Sunday, September 28, 2003
Kablenet picks up on a memo sent by J-P Raffarin in France covering his dissatisfaction with progress on delivering e-government. J-P notes that he wants the administration to progress more rapidly, or risk being left behind. He also realises that things must change ... En effet, l'interopérabilité des solutions est la condition nécessaire pour la mise en place de véritables services innovants qui facilitent les échanges entre administrations et épargnent à l'usager les effets des cloisonnements administratifs. Par ailleurs, d'un point de vue budgétaire, la mutualisation des coûts, la réutilisation de solutions déjà expérimentées par d'autres administrations et le développement d'outils communs peuvent être source d'importantes économies. Par ailleurs, l'agence prendra en charge la réalisation d'un certain nombre de services à caractère interministériel, qu'il s'agisse de prestations offertes aux usagers (par exemple, un système en ligne permettant de réaliser facilement les démarches nécessaires en cas de changement d'adresse) That is that joined up solutions are fundamental for innovation, that reuse of what's already been done and collaborative development is essential and that some example projects will help get it kicked off - although, most worryingly, he's dwelling on the perennial and staggeringly hard change of address as his main example. So, what to do? - mise en oeuvre en priorité des projets et téléprocédures susceptibles d'une réalisation rapide ainsi que des mesures permettant de premières avancées sur la voie de la mutualisation ; - lancement en parallèle des travaux destinés à réduire l'hétérogénéité actuelle des systèmes d'information et à permettre la création de services communs à plusieurs administrations ; - convergence, à partir de 2006, des systèmes d'information vers des référentiels communs, afin d'assurer la capacité d'évolution de l'ensemble et d'enrichir la teneur des prestations offertes Kick off some fast moving projects that will demonstrate joined up-ness, figure out how to reduce the "heterogenous" nature of IT systems so that "building blocks" (my words, not his) can be used across agencies and, from 2006, common databases (or maybe just reference numbers) to give a way to present significantly richer services. What Raffarin is describing is the underpinnings of an Enterprise Architecture of course, but he's focused on the technology which may be a big weakness of his plan; perhaps elsewhere there are memos to the business heads saying that they'll have to align their processes or he'll start banging some heads together (hard). I do like the fact that the memo is public - it's a direct call to action where he recognises things aren't happening and sets out what he'd like to see done. Not bad at all, and certainly embracing the principles of online government. Fascinating to see how this will evolve. And even more fascinating to see a variety of countries aligning at the start line for the next stage of online government. Most have been through the "websites at any cost" stage, journeyed through "quick, get me some interactivity" and many are seeing relatively high volume usage and now they're lining up for the big jump: joined up services, harmonisation of IT strategies, realignment of business processes and delivery of real value to the citizen. Great.
One of my oldest and dearest friends, Felix, asked me the other day what I wanted from my mobile phone. In true rant fashion, I replied (and this is just cut and paste from email so those of you who mail me occasionally will see that it's true to form). I want all my data all over. When I change phones, I want the phone to sort life out for me. Not just the numbers and the tasks and stuff, but my speed dials, my ring tones, my preferences. There's a big incentive here for, say, nokia to sort this out - to keep people using their phones they could just say "if you use one of ours, when you get a new one, just tap this numebr in and we'll send all your data into space and then tap the same number into your new phone and we'll bring it all back" - bingo, lockin for that vendor. Why change phones if it's hard. Doesn'thave to be an open standard. But I also want simultaneous updates to all things everywhere. New task in phone is new task on pc. Not inside the corporate firewall with complicated servers all the time, but for everyone. New phone number on phone is in pda, new phone number in pda is in phone. Just like that. They're all connected in some way, some through a cradle, some via bluetooth, some via gprs, some via wireless. Just when is this always on society going to get its act together and stop making us sit down and put everything in its place so that we can sort out which bit of data is where. And what's all that stuff about duplicates? Last one changed must be the right one, or the one changed by me versus the one changed by someone who is not me - after all, I'm more important than they are, even if I give them access. Intel may be somewhere with the personal server stuff, just like an oqo but maybe intel will actually deliver it soon. You will love oqo. Once I have that, I don't need a laptop I think. And what on earth does a sim card store things for? What a dumb idea. Is it still 500kb or less? I have 16mb in my phone plus 16mb on the memory card. What would I need a sim card for except to identify me ... And if it's going to identify me, then why can't I use it as the login token on websites so that I don't have to remember 5000 passwords. And, while we're at it, where on earth are roaming bookmarks? I stil have to sync up all my devices to make sure that they're all current
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Marvellous piece by John Lettice on how ID cards might work and what the issues will be. Probably the best and shortest bit of 3rd party analysis I've seen so far - lots of people have written a lot more, but this is very succinct (and not nearly as one sided as John can occasionally be).
