Friday, March 21, 2003

Freedom

The depth of negative feeling towards the French here is quite startling. Wherever the word crops up, it's been replaced ... so we have Freedom Fries, Freedom Kiss and so on.

Fairfax - the leading e-government implementation?

Now this sounds good. What local authority in the UK wouldn't aspire to what they've achieved in Fairfax county. It's a good site with clean design. Everything looks easy to find. Worth a visit.. Seven years on, the county Web site gets 625,000 visits a month, and 257,000 people have used the kiosks. The phone lines have received 819,000 calls. Requests for court data, library books and tax payments are users' most popular transactions. Still, the numbers represent a fraction of county business: 5 percent of the county's real estate and personal property taxes were paid electronically last year, for example. But 61 percent of the books library patrons put on hold so far this year were reserved online, up from a total of 47 percent last year, county statistics show. And mobile too ... Next, the county hopes to enter the age of wireless communication by displaying text messages on cell phones, beepers or hand-held computers alerting residents to traffic tie-ups, a plane crash in the area, a derailed train, fire or other emergency. Molchany calls this multiple delivery of messages "just-in-time" government, which he said "is the power of e-government."

Channel strategy

Sitting in the hotel room in Washington, TV on. No matter which channel I pick, the same image. A hazy, green tinged picture with a few brightspots. Maybe street lamps, maybe explosions. Hard to say. Even MTV is carrying war coverage. The Weather Channel is predicting possible sand storms. The financial sites have suspended coverage of earnings stories. The only respite seems to be HBO, which is showing Castaway. Perhaps trying to give Saddam a hint. The progress of the war seems strange to me. The tactics of "shock and awe" have not started yet, just a few sporadic bursts of missile fire. It's almost as if the US is trying to draw Saddam into showing his hand - loosing a chemical warhead maybe. The world will certainly round on him if he does that. Damned if he does. Damned more if he doesn't. Or perhaps it's about giving the troops a chance to adjust to the country, the endless gas mask drills (seven today alone says every reporter on TV). Pro or con doesn't really matter now (though, for the record, I am pro). It's started and it will end sooner or later. Once it does, the rebuilding process is going to absorb a lot of people, a lot of time and a lot of money. Freedom is not free, as it says at the Korean War memorial, carved starkly in marble. Let's hope the price in life is not too great this time.

Time of need

Government websites struggled today to deliver information on terrorism and the war, notes Silicon.com. I've said before (is it 50 times or 100 times) that if we're going to get e-government going a resilient infrastructure is vital. Departments have proven over and over again (Environment agenct, Iraqi dossier, PRO and so on) that they are all ill-equipped for sudden peaks, no matter how predictable they are. The Home Office terrorism site has been advertised widely and, given that, you'd expect people to visit - even now at midnight London time it is slow (and I'm using a 100KB/s connection from the hotel - twice BT's ADSL speed in the UK). It is beyond belief that, at a time when the citizen turns to government for vital information, we are unable to deliver a reliable service. Significant sites should be taken away from departmental control and put into a large-scale infrastructure that is capable of dealing with the demand. To not do so is to show that e-government is not being taken seriously and, in the worst case, could provoke a serious issue at time of greatest need. To all those running sites that could be subject to high demand. There is no praise for keeping control and falling at the first hurdle. There is no praise for not distributing your content to as many sources as possible. There is no praise for architecting a poor infrastructure. The job is to keep the sites up, deliver the content to those who need it and to keep doing it. September 11 proved that large proportions of the population turn to the Internet first when needing information. When they do, we'd better be there for them.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

FEAPMO

Not the simplest acronym, but I had my attention drawn to it today at a session with Dan Chenok at OMB. There's a new organisation in town, solution architects who have the following mission Assignment of Solution Architects. Provide E-Government initiative teams with solution architects who will assist in defining initiative blueprints and validate system and solution architectures to support the planning and implementation of the Presidential Priority E-Gov initiatives. Solution Architecture Planning and Execution. Select, recommend, plan, guide, and assist initiative teams in the deployment of technologies that are proven, stable, interoperable, portable, secure, and scalable. Facilitate the migration and transition of E-Government initiatives from legacy and "inward-driven" architectures, to architectures that embrace component-driven methodologies and technology reuse. Federal Enterprise Architecture Guidance. Establish linkages between relevant Government-wide entities to ensure that standards, best practices, and lessons learned are leveraged across the entire government. Additionally, the SAWG will champion the creation and validation of the Service Component and Technology Reference Models. Component and Technology Reuse. Identify and capitalize on opportunities to leverage, share, and reuse technologies to support common business requirements, activities, and operations across the Federal Government. Generation of Intellectual Capital (IC). Champion the creation and propagation of intellectual capital that can assist in E-Government transformation. See that ... pan-government, reuse, capitalise, intellectual property. Bang on target.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

