Saturday, August 30, 2003

Unavailable

Tried to logon to my online bank account today to check the balance, having had the debit card turned down in a store today. The message from the bank read: "I'm sorry. We are having some temporary delays. Please try again later" With the obligatory "ok" button. No, not ok. It would be nearly ok if you told me when it would be back up or maybe a little more about the issue, or perhaps even that the reason the online service is down is the same reason that my card was turned down. But this message from a major international bank is not ok at all. Nearly three years ago we took the online self assessment service down from some routine maintenance one Friday evening. We put a note up a week in advance, flagged the outage on the entry screen and took the service down when we said we would. We even brought it up when we said we would. It made the BBC 6 o'clock news (yes, mainstream television news). Plainly that was absurd. It seems that everywhere there are double standards around what is acceptable and what is not. Kablenet was castrophically down the other day - by using the word "catastrophic" I mean DOWN, i.e. no message, no redirect, no nothing. COLT telecom took the blame. Stuff goes down in this space. Putting things online is still new for lots of companies. Design flaws are hidden until something happens that you didn't expect (think electricity outages in London last week). Even the smartest people get hit by outages. The trick is to have a good plan for recovery, communicate with your customers whilst you're down and then get the service back as fast as you can. And remember, judge others as you would wish to be judged yourself. Next time you're down, I'll remember and I'll mention it when the time is right ;) Because, your service will go down just like ours will.

MS Blog n.0

Struck today by just how many Microsoft bloggers there are. In a world where many expect Microsoft to be the evil empire and doubtless to have made all of their staff kill goats on the altar, it's refreshing to see so much obviously unvalidated and unapproved commentary. Could this be a fascinating model for the MPs blogs that the VoxP folks champion so regularly? Some of them have disclaimers, although not perhaps in the sense you might expect, e.g. (from Tim Ewald) "LEGAL STUFF BECAUSE I WORK FOR A BIG COMPANY: In case it wasn't clear to anyone, these posts are provided "as is". They are not guaranteed to be useful or even correct - though I do the best I can - and they confer no rights" Some of them even have code there. Not that I follow a line of it anymore. Been far too long since I had to write some code. And perhaps my favourite, from Becky Dias: "Who cares about technology? It's all a matter of business" I wonder if the policy is laissez-faire at Msft or whether it's just too hard to track it and crack down. After all, if you were told not to do it, you could just put another one up somewhere else as an anonymous feed and deny all knowledge. Plausible deniability? Probably. All in, can only be a good thing.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Web services and copy databases

Whilst I've been doing this work on Enterprise Architecture, I've caught up on a lot of reading on web services. I've read around the subject using the usual suspects and their blogs, John Gotze, Jon Udell, Phil Windley and so on. I've also looked at the aggregation sites, like Looselycoupled. All of those are available from the links at the left on my blog. There's a lot of wisdom out there. I particularly liked a piece (from April 2003) on looselycoupled that notes that many organisations are using web services to deliver short-term, tactical value on a purely point to point basis. It also notes that what's going to happen soon is that today's pilots will be added to with new pilots and yet more pilots until the situation becomes close to impossible to manage. What seems a long time ago, maybe 1992 or 1993, Citibank fronted its key legacy systems with a copy database - all changes by call centre staff, front facing systems and operations folks were made to this database. The reason was that the old system only processed things in batch and, increasingly (even then!), customers wanted to see things applied in real time - we even had an online banking application then, although it was via a proprietary dial-up network, which increased the need to see things as they were posted so that corporate treasurers could properly manage funds. The nice thing about doing such a database in relatively modern technology is that the issues that might otherwise occur around record-locking, multiple updates etc can be managed much more simply. I was wondering how many people are still doing this. Just wrapping up your legacy system as a web service and offering it up may not solve some of the old problems (I wondered, for instance, how people using the legacy application through old-style services would know what was happening to data around them). So creating this copy database to which all changes are made intra-day, whilst storing up the transactions for posting to the legacy each night, and then refreshing the copy might be something that we should do. That way customers and staff see their accurate data all the time, we don't have to fit in the confines of the old technology for management, we can still use web services and we have a 24 hour accessible service. Is that how it should work or have I missed something?

Document history

From a post by Matt Jones ... can you imagine this applied to the dossier?