Posted by Alan at Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Saturday, September 20, 2003
Louise Ferguson dropped me a line this week both to let me know that her blog existed and to point at a piece where she'd mentioned me. I'm not sure she likes my style of writing - "empty rhetoric" - but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, perusing the rest of her site, it's clear that she knows a thing or two about creating great online user experiences and that's one of my pet themes, so no harm in you having a look. On the speculation point, which was what I was really getting at (someone, in this case the e-envoy himself, makes a speech and then everyone moves to swingometer mode), who knows where all this stuff will go. A CIO makes a lot of sense - it worked pretty well for the US with Mark Forman - but so would devolving some of the organisation. Delivering a pan-government IT programme is hard to say the least and it would be harder still without central leadership, but the centre is not always the best place. So, my point is that there needs to be some solid thinking around what next to ensure that we build on the successes, manage down the failures and create some real value in the government IT world. Oh, and of course, IT by and of itself is next to useless which I think I've said before. It's the business, stupid.
First there was this and now there's this. One piece takes the position that narrowing down a vendor field in a procurement to a single supplier is a bad idea, the other thinks that it's the only way to get the best deal. Both are right I guess, depending on the circumstances. But neither article acknowledges the need to think about why you are where you are and then take the right action.
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
I've been worried for a while now that all of our efforts in the world of e-government (and here I mean pretty much everywhere), where we have strived to find ways to get around or outright remove legacy systems (the ones that work, or the ones that have been there 20 years - whichever your view) might just result in us creating another legacy problem. The kind of things that are explicit in an enterprise architecture - a truly componentised, citizen-led, product as servant information technology base that is fully aligned to the (revamped and reworked) business processes - are not yet prevalent as I look around at who is doing what. Sure, there are pockets of creativity and sometimes whole swathes where people are doing the right thing. But, in big picture terms, the legacy we look like leaving is not much different from the one our predecessors struggled to keep going - albeit this one is doubtless in C++/Java/VisualStudio and what not instead of Cobol. We can't afford for our legacy to be "another legacy" so what do we do about it? How do we find the buttons to push that make the decision makers eyes' light up as they see what could be achieved with the right technology? How do we gethe business thinkers to realign their processes so that we can create some common components that support more than one business unit? How do we do that in an environment where, rightly, the money is tight and the bankers want to be sure that what we spend now is justified and will deliver real saves? The promise of online government is great, but the experience so far has been lacklustre. This is the main thread of the work I'm doing on my EntArch - with a direct focus on what do we have to do this time that's different from before so that we don't fall into the same trap. I'm pretty keen on a legacy that fully supports "unplug and replace v1.0" allowing all of the components or even sub-components (fragments?) to be ripped out, upgraded and replaced when new things become available, without having to poke into the monolithic remains of prior applications.
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
I reached the end of my ability to tolerate a duff system today. The wireless problems I was kind of getting used to - although today I had to restore my system back a few days to make it work again - even though I hadn't had any response (not even an acknowledgement) on the detailed error report that I sent; the constant bombardment of viruses were being stopped by my firewall and spam checkers and were just an irritation. But today, I was working away on a presentation I'm due to give tomorrow and everything froze. When it came back up after a "battery out maneouvre", there was nothing there - not one of the updates I'd made to the slide set had been saved in more than an hour. The autosave feature denied that it had ever been set up. I lost everything. That's a good enough set of reasons for me to go and buy a Mac. Somewhere between the hardware vendor and the software vendor, or wrapped up in both, lies a big problem and one that I don't think I need to waste my time on any more. The pain of sticking with a PC is too great. Watch out for my first slideshow in "Keynote" real soon now.