US e-government

I'm in Washington for a few days - I'll be speaking at an e-government conference tomorrow, here is its press release, and have also taken the opportunity to meet some of the Federal officials responsible for e-government here. It seems a funny time to be in the USA and, particularly, to be in Washington but my theory is that there is no safer place than here given the security. I have to be at the conference at 8.30 tomorrow. Ugh. I met with Terry Lutes at the IRS today and spent a fruitful hour or so comparing notes on tax filing initiatives. The IRS has a significantly higher percentage of people filing electronically than we do in the UK and I wanted to see how that had been done and what the plans for development are. I'll draw out the contrasts another time. Terry also referred me to the "pay.gov" site which is going to provide some of the authentication processes necessary for online filing. Pay.gov is not there yet, the website contains lots of "coming soons" and little that I can latch onto, but there is a very good FAQ. As near as I can tell, the plan is to ask a series of questions that will vary depending on what you're trying to access. The questions might include employment or credit information, and the answers will be compared with both government and commercial databases. If there's enough of a match, then you get access. In the future, you'll be able to build up an online identity that lets you do more and more. I've kicked this idea around many times back home, spent time talking to the Experian folks about perhaps using their databases and to the company registration database holders. But I've never managed to get sufficient interest to move it forward. It looks like pay.gov has the buyin to move ahead and, whilst there may be little there now, it's something to watch. Partnership with industry to develop secure authentication has to be the right thing to do - if you can login to your bank account, you ought to be able to deal with government with the same id one day. Terry talked about work he's doing with the credit card companies and others too, all of which is interesting and right where we need to be in the UK. While I had an idle minute, I also checked the latest developments on the govbenefits.gov site, which I've visited several times in the past and commented on. What led me there was a news release on firstgov that heralded a Gracie award for the site (I don't know what that is, but any site that is winning awards is worth a look). More and more benefit programmes are being added to the site, to the point where ticking just a couple of boxes on the home page (I ticked "senior" and "farmworker") led me to 30 questions with those answers prompting 20 more, all of which led to a couple of dozen benefits I could apply for. You still can't apply for the benefits online (so there is no "common information" page) and the information that you've typed in to get to the end doesn't seem to be held, also some of the questions are a bit strange (they're conjured up front, rather than in relation to specific answers - so you can get several questions about your children or your wife, independent of prior answers). But, that said, it brings together many of the benefits available, does it in a citzen focused way and saves you wading through the sites of all the benefits that you aren't eligible for. That, to me, is worth an award. Doubtless improvements will be made over the coming months and, as some of the services come online, you'll be linked directly to them with prepopulated information (perhaps taken from your pay.gov account). That, again, would be worth an award or three.

OeE cuts story continues

Computing continues the story of the OeE budget cuts. Speculation increases on whether Andrew Pinder will still be in post in 2005 (given his contract runs out in March 2004, I would not be going long that option). Kate Mountain is clear that if he is not there, someone else will need to be - which is true. I'm certain that the role is not yet done, there is a vital need for someone to be there to catalyse change and ensure that things are both done right and rightly done. Kate is also quoted as saying "Whatever transpires with departmental budgets, maintaining funding for the Government Gateway is essential" which of course delights me. I do hope that she wasn't misquoted. I think it's time for the "cuts" story to move on. The focus should not be on how much, but what and what that means. A tighter, leaner operation can focus on the most vital things - and there are a few of those that need to get done still.

Mobile Government

I've been talking to some folks today about mobile government. That, sadly, is not a government that moves faster in the right direction, but the next iteration of online services delivered via mobile phones. The big questions were around what will government do, how will it do it and what might make it mess up. I delivered a presentation on this a while ago and since then have been refining my thinking a little. I haven't really got much past what we might do in the next year or so, preferring to leave the private sector to blaze a trail that we might follow. Government is not good at leading in the technology space and I'm not sure that this is a good place to start. There's a big opportunity for us to use mobile phones (which have something like an 80% penetration in the UK now) for quick notifications and alerts, "your house is in the flood plain and there's a big storm coming", "your passport is ready for collection" or "we're short of blood in the donor bank and you haven't given blood for 12 months, now's a great time" or something like that. There may even be the opportunity for a bit of dialogue, "you have a hospital appointment tomorrow at noon, can you still make it" coupled with a bit of to and fro to confirm the time. I've also talked in the past about some location based services like "the streetlight where I'm standing is out", "there's an abandoned car outside my house" and so on - simple to implement and, if done right, likely to attract traffic. Clearly, we're invading people's personal devices here - we're pushing content for probably the first time online - and that means we have to be careful about what we send, when we send it and what we do next. What worries me though is that we'll repeat what we have done with websites - built lots of them - and establish 101 (or, more likely, 1001) services via mobile, but all with different phone numbers, preference settings and places to register. It's bad enough that I have to remember URLs, but how bad would it be if I have to remember the text phone number of my hospital, my doctor, my tax office, my flood warning service? That means there's a real, important and urgent need for some strategic thinking here. How do we set up a single "preferences" page where you can register for the services you want to receive and how you want to receive them - via mobile, via email, via voice and so on? That way, you know where to go to change your preference, all the services are collated so it will be simple to remember and you can quickly turn services on or off (if government gets push wrong and starts to annoy you with regular texts). On top of that, we need some thinking on "what is a government mobile phone number?". It's easy with URLs. I'm pretty sure that only government can register something in the ".gov.uk" space, but uncertain what a government phone number would look like? Would we spell out g-o-v-e-r-n-m-e-n-t on the keyboard (something that might make sense in the USA where words as numbers is common)? Would we use a simple number like 888 or 777? How would we handle replies to that number and know where to route the text? There's a lot to cover there. Finally, to make these services really work, I think we're going to have to do some real partnership work with the mobile phone providers. Ideally you'd want something in the phone menu that was already setup as "government services" so that people knew where to look and didn't have to do any configuration. At the same time, we'd have to do some work on who pays for the messages to and fro - for a few texts that's not a lot of money, but if we latch onto something big, a few million 5p messages could mount up pretty fast. Meanwhile, any day now the UK will see real 3G phones on the loose. I wandered into a Hutchison shop the other day and put my order in. Meanwhile, the US has finally started to catch up with UK phone technology and, as Dan Gillmor notes, you can get a P800 or even a Nokia 3650 (horrible keyboard, what were you thinking?). I'm up for a P800 as my triband phone and will plump for an NEC 606 as my 3G phone. So sorry Nokia, after more years than I can remember as a customer, you're about to lose me for good. I'm looking forward to seeing how video calls work, what the location based services could really do and, importantly, to playing what looked like some really good games at last. I'm fed up with Bounce, the only game on my 6610.

