Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Gaps ... between promises and delivery ... between vision and capability

True words tracked down by Tony Bowden.

If we didn't know before, we know now

At the end of each year lots of lists come out. You know the kind of things, "top 10 shameful video games", "top 10 innovators for 2002" or the "top 10 alabama sports stories for 2002". I guess it's traditional now. I thought I'd do some lessons learnt, with a twist. Some of the lessons are things that we knew in 2001 that proved ever truer in 2002; some are brand new things for 2002 and the rest are things that I expect we'll learn in 2003. So, to kick off, here are the things that we learnt again - e-government is hard. Not just hard in fact, but brutally hard. Few countries around the world have made the leap from the usual offline/online switch to delivering genuinely new services. In the UK we spent 2001 doing the former and carried on in 2002. This may not be a bad thing - in early 2001 the 4 stage model that I displayed at conferences predicted that we would do that. But, to paraphrase the PM at the e-summit - we've done ok, but not nearly well enough. - The press have an eye for this stuff and tend to spot something going off the rails before anyone else. The press were quick to spot the PRO 1901 Census problems in January, quicker still to spot the Inland Revenue issue early in the Summer and have, at various times, pointed the finger at my own team for things that we've not got quite right. More power to them. I don't always agree, but I do appreciate that this ensures that what we do remains in the spotlight, which means that we have to get better - because none of us can endure that kind of coverage for much longer! When we do get it right, I'm hoping that we'll get the same kind of coverage for the good news as we did for the bad (on this note, check out Scott Loftesness' good/bad/sad/great news searches on google). - Innovation is hard to come by. Getting anyone to think outside of the box and figure out how to do something genuinely new and then encouraging them to take that risk is a serious challenge. There are many downsides to taking big risks in the public sector, and few upsides. When there is every chance that you will be reviewed by the OGC, the NAO, your own departmental audit team and then pilloried in the press, let alone by the PAC, it's easy to see why innovation is rare. That attitude must change if we are to genuinely make a difference. Doing it the same old way will ensure that government looks the same to the population 50 years from now as it does today. Some new things that we learnt - The right service can generate enormous demand. The PRO's 1901 Census service may have fallen over in January, but it fell over under the weight of several tens of millions of users trying to access it. Few would have predicted that kind of load on opening day. Fewer still would have had a system in place that could have handled it and, yes, I accept that we should have prepared for it. The PRO is back and working now and generating good traffic. Similarly, the Pathe film library is online - 250,000 users accessed it in the first 3 days. Hundreds of people have access the new Child Benefit service despite it having minimal publicity (just a link from the DWP home page); hundreds of thousands have visited the Inland Revenue's Tax Credits site. So, we learnt that people will come, if the offer is right, if there is value there and if it all works. In 2001 we were guessing that would happen; 2002 proved it. - Digital certificates moved from an interesting idea to an interesting idea on life support. Demand was stunted at best. In year one, it could have been just that they were knew and people were unfamiliar, but two years in it's unlikely to be that anymore. They're hard to use, don't work on all browsers or all operating systems, aren't portable and cost money. The value proposition is not yet there. Once an equivalent service is supported by both the private and public sector, there might be something there - because that will help encourage standards to be developed that remove the problems between browsers and will give people a reason to have them, because they'll be multi-functional (if it was part of the widget that you used when travelling on the tube in London, why would you not use it for e-commerce too?). But, it's still touch and go. Things that we will probably learn again in 2003 - The right service generates demand. If we can develop e-government services that deliver value, are focused on the customer and their needs right at the moment they're looking for something, then traffic will grow to government sites. - As we develop more of these services, we'll see that we need to stay pretty close to what, for us, is the bleeding edge of technology. We will have to implement complex integration layers to open up the backend, deploy CRM systems that operate across several channels and combine increasingly involved content management and transaction systems to present useful things to the customer. Many of these won't work reliably either because of poor implementation at the supplier end, changing requirements mid-project at the customer end or just new technology that hasn't quite grown stable. The Press will be bad. But the progress will be upwards. - There has never been a stronger need than the one we have now for Government to have its own base of "intelligent customers" who are focused on managing suppliers, delivering to budget and to specification and driving the vision forward. This is a dramatically under-appreciated role in government and one that doesn't fit well with the traditional policy route to the top. Sir Andrew Turnbull is delivery focused, so let's hope that he encourages more recruits of his type, more incentives for them to progress within the hierarchy and a greater share of power for delivery instead of policy. - Outsourcing or using a prime contractor is not, was not and will not be the best way to get your projects delivered. Period. - We'll have more bad news stories, more outages, more problems with demand (whether it be predictable or not); we will learn a lot about managing complex Internet systems, just as much (in fact) as we should have learned last year and the year before but probably didn't. Things that we'll learn for the first time - When it works, it's great. And we will deploy services in 2003 that are genuinely innovative and make a difference. And that will be great. - We'll learn a lot more about personalisation and multi-channel delivery. We'll start to see e-government services prompting you via your mobile phone, e.g. "you have an appointment at the fracture clinic tomorrow at nine, please confirm you'll be there". We'll see the first services that ask you to volunteer a little information and then present a menu of interactions that are specific to you. This will draw people to use e-government services in far greater numbers than before. - There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not a train rushing towards us.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Doing web design right

Web design is more than quite important, it's vital that we get it right. Jason Kottke summarises the few key principles that you need to know ... "Use CSS and XHTML to make your pages clean and fast-loading. Use a database or XML to store your data so that it can be easily output into multiple formats for different devices & programs. Put the most-used tasks right on the front page of your Web site. Make sure your server is up most of the time. Think about what you have to offer to people and give it to them in the most useful way. Make it easy for people to contact your company in a variety of ways". That's a great start; do that in government and you are a long way to what your customer wants. Do it the same way on lots of sites and you are nearer still. Don't have too many sites in the first place and you are close to the end game.