Posted by Alan at Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Saturday, September 13, 2003
A new survery shows that 49% of the UK's Internet-user population have visited public sector websites, with the top two reasons being job and health-related. That's far in excess of any prior numbers given publicity (after all, that's a pretty respectable number and not at all as much fun to write about as 10% or less). That means, I think, that about a quarter of the entire population visit such sites - that's a pretty strong base to build from and pretty close to France and Germany (closer to the latter than the former). A similar number want to see a "personalised page" that presents services that are relevant to the individual only - that's the holy grail of most government online thinkers so I was surprised to see that the number was so low although that could be a result of privacy concerns. Still: 49%. Not bad at all.
Back to thinking about that piece in Fortune on ebay that I mentioned a week or so ago. I was catching an update on eBay this morning and was stunned to see that they had over 63 million visitors to their sites in August, up from 54 million-odd in March. eBay has been profitable since day one - the only dotcom to have achieved that and one of the few to be profitable now (although, in the UK we also have lastminute.com who seem to be going from strength to strength. Whilst we're talking to people in government about DotP, the engine that drives ukonline (and the OeE site for that matter - which was independently surveyed recently as the fastest site to download in government) and will soon drive yet more sites, one of the frequent questions is "how quickly can I change the site?". By "change", most people mean the kind of thing you can do in frontpage or dreamweaver - delete this, drag that from there to there and republish. Of course, in frontpage the answer to the change question is about 5 minutes. In most content management systems it's quite a bit longer - after all, some people have spent a lot of time figuring out the optimum layout for the site and making sure that the navigation is properly laid out, that there are no deadends and that the site makes intuitive sense - often using extensive user testing to make sure of that. So the idea that you might want to drag and drop a whole section of a site and corrupt all of that prior work doesn't make much sense - unless you have (1) some rigorous control procedures to make sure that noone can drag the home page to the bottom of the architecture/delete the home page altogether or change the text to white on white and (2) some way to measure what happens when you have made such a change. After all, presumably you're making the change because it will be better - visitors will find what they need faster, there will be fewer clicks or people will find a section that they couldn't find at all before. How often do you think there's enough data to know the answer to that second question? Not often would be my guess. But, it comes up every time and the general consensus as a result of discussion is that content management systems are restrictive. They put controls in. Otherwise, it would be a bit like trying to drive through London without any traffic lights. Sure you'd get from where you were to where you wanted to be eventually, but the absence of stop (and check) points increases the risk of accidents with significant unintended consequences. I don't think that eBay's 2 months and 10 months answers are right either, but the idea of putting in 2 weeks of effort to make sure you were doing the right thing before you did it could hardly be a silly idea, surely?
I've been intrigued by the sudden flurry of news stories this week on the future of the OeE. There hasn't been much on this for a few months, but it all seems to have got exciting again. The Register talks about a "Strategic IT executive" coming in post Andrew Pinder, although I'm sure Andrew will be disappointed not to have made the Guardian's Top 10. Computing talks about radical IT overhaul coming next, just like has been done in the private sector (!?), led (perhaps they say) by a CIO. Silicon also covered it. Mike Cross kicked in over at the Guardian on the CIO theme (not that I can find that online - I think they only put one in every three of Mike's articles online for some strange reason). Fascinating how everyone's put their mark in the sand so that, maybe, another time they can say "see, told you so". It's only the folks over at Privacy International who think differently - being on the far end of any swingometer, they think it's a good thing that OeE not be there at all. Ever. Just wind back time - no electronic widgets and everyone could have privacy, save for the neighbours twitching their net curtains to keep an eye on what you are up to. It's funny how search is so inconsistent from site to site (I've just checked all the main newspapers for "e-envoy"): some treat the string as "e" minus "envoy" and bring up a lot of results, some seem to focus on either "e" or "envoy" which brings up pretty much just as many, mostly about the Middle East right now, others don't get it at all and come up with nothing even though you know the article was there (the Guardian seems to do this most often, perhaps they mis-spell e-envoy in their version?). Interestingly, typing "andrew pinder" into the Times' search box gave me entries on the "Zurich Premiership", "Sir Paul Getty", "Newcastle" and "Scotland", with the latter being a list of restaurants in Scotland none of which seemed to be related to AP (and, the article was dated "20 September 2003" - early publishing?). Still, I'm sure that will give Andrew comfort as he sleeps rough for this year's Byte Night on the 19th September. All the speculation is interesting anyway, will be a while I guess before we see how it turns out.