Monday, March 17, 2003

Why do government IT projects fail?

Projects fail for pretty much the same reasons all over, whether they're private sector or public sector. The top few are all about stakeholder engagement, decent business case, focused risk management, capable people and day to day project management (a la Fred Brooks). In the public sector there's a special reason though. This week the press picked up on a report in Computing noting that over £1.5 billion had been "wasted" in government IT projects since 1997, although a big chunk of that came from just a couple of projects. If you were able to add up the 1s, 10s and 100s of millions here and there across projects, doubtless the number of billions would rapidly hit double digits. And I have no doubt that if you were to do the same in Citibank (where I've worked), Cable and Wireless (where I've worked) or ICI (where I've worked) the numbers would be not dissimilar in %age of IT budget terms. Simon Moores followed up the Computing piece, in his Computer Weekly column, with the observation: "Has anyone been sacked or lost their index-linked pension? I think not somehow. If any IT Manager blew a million away in the private sector – unless perhaps he worked for AOL -Time Warner – he’d be toast but in the public sector, it’s possible to sleep at night, knowing that £100 million or so of one’s responsibility is about to go ‘Tits-up’." I know the FT followed up on the Computing piece, but I haven't yet subscribed to the online version. Also, I have a page from Computer Weekly ripped out in my notebook right now that I've been carrying around for a couple of weeks or more. It observes that IT departments should scrap at least a quarter of current running projects to improve success rates. So if government IT failures are hitting 54% (from the HMT Green Book) and we scrap a quarter, that means we'd have at least a 66% failure rate (because we'd certainly wrongly identify the projects and cut the good ones). I have another piece from Computer Weekly in my pile to read that is headlined "EffortStop Duplicating ". There it's noted that "companies are wasting millions of pounds because work is being repeated and expertise is not being shared". And, remember, that's corporates, not private sector. And the special reason why public sector IT fails? Delivery is not a valued skill in government. There is no "fast stream" route to the top for delivery people - find me a permanent secretary (a far more vital position than it sounds, for you US readers, this is someone who is at the very top of the civil service tree) who has actually delivered real projects - IT or otherwise. For all their skills, the perm secs have not done that, nor have the deputy perm secs or anyone else at the top of the tree. So, when you're young and aspiring to the top, you don't go into a delivery route because there is no way up. Glass ceiling? More like rock solid cave ceiling. There are, as always, exceptions. Senior people in the Revenue (and you shouldn't believe everything you read in the press about them) are working hard and delivering results, folks like Richard Granger prove that you can come in from the outside and do well - but the exceptions are few. So what happens in government is that important, even vital, strategic projects are overseen by policy wonks. And I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion - techies are geeks, delivery people are mavericks and policy people are wonks. Their focus is on process, documentation and doing things the right way - certainly not in doing things right. The OGC's Gate reviews are trying, with some success, to address this but ask them what the top 10 reasons for failure were when they started the reviews and ask what the top 10 reasons are now. Any change? I don't know for sure, but I doubt it. So when the policy folks are working on process, the delivery people are gnashing their teeth wondering when they get their chance to shine. If there are delivery people. By the time the few that are there get the project to hand, it's over-scoped, behind on time and absent of money to do things right. And because government puts policy wonks onto projects, suppliers are forced to do much the same thing. Woe betide the supplier who mixes up the relationship by putting someone creative and delivery focused up against a policy person. That's a bad idea. It doesn't work. So, for projects to work in government, the delivery people have to become valued, given a route to the top (if that's what they want). At least they should be given the project to run before it's too late. Then, suppliers will be encouraged to put delivery people in their teams to match. The combination will prove powerful as people with common aims - to make a difference through delivery - fuse and work to make the agenda happen. But if it's too late, the project never arrives, arrives under scope, disappoints the stakeholders and fails to ignite the transformation of government that we all know is possible - the one that allows people to get what they want from government, whether it's through .gov.uk, .co.uk, .com, the phone or whatever.