Startling patent emerges

Scott Loftesness (who I met a few weeks ago at a meeting in San Francisco, albeit too briefly) has picked up on a patent filed almost a year ago by Amazon. It covers personalisation, of all things. When I talk about personalisation, I nearly always use the 'Amazon' quote - people who bought this book also bought this one; not because it works well all the time, but because I figure most people know about it. But the idea that I now, in theory, wouldn't be able to implement that in a website is bizarre. But, on the upside (for us in the UK), I don't think patents for what is, essentially, a business process are valid in the UK - such a patent would never be granted which means as long as I don't launch a takeover of the US e-government initiative (not something I'm planning right now), we should be ok. For UK government personalisation, we ought to be able to get a lot closer than "people who wear clothes often buy ..." (which seems to be the line Amazon is taking with its recommendations for apparel). Given we already have a population of 60 million people we ought to be able to establish a rough model that links related benefits (some of these are easy - if you have a child less than 18, then you get child benefit; that means you might be due child tax credit, depending on your income - and I don't have to know the latter to suggest that it's worth looking). It might be possible to map it by postcode, but I doubt that there's enough data there to do something truly personal. Over on Slashdot there are a lot of comments about this patent application, most of which say Amazon's recommendations aren't all that great. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't - it may all be a question of data. If I knew which of the 1800 government websites you looked at, maybe I could build up something that was useful - but perhaps I couldn't because no matter how many you look at, you never find the one that has what you need? Maybe if I tracked the things you searched for on ukonline? The real deal here will be how much of this data will you want me to use, how much will you give me voluntarily if it gives you a better service and how much will you let me extract from the backends to really give you what you need. The answer to those is probably not much, a little and none for now - but if the intial "not much" and "a little" start to make a difference to what you see on government sites, then maybe you'd be persuaded to volunteer a little more?