Online tax forms that are just like paper

Sounds a daft idea ... an online form that's just like paper ... but, actually, it probably has a lot of merit. People are familar with the tax form (or the benefit form or whatever) and transposing it as is online, but adding validation and checking is pretty much what everyone has done to date with their online services. That process has, however, involved the creation of vast amounts of technical infrastructure and, in most cases, even requires whoever is completing the form to sit in front of their PC, online, while filling it in. No problem if you're a broadband user or on a tariff, but might be a problem if you aren't. Confronting that, Adobe have come up with some changes to PDF that allow anyone with the reader software (version 5.1 or later) to inline edit a modified PDF file. So the tax folks can ship a PDF file to people who can then work on it in their own time, online or offline. When they're done, the PDF wraps up the answers in an XML file and then sends them back to government. Their version of the US tax form is online here. It turns out that Adobe folks don't make the best presenters of their own wares as I found out at a session this week, but the product needs to be explored. Whilst replicating a paper form online isn't what I call e-government, it's a way to get some services available that are value-added versus the paper versions (error checking, context sensitive help, electronic input for government etc) and without needing quite the same infrastructure that you would otherwise need (you'll probably still have to have people write javascript or VB but it will all be embedded in the PDF file rather than needing a complex hosted environment) and, it will be secure because all the data is in the form that the client has rather than in a server somewhere in the cloud. And whilst those are online, we can crack on with the hard work of stripping out the redundant processes and making the necessary changes to business logic to support the delivery of transformed government. Surely even the swingometer crowd would count such a plan as progress?

On standards and guidlines

Whilst I was writing the EntArch paper, I was looking for stories that would illustrate the problems. One of the big (real big!) problems is the standards to adopt - not the actual standards themselves, but how to get them agreed, how to get people to adhere to them and how to roll them out fast enough so that they aren't seen as a delay in the process. Whilst thinking about how to describe an integration backbone, I came up with the following text: To try and paint a picture of how an integration backbone works, let’s try this example. Imagine a railway turntable where trains arrive from different directions, but that each track has a different gauge. The turntable lifts the body of the train from its existing gauge (leaving the wheels) and moves it to a set of wheels waiting at the next gauge. Every time a train arrives at the turntable, this approach is repeated. To put this matter in real terms, the gauge of trains in Ireland today is 1600mm, in the UK it’s 1435mm. Were we to create the equivalent of a Channel Tunnel to link the mainland and Ireland, we would need to lay new track at one end or the other to allow a train to pass through, or create the turntable-idea that I note above. Both are probably impractical and although standards on railway gauges were imposed in 1846, it was by then too late to solve the problem as the railways were already built. In technical terms, we’re in the same place. Some standards do exist, but not enough. Imposing them now is far too late for any system already built that does not conform to the standard (and that means almost every system we have, even ones in the same department). So, what is needed is a device to do the heavy lifting and make the necessary “gauge changes” every time they are needed. Ideally, there is a defined standard for incoming and outgoing messages (see the pages earlier covering standards), so there is only one change needed per query – from the outward standard to one of the various inward standards. Sticking with the railway analogy for a little longer, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were joined in 1869, the 2,000 mile journey from coast to coast that had previously taken up to four months was reduced to a mere six days. Standards and integration drive significant customer benefit! There are, occasionally, compromise methods that can be used to forward the integration path – Britain’s own railways had competing standards early on, the Brunel gauge of 7’ ¼” and the Stephenson gauge of 4’ 8 ½”. The incompatibility was solved by adding a third rail to hundreds of mile of track to allow trains of either gauge to pass – a complicated but workable solution. Far better though, surely, to agree a standard and stick to it. As the older systems retire, they are built using the new (outward facing) standard and the integration backbone does less work. But that will take time. Until then, the backbone is a vital part of putting services online, of offering joined up services that are transparent to the customer and of buying time to replace the legacy architectures. What worries me is that everyone will build an integration backbone with different standards and then I'll need another integration backbone to link the integration backbones. Agh! P.S. Anyone who doubts the idea that there are places out there where they lift carriage bodies up and down, swapping between gauges, need only do a bit of research on trains between Russia and the rest of Europe during the time of the Tsars (there are still places where it happens now I believe). Lots of stories about why the Russians adopted a different gauge - some to do with them wanting invading armies not to be able to use their own rolling stock and others that are far more bizarre. I owe my Uncle, Paul, for that bit of research.

EntArch

I've just finished draft one of my Enterprise Architecture paper for government. I'm going to circulate it quite widely within government and to some of the supplier community so that I can get some feedback on it before going to draft two. I haven't even got close to an executive summary yet, I'll do that when I get to the next draft. I've got it in my head that the document is one of two things. It's either a paper that serves to stop you getting indigestion from eating an elephant (two rules: know how big the elephant is so that you can pace yourself and have a big knife) or it's a "you can't get there from here" story. I'm tending towards the latter. The essence of my paper is that before technology, the data we had was our asset. We looked after it - there was one master source for the books of a company, one customer list and so on. When technology came along we quickly created many copies of our data, manipulated them in different ways, allowed the marketing people to talk to the customers one way, the sales people another way, the product people another way. We added products that needed new systems that didn't work the same way as the old systems. We kept the programmes and the data closely coupled and didn't share anything. Before long, the data wasn't the asset, even the systems weren't the asset. If we had an asset, it was probably the few people who had been around long enough to understand what had happened, what we had originally and how the systems interacted - every company has a few of those people. We need to go back to the data being the asset.

