Wednesday, June 23, 2004
I've just finished watching the first series of the West Wing. I don't have a TV but have rigged up a DVD player to a projector to watch movies. It works well, even if West Wing doesn't really need a screen 10' across. It's a great show and gives a real insight into life behind the scenes in the US equivalent of No.10. So what do we have in the UK? Spitting Image? Yes, Minister? Yes, Prime Minister? The New Statesman? All great shows but all very different from the West Wing which manages to be funny (but not in a British way if you get my meaning), sharp-witted and yet, at the same time, makes you respect even more the work that goes into running the "office of the president". If real life is even 1/2 what this show makes it out to be, then I'm yet more impressed. What impresses me really though is the way that the show educates me about the political process in the USA - it covers topics from campaign funding through mid-term elections and even the Ethanol tax credit. It's a little bit of democracy on TV - a way of seeing how a country is run and the effort that goes into making what are seemingly small decisions. Perhaps most importantly, it's a way of seeing how much jostling, manoeuvering and outright positioning has to take place for every decision, small or large, short range impact or long term impact. Something like this in the UK would be great - spotlight on Parliament, Number 10 and Number 11. By the by, one thing that intrigues me is that almost everyone in the offices seems to use Apple powerbooks (the old style black ones).
This week I was at a conference, for the first time in a while. That’s not quite true, I did a conference the other day by accident – I showed up to watch and the keynote speaker didn’t show up at all, so I was asked to step in which I was happy to do. There was quite a contrast between the events and, drawn by a blog on getting the most out of powerpoint, I thought it would be worth outlining the reasons (from my view) here. Next time I’m doing a conference, I may just use this as my checklist to make sure that things have a chance of going okay. I didn’t enjoy this week’s session much at all and, if I’m not enjoying it, god only knows what it’s like for the audience. 1.Always do you own slides. It’s not that the slides I was using weren’t ok – they were better than that: clear, lucid and to the point with a couple of simple graphics. They just weren’t mine. When I draw up slides for a conference, as I’m working through them I’m planning what I’m going to say. I never rehearse a script (in fact, I never even write a script), but just putting the slides together seems to be enough for me to marshall my thoughts. In this case, I hadn’t done that so, before the session, I was having to think through what my key points were. And it didn’t work well. 2. Always have a roving microphone. At this conference, I was pinned to a small space between two fixed microphones attached to a lectern. A move 6 inches to the left took me out of range and the same on the right. I like to move around when I talk to people, partly because I’m probably a fidget and partly because I like to get a sense of the whole audience and whether what I’m saying is engaging them. If I can see it isn’t, then I can change it. Don’t have a lectern; they remind me of days at school with people preaching to me, I didn’t like it then and I imagine people don’t like it now. 3. Ensure that you can see the audience. When I looked out over the folks there, all I could see was the front row, where one or two guys were diligently taking notes (I’m pretty sure that they didn’t work for me, so what were they doing that for?). The rest was blocked from my view because of half a dozen intensely bright lights shining right in my eyes. Rows beyond the second were a sea of blackness. So much for figuring out what the audience think. 4. Make sure you can see your own slides. Sometimes I like to point at a slide so that what I’m saying makes sense in context of it. But, mainly, I want to know that when I’ve pressed the button to change slide, it actually has changed. Many people worry that, if the presenter has a remote mouse, they’ll go bananas and press it too many times, advancing and regressing through the deck with abandon. This is not often the case – I’ve used remote mice for years and haven’t seen that problem. But here, I was given a remote mouse that had a human interface – i.e. I pressed it and, somewhere in the back room, a light went off and a human pressed the real button. So, I thought I was pressing the button, but the slide wasn’t changing. In front of me, on the lectern was a small screen, all of about 3 inches by 2 inches. It seemed out of focus and, anyway, the print was too small. So I couldn’t see what was on the slides and, most of the time, couldn’t even tell which slide I was on. That meant I had to look over my shoulder, and when I did that, I was out of range of the microphone, so people couldn’t hear me. 5. If you’re on stage with other people, at least try and see their slides before. I was on stage with two others and didn’t see either set of slides. So much for joined up presenting let alone joined up government. This was my mistake – I probably had the chance to see them but didn’t. 6. Stick to the topic requested. When all three of us came down from our 15 minute session, the chairman remarked that none of us had actually addressed the title of the brief, which was “authentication”. That was true – we hadn’t – we’d all talked about aspects of the Government Gateway that were (I hope) interesting and useful, but not actually about the perils of authentication. I have a few ready-made slide decks on that topic, so if there’s anyone out there that still wants to know, drop me a mail (a.m@e-envoy etc) and I will ship you what I have. Finally, for me though, the highlight of the session was a French guy, Etienne, walking the floor of the exhibition centre outside the conference hall, doing magic tricks. I love tricks and this guy was a master. Cards would appear and disappear, coins would come from nowhere, notes would transform from one currency to another. Great stuff. Now if I could just work some of that into a presentation on authentication, I think I’d really be onto something.