Monday, September 08, 2003
There was a fascinating article in last week's Fortune magazine - it made the cover of the European version at least - titled "eBay's incredible growth machine". Someone, somewhere is banging eBay's drum as they are getting a lot of coverage this month. Maybe it's the stock split. This was so good I made everyone in my team read it. I'd like to be able to point to it here but despite searching several strings on the Fortune.com website, I came up with nothing. Can't think why that might be. The para that really struck me goes like this: women's shoes were accounting for an increasing share of traffic ... getting them their own category took two months ... when women's apparel wanted to add a way to narrow down shoe searches - say size 5 blue pumps for less than $50 - the change took ten months Now, leaving aside that the ladies I know don't wear pumps that cost only $50, what I wanted to know was what they were doing for 10 months. Were the folks at eBay thinking about the look and feel of the section, the design of the search button (always a hard choice between rounded corners and hard edges), the dialogue that would occur on the screen, whether to sort by date or by price or by something else? It's not at all clear from the article, but it sounds like they were deciding whether they even wanted to make such a change - and parading the decision through all kinds of management levels. In the public sector world of websites, we're often told that there's a need to add a new section to a site tomorrow, or maybe even inside an hour. The kind of analysis that eBay are talking about doesn't even get considered from what I've seen - that might be good or it might be bad. But it boils down to a decision taken to add something or change something without perhaps fully understanding the issues, limits, options and decision points. I did wonder though whether the eBay technology folks still get an afternoon's notice of a decision that's floated around the org for the previous 10 months - that would be par for the course. I'm still sitting here wondering whether seat of the pants (repeat until false) is better, or whether there's some merit in staring at a decision for nearly a year before making it. Which one wins? If you look at eBay, it's hard to see where they've lost.
Posted by Alan at Monday, September 08, 2003
Sunday, September 07, 2003
"Hi ... I'm Karen, she says, I do IT" ... so says the new, down-to-earth chief of e-government in the USA. Mark Forman was someone I had a lot of time for and, in a short time (in government terms), he accomplished a huge amount. Karen Evans, his replacement, has a lot to live up to but I get the feeling that she's the right kind of person to get the next stage done. For a while, I thought it was just us, but it seems the funding problem for e-government goes global, according to Norm Lorentz who is the CTO for the USA: "For fiscal 2004, agencies will be asked to contribute, but the administration would have to work harder to get more money in fiscal 2005." Karen, I wish you the best of luck. It's going to be fun watching which programmes you launch and how you communicate them. I look forward to catching up sometime soon.