Compulsive viewing

The other day, James at VoxP was likening Hansard to a blog and perhaps wishing that it were in language that were more accessible to the public. This weekend I was stunned to see that the Hutton Inquiry is a blog too. Every word is online. I may have been slow in finding this out and I've noone around to ask if I've been asleep for a couple of weeks. The reporting from the court has become compulsive reading over the last few days, if only to try and get a sense of the "trial by swingometer" approach of the media. I've tried to come up with an analogy for how the reporting works but it seems to me perhaps it's as simple as a boxing match. After every round, the different judges (the papers, the online media, the TV channels) mark a score down. The problem is that such an approach works fine in boxing because you know that sometimes the match goes to 15 rounds and then a winner emerges (yet, you don't know the score the judges have applied in each round until the end). Sometimes though there's a knockout and the winner is even clearer. But scoring an inquiry by the same method just doesn't seem to make any sense to me. Like I said, it's swingometer stuff. Once the hearing is done and all the evidence is out, the full chain can be seen - but how many people can take the time to understand the entire argument through reading what was said and looking at the evidence (not all of the documents are public on the website), versus the number who get the potted, slanted version from whichever newspaper they read?

Time to build

Just recently I've been feeling quite good. Wading through a book on Sir Christopher Wren I discovered that he'd only taken charge of the project to rebuild St. Paul's at the age of 37. I've got a (very little) bit to go, so I'd been thinking there was still hope. Even then, it took him 35 years to complete the work. Now, I come across a book by James Gleick on Isaac Newton's story and I discover that he made most of his largest discoveries in his 20s (and Newton was around pretty much the same time as Wren, so think Great Fire of London, Bubonic Plague and all that, as if life wasn't hard enough at the time). So maybe I should stay away from theory and speculation and stick to all matters practical. Where did I put that hod?

Thursday, August 21, 2003

A new spin on e-government

John Naughton, he of the Observer and he who is definitely not usually a fan of all things e-government, reported on the iSociety report a month ago. Some nearly pleasing quotes from his piece. "The Inland Revenue has built a magnificent system for online filing of tax returns, but only 70,000 people (out of a possible 8 million) use it" Delighted he thinks it's magnificent, although his usage figure is wrong by a factor of 5 (he is too low, of course). But, better ... Critical media coverage of failures of government IT projects (think DSS, passport office) reinforces public scepticism about eGovernment. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that those people who have most need to interact with the state (because of being poor, elderly or ill) are precisely the groups who feel most uneasy about using unfamiliar, online, channels. The battle to put government online has been won. But the battle to put citizens online has only just begun. I'm not sure that the former battle has been won, although I'd just be arguing over words. It's the battle to put government online the right way that hasn't been won, which in turn leads to citizens wanting to use the services.

Autumn leaves

I was dozing off in a meeting the other day when I was suddenly brought back to reality by hearing the quote "This project could very well accelerate by the Autumn." Fairly meaningless you might think, except that the thing I first learnt when arriving in post 3 years ago was that people often count in seasons here. I pictured a special watch being issued to everyone with just four times on it - seasons. In countries where I'd worked before, you could always look out the window to see what season it was, and that didn't seem to work here, hence the watch. The quote that kicked my job off was learning that a major project ... "Would probably have the team up to speed by the Autumn." I couldn't figure it out ... "up to speed"? Did that mean something would be delivered? And when exactly was the Autumn? Three years on, plus ca change.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

7650 stuff

What seems like a long time ago I put my Nokia 7650 away, a phone with (by far and away) the best interface I had seen and I switched to a P800. Now the P800 is a great phone and it's a great PDA, although trying to do both at the same time is a challenge ("Hi ...you got any time tomorrow ... hold on let me check my diary ... no ... what about the next day ... hold on let me check my diary" looks very comical when you think about all the up and downs as the phone goes from your ear to the table every time). Well, the P800 broke the other day (I did drop it from a great height, so it's definitely not its fault). And so I'm back on the 7650 for a bit and who would have thought I'd find Prince of Persia running on it!