Monday, June 21, 2004
Came across a great quote along with the SpaceShipOne stories. In 1908, less than 10 people knew how to fly (a plane). Now, how many tens of thousands are there? In 2004, perhaps 400 or maybe 500 people have been in space ... who wants to make a bet on how many will have done so 10 years from now, let alone 100? A fantastic achievement. They've gone from a trip to space costing 100s of millions of dollars (pick any currency and add the right number of zeros) to perhaps low 10s (who knows the right number?). In a couple of years maybe it's single digit millions, in 10 years, single digit 100s of 1000s? Exciting stuff. And worth a break from the daily trials of e-government.
Thursday, June 17, 2004
I had dinner with some folks tonight - great fun, great food, great company - and we got to talking about joined up government (as anyone who has dinner with me usually does, except for my mother). It was prompted by a guy who had parked one night and come back to find his car not there. Or, I suppose, not find his car. First question - has it been stolen? How would you know? Has it been towed? How would you know? In fact it was the latter, but he only found out a day later after struggling through the website of the local authority concerned and, eventually, using Google. He found a 24 hour number, which he called. They said "this is the housing line, not the 24 hour line" ... despite it being on the website as the 24 hour line. Eventually, he got to the place where they put cars that have been towed. The borough where it was taken from was in the North of London, the pound was in the South (isn't outsourcing great). He paid the money (2 days worth by then as it had taken him so long to find the car) and left. Joined up government? A single site to help the citizen? To all those who laugh at the idea of one site, why wouldn't you have one (government) site where you type in your number plate and it tells you the status of your car, e.g. "insured, taxed, MOTed and presently impounded at blahblah"? Or "insured, taxed, MOTed, last saw a parking ticket at blahblah"? Or, maybe if we got really clever, "insured and now at co-ordinates X,Y,Z which is X street in Y Borough" so you would know if it was on the move and being drive by someone else? Are those government services? Probably not. But where else would you go? Tell me how you would find these out if you parked your car on the border of Westminster and Camden and didn't actually know which it was when your car was towed? Good luck. Joined up parking fines. That's a start!
Posted by Alan at Thursday, June 17, 2004
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
ITV says that there's a new virus in town, one that spreads across Symbian operating systems via Bluetooth, perhaps leveraging the approach discovered a few weeks ago of hacking phone address books. So far (unlike my thinking in July 2003) it doesn't send texts to everyone in your address book, but who knows how long that will take? Apparently this one's main threat is that it could drain your battery by keeping bluetooth on (what were the writers thinking?). Sadly, most of the news feeds fail to mention that you have to install the software on your mobile phone first (which means going to fetch a SIS file, having your mobile connected to your PC, saying yes to the install etc). The Register nailed that point, as you'd expect, along with the fact that the virus was actually mailed to someone with a "look what we've done" statement, acknowledging it as a proof of concept. Still, this won't be the last and the next ones will be worse I'm sure. But, here's a more interesting mobile phone virus story in honour of today being Bloomsday.