Hold The Press - Version 9,002,473

Oh. Another one. I see that James over at VoxPolitics has stopped posting for the holidays so I thought I'd sneak in with this one. Hedra, the management consultants (and one of the biggest suppliers of 'consultant bodies' to government) have been doing some surveys on government websites. The results are not encouraging - only 1 in 20 Internet users regularly use any of the 3,000 government websites; the survey of 600 (which, they say, is statistically valid) couldn't find anyone over 65 or from social groups DE that used any of the sites regularly. The press release on the Hedra site concludes with this piledriver quote "Hedra Deputy Chairman Stuart James said: The Government needs to look carefully at ways of driving more traffic to its sites, such as discounts on taxes, like those already available to those who pay Council Tax by direct debit. Design and functionality are also important issues. The Government needs to find ways of managing relationships with IT suppliers to get the most from the Internet". The BBC also picked up the story and added a few gems from the recent PAC report that's been covered elsewhere. I'm on the record here and in a variety of other places with my thoughts on government websites. Indeed, I've been speaking at conferences since January 2001 and have often talked about what I think is wrong with what we do, what we need to do about it and how we might do it. I've done this in front of audiences anywhere from 50 people to 6,000 people; in countries as diverse as Japan, Romania, the USA and, of course, many times in the UK itself. So, don't for a minute think that I am shying away from this issue. But also, don't for a minute that I think another survey list this adds any value at all. - I'm no expert on statistics, so I can't guess whether 600 is statistically valid. Instinct says it isn't. But that's hardly the point. I do know that there aren't 3,000 websites though, so if they've got this wrong, I start to question all the numbers. When I checked at the end of November, there were around 2,200 registered domain names for government. Stripping out duplications (e.g. inland-revenue is not a different site from inlandrevenue) gives us about 1,800 sites. There are a few (but not many) .org, .com and others, so maybe we have 2,000 sites. So the survey is 50% high. But that's still not the point. - The figures I have seen, that are from samples far in excess of 600 (and I will track down the sources when I am back in the office) tell me that, in aggregate, government websites attract about 5,500,000 individual visitors per month from the UK - that would be (by my maths anyway) about 10% of the total UK population and about 18-20% of the online population (a bit more than the 5% claimed). This is something close to Amazon and also to the BBC (for UK visitors only) so I'm told. Two thirds of that traffic is garnered by about 20 sites - the top 2-3 usually have about 10-12%, but which ones they are vary. So during the exam problems this summer, DfES was high; during September, the Inland Revenue is high because of Self Assessment. Before any of my colleagues accuse me of hypocrisy, I'm not a fan of research - I like cold, hard numbers like visitor counts because as long as I always count the same way, I can tell what's going on. I know, for instance, that traffic on ukonline has increased by 10x this year (end January to end November) - from a low base to be sure, but still a 10 fold gain is impressive. Ukonline is now one of those top sites. My usual quote about research is that it "is like a drunk with a lamp post - more for leaning on than for illumination". But that's still not the point. The real point is that government's progress with websites, whilst enormously beneficial in terms of the potential for the citizen to access raw information, has not been sufficient, has not driven the usage that it should have done (versus the pounds spent) not has it directly benefited the citizen in terms of faster processes, better services or, more aspirationally, transformed government. I haven't met the deputy chairman of Hedra and I'm sure that he doesn't write the quotes that are attributed to him, but he should probably check them before issue. All of these surveys usually come up with some inane recommendation, a snappy one-liner about how government could overnight improve its web offering - in this case, all we have to do is give some discounts on taxes. Oh, he says, and by the way, design's quite important too. So maybe we should do something about that. Oh and lastly, perhaps we ought to manage our relationships with suppliers. And none of those are the point either. So strike three for another survey that adds data to support a well known conclusion but adds zero value to the debate on how we should progress. So, let me get to the point at last: - Government's web presence is designed around government. That's fine for government, but not much use to the citizen. Noone knows or cares how to navigate around the 700-odd entities within government. Why should they? Do you know that the Inland Revenue administers Child Tax Credit, but the Department of Work and Pensions administers Child Benefit? No? Thought not. What you want to be able to do is go to a site, tell it a few things about yourself (either anonymously or not, as you wish) and then have the site tell you what you need to know. That is pretty achievable today - but it would mean linking to lots of different sites for you to get the information you need and each of those sites looks different, works differently and doesn't know who you are (even though you told the first site a little). This makes it hard to gain "mind share" (and I'm grateful to colleagues in Opta for putting this concept firmly in my mind). The average person has room in their favourites menu or their links toolbar for perhaps 10-12 sites - the ones that they visit regularly. One will be google, one yahoo, one the bbc, one Amazon, one the local football team, one perhaps tesco.com and so on ... that doesn't leave a lot of space for "government", especially when it is so fragmented on the web (by the by, ukonline could be a nice placeholder in this space as it will get you to all the others). - Because our web presence is designed around government, every website looks different. By that I mean the search button is in different places, the menu buttons aren't always where you think they should be (can you imagine trying to use Word and Excel and having to remember where "save" was because it moved each time?) and so on. But, worse still, each site will have a different view of who you might be - some will be structured around the departments within the department, some will have gone so far to think about you as a customer, some will just be lists of items. So you'll have to spend time on each thinking about how to use the site rather than thinking about how you get what you need - which is, after all, what you went there for. - Your interactions with government are probably pretty rare as it is - maybe you pay Self Assessment, you probably have a council tax bill, perhaps you claim child benefit. But it's quite rare that you actually deal with government - you probably renew your tax disc at the post office, your garage sorts out vehicle registration when you buy your new car, your doctor's known you for years and so doesn't ask for your NHS number (and you're not often sick, so you don't go to hospitals) and so on. So what you need is for most of the other interactions to be taken care of for you - just the way the post office deals with the DVO (bet most of you don't even know that DVLA is DVO now. Why should you?). And they ought to be taken care of, in many cases, by intermediaries that you already deal with - the banks, the building societies, the post office, the Citizen's Advice Bureau and so on. That's a big step for government, but one that is coming. What seems like a long time ago I published a graph of how I thought goverment's web presence will go - it will shoot past the present 1,800 odd, then level out and start to reduce rapidly. The mid end-point is perhaps a dozen sites. The end end point is none - because everything will be dealt with as you need it through a variety of intermediaries. At the time, I don't think I made the "end end" point clear, but that's where I think it will go in the very long term. - Because we don't treat "you" as an individual, it's hard for you to figure out what exactly it is that government can offer you. So, unless government knows something about you and how it can contact you (so that when something changes - like a new tax credit being introduced) it can contact you, it's hard to see why you would even visit more than a few government websites. This is an argument for personalisation - the kind of thing that Amazon already does ('people who bought this book also bought this one' - although Amazon persists in recommending me every new edition of something called Farscape, even though I keep telling them that I don't want them). Personalisation is hard. Hard because you need a big store of data that is stored with information that lets you break it into individually relevant pieces of information; hard because you need some pretty standard definitions (a child must always be a child - but different bits of government use different threshholds which makes life complicated for the technologists); hard because content syndication and aggregation is not yet mature enough to do this well (more on this another time); and hard because it requires a full rethink of the way government manages its web presence - it would mean individual departments giving up control of some aspects of their world and handing them over to central administrators. - Once the information is there and personalised so that you know what government can do for you, the next stage is to deliver transactions (obviously these happen in parallel in an ideal world, but some things are harder than others). Transactions is where things get messy - you have to open up those nasty old backend systems and tinker with them so that people on the "outside" can put things in them. That exposes all kinds of new weaknesses about business rules, availability of the systems and so on. Transactions are hard. When the Government Gateway launched, there were 3 - PAYE, VAT and IACS. Today there are over a dozen (with some transactions having several parts to them - e.g. PAYE is not a single transaction but about 30). By the end of Q1 2003, there will be about 30. Simply, this is happening faster now because departments have spent time opening up the backends to support these new ways of working. It's by no means done. But it is working. - Finally, to my earlier point about who owns Child Benefit versus Child Tax Credit, without a single brand that everyone knows (that mindshare point again) - so one that is marketed, advertised, linked to, referred to, referenced in the press and so on this won't happen. Where "this" is online take-up. It doesn't matter if there is more than one site after the intial entry point (at least initially), but if I (as a citizen) have to decide which government site might do what I am looking for, then all is already lost because I don't speak "government", I only speak "I want" or "I need to". So I need a place to go, that is on my favourites or my Links toolbar, that will help me get around the rest of government. That already exists today - it's ukonline - and maybe that's the right place for this ubersite to be in the future, or maybe not. But there does need to be one such place. Underneath that single entry point is all of government, with its own brands and specialisations - because we know that individual departments already have their history, credibility and brand presence online and should not disturb that. But we do need to bring people to a place where they can find those specialists. The benefits that come from doing all of this are that people find information quickly, get access to services that they need when they need them, gain real financial benefits (in the shape of tax credits or whatever) that they didn't know they were entitled to etc. Gradually, government transforms its backends, reduces its cost of handling, delivers more efficient government and then the benefits flow from that transformed government. That latter point isn't a 2005 goal, indeed it will take many years to achieve fully. But it will happen. On my watch too. Rant over. Nearly. One last thing, the supplier community (as I will soon outline in my "Seven Deadly Sins of Suppliers") does its level best, for the most part, to persist this state of affairs by failing to leverage solutions already developed (often within any given supplier let alone when two suppliers are involved); by failing to deliver robust and reliable services (think PRO, think Inland Revenue, think all the others that you've heard about); and by failing to take the business side of implementation - because nearly all the issues that I outline above are about business, not technology. Dealing with government is not easy, I know that, but the lack of creativity, vision and capability within large numbers of suppliers to the public sector is not helping. Of course, to use a quote from before, "a consultant is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen today" ... and who did I say was one of the largest supplier of such to government?

