! I saw a post on John Gotze's blog noting that searching google for "govblog" produces a null return. Well, if you search for "egovblog", you get one entry. This page. I'm sure there's a name for a single entry in google. Googlebonked or googlewhacked or something like that. I know Jeff Minter at Llamasoft is endlessly checking what he's "unique" for on google - usually combinations of odd words. So, that's the kind of company I keep online.
Everyone's got a view ... e-gov becomes e-gav. A shameless link to my own web site with some quick thoughts.
It's been a challenging few weeks. No time to write much outside of the couple of hundred mails I send/receive every day. So, although there's been stuff happening, I've not cast my eye over it much. I'll try and redress that over the next few days.