Posted by Alan at Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Monday, June 14, 2004
Earlier this week, thanks to some stunning organisation by Bernie, I spent some time with a bundle of new companies. Some operating out of bedrooms (garages are, it seems, out of fashion these days), some in small office blocks and some just starting the path to profit and looking like proper companies. A few of them have products that make sense right now. So, first off, here are a couple of technologies, out of the couple of dozen I saw this week: Two years ago or so I met Oqo. Back then they had what looked to be the coolest PC of all time. Small, handheld, with a sliding (touch) screen that revealed a keyboard, running full Windows XP, wireless, bluetooth and a 1MHz Transmeta process, it would have revolutionised the market. Two years on, it could still do the same but there is more competition on the scene and the window of opportunity looks smaller. The guys there could still pull it off. I played with one for an hour or so - it looks great and has some amazing engineering in it. For instance, if you drop it, an accelerometer inside detects that its falling and parks the head on the hard drive. It may still not survive, but that's incredible attention to detail. The screen slides on tiny cogs that are visible in the edge of the case, making sure that it stays true as you pop out the keyboard. Sadly, it still has the same Transmeta processor in it that was on the speclist two years ago, which I think is a risk for Oqo. It's slow - too slow for me (I ran a Compaq Tablet for a while with the same chip and it drove me mad). It's not, though, a tablet pc - it runs full Windows but you can write on the screen with a pen. That's an intriguing decision but I suspect it's something to do with the tablet market not moving perhaps as much as many had hoped, certainly not as much as BillG had hoped. But, picture a mobile worker equipped with an Oqo, always connected to the systems back at base across a Wifi network. The device is small enough to go into a jacket pocket, has enough battery life to last the working day and runs all the apps that you could want. Customer records can be looked up, updated and compared; orders can be placed; benefits can be assessed. There's some serious potential there. Oqo will launch in October - they promise for real this time - and the first reviews should be in the Wall Street Journal in September. Initially shipments will be in the US only. We'll have to wait a while to see them in the UK. Separately, I spent some time with Vocera. These guys have a "StarTrek" like device - a phone that operates over the Wifi network. A touch of a button and the "genie" inside asks what you need. You say "get me Alan" or "call Alan" and the system places a call over the wifi network direct to me. If I want to take the call I tell the genie "ok" and we're connected - if not, I say "no" or "I'm busy" or similar and the caller gets to leave a message. It's impressive in operation and is already being used in several dozen hospitals, where nurses and doctors can keep their hands free, don't have to hunt around for a 'phone and don't have to remember extension numbers. It's impressive in operation and looks to have huge potential - both in terms of improving communication and also driving costs down. This is one device that I'm hoping to see become wildly more prevalent because I really think it has potential to be great. Doubtless there are other companies that have something similar, but there's something about the user experience on this one that makes me think it could establish a powerful lead. I hear that Westminster Council in London are setting up a wireless network to cover the whole borough. So far, I believe it's only for council employees rather than for providing laptop users with high bandwidth 'net connections. With a pervasive wireless network, employees can be fully untethered. With the technology from these two companies the council folks could have a wifi laptop and a wifi phone. They'll be in contact with colleagues online and through the phone network. They will be truly untethered and able to be far more productive – sitting with people who need their help to navigate their way throughout government. It’s not strictly e-government, but it makes a lot of sense to me.
Posted by Alan at Monday, June 14, 2004
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Or, in fact, they work for you. I've got some downtime this morning in between conference calls and was just catching up on VoxPolitics (Where James rightly observes that has not been posting frequently enough). TheyWorkForYou.com is a new site from the folks that brought us/you faxyourmp, the publicwhip and so on. I have to say that I am gobsmacked by what they've put together. Hansard has always been incomprehensible to me. I've never figured out how to find what I need and have always ended up asking someone more capable than me - and all of those people, I suspect, work inside government. With this site, you can put in your postcode to get details on your MP (and how many know what they even look like? so there's a photo to help out), their voting record, questions asked and so on. Type in a topic (I used, of course, "e-government" - be sure to use the quotes) and was rewarded with 481 entries, each of which contains much of the to and fro of debates. This is stuff that you will never get to see anywhere else. I am pretty confident that nothing like this exists anywhere else in the world. A magnificent job. E-democracy just got a leg to stand on.
