Monday, January 31, 2005

Government Gateway reaches 4th birthday!

Last week, on Burns Night, the UK’s Government Gateway was four years old. Today, the Gateway has 5.1 million registered users with nearly 50 services from 20 different government entities. If you are sending a Self Assessment tax return, claiming Child Tax Credit, paying a parking fine in Shepway, sending in your VAT return, checking your pension entitlement or booking a session to give blood, then you are using the Gateway. Sometimes, though, you won’t even know that you are – the Gateway allows departments to present its screens in their own format and using their own brand. Over the next twelve months, over two dozen new departments will make new services available. Most excitingly more than 40 services for 43 Local Authorities will be developed, making the Gateway truly the centre piece of UK government’s joined up initiatives Whilst technically the Gateway is at version 1.6.6, in reality it’s probably v2.6.6. The first time round things didn’t get off to a smooth start and attempts were brought to a halt. A recovery plan was initiated in late 2000 with the participation of new vendors, notably Microsoft. The plan called for the entire project – design, development and delivery – to be completed inside 90 days so as to meet some pressing deadlines for the PAYE service (failure would mean that an entire end of year process would have been missed along with commitments to the business community). Ian McCartney, then Cabinet Office Minister, reviewing the project at the final point before authorisation to go ahead, leaned across the table to me and said, in his inimitable accent, “If this doesn’t work, it will be a resignation issue!” I acknowledged that point him and assured him that I, as project manager, along with the rest of the team were committed to making it work and that, if we didn’t, I’d resign. He quickly retorted that it was not my resignation that would be asked for, but his. Pleasingly, neither was called for. After a tense 90 day project, V1.0 of the Gateway saw the light of the day (and it was quite literally only just light) on January 25th 2001. The team – both suppliers (Microsoft, Dell, Cable and Wireless and numerous partners), government (Cabinet Office and key departments notably the Inland Revenue, HM Customs and DEFRA along with, in turn, their suppliers) and contract staff from various companies – had delivered. Many nights had been spent in the noisy, cold data centre where the Gateway was to be hosted. Two full builds of the hardware had been completed. Test and production environments were in place. The budget had been met, even allowing for supporting a few additional items that had been unexpected. It delivered because everyone cared passionately about making it happen. Early on, press coverage of the Gateway focused on its apparent reliance on the use of Microsoft browsers. Indeed, The Register was first to the punch with an article on May 28th 2001 suggesting that the Gateway was developed by, for and only for Microsoft. John Naughton, at the Observer, used that to feedback another piece hinting at possible corruption in government regarding the contract, going so far as to say “the cornerstone of the Government's internet infrastructure is totally dependent on the closed, proprietary software of a foreign monopolist”. For someone who so meticulously checks and footnotes his stories, it was needless and inaccurate scaremongering - not to say probably libellous. But it was all par for the course in 2001 and, to some extent, into 2002. The story on browser compatibility – the central issue that the commentators wrote about - was a little confused then. The Gateway worked, certainly, with Netscape browsers (whether on Mac or PC). What didn’t work was the use of digital certificates – tokens issued by third parties that provided higher levels of authentication (and that were therefore only required by certain services, such as online VAT). In early 2001, digital certificates for individuals, or digital signatures, were in their infancy. They’d been in use for several years, of course, on servers (providing secure, and sometimes not so secure, links to online shopping sites). The UK government was ahead of the world in passing legislation that allowed such signatures to take the place of handwritten ones on official documents. Government had also tried to create a market for their supply, rather than taking the more obvious route of acting as the certification authority themselves. Two third parties, Chambersign and Equifax, stepped in first to provide the background checking and issuance process for the certificates. The Gateway could read transactions sent using them, authenticate them (and check their validity) and route the information to the correct government department. The technology backing this clever idea was, however, not ready for prime time. Microsoft had fully integrated digital certificates into their Internet Explorer browser but the Netscape team had not. Since those days I’ve often joked that digital certificates had spent 30 years getting to Gartner’s famed “trough of discontent” and had yet to emerge. Frustratingly, there were big differences between browser versions and between platforms – older versions would not work, nor would anything on the Mac (because of differences in the Java Virtual Machine). Less used operating systems, such as Linux, did not have any support at all for the certificates and the low usage made