There's plenty of room at the bottom

Back at the end of 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture at CalTech covering, principally, why big things can get a whole lot smaller. He talked about how we could easily envisage writing all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin, how we could have an electric motor no bigger than 1/64 of an inch cubed and how we could build a computer that would recognise someone's face (without the machine being the size of the pentagon). He could see no reason why we couldn't do any of these things. I've been a fan of Feynman since I studied physics at school - I wish I'd had him as a lecturer, my grades would probably have been a lot better. So 43 years and 1 day ago, Feynman was thinking of the world the way it would likely be in the future - as he did with so many of his ideas. It seems to me that there is a lack of vision in many things today, that people are focused on the short term - on the financial results of the next quarter, on the housing market during the next 6 months, on the Nasdaq at the end of 2003. The big picture needs to be reiterated so that we can aspire to it, break it down into smaller steps and then start to live up to the dream that it inspires.

More on data protection ... the banks know about it too; so do the newspapers!

On Thursday I was wondering about the data protection problems that local councils have and how they could look at what the banks have been doing with their account aggregators for some support. Friday's Wall Street Journal had a feature in the "Personal Journal" section titled "Weighing the Pros and Cons of Grouping Accounts Online" (I'd link to it but (a) I'm not a subscriber to the online version and (b) you're probably not either, although I do hear that they have some 10s of thousands of online readers, I know that there are only 100,000 readers in Europe). It's a good article. It talks about both client side aggregation and server-side aggregation - and how the UK banks have pursued the former (because of those dratted data protection issues) and the global banks have gone for the latter (including my own bank, Citibank). The banks thought that this was going to be the killer app (the El Dorado the article says) of online banking, but so far it hasn't worked out that way, but it is, apparently, picking up. There are something like 150,000 to 200,000 users in the UK. Citibank's lawyers say that as long as the client initiates the aggregation and the client's data is in safekeeping and not used by the aggregator, there is no breach of the rules. Egg uses the client-side method. The only issue with this latter approach seems to be that if you regularly use different PCs, you'll have to install the plugin on all of them to allow you to see the details - something you might not want to do. But it still strikes me that there is something in this. This approach ought to be applicable in lots of scenarios where data protection might otherwise be a problem. For instance, we've long talked about the idea of a "citizen vault" where commonly used data resides so that you don' t have to keep filling in your name and address on government forms, for instance. There's nothing to stop this data being on your own PC for now and then you can grant or deny access as you wish. Some may worry that "government" will take this data and do things it's not supposed to do. Believe me, people I work with in government spend enough time agonising about doing what they can do and are allowed to - the idea that any of them would knowingly create a process that broke the law or even bent it is just not real. Government strives to be whiter than white in applying its own laws - to the outside world it probably doesn't always look that way but on the inside, that's what's going on every day, all the time. Here's a case where government can still be white but can make life easier for people ... the only step that they have to take is to be clear what it is that they want to happen, a simple change of address process; and then make it so. The flaw in the "citizen vault" process above is that it doesn't help government get it right in the various back end systems with which the citizen hasn't chosen to interact or doesn't know about. That means it doesn't revolutionise what we do in government, but it does kick us a step nearer the end goal. It also doesn't require a whole heap of new backend code to be written. I've been thinking a lot about the "backend" problem and will be writing some more about that soon. I've got a few things I want to write: my 7 deadly sins of suppliers and customers; the legacy problem and how we might address it; some stuff on single signon, including the problem of "digital identity"; a view on syndication and why it's not yet what it needs to be (coupled with a piece on the end of the hyperlink in government) and then (sooner than the others I hope), a year end wrapup.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Old news reels drive broadband usage globally?