An interesting survey of a few US e-government initiatives says: Only 11 percent of those surveyed said they had visited Recreation.gov; 12 percent had used GovBenefits.gov, and just 22 percent were aware of Free File and most Americans say they find the information on government Web sites useful — once they find them. According to the survey, more than half of all respondents said they would visit GovBenefits.gov now that they know it allows people to find out if they are eligible for certain government benefits, including mortgage loans and health coverage and With 60 percent of Americans unable to name a Cabinet-level agency of the federal government, Web sites such as FirstGov must be easy for the public to navigate without knowing which agency or level of government offers a particular service It seems those that do find the sites find them via Google. That's no surprise. What about all the folks who don't find them though? Or the ones that find the wrong site? With thousands of government websites (pick any country, divide the population count by 20,000 and that's how many government sites they'll have), finding the right one with the up to date information that you want is a challenge. More to the point perhaps, finding the wrong one with out of date information is less of a challenge and more of a problem - as someone at Macromedia said to me yesterday "the fact that I can google meeting notes that I wrote 10 years ago as a legalislative aide is scary. that information has long since been updated and superceded" This story in FCW coincided with me reading a piece in the Wall Street Journal, "Web Banks Pay More to Stay Cheap" (available via the WSJ site if you have a subscription). The main points raised there are: HSBC spent 7 times more per customer on marketing for its First Direct Internet operation than for its regular retail business Egg, which didn't give numbers, says not having a branch network from which to launch campaigns makes things more costly. They did, however, say that the cost of acquiring one customer is £33, about 40% below the UK average. Cahoot says it costs 90% less to open a retail account online versus at a branch and about 50% less to manage the account. Governments have a branch network, but I wonder whether they use it as the marketing base to drive customers to the website? And, if they don't, how many spend 7 times their offline marketing budget to drive citizens online? As an aside, one of the things I find frustrating here is writing the word "citizen". I don't see myself as a citizen and so the word just doesn't fit. Every article I've read whilst over here in the USA continuely refers to the population as "Americans", as in "My fellow Americans". That, though, doesn't seem to work in the UK ... Brits, Europeans, English, Scots, Welsh, Irish or just plain "people"? You cannot, I think, effectively market dozens of sites. You can just about market just one. The battle for one site versus 3,000+ is only just starting; I think though that the war is won, but people on the inside just don't know it yet - there will be many skirmishes and much resistance but, ultimately, common sense will prevail and there will be just one. After all, there can be only one.
San Francisco. Still the same, yet very different. The hills are steeper than I remember. Or I'm a little slower. The police cars still fly over the hills, just like in "the streets of". The crazies seem more abundant. It's the only city in the state that doesn't like Arnold; maybe they all want to marry him and he doesn't want to. Broadband is $9.95 a day in the hotel through a cable; yet there are half a dozen wireless networks within reach, as long as you're high up it seems. Some of the buildings are so empty there is tumbleweed in the car park: Excite@home, Manugistics. The 280 is calmer and easier, until there's an accident and then it's like it used to be. Yet there's more vibrancy than the last time which was a couple of years ago or so. And, despite the flags flying at half mast to commemorate Ronald Reagan, the California Republic flag is still flying strong. I'm over here for a few days visiting friends and near family. Following up on a few things, a few companies and a few people. I was struck today by a comment at Google. When we buy companies we're doing it for the people there - what they've built so far just comes along as part of their CV. They've not bought much so far, although blogger comes to mind. Last night at dinner a VC told me that it was all about the people; VCs back management teams, not ideas - because every idea will fail in some way and it's the managers that can pull it back on the tracks and make it work. So the vibrancy is in the people and the people seem more positive, more upbeat and more excited. Maybe it's the upcoming Google capitalisation which many say will usher in a new era of exit strategies for those who have been tied up for 3 or 4 years. It's an exciting place. It might be 10 or 15 degrees colder than London but it's always been over air-conditioned here. This is a country that has a 2 second delay on live TV now so that the "Janet Jackson" thing doesn't happen again, a country that will fine a TV company that Janets up to $500,000, yet someone who takes bolt cutters onto a plane is probably fined 100th of that. But it's a country where, for me, the action is. Startups come and go as quickly as restaurants on the main streets, but the spirit is strong here for me. It's still as exciting as it's always been. Very much the same, but very much different.