Every so often I clear out all my enrolments to UK government's online services and redo them all so that I can see what has changed, who is doing new things and how the services available are evolving. I also poke around and see if I can find some new ones - perhaps ones that have quietly emerged (the fabled soft launch tactic - don't make any noise and if it's no good, you've got time to withdraw it and try again without anyone noticing). Personally, I always liked the Jim Barksdale quote about every release being market research and pretty much designed with flaws in - it was important, he said, to get things out and have people try them. That's not a widely held view anymore, but it has merit - if you don't take some risks with delivery of a new service you're unlikely to break new ground. Anyway, last week I thought it was time to look again, partly prompted by an Ian Kearns piece in the Guardian that said that digital government was being a bit maligned and actually it was doing some good things. Although, he seemed to say, it really needed a kick in the arse and new leadership (not sure I followed his apparently counter-intuitive thinking, but he did give some examples of what's being done, like the congestion charge [!]). So, I de-enrolled myself from the Government Gateway - using the Inland Revenue's pleasant and responsive telephone support centre which is based in Shipley. That took all of 5 minutes and then I re-registered using the IR's own portal. Few people know this I imagine, but starting from last July we have systematically made almost the entire Gateway logic available via SOAP calls. To you and me that means that if a portal provider (be it the Revenue, DWP or even Yahoo if they were keen) can build the Gateway's functionality into their own portal, using their own look and feel. Effectively, they can make the Gateway invisible - which was the point when we first thought it up but it wasn't a practical thing to do in 2000. The IR have taken advantage of this SOAP capability and some changes to their own infrastructure to present an impressive new site. If you haven't visited, go and do so. If you are not already registed, you can do it from there - without ever seeing the Gateway (except for the logo that they've kindly put on the site in case we forget that the userid/password you collect for Self Assessment can be used for Child Benefit, Tax Credits and so on). The new site is impressive bringing together, for the first time I think, all of the Revenue's services under a single hood, although a few changes in interface style and branding show that there are separate systems still being run, but that's neither here nor there as you can quickly move between them all without having to think too hard. The IR have been through a tough time but they remain ahead of the game in online government services, adding continuously to their portfolio and enhancing what is already there. Once I'd set myself up again (and allowing for the necessary 2-3 day wait for the activation pin to arrive through the post), I checked my Self Assessment liability online. Worryingly it still showed the balance from July, despite me being sure I'd paid the bill back then. No matter, I can communicate securely via the Gateway's email service with the IR and ask specific questions about my own tax affairs - there are few places you can do that in the world right now. I'm going to give them a few days to answer, but once they do my usual email account will get a message that I have secure correspondence waiting for me in the special area. Why would you do it any other way? I don't qualify for tax credits or child benefit which is a bit of a shame, but I did have a go just in case and to try out the services. No problems with those either. This week I also went to my Local Council site, Southwark, an intriguingly purple page greeted me. I must have missed that their corporate colours are purple, but their 'Corporate Identity' site is blue - schizo? Like the IR, the folks there let you pay bills using the Girobank service. There are few other services online (or at least, I couldn't find any others), but you can communicate via email with the staff there. I've got a running problem right now in my area, so rather than write a letter, I used the online service. It took a while for a reply to come back (Sobig delays?), but once it came back, it was courteous and to the point - which was pretty much that they couldn't help me. Ho humm. On a whim, I went to the Environment Agency where you can take advantage of the marvellously named "Fish-e" service. It's a long time since I went fishing, but nice to see that you can get your licence online if you need to. That site in turn took me to the NLIS site (not the smoothest site I've ever seen) ... and from there, via a bizarrely placed link beneath a big ad, to the SearchFlow website, which I'd heard would allow people to carry out searches on property in minutes instead of days (and presumably therefore, much more cheaply but I can't be sure of that). It seems to be for solicitors rather than housebuyers, and the home page has a great opening paragraph (on which I will make no comment): It is said that software must continue to develop if it wishes to remain competitive with the competition or even, as in Searchflow’s case, continue to set the standard to which the competition will aspire. This is true; however with Searchflow’s undoubted record in this area (312 enhancements in the first 18 months alone) most recent changes have been behind the scenes and have been aimed at improving efficiency so that we can continue to provide the best possible service to you our clients. Disappointingly, these services don't yet use the Government Gateway. Perhaps that time will come. Finally, if there are other services you're looking for online ... the only place to go is UKonline's "Do it online" section. Would have been nice I guess for Ian Kearns to have checked that our first. He'd have found far more going on than he thinks. Some good, some middling, some bad - but an awful lot going on and more and more services online all the time.