I was prompted by a note chez Dave Winer that the Pathe news articles are online. I wanted to look at anything they had on Neil Armstrong ... the website intro works fine ... but then I get this (and this is a straight cut and paste, with the line breaks deleted): "Error Diagnostic Information.An error occurred while attempting to establish a connection to the server. The most likely cause of this problem is that the server is not currently running. Verify that the server is running and restart it if necessary. Unix error number 111 occurred: Connection refused" .... Verify the server is running and restart? How on earth would I hope to do that? This ought to be a 1901 Census type site - one that drives a lot of traffic from all over the world as it's the only source of a huge range of broadcasts that many would find interesting - whether for old time's sake, academic interest or just plain fun. Eventually the site works, but it gets confusing. It pops up with an "invoice", but the amounts are all zero, and then you have to type in a bunch of personal data, but it's not really clear why or what will be done with the information. That's a shame, but it's worth persevering - like I said, where else are you going to find this? I just checked the Wired article that Dave W refers to ... it says 250,000 users tried it out in the first 3 days. Definitely in the killer app territory! But it also says only 50,000 films were downloaded by those 250,000. I wonder if the other 200,000 were put off by the registration process? I can't believe that they didn't find anything they didn't like. There's so much there!

Friday, December 27, 2002

Change is hard ... especially if Data Protection is somewhere in there

I've been catching up on my reading over the holiday. December's Government Computing has "Changing address - The data sharing dilemma" as its front cover and feature article. It seems (and this is backed up by legal advice from at least two sources, stimulated by a request from Shepway District Council) that if I want to tell my Local Council that I've changed my address, then I have to tell all the individual departments within the council because, if I just tell one, they're not allowed to tell any others. Now I can't imagine that this problem has just up and arisen today - this must always have been an issue but somehow we've been ignoring it. Now that we've got e-government, it must seem like a good time to raise the data sharing spectre. Apparently 12% of local councils (that would be about 55) are already risking legal challenge by circumventing this ruling, so Shepway have asked to be able to use a law known, pleasingly enough, as the "power of well being" that would allow them to share this data. I can think of a bunch of things that a law with that kind of name could be applied to and data sharing would be nowhere on the list, but there you are. It seems a government minister must ok such a request. What I don't follow is why we don't use technology to solve the problem and not share any data at all. As far as I read the law (and I have, several times) there ought to be a simple way around this. Suppose the website (and Shepway's is a nice site, by the by) offered the "change of address" service (I couldn't find it there today, so can't tell how they would have implemented it). You type in your old address, your new address and some identifier that makes sense to the council ... and the site then send X different messages to the council, each of which are individually addressed to different departments. The customer is oblivious to the fact that it's X different messages, whether X is 1 or 1,000 makes no odds - it's all XML schemas whizzing to the backends. This doesn't mean that all the backends need to be connected to the Internet - the messages can be routed through a hub (like our own Gateway) or even printed off in the post room and mailed using the address in the GovTalk envelope. I honestly don't see that this is an issue. The banks that are doing the "screen scraping" account aggregation would have faced the same issue, but they do all the aggregation on the client PC, so there is no point in the network when the data is shared with anyone other than the client - isn't this just the same thing. If it's a real problem, then the customer can tick a check box for each department that she wants to update and messages will only go to each of those. I suspect though that there is another underlying problem, to do with the reference number that is used to indicate who the customer is. In the central government world, we have the NINO, the UTR, the VAT number, the PAYE number and so on; the NHS has 20 numbers. I don't know how many the local world has, but I bet lots of money its not one for most councils. That would mean that there would have to be some kind of mapping service to match reference "N" to "M", "O" and "P" or whatever. That's a more interesting problem - but, again, the problem exists today. Every address in the UK has a unique number, but it's not something we make a lot of use of. So matching the addresses to the unique Post Office number might be a quick way to get around it - all you have to do then is make sure that the address change is genuine. A quick phone call, a text message maybe, an email even. Or maybe just another letter. I can't believe that this is stopping progress. The article goes on by saying councils don't know "whether to be brave or cautious". Always the former. Always, always, always. As John Dryden said, "None but the brave deserves the fair". One other thing from the same issue of the magazine caught my eye. Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council are implementing SAP (in fact mySAP.com) and the article notes that 150 consultants are "adjusting [the] platform to fit the council's needs". That's a startling, scary idea. If it's true (and who knows) then there are two things wrong. One, 150 people doing anything isn't going to work too well, will be expensive and will not give what you need. And second, far more importantly, I can't believe it isn't cheaper and easier to adjust the business processes to match to mySAP. What are they going to do when the next version comes along and they have to retest all the changes made to make sure that they still work? What happens if there's a bug in 6 months, are the 150 consultants still there? The motto of every government IT department ought to be "configure, not customise". Unless you absolutely have to, because you are doing something that noone else has done, you should only tinker with an off the shelf app, not make wholesale changes.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