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
An afternoon spent imbibing the culture of Google. What used to be SGI's space age campus now houses perhaps 1000 or maybe 1500 Googlers. I guess those that go to the font to worship become Googlytes. It's an impressive space. The canteen alone is impressive. A huge open area serving lunch and dinner for the whole company. Outside it's barbecue time. Sergei is even getting some volley ball in. People have talked before about the screen that displays a scrolling list of searches going on at that second. It's only a sample, maybe 1-2 a second, versus the 100x or 1000x that actually going on. The results are filtered, in English at least. In foreign languages, who knows what is being looked for. But more than 50% are non-US searches. The coolest screen though is a map of the globe - clouds and all - showing pulses of light for every google search at every node. Huge concentrations in English in the USA, streams of dots in French in France and the French colonies, acres of darkness in Africa, India and elsewhere, Spanish and Portugese in South America. Every language represented by a different colour, one pulse for every search, all moving in a 3D space to show concentration. A slip of the mouse zooms in to let you see individual countries and nodes within. Another changes the view, removes the clouds and shows the map in full relief. Another shows the traffic, hopping from country to country, data centre to data centre. Fabulous example of the power of the Internet, the reach of Google and the art of presenting data. Google is a proxy of the 'net and this screen shows how far the net has reached, in which languages and, also of course, where it hasn't reached. How many servers does Google have? Who knows. They won't talk about it. But they have a lot, built from off the shelf components goes the myth (and, in reception, is a rack of kit showing that to be the case, with corkboard spacers between the servers to provide some heat reduction. 22 units high, 4 servers per slot). How do they manage the configuration, deploy the units and keep track? Custom tools by the sounds of it. The feeling there is that the data centre business is inefficient and wasteful, so they keep their technology in house (end to end) so that, at every step, they can eliminate waste. And I believe it. The parking lot is full of humdrum cars, although in one far corner is a beautifully polished early 60s Porsche 911. That will all change soon I guess. The lot will fill with some faster, sleeker, cooler cars perhaps. I'm told that some early Googlers are already surfing, knowing that they've gone full on for the last 5 years and now they can take a break. But staring across the canteen, you don't get the impression that too many are going to opt out at this stage. The 20% projects keep them in - the urge to spend one day a week on a new project, related or not, whether it's an AI system to play Texas Hold 'em Poker, or a new optimisation engine to filter out spam linkers.
Posted by Alan at Wednesday, June 09, 2004
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Ian prompted me to take another look at this post - my thinking about what would happen in 2004. I thought I'd repost it first (I've stripped out much of the excess text) and then later in the week or possibly next week (depending on how the next few days go) I'd revisit it. Reposting it whilst probably a sin in the blog world also allows me to see if anyone has any comments on it before I go ahead and write my own thinking. So, here it is, from December 31st 2003 (if you want the full post, it's here): 1. Citizen at the centre Since the beginning, e-government has been about putting the citizen at the focal point for service delivery. I don’t for a second think that people go out and deliver things without that maxim in sharp focus, but they have been constrained by a variety of things – natural inertia, lack of system capability, old style business process and so on. This year, things change and the citizen will be squarely in the middle. That will mean: - Dramatically fewer websites (maybe not fewer in number, but certainly fewer that have to be visited to get the task done); More focused content that is written in people speak, not government speak; More transactions grouped together in logical ways (so Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit will next to each other, ditto Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit); Central and local services will start to be aggregated – with the local government people probably leading the way (many already see themselves as a kind of one stop shop for government), but probably not until close to year end 2004; Consistent navigation and controls so that there is no relearning necessary. People know how traffic lights work – and we don’t change that from town to town, so why on earth would we keep changing look and feel?; Consistent multi-channel delivery will show up, again near the end of the year, where trying to get at something via the ‘phone will feel similar to the web. The folks at the call centre will be using the same interface as you would use if you were online, so consistency will increase … and the website will be updated if your question isn’t fully covered by what is already online. 