FUD

A climate of fear (and certainly uncertainty and doubt) in the NHS says Tony Collins on Page 6 of this week's Computer Weekly. Long on criticism, short on other ideas it seems to me. Anyone taking on a job as big as the NHS has got to be pretty brutal and upfront - everything is stacked against this working so every advantage you can gain you have to press to the maximum. For Richard Granger to request (demand?) that the issues are not debated in the press but with him is unsurprising - I'd like the same for my world of course. "How will we get [clinicians] to adopt systems that they weren't involved in at all?" says one nameless IT director. Well, you haven't got them using any system yet, doubtless you have a little local system that has limited benefit to the clinician and even less to the patient, so what do you propose as an alternative? Ah, nothing. As Bertrand Russell said, "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." This is the biggest job going. The results will be clear and unequivocal three to four years from now. Until then, there's a lot of work to be done, a lot of suppliers to partner with and a huge range of stakeholders to herd. This job needs people to line up behind it, not against it. Unless you've got a better idea of course. As Bill Thomas has said elsewhere in the press this week ... it's a bit like sport, easy to criticise if you're sitting in an armchair. These wise but chronic Seekers of Injustice need to put up, or shut up.

Dell doing its bit

Just been looking at new laptops ... it's coming to the end of the financial year after all. As part of the order process, up popped this question ... Q4. Will the product(s) be used in connection with weapons of mass destruction, i.e. nuclear applications, missile technology, or chemical or biological weapons purposes? (Yes) (No) I didn't say yes, of course, but I did wonder what would have happened if I had. It's a bit like the question on the back of the green form you fill in on the way to the USA, "are you a terrorist" or similar.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Taxonomy is against human nature

I've mentioned "From Chaos to Control", PC Magazine's feature on Content Management before, but wanted to revisit it. I've been thinking about the presentation I have to do later this month for Ian Dunmore at the Public Sector Forums. I haven't got very far as I've also been working on slides for a conference this week, but some thoughts have been working their way through my tiny mind. Some government websites are enormous. Fifty-seventy thousand pages is not uncommon in the big departments; 100s of sub-websites, some of which are not connected to any other part of the main site; layers and layers of content, sometimes 7,8,9 layers; many different look and feels, perhaps 4 or 5 in a single site. And, of course (my main beef), a structure that maps fine to the department but not at all to the citizen. So given a problem like that to solve, departments draw up a list of requirements for their content management system (because they've heard that's what they need) and they go off and buy one. Now I've said before, that you don't buy content management solutions (I can't convince anyone of that though, everyone wants to buy one so that they can "tick the box"). The requirements are quite bizarre in many cases - everyone wants a discussion forum so that they can tick the "online consultation" box, most people want a few interactive calculators, a few more want to be able to sell things online (documents, publications and whatnot). And then, somewhere near the end of the list, comes the real drop-dead dumb requirement. It will usually be couched in neutral words, something like, "we want to be able to make changes to the site structure" or maybe "we'd like to be able to change the site easily". If you explore this, it means that the web masters of old, the ones who got us where we are today, want to be able to play. They want to be able to add whole sections to the site, change the navigation (within the site), change the colour scheme, add new content templates and so on. In other words, having got their hands on a solution that imposes some discipline, they want to get rid of the "controlled situation" and return to chaos. I argue with people about this a lot. I say, "tell me what you want to be able to change". Often the response is "style sheets". Those are easy to change of course, but what control do you put over them - who do you allow to tinker with the brand? What happens if they make a mistake and change the text to white, but on a white background? If you give people the right to add pages, then they must have the right to delete - what happens when someone deletes the home page? How do you trap for errors? How do you stop people taking what you've painstakingly designed and making a mess of it? If you're designing around the citizen, the careful thought you put in up front, the weeks you spend on designing the information architecture, the days you spent implementing it, crafting the navigation so that it makes sense are then all laid to waste because too many people have the rights to change what you've done. It will take an enormous amount of effort to take 50,000 pages of static HTML oriented around the department and reorient it so that it makes sense to the citizen. Adding in discussions, transactions, alerts and notifications in an accessible way will take yet more effort. Before you go off and buy a content management package, think about what it is you really need, complete the design work that shows where you want to be, look around for who has already gone through what you're about to and learn from them. Otherwise, in a year from now, we'll be right back where we started. In a dead end.

Rebuilding the Pyramids

There's a lovely story in Kable about the Egyptian Government building a Gateway, just like the UK one but different. That is to say that they've managed to copy everythiing we've done but not pay any royalty. Right. It seems to me that Avi has been digging in a field in Putney, found two marble fingers and pronounced that he has discovered the missing arms of the Venus de Milo statue, housed in the Louvre. I've met Ahmed Darwish a few times, shared pretty much everything about how the Gateway works and so on. I've even seen colleagues of his present my slides at conferences (without credit of course). I've also seen the story in Computer Weekly a year or so ago where Ahmed announced that he was already using our Gateway code in a pilot. It's over a year since I last met Ahmed and since then we've moved the Gateway on a great deal, so he's missed out on a few features if he's using ours. But, the reality is that he isn't. Unless Avi's asking me to believe that Ahmed's taken the code from the pilot version, enlisted Microsoft to help update it and asked them not to tell us - and then bragged to the press about it. Does't add up, does it? Besides, he's using Oracle which we don't use in the Gateway and doubtless there are a bunch of other differences. If there aren't, I'm expecting a cheque in the mail from Ahmed any day now. It didn't work out between us and Egypt for them using the Gateway, but that's no reason to make up a bunch of stories. Must be just how Kylie feels, although Kable has nothing on the News of the World of course.