WiFi wobbles

So Boxing Day dawns and I've got Office XP installed on my tablet, via the WiFi link. I was idly wondering last night if it might be something to do with the "WEP" that I on my LAN here, so I took the key out (so that the network was, effectively, insecure - I can see Simon Moores is already digging out his Pringles can!). For whatever reason, it worked fine after that (I wonder whether it's something to do with the overhead of handling the encryption? I would have thought that's done by the card, but maybe not). What was nice to see was that XP asked me if I really wanted to connect to the network, even though it wasn't deemed secure. I don't remember that happening before. That worked for a while, then it stopped again - and when it crashes, I mean that it just stops. Everything freezes. So now I've taken out the extra memory that I installed a day or so after I got it and I'm running it on 256MB instead of 784 or something. Maybe that will work - it's been a long time since dodgy memory caused me a problem with a PC (I used to see ZX81 16KB - not a typo - ram upgrades and they would quite often fail the same way my tablet is today. Full circle maybe). A while ago I was asked to look at WiFi networks for government, particularly where they might be used in, say, hospitals or prisons. Places where the cost of ripping walls, floors and ceilings apart to install cables might be prohibitive or might cause too much disruption. I spoke to a very smart guy at BT Exact who had obviously spent far longer thinking about it than I had and knew pretty much everything that would need to be done to put together a defense class, confidential environment. But something in me wonders how much of that we need. If the scenario is a nurse wandering through wards with an Ipaq making sure that patients are ok, logging changes in conditions, maybe logging dietary requirements of new entrants, how secure would that need to be? If it's a doctor/consultant with a tablet logging case data (and so, finally, preventing it from disappearing down to the basement to be classified, lost or misinterpreted by the poor folks who have to put up with endless bits of paper down there) - would we need to worry about anything more than the basics? I know that Microsoft has deployed WiFi all over its Seattle campus, so maybe there is something in it. Or is that the wrong logic? If Microsoft have done it, it can't be secure? There's something here that we need to prod - WiFi has gained massive traction in the last year and yet almost noone in government is using it; or if they are, they're not owning up to it for fear of being busted. With the right basics (and tablet PC idiosyncracies not withstanding), surely there are some great apps that could be put in the hands of untethered workers?

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Xmas Present

My gift to myself this holiday was one of the new tablet PCs, from HP (although it's branded Compaq). It's the one with the detachable keyboard, so you really can use it as a tablet as opposed to always carrying the keyboard around. It's not bad ... downsides are that it gets hot after an hour (battery life is about 3 1/2 hours it seems) and that's even though it runs on a Transmeta chip; it seems to crash when I try and use my home WiFi link to install software (it doesn't come with a CD so the only way to install stuff is over WiFi, but I haven't had it go long enough without crashing to do that). Still, early days; I'll try and fix the crashing problem. This stuff is though, I think, going to drive some great new apps - ones that realise that you have an interactive screen and then help you use it.

Finding the right way

"The e-government campaign has taken us all onto new ground and it was inevitable that some of the early steps would be in the wrong direction. Acknowledging this and acting on it is crucial towards finding the right way". That's an extract from January's Government Computing (which I don't think posts its stories online) commenting on the Booze Allen report that placed UK 2nd in the world for e-commerce, but much nearer the bottom in e-government (principally because usage of services is low). Couldn't agree more ... the stakes are high, they can only get higher; if that survey rating shows us in the same position in 2005 (with 100% or near enough online), we're all going to look immensely stupid. And worse, someone will ask how many hospitals we could have built with all of that e-government funding.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

That was the year that was

I'm flattered to see that Simon Moores pointed to this site in his Computer Weekly column. He's making a general point about blogging (Simon and I started blogs at about the same time) and how blogs are creating an alternative to the usual news sources. I was nowhere near the beginning of this trend - Dave Winer was there about a hundred years ago (give or take) and others were doubtless alongside him, John Gotze got to government blogs before me too. But what we're seeing now, as Simon points out, is a network of inter-related sites that feed from each other, open up issues and provide (hopefully) insightful commentary on what's going on. There is a risk in this as Chris Gulker (another long time blogger) pointed out yesterday in an assessment of blogging versus journalism. He notes that blogs succeed "in Darwinian fashion, by drawing readers in and back again. They do this by being interesting, and believable even though they lack the credibility and marketing budgets of big-brand media" but cautions against those who "just shoot from the hip". Another article, in Wired, adds further to this angle noting some of the stories that were broken (or pursued ardently) via Blogs ... but also notes that many bloggers are merely "navel-gazers". Meanwhile, Blogger (the people who manage the software that produces this blog) have just under 1,000,000 users!