2. The Rationalisation of Brands This won’t fully happen in 2004 but during the year we’ll see, I think, a shift to service delivery from a relatively generic thing. It won’t be about the department of this or the department of that, it will be about “you’re the citizen, what do you need”. Departments will still exist – maybe a couple fewer – but there’ll be aligning themselves much more closely, to back up the trend identified in (1) above. Once you start rationalising the brand, all kinds of interesting things probably happen. Who owns the end to end service? Where do you go when it goes wrong? How do you track something that is being dealt with through multiple back office units, all with different processes? These issues and others like them will force more co-location of resource, more interworking of systems and a greater ability to join up in the future (after all, once the wave hits, why get in the way of the next one?). This will mean things like syndication going mainstream – to the point that any content will be available anywhere and so you won’t necessarily even know the source brand. Once you start doing this – you can get definitive information about, say, child care from three government entities, Mothercare and Boots – you probably spend less time looking and more time using the information, and you probably get it from brands that you trust on an every day basis rather than having to think about where the definitive source would be. If you’re shopping on Waitrose.com (Ocado) and you happen to buy nappies for the first time, it’s probably logical that they pop up some screens about what government services you’re eligible for as a recent parent. Maybe you even save money on your shopping because they can process the claim in real time, using services and data sourced from government but presented in a non-government branded way. 3. A Shift From Silo To Enterprise Allied to (1) and (2) then is a change in the way that things are designed and constructed – to remove the issues about end to end ownership, support and delivery. As long as things are built inside fortresses, bashing down the walls and linking a couple will be hard (impossible?) and relatively pointless. I’m guessing our would-be CIO will focus first on how we shift from the silo to the enterprise or, at least, from talking about the enterprise to doing it. Central infrastructure is part of this (but I would say that, wouldn’t I), but it’s not all of it. A base of solid standards for, say, web services security and interoperability would be fundamental – after all, usage of MMS (whilst still low) was pretty non-existent until you could guarantee that sending from Vodafone to O2 would work. A decision on, say, what a trusted government mobile phone number for SMS messages would be is important. Then some components are built a few times, in a sufficiently generic way, and deployed many times (adhering to the standards identified) and plugged (through a set of bespoke adapters) into the multitude of systems in place. Once we’re through that battle, maybe we can attack the multitude of systems and see what can be rationalised and componentised there – reducing the amount of infrastructure and the complexity of delivery. Ideally, this speeds up introduction of new services and reduces the risk of failure – if it doesn’t do that, we shouldn’t do it. 4. Business Leadership to the Fore For (3) to happen though, technology needs to be seen as the servant to the business and the business owners have to take ownership of the widest possible agenda. I’m guessing that, today, most governments commissioning a new service build a new IT system to support it. That might have made sense before (it certainly made things simpler through reducing interdependence in projects and delivery), but it doesn’t make any sense now. If (1) – (3) are to happen then, increasingly, business processes will be designed from the citizen into government rather than government outwards. That will mean a greater degree of cross-business alignment and rationalisation. Perhaps certain departments will own key processes for all of government, perhaps a department will not only own how it works but also actually run it for everyone else (one way for money to get in to government, say). This is the hardest thing to see how it works. It requires fundamental changes at a base organisational level in any government that undertakes it. That will mean new structures, new incentives, new controls and disciplines. I didn’t say it would be easy, but the emergence of a trend like this will show a true appetite in a government for tackling the very hardest problems. For a long time (since almost the first week I got involved in e-government), I’ve said that the web allows us to put a veneer over the complexity of government, hiding it from our citizens and buying time to allow us to engineer the really complicated changes beneath. That’s still true and we’ve all bought some time – but it’s time to start tackling the hard stuff for real now. 5. Success stories will be common, and will become a non-event By the end of 2004 a handful of services will be mainstream, i.e. they will have significant usage when compared with, say, buying books online or banking online. Perhaps 40-50% of people will use an online channel for just a few services, finding that it’s quicker, easier and a richer experience than trying to use the ‘phone. Incidentally, as more private sector businesses outsource their call centres abroad, I wonder whether web usage of things like banking will increase – if you can do self service, why make the call? If that’s right, then government benefits too – the more people who are online and who are comfortable transacting online, the more people will feel comfortable using