Ppts

I've had a few requests in recently for presentations. Sadly, I've had to turn them down. I'm still going to be doing internal government presentations - and am booked through December for those - but won't be doing anything external (whether it has internal government representatives or not). It's partly a time issue - doing slides, keeping them current, making up stuff to say that might interest people was taking up too many Sundays (so instead here I am writing about Enterprise Architecture, ugh!). The other reasons I won't go into. The ones that I was booked in for are being taken over by some folks at the office who I am sure will do a good turn, so noone booked in already should be let down.

It's not what you do, it's what it means

I changed the motto of the site today from "For every policy there's an equal and opposite practice" to "It's not what you do, it's what it means". The former was coined after some more work on .gov.uk domain names that found ones like "bettergovernmentforolderpeople.gov.uk". Just typing that last one would take years off your life, although the site is "in the process of redeveloping our site to provide and all new interactive website." All new and interactive? Was it not interactive before? The new motto is, well, it just is. Some of you will get it I guess, those who know me will stare blankly. I've spent my Sunday afternoon working on 3 papers, two of which I've been asked to write and have left for weeks and weeks (I've been researching them, honest, but I haven't actually put digit to key yet) and one which is something I've wanted to do for a while. The two commissioned ones are a paper on the "Enterprise Architecture" for government and a view on the next set of developments for the Government Gateway. First off, EntArch ... hard enough to do I guess in a single organisation (although there's no end of people that will sell you the services to do it in yours - if you're one of the former, be wary when you write to me, I have a way of dealing with people that write to me without thinking it through, but have a go if you must ... you might turn out to be right!) ... but doing it in an ueber-organisation (no umlauts available in this blog tool!) is something else. If any one department is a loose confederation of warring tribes, what on earth does that make dealing with the "whole"? Silos and castles be damned, there's a whole new game in town if we're going to piece together an enterprise architecture. But, I'm realistic to know that there won't be a "single architecture" ... what we must do is take the best from some, clone for others, develop a few things individually and relax in the knowledge that we're still going to have too many of some other things. That's life, but it's not unbearable. I've defined the mission of the EntArch to be: To speed the deployment of customer-focused online services, facilitating the joining up of otherwise discrete departmentally-managed services To provide for widespread service offerings through large varieties of intermediaries, each able to offer different and competing value-added enhancements to any service To ensure that lessons learnt in any one organisation in the implementation of any part of this or any other EntArch are passed to all other organisations through providing a collaborative learning environment To reduce the cost of delivery and maintenance of online services through reuse of systems, components and/or process changes and through rationalisation of the overall number of such systems, components and processes. To buy time (and provide funding) for the eventual and full rationalisation of departmental back end systems through constructing a flexible and capable integration layer covering the ├╝ber-organisation To facilitate a dramatic and non-linear change in the perception of government service by citizens and businesses. Ultimately, to deliver services that citizens want to use, that are consistent in their operation and are easy to use Nothing new in that list probably, but the tools to realise it are perhaps a bit different than the ones we might have envisioned three years ago when I started in all this. It's also a good time for a change in thinking. The other commissioned document was originally going to be a view on where to take the Gateway next, but after a bit of a spate of negative comments inside and outside of government on what it is and what it does, I thought I'd publish a "Facts, Myths and Fantasies" of the Gateway ... one that tries to put it in context of what goes on around it, what doesn't go on and what would go on if we could do what we wanted (the fantasy bit). I'm quite excited to be thinking through the fantasy part, I've been bogged down in day to day for such a long time it seems that I've barely raised my head to think of anything new. And the final document is one for me and my own team which is all about what's wrong with what we do and how we do it - a bit of introspection that will, I hope, give us some ideas on what to work on next, how to handle some people we deal with, how to handle ourselves and how to keep motivation up in the face of some difficult times. It's easy to look at the stuff we're not doing well of course and my style is always to focus on what we're not doing so well at. Rear view mirror driving never got me anywhere except when I was driving backwards. And although that's fun, I don't think it will get me where I want to be just now.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Feeddemon ...

A new version of FeedDemon is available which seems to fix whatever the problem was that stopped me using the last one. You should get it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

More tech woes

So today, after struggling again, I finally got 2 out of 3 systems to talk to the Internet via Wifi. And, in fact, a 4th - a tablet PC that proved to me that all the hardware was fine so it must be software. So one to go. But meanwhile, MS Office has just stopped working ... not quite true, Word loads and I can type a new file, but I can't open any old ones. If I save a new one, I can't then reopen it. How weird is that? Is someone out there just pulling my chain for fun? It's working.