Friday, December 20, 2002

Follow the white rabbit

I met with Angela Vivian today. finally. this is a lady with a lot of energy to say the least. Angela runs "IT for the Terrified" and also "Wired Wedmore" - both of these will be familiar to you if you are in the technology industry as doubtless Angela has badgered and cajoled you to support the initiatives. Count me as one of her supporters - I think she's doing great things for a small community that some describe as the Knightsbridge of Somerset but, nonetheless, she's making a difference. And that is all that counts.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

That law again

"The law requires the Office of Management and Budget to establish an Office of E-Government and appoint a director. It authorizes Congress to allocate $45 million in fiscal 2004, $50 million in 2005 and $250 million over the following two years for an e-government fund. The measure also institutes tighter IT security standards for agencies that OMB will establish with the help assistance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology" ... the USA have completed, I think, the final legal step in establishing an OeE equivalent - with some pretty serious money (can't quite tell why it is so backloaded, most of e-government implementations are front loaded hump costs with long tails for running costs). Now it's down to getting the right person in place to run it, allying them closely with Mark Forman (unless, of course, Mark is going to run it too) and giving that person the authority to get on with it.

DotP anyone

The folks in Dubai are seeing a need for more customer focused content, decentralised updates of that content (while maintaining a central infrastructure) .... sounds a lot like a DotP. I've got one of those that they could have

Saying it the way it is

That certainly is going for it ... Steve Marsh at OeE wonders whether government is expecting a miracle to ensure that we meet the 100% by 2005 target. This story got broad coverage, in Computing, but also most of the other online journals as well as some of the mainstream press (I happened to see it in the Telegraph). First off, I'm pleased that Steve managed to fit in a little quote on PKI and how it hasn't been quite the hit that some people thought it might have been (30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago or 1 year ago - the longest time spent getting from launch to plateau of discontent in the history of the Gartner hype cycle). But, more importantly, is a miracle either needed or on the cards? I think it was needed but the right kind of actions have been taken to make it unneeded (which is a relief, they're in pretty short supply these days as Internet Magazine notes). Steve is right to say that some of the easy stuff has been done - but that's what you expect, noone starts with the hardest thing (unless they have no downside, and there's definitely lots of that in government). Steve's comments chime in many ways with a recent PAC that was covered by the BBC, that noted that an insufficient number of highly usable services were online and that progress was not as fast as needed. But lots of bonus points to James Crabtree at VoxPolitics for picking up on the inconsistencies in this story. I think this story is turning - and six months is a long time in Internet politics (some of the samples that they took for the PAC appear to date back to June). There's a lot going on, a lot of progress being made and I, for one (maybe the only one?), remain very optimistic - backed up by a strong sense that a difference can be made here. That's not to say that I am forgiving all the caveats that I have laid out in the past on these pages, just that I see a real chance to grab victory here - a big chance, backed up by desire, increasing capability (this capability, which translates into risk aversity, is one of the reasons why delivery of e-government is backloaded - people want as long as possible to get the thing working!) and commitment (you only had to see the line-up of people at the e-Summit to know that commitment is one thing we're not short of). There is no doubt though, that there is a lot to do, a lot of barriers to overcome and some significant projects to implement. There is no excuse for complacency or for waiting for that miracle still.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Sims online

Will people playing the "Sims Online" game have to use e-government services to pay their housing tax, liaise with their local council for planning permission and report noisy neighbours? No, didn't think so. Not much of a game in doing that, is there?