the services available from government. What are these services? Some are already there – the congestion charge claims 70% of payments are made online or through SMS. I think they got there by making the offline (in this case telephone) process so ridiculously painful that pretty much everyone found the path of least resistance (the absolute path of least resistance is, of course, not to drive into London and many people it seems chose that one). The online driving test service is already doing well, so the papers say and is a natural start point (kind of a “my first government transaction online”) for a generation that already expects the Internet to do pretty much everything that they need. This will be closely followed, I imagine, by Student Loans. So, fast forwarding a few years on in your life cycle, the next place where usage ought to be significant this year is in the area of benefits and tax credits. The latter already had a banner year in more ways than one and with renewals due in April, online has surely to be the way to go. On top of those, I think there will likely be another sleeper hit or two. Something that will catch most of us by surprise, like the 1901 Census or the Flood Warning site – perhaps something like Diana’s Inquest, or the publication of the Hutton report or maybe news that London will host the 2012 Olympics (followed by publication of the plans for development to meet that need). Events like these will drive traffic to the web from both existing and new users who can then move on to other government services. Beyond that, I think the services that really catch on will be invisible government services – the things that government does that aren’t really associated with government. The 1901 Census was one such thing – I wonder how many people really connected that with government? Booking a squash court at your local leisure centre might be another – after all, many such centres are run by local authorities. But what really interests me are the spontaneous things that we might get people to sign up for as a lead in to other things. Let’s say that when you send in your (paper) tax return, we take your mobile phone number – and text you when the processing is complete and ask you to visit a website to confirm payment details for the refund; or perhaps we arrange to text you when the cheque for your child support money is in your bank; or we make a deal where we’ll email you when we have something to send you, rather than adding to your mail pile at home and you can visit a secure area to check what it is and decide whether you want a hard copy (printed right where you are or sent via snail mail, but your choice). These services won’t be obvious “tick in the box” services – i.e. they don’t exist offline and so when they go online it’s hard to know how to count them (after all, 100% online makes sense at a certain point in time, but at some point, the baseline has moved and you might be putting 50% online of what you had then and another 25% of services that didn’t exist before).
At a conference the other day one of my fellow presenters put forward the argument that it was time to take the "e" out of e-government. After all, he said, it's not about e anymore, e-government is just government. In many ways, that's a fair point. Government, whether delivered online, through the 'phone or via snail mail is still government. I disagree with his argument though for two main reasons, (1) e-government isn't done yet and still needs separate focus and management and (2) I doubt that anyone would consciously care if we took the e out unless we put something else in its place. Funding in government is usually controlled along project streams or initiative streams. Money made available for e-government is expected to be spent on e-government initiatives - and there are various tracking measures to see what the output is for the money that went in. Deleting "e" would lead to a bigger pot being applied to generic government projects and less clarity over output. Another reason for keeping "e" in is that, for it all to succeed, the online aspect of government must become the default position. That is, any project starting must assume as its base case that all input will come through online channels, whether that is through pure Internet access from the consumer home, through an intermediary such as the Citizen Advice Bureau or through a call centre operated by government. Just no paper. If you assume paper, and provide a route in for paper, then that's what you will get. And we have done, in spades (as in, we need spades to dig ourselves out from the piles that have accumulated). Taking the e off the front of e-government won't make this happen any quicker because the need will quickly drop off the radar as it gets buried in amongst other initiatives. Besides, it seems to me that "e" is still part of the mainstream vocabulary. The Econcomist published a 12 page feature on e-commerce two weeks ago, e-mail is still in every day use (although many tech folks in my team having long since given up on snail mail just refer to it as mail) and so it's not just government that uses it. On a trip to Japan a couple of years ago, I learnt that the character "e" is very similar as the character for the word "good". So maybe e-government is really all about good government. No-one would argue about that - although clearly they will spend the next 16 years arguing about what it means, who gets to measure it and how we'll know we're there. But that's another story for another time.