Wednesday, September 03, 2003
A couple of months ago I was asked to write a piece on the Government Gateway for a magazine. Commissioned by our press office, I duly went off and put together my thoughts. I've never seen the piece published so rather than let it go to waste, I thought I'd put it here. Maybe it was so awful it didn't merit being actually printed on real paper. I'll let you folks judge. “Breaking up is never easy” said Abba. But it seems to be a lot easier than joining up, at least where government is concerned. A little over two years ago the Office of the e-Envoy launched the Government Gateway on an unsuspecting world with three business-facing transactions from three different, leading, departments. Since then six new departments have connected and, all together, there are seventeen transactions with many recent additions citizen-focused (such as Child Benefit and Tax Credits). That is not a bad total but it is barely a dent in the total number of services that will need to be online if we are to meet the Prime Minister’s target of getting government online by the end of 2005. The Gateway offers a curve of capability ranging from a simple authentication process allowing the citizen to sign up for a single service, such as Self Assessment, right the way through more complex processes involving corporations and organisational hierarchies, assigning agents for certain transactions, digital certificates and access by third party applications (such as accountancy software or payroll providers) to your backend. In its first major upgrade in July 2002, the Gateway shifted slightly and became a “hub”, allowing other services to be plugged into it and used by all those connected to it. The first services plugged into the hub include secure two way mail, debit card payment handling and a pilot notifications engine to deliver text messages to mobile phones. The aim of the Gateway is twofold, (i) to hide the complexity of government (as seen by the citizen) through facilitating a joined up veneer and (ii) to reduce spend on technology by developing a piece of “central infrastructure” that can be adopted by many departments. Without the Gateway, departments, agencies or local authorities would have to create the necessary software to handle authentication, route the transaction and manage the process to ensure that every message sent and received was guaranteed delivered with appropriate auditing and control. Without the Gateway though, there would be no joining up – every department would have set up separate user ids and passwords (some departments would even struggle to join up internally and would doubtless have issued separate passwords for every service) and third party software companies or portal providers would have to figure out how to talk to each department, raising their costs and their frustration levels. That said, it has not been easy to get the Gateway accepted. It is always easier to find reasons not to do something than to seize the opportunity and make the most of it, whilst accepting some risk. Joining up is inherently difficult. It means giving up control of part of your end to end infrastructure and devolving some accountability for success (and, for that matter, failure). It also means that things will have to work a certain way. The “kitchen sink” design mentality ought to be a thing of the past although it is still much practiced. With central infrastructure like the Gateway, only core requirements are catered for and they are honed so that the system will perform reliably at high volumes. In some cases, that means compromise. But, in most cases so far, the core requirements are in advance of what is needed so there is a much bigger “bang for the buck”. When you join the Gateway “club”, you get access to a range of experience from both big and small departments, a system that has been around long enough to be regarded almost as mature and a community of suppliers who understand how it works, why it works and what to do with it. Joining up delivers what no amount of individual thinking could possibly do. As we rocket towards the 2005 deadline, the focus must change from finding reasons why things should not or cannot be done to finding ways of doing them. The capability to deliver an online, citizen-focused, joined up experience is finally in place – we just have to take advantage of it. To date we’ve made only the simplest services available, where one person sends one form to one department. The services that are needed now will involve several departments, often third parties too, and may require several stages to complete. Think about the Student loan process: the student must complete a form, as must a parent; the parent’s earnings must be checked with the Inland Revenue; all of the data is checked by the Student Loan Company; to pay the loan a bank account is needed; when the student leaves university and their salary is sufficient to pay the loan back, the Inland Revenue must re-engage to debit the appropriate amount via PAYE. How on earth would all that happen without a few key pieces of central infrastructure? The more complex problems, however, will arise not from whether we fully exploit the technology available (both central infrastructure and silo infrastructure), but in how government chooses to join up. Departmental business leaders must make some choices now about how they want authentication to be done – will they trust third parties to provide the necessary assurance, or will there be cross-reliance on a relationship already formed with another government department for instance. There must be close co-operation between the technologists and the business (who are seeking to drive usage), the fraud prevention team (who naturally want to prevent losses) and the data protection sovereigns (who need to guard against abuse of information). Fusing technologies will be of little value if the control processes, accountability guidelines and business processes are not aligned too. It’s easy to imagine a world where the technologists eventually get things together ahead of the business but, if that turns out to be the case, there will be little return on investment and we will certainly not have created a joined up, citizen-focused, transformed government.