Enjoy yourself ... it's later than you think

This week saw a bit of follow-up from the article in the Independent questioning (I think) whether the Office of the e-Envoy would be around much longer and even whether the goals for getting the UK online would be abandoned. First off Kablenet kicked in with coverage from a PAC hearing with Sir Andrew Turnbull in the leather armchair. That's a committee formed of MPs who are able to ask questions of civil servants. No questions are off limits and the topic usually gets stretched pretty wide. The measure of success if whether an MP gets an answer that he didn't expect, or whether the civil servant manages to duck all the hard questions - which you take as success depends on where you sit. Kable pull out some of the key points, although I haven't seen the transcript yet so don't know quite how close they got. Transcripts are usually to be found on the parliament site although when I looked yesterday it seemed to be having problems finding any texts from Hansard. Once the point of whether Andrew Pinder, the e-Envoy, was going to be around after his contract finishes was dealt with (forgive me for being dumb, but surely the point of a contract is that it ends at some point and everyone goes on to somethiing new), the MPs moved on to some more specific questions, like "Brian White, Labour MP for Milton Keynes North-East, said the target to get all services online by 2005 is now getting in the way of delivery, and asked how Turnbull plans to deal with the problem" Fascinating question. So, this target that got everyone moving (when they weren't) is in the way of getting people moving. Huh? I guess what he means (and I'm sure the transcript will bear this out) is that people are too busy putting services online without thinking about how they'll be used. That's kind of true, except that I think too few services are being put online for us to worry much about usage. Until there are enough to force a change of behaviour my view is that people won't make the move - if you can buy books, DVDs, electronics and whatever from Amazon, you start using it a lot. If you can file your taxes, claim benefits that you didn't know you were entitled to, look at planning applications in your area, check on progress with your passport and get a new tax disc from a single site then you likely will. How many of those are truly online? Not enough. Sir Andrew is also quoted as saying "squeezing out the last 10% is always difficult", which is true (after all, we have Pareto to thank for that even if he was talking about money). I wish it were the last 10% - and nothing in me thinks that by the time Andrew P's contract comes up we'll only be worrying about 10%. If we'd cracked 90% of it, we'd all be done by then. We're still in the stage of converting existing processes to the web - a plan that should have given us time to make changes to the backends that would truly have allowed us to exploit the potential of the web, but few have started that transformation thinking or process (and those that have are rightly staying quiet for now less expectations get overblown). And the scary thing for me is that, just as we have done with websites and whatnot, departments will rush off and try to crack this problem themselves, occasionally making a ham-fisted effort, sometimes downright screwing it up and only irregularly succeeding having completely failed to learn the lessons of others or to have co-operated on that in a meaningful way. Until there is rationalisation, joint team work and harmonisation of need this stuff just won't work. Simon Moores chipped in too in his regular column on Computer Weekly's website. Simon has some personal experience around OeE and you may detect a hint of bitterness in his text. He makes a point that I can only agree with, "The problem has always been one of perception in that the media are far more likely to concentrate on the failures and delays rather than the achievements", although sadly that's true of the population as a whole (after all, who wants to read about what a great singer Kylie is when apparently we can read intimate details sold by some former boyfriend). Simon goes on to say that the "OeE is continually moving two steps forward and one step back" and is missing out on putting in place strategic solutions for, say, authentication (a thorny problem to crack which few countries have managed to crack, even where national ID cards, smart cards and whatnot are in place). But, Simon is right with his closing point, "government needs to listen to constructive criticism on its e-agenda". That should mean we move ahead faster.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Text congestion

Kablenet reports success for Capita in handling drivers paying the congestion charge by text. Apparently 25% of payments are coming in by text which, based on the figures in the article, would mean about 125,000 mesasges a week. That's not bad at all. Frankly though, it seems to me that the process has been made as difficult as possible - you aren't allowed, for instance, to lodge your credit card number in the system and have them debit you when you enter the zone. Methinks there's a reason for this and, if I were John Lettice, I'd assume that it's either because the recognition software isn't good enough or because they want the process to be so hard people are discouraged from coming to London in their droves. If it's the latter, perhaps that's the point - but that means not as much money for investment as hoped I guess. A neat process to add to the text payment system would be for you to receive a text when you entered the zone (once you've signed up for that service). You could then reply that indeed it's you and have them debit your mobile phone bill, credit card, bank account or stored value, whatever. But again, that needs good recognition software and a willingess to make the service easy to use. Neither of those seem to be relevant. And "TfL was forced to apologise to drivers on 27 February 2003, however, following the failure of its web payment service caused by a hardware error. The site was down between 9.00pm and 2.00am, but based on the previous day’s payments, TfL believes that this would only have affected a fraction of the 1% wishing to pay the daily charge online. The web failure is "no excuse" for non payment, according to TfL, as other payments channels were all open." That's some hardware error to force a site down for 5 hours. Maybe they don't have onsite people so it was 2 hours to notice, 2 hours to get there and an hour to fix. I can't think of a hardware error that would cause an outage that long, if the system is built in a resilient fashion. But it's good to know that it's up to you to go find another payment channel. I wonder what happened to text messages sent during that period?