Automation for IT, not just for everything IT touches

When I was over in San Francisco last week one of the main themes of my meetings was how to improve the manageability of the various systems that I run for the UK government, whether it's the Gateway (probably north of 200 servers by now), UKonline (probably about 40 including the test environments) or any of the others. It seemed to me that although we were making great strides in increasing CPU power, adding wonderful new functions and ever increasing storage amounts, life was getting harder for the operations people, the systems engineers and so in the end, for me, the customer. In the recent past lots of people have wanted to sell me "blades" - lots of processors packed into a rack. I think I could probably get the whole Gateway into perhaps 2, maybe 3, racks (excluding the comms front and back ends) if this stuff really worked. But, I've been sceptical (partly because they're new and partly because having more CPUs in a smaller space increases the risk of cockup - and, per Blackadder, "We're not at home to Mr. Cockup", but seem to spend our time endlessly preparing the spare room). So, I was keen to see people who could do something to help - whether it was better management tools, software that would help deploy common configurations, systems that would reduce our dependence on adding every patch that's necessary (and reduce the risk of being caught out by something that exploits a patch that's not yet available) and so on. To that end, Bernie Frieder (late of San Francisco, the dti and now, I'm delighted to say, at OeE) set up some sessions for me, Simon Freeman (the most technically capable person I've met) and the e-Envoy himself, Andrew Pinder. - Naturally we went to see Marc Andreessen at Opsware along with Insik Rhee (who founded Keva before it was bought by Netscape and knows a thing or three about software) and Ben Horowitz (who ran Loudcloud with Marc and Insik and now is the CEO at Opsware). Marc and I have shared a stage in the past and also had dinner a couple of times. He's got some good insights into what's coming next and also keeps a wider brief - from whether the UK will form a department of homeland security equivalent, to a story about how he's just installed 3 terabytes of storage at home so that he can keep a library of HDTV programmes available! Since EDS bought the hosting arm of Loudcloud, the Opsware folks have been busy making the software deployable on a disk (similar to my plans for 'DotP on a Disk', which I ought to cover another time). They already have their first few customers and will be adding more with subsequent releases - progress looks good; the company is well-funded (probably better than almost every other 'startup' in the valley; the people motivated and they have lots of ideas, with the track record to back them up. We already use Opsware to manage UKonline and I was keen to see how it would evolve, to also support Linux and Microsoft platforms. There's a lot coming. Marc is also focused on the issues of how to manage large configurations (as you'd expect given what Opsware does) and recently went to print to state his case, some quotes that stuck out ... "Servers and applications are glued together using piece-parts, bailing wire and chewing gum ... With today's Web applications requiring dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of servers to run, IT just can't keep up. The solution is going to be found in automation and utility computing to make IT as easy to use and run--and as hands-off--as the phone system ... Those that don't take action today, when they have the luxury of taking the time to do it right, will find themselves unable to keep up with their competition when the economy starts to grow again" - Later in the trip we went to visit a "new" company or, at least one that has recently emerged from stealth mode. The new name for the company (the old name was "company 51" which I thought was way, way better) is Sana Security. The very smart people there want to make other security systems obsolete - by preventing any attack, whether it is known or unknown. The founder, Steven Hofmeyr, had the idea that if the human immune system worked the same way today's security systems work then we'd all have been extinct long ago. So he set out to apply some of the same principles and has come up with software that watches what's going on and determines whether it's part of the "normal" behaviour for a system - anything that is abnormal can be shutdown, alerted, quarantined etc. I'm purposely saying little here - I've checked the website and it is similarly vague. The software is still in its early days, but I think Steven is onto something - I will be waiting eagerly for something that we can try out on our systems. - We also saw a more mature company, Gilian, who's main product is the "G-server". Their game is not so much in preventing hacks (they reason that, one way or another, there's always a chance someone will get through - whether from the outside or (more likely) the inside), but in making sure that the hacker cannot change the website and post defamatory or misleading information. Clever stuff and, arguably, essential for any site, whether they think they have security nailed down or not. How much is your reputation worth as a company? The hacker boards are full of examples of sites that have been "updated" maliciously, so here's a way of managing that risk. That's a quick sample of some of the stuff that I saw last week. I've got lots more on my mind following the trip and I'll post that between now and the end of the year.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Any colour you like, as long as it's black?

There's a view, widely held in government, that centralisation means "everything's the same". It's wrong, but it's not an easy thing to change. Back in 1908 when Ford started shipping the Model T, Henry figured out that the cheapest way to produce cars would be to standardise everything - over the next 20 years or so he shipped more than 15,000,000 proving his point, and rarely changing the design throughout its life. Alfred Sloan, at GM, realised that this wasn't really the point - that you could, in fact introduce changes in design at a minimal cost and that customers would actually be prepared to pay for those changes so that they could be different. Sloan developed a series of models using the same chassis, drive train, wheels and so on but offering all kinds of colours and shapes - and then charged customers 15-20% more than Ford was charging. The customers loved it. Still centralisation, but centralisation with differentiation. This is the essence of our theme of government websites being "consistently different". You know it's a GM car, you know that it's based around some pretty standard components, but you've chosen the colour, the shape, maybe the interior trim and you think you've got a car that is special to you and you alone. In 1924, the slogan "A car for every purse and purpose" was published in the GM annual report. By the way, there are some other firsts in the GM history - the first car designed by a "stylist" was in 1927, the GM Java office was opened in 1927 (beating Sun to the word by about 70 years). Today GM, is worth about 20% more than Ford - but is making a positive return on equity versus Ford's far worse negative return. More than 75 years ago, car manufacturers realised how to deliver economies of scale while giving customers differentiated products. I've heard it said (but I can't find the source that in the 20s there were 100,000 types of cars and 100,000 car companies. Now there are the same number of car models available but only about 35 manufacturers - whether those numbers are right or wrong, the order of magnitude is probably right. Today, government is grappling with how to deliver web services that are "consistently different", but that make economic sense, deliver value (to government and the consumer) and that make a real difference.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Rats

What a shame. I've just seen from John Gotze that Phil Windley has resigned. I've read a lot of Phil's stuff. His strategy for e-government was pretty much down the same path that we're following in the UK, although I think Phil had pushed it along further than we have so far managed - you can see some of that by visiting the Utah website. Many of the services are delivered in a consistent way, design of sites is simple and also consistent etc. I wish Phil well in his quest, I will be watching with interest for more detail on his version of events versus those of his "critics". My sense is if something would make me resign, it's similar issues to the ones that he lays out in his letter - I will bang my head against a wall on those for a bit longer.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Back with ... more than a vengeance

I'm back from the West Coast of the USA, brimming with ideas and things to do. But, I'm 8 hours adrift and knackered. I'll post some updates during the week.