Ending the end to end theory

Everyone is used to having "end to end" control of their technology infrastructure. When a transaction is completed by a member of staff in an office, it goes across the private office network, into the server, onto the disk drive and back again. In the world of the Internet, a customer completes a transaction on a private web page that goes to a private server that goes to a private network and back again ... the only bit where there's a little less control is the Internet, but we can nail that down using an SSL connection with a private certificate. Control, control, control. In the coming web world, that model falls apart. Components are distributed, transactions may come from multiple sources and the responses go back to multiple end points. Control is nowhere - it's in how you manage the interconnections, the partnerships you strike, the relationships and, ultimately, the standards that you adopt, endorse and adhere to. Some people are going to have to change their mindsets.

Joining together ... the might of the many

A story comes to me today by way of someone closely associated ... it goes like this: today was project review day and a new project was ready for approval that had been sponsored by no less than three business streams. Every project requires a form to be completed for its review so that the board can assess whether it should go ahead. The form is not too detailed but does, naturally, require details of the sponsor. This project had to use a bit of extra white space on the paper because it had three separate sponsors, spread across the whole of the business concerned. Funnily enough, there's never been a case in the past where any project was sponsored by more than one business stream. The board were not used to seeing a form that was not completed correctly - after all it's quite clear, "project sponsor" not "project sponsors". So ... they opted not to let the project go forwards on the grounds that the documentation had not been filled in correctly. And we're the species that put a man on the moon? Or did we ... no, hang on, that's a whole different set of conspiracy theories.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Ideas generation

I spent a couple of hours locked in a room with some smart people today conjuring up some things that we could do to change the world (the e-government world at least) with a new whizzy bit of technology. Actually, the technology is not new, it's what we could do with it now that's new. For the moment, everything we talked about is covered under an NDA, but that won't remain in place for too long ... and there's a lot of potential there. That paper stuff is really quite versatile if you use it in the right way. As soon as they let me post on it, I will.

Civil registration ... vital change

John Lettice writes a good piece on the recent ONS consultation. It seems to be mild in terms with what John might normally write when such a topic is raised. I can't believe that he is growing less cynical with time, so he must be saving the real piece for when things get clearer - but an excellent summary of what the proposals look like today is to be had through reading his piece.

wifi AGH!

I just can't figure out this wifi stuff. It was all working and now none of it is working. I've wasted the last 5 hours (that makes about 15 total) trying to make it all work again and have given up. I've now plugged in a squashed frog modem to the desktop USB and given up on the laptop wifi and what not. That'll be a pain in the arse for a while, but it will buy me some time until I decide whether to get a Mac or not. This has just been a few days of utter madness - things working and then not working. Posts are sparse because I'm spending my time trying to fix this kind of thing. Ugh. No wonder right-thinking people stay away from all things techie. Wifi will not go mainstream if it is too painful.

Cost of entry versus Cost of exit

Today, e-government applications have a "cost of entry" ... you have to learn something new to get into them, figure out how some website works, adjust the way you work to cater for the new process and so on. One day pretty soon, there'll be a cost of exit. Using what's online will be so simple, so much better, offer so much more value that it will be too painful for you to go back to the old, paper or phone, way of doing things. The way this will pan out will probably be several competing curves of cost - so one service may get there before some others, but maybe we'll have a few there together that mean you'll put up with a few that are "more expensive" to you in terms of cost of entry, just because the others ones have a higher value.

Staying focused

I was talking to a friend this weekend who is about to go through a divorce. He says that for the last couple of years he has been up and about doing different things, meeting new people, trying out new experiences, making career progress and yet his wife has not moved on in all that time. That's a sad situation and I wish it weren't so. But: Working in government is a bit like that some days. I go out and sit in meetings with clever people who have great ideas about what we could do with a bit of a push there, a bit of money here, a change in emphasis somewhere else. A couple of pilots, a quick rollout, a plan to gain scale rapidly. And then I get to come back to the government office where things haven't moved on and there are issues with doing something like that - procurement, financial, competition, change control, general resistance, the we've always done it another way argument, whatever. So if you're a guy it feels like you've come home to Nora Batty (only with worse wrinkles and a bigger rolling pin); if you're a girl, you've come home to Compo. But for every day when it feels like that there are other days when good progress is made, when a few things slot together and a deal comes off, when some like-minded people from departments hit on an idea and want to do it. Those days are relatively few and far between, but they make it worth sticking at it. For every press report or survey that says it's all awful, that this target or the other target should be scrapped, there are a few others that actually talk about what's really going on and present the good side as well as the bad side (there's still too much bad side to show for the efforts to date, but that's for another day). So ... if you're at that difficult point, it's worth looking at what could be, what might be and what should be. Why else would any of us do it?