A cut above

The Independent published a little piece on the office on Friday. Within minutes of arriving at work I was given a few copies and then the 'phone calls started. It's been a while since there was any overt press on the OeE - which, VoxPolitics point out, probably says that we haven't been managing our media profile. I don't agree. If I were in Sir Andrew Turnbull's position (and, at the rate I'm going, there is no likelihood of that ever happening), I'd be looking around to see who was doing what, how much they were spending and what I thought I could change. It's the same when any new CEO takes over a corporate. What you do then is start close to home - and the centre of government is as close as you can get, bigger than it needs to be (so the press and even government says) and probably duplicating a few things, which is what happens when you throw a few separate departments together. If Sir Andrew carries out the changes that may be on his mind, when he later goes to see some of the larger departments and says "I've done my bit, what about you?", it will be pretty hard to argue. Whether "the bit" in question matches the numbers in the Independent story I have no idea, doubtless that will be made clear once the budget process is done - and, at the same time, it will be made clear for the centre of government as a whole, not just for the OeE. What made me wonder about the article was the link to Peter Mandelson. It's true, so I'm told, that he kicked off the idea for an e-envoy, but he's long since gone from any position to influence it. So why run the article referring to him, with a photo too? Maybe Andrew Pinder is not well enough known, in which case why not use the e-Minister, or Sir Andrew T himself? Or maybe there was an underlying point because Mandelson was in the news recently and this was just a bit of extra ammo? It's been three years since I started working in government and, over that time, I've gone from a rank outside when dealing with the press to a belligerent rebutter (some of you will remember that period) and on to someone who genuinely appreciates the task before a journalist. A source gives you a hint of information, you dissect the data and try and remove the inevitable spin on the leak, you add your own spin, put some other pieces of data with it and come up with the story. The same story fed to five journalists will be interpreted five different ways - I know, I've sat in rooms with ten writers and when I've read the stories afterwards I've wondered if it was all a dream and I actually wasn't in the room with nine of them. Now that I've seen what can become of my own words, I wonder a bit more about what becomes of others. It doesn't for a second stop me reading the press or even being taken in by what's said - after all, if your own filter matches the writer's, you're more likely to agree than disagree. I love what John Lettice writes over at The Register, even though I agree only occasionally. He has a way of taking a few bits of data and forming an elegant conclusion that is often convincing and always entertaining - John's filter, though, is different from mine and where he sees conspiracy, I see cockup. The other point raised by VoxP (a point entirely independent of the Independent so to speak) was that a few hits would have done wonders for the OeE - a faxyourmp, or an upmystreet or similar. Services have been slow to come online - good ones even slower. Usage of the tax credits site is ramping, ukonline traffic is up more than 10 fold in a year, self assessment increased its usage and so on. But those good things are not yet enough to make online government services worth the extra effort for many people. Something like 5,500,000 people visit government websites in a month (10% of the total population, 20% of the online population), more than the often quoted 3%-7%, but not dramatic. I've only been briefly involved in front end service provision since joining government, for most of the last three years I've been working behind the scenes on the technology that people don't really see. Actually, that's not quite true as I understand bugger all about technology, but it's close enough. That doesn't mean that I don't take ownership of the lack of usage. I do. And I'll work to change that, however the budget round comes out and however many people are in OeE - the vast bulk of the work that OeE needs to do now, having established policies and so on, is influence the decision makers in goverment into doing the right thing. That doesn't need an army, that needs the right people doing the right things and talking to the right people ... as the Independent says itself, "[the e-envoy] will be a galvanising figure, a champion, rather than forming policy."

Friday, March 07, 2003

Opening up Democracy

By way of Matt Jones, I found the Open Democracy site this morning (those of you who know me will be wondering what I'm doing posting in the morning, couldn't sleep last night). It's a good site, with posts from exactly who you'd expect, people like James Crabtree and Bill Thompson are there, so it's worth visiting. James has posted a long article, "Civic Hacking". The essence of it is that sticking something called a consultation process or a discussion forum on the Internet doesn't mean you've kickstarted democracy online. What's needed are more applications - James uses Napster as the example catalyst for music sharing online. Someone said to me that there's no demand for a product that doesn't exist - before Napster, files were shared via burning CDs (before CD writers, it was by copying cassette tapes). Napster triggered massive (and, it seems, illegal) sharing. So, there must be a fabled-Napster like thing that will spark demand for e-democracy. This is probably true - for most of e-government, it's clear it's a supply problem, not a demand problem so if the right thing is delivered, people will use it. James does caution that making the "entry route sexier" does not solve the problem - so e-voting, say, by itself doesn't make more people vote. My favourite passage is ... "What you definitely do not do when stuck in a computer game (or how to load it, or how to make it work better) is e-mail the software designer and ask them to make the game easier or better. Yet this is precisely the current British government’s strategy for e-democracy. Got a problem? Go take part in an impenetrable consultation exercise that might, in some distant way, improve the system. Not exactly a hot selling proposition." True enough ... for instance, despite all the noise on entitlement cards, the absolute count of people responding was low - although there were some high quality responses that spoke for many people. James goes on to misquote the title of a book by Marshall McLuhan, who actually wrote "The Medium is the Massage", way back in 1967 (before I was born). Still a good read. What James proposes in the end is some kind of fund to sponsor applications that might facilitate democracy online: Such a system would be about helping people to help themselves. It would create electronic spaces in which the communicative power of the internet can be used to help citizens help each other overcome life’s challenges. Most importantly, by making useful applications, it would help make participatory democracy seem useful too. I'm not sure how a fund like this would be setup in government. Like the lottery fund? With people making bids for worthy causes? I guess the issues would be around how would you police delivery, check that you were getting Value For Money (a wonderful government phrase), make sure that you weren't being scammed. We used to have a discussion forum on UKonline, but it was taken down because a very small number of people persisted in making abusive posts, disrupting the experience for everyone else. Perhaps that was because it was on a government site. Certainly people write things in emails and online that I very much doubt that they would say over the 'phone or by letter - the act of putting a signature on a letter seems to make people tone their language. I get abuse mail most days of the week, ignore most for sure, but the ones that I write back to usually become polite when they realise that someone actually reads the junk they've sent. I'd like the discussion forum to make a re-appearance, but I'd want to be sure that it was a safe place to be where James' aims could be met. If people want to help me get that working on UKonline, then I'm happy to take advice and guidance as we figure out what it should look like. I wandered through the various discussion forums on Open Democracy, but couldn't find much going on. Not many recent posts and a low total number of posts. I have no idea if the forums are moderated (something that was done with UKonline, but after posting), I doubt that they are (the overhead of trying to do that is enormous, the rules difficult to establish and the sense of big brother difficult to overcome). But, if this is not the place to post, where is ... Maybe ... Anyway, after all that, the link that got me to Open Democracy in the first place was to a note about the BBC trying to setup exactly the kind of forum or application that James talks about. Again, there is caution ... The net is not a panacea for the ills of an ailing British democracy. Too few people have access to the net and, let’s face it, reinvigorating our democracy requires change in many more important quarters – the media, political institutions, government and not least politicians themselves. But hope too ... However, there is enough evidence that institutions like the BBC should be taking the interactive plunge. And when, as we hope, this BBC project strikes out into this new world, it must open itself up to being carried in very different and unexpected directions.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Improving Procurement - at both ends

For the last few months my team have been running a few procurements in parallel. There is no fun to be had with one procurement let alone several. A full OJEC (the European Standard for how you buy things) can take up to a year, longer if you are not well prepared. A short one takes 4-5 months, although that depends largely on how many suppliers respond. First up, we issued an ad in the OJEC journal (which is a public document) asking for "expressions of interest" in our project. If you are interested you respond with a relatively short brief covering a few questions - many related to the state of your company, financials, bank guarantees and so on. At this stage, literally hundreds of companies respond - even more so these days with the economy struggling and government being one of the few continuing spenders. These "hundreds" are evaluated against simple criteria - did they respond to the questions that were asked, did they provide the information in a readable format. Guess how many people usually get excluded at this point? Something like 75-80% on a bad day. Maybe 65% on a good day. That's upwards of 65 companies that have expressed interest in a job but haven't been able to put the initial response together. My sense is that fault lies here at both ends - government hasn't done enough to train the supplier community (especially the smaller ones) in how to do this and the smaller companies haven't figured out how to seek out people who do know how to reply. There's probably a good bit of consultancy there for educating small suppliers on how government procurement works. I appreciate that this would increase the pool of suppliers who could successfully bid, and that would likely lengthen the time it takes to evaluate - but at least we'd have some fresh players in the game. At this point you're left with a few suppliers, maybe 10, maybe 20. These, of course, are the usual suspects. The biggest suppliers rarely score high on this initial sift - points are awarded for each question from +7 to -7 with 0 being "compliant". If you score zero or above, you get through to the next round. Most of the usual suspects come in at zero or plus one, some of the brighter new suppliers score higher - and I guess they have put some real effort in at this stage whereas the old hands know how the system works and know that this bit is merely a chore. These suppliers are invited to a briefing session. We had one of those this week. The idea is that the scope of the project is presented and put in context. Questions can be asked at any time to make sure that everyone knows what it is they are bidding for. It's at this point that things get cloudier still. Few questions are asked, lest a supplier show their hand to their competitors. Worse still, they rarely answer questions - even basic ones on the topic that is being discussed. Perhaps because they're not briefed and see this as just another piece of business that they will win or lose, no matter what goes on. I find this attitude startling - the idea of walking into a client meeting and knowing nothing about the background, the topic or the potential doesn't seem like a good way to win business. But, sadly, this meeting is not part of the evaluation process. And, for another day, another thing that is not part of the evaluation process in a definitively solid way, is their track record on other projects. And you wonder why the usual suspects come through over and over again?

The Money Pit Gets Shallower

All over the place, the reins are being drawn in on e-government spending. But despite that, there is sufficient money in various pots across any number of agencies, departments or local authorities to deliver some great projects. BUT. That would assume that there was a process to easily aggregate money, manage a joint project and remain accountable for delivery. The dep sec of the US Labor department has it right ... "When you begin to think about a new IT project, you should think, 'Are there other agencies already doing this and can we piggyback? with them.' OMB will not approve funding requests unless you ask those sorts of questions." There are few people in the UK government hierarchy who would think to ask that question. The prevailing approach is to look for as many differences as possible. Once you have a long list and coupled with the issues around management and funding joint initiatives, you can easily claim it's too hard to do anything but go solo. And that's why we have more websites than we can count, why most traffic on any given site probably comes from a search engine and why we have not yet learned how to cope for peak loads. Bitter? Possibly. In the past I've stayed away from commenting on what's going on day to day in e-government in the UK (with occasional exceptions), preferring to stay on the "what do we need to do" page. I'm going to shift tack a little and comment more on what I see is wrong altogether now, omitting names where necessary to protect the innocent, the stupid and the downright incompetent. Should be fun.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

End of the Red Herring era

The Red Herring has closed its doors after nearly 10 years. This magazine taught me a lot about what goes on in the tech world. I read it almost continuously from about 1994 through 2001 - watching it grow until it was pretty much phone book sized (albeit mostly ads). The other day I was going through some boxes fresh back from storage - that had last seen the light of day in 1996 - and I found a whole bunch of issues. Naturally I threw them away. I guess there won't be any more of those to store. So, the Industry Standard is gone, Red Herring ... that leaves Business 2.0 (which merged with one of Fortune's magazines I think), Fast Company and Upside (is that still there, it's not clear it is from the site). Shows how brutal this economy has become. The RH site doesn't say it's gone, but then take a look at onlineinsider ... Robert Seidman's former must-read newsletter, last updated in August 2000 and not a word since. I can imagine some blogs will take that path over the next few months or so.

Technology troubles

Decided to move to the next level in WiFi this weekend and am still paying the price. Every time I do this I know it's going to take days to get it sorted again. To date I've used a simple WiFi network - one desktop plugged into ADSL and a laptop that can talk to it over the air. Two simple cards and it's all done. Something in me thought it would be better to get an access point, an ethernet modem (with firewall and NAT and whatever that's all about) - then the desktop wouldn't need to be on for me to use the 'net (it still would for using the printer, but that's a task for another day) and I might even be able to plug my Xbox in and play games over the air too. It's all a bit hard. None of it worked first time, of course it never does. But I haven't managed to put it back together again so far. Ho hummm ... another job for next weekend.

Upcoming conference

Later this month, I'll be speaking at an e-government conference in the USA, hosted by Sapient. The title is something about taking the lessons learned in the commercial world and applying them to e-government. I'm putting the slides together now. One of the main slides says "what have we learned so far? In truth ... not much". I'll have to come up with a bit more than that, but it still depresses me that we are not yet taking advantage of all of the good work done elsewhere. The screws will be on the budgets soon ... maybe that's the lever.

10 paths to oblivion

Inspired by what the record companies did to Napster, here is Jack Kapica's take on the 10 ways that you can stifle an e-commerce business. Or, for that matter, an e-government transformation. ... Refuse to change ... Ignore the Internet ... Be sanctimonious ... Misunderstand your market ... Lie ... Kill it ... Pray it will all go away ... Insult your market ... Make government your accomplice ... Go back to giving it away Ok, so maybe not all of them apply to e-government (I'm not going to start on which don't) ... but the message is pretty clear!

UK rankings in IT

The World Economic Forum has posted the results of its latest survey, covering the "use and application of information and communication technologies". The UK comes 7th, behind the USA, Finland, Sweden, Singapore, Canada (of course) but, surprisingly (for me at least) also behind Iceland. And ahead of Germany and Taiwan. albeit only just. In this era or surveymania, it's worth scanning the stats to see why.

Content matters. Really.

While I'm talking content management, here's another useful place to look for ideas. It's a blog, "Content Matters" by Frank at Garnet Knight. He's taken the trouble to link to some good thoughts on content management, taxonomy and a useful post linking to Matt Jones' site about redesigning the BBC front page - definitely worth a read (even at 86 pages long).

The Perils of Implementing Content Management

I can't remember how I came across this article, but I just found it in my bookmarks. It's a lengthy piece in PC Magazine from September 2002 entitled "From Chaos to Control" covering the challenges of implementing a Content Management System. It reviews the main products and gives six important lessons that I hope they won't mind me printing here in full. These are valuable lessons: 1. Picking CMS software before developing solid requirements and a business case. When this happens, technology ends up driving your business processes rather than vice versa. Convert some of the resources you are currently expending on software evaluations into a deeper examination of your own content and business needs. 2. Not getting a clear mandate from the top to proceed. Doing this is hard and can be expensive. Not doing so can be costly in the long run if support is pulled mid project. Get business-line leaders on-board. You'll need their strategic direction and a mandate for change. 3. Underestimating integration and professional service needs. Budget two to four times the cost of a software license for consulting, customization, and integration. A lot of additional coding is needed to glue everything together. 4. Hiring inexperienced developers to integrate and extend the software. Having great developers with CMS experience implement mediocre software is almost always preferable to excellent software in the hands of novice integrators. 5. Depending entirely on an outside company to make changes to the system. Involve your own technical people closely in the initial development, even if you are outsourcing the integration. And don't skimp on training; it's expensive but worth it. 6. Thinking your migration will be painless (despite what your CMS provider may tell you). Don't make it worse. Start to prep yourself for a CMS by cleaning up your HTML code and organizing your content. This will take you longer than you think. Those of you who know what I've been up to for the last year or more will know that I can only echo these issues fully, from deep within! I had a piece published in Computing a while ago on this topic, with the notable quote "Content management is not something you buy, it's something you do". If you let the technology lead, the job will never be done the way it needs to be done. Over the last year, we've battled with content management systems and tools trying to get the right product to handle multiple government websites. In the end, after a lot of evaluation, none were able to do the job we needed - and we knew that we had the job right, so we ended up doing it ourselves. The fruits of that long labour will soon be visible and then we'll see later in the year if it was really worth it. I think it will be, but you never know. Once it's up to see, I'll talk more about it but until then I'll have to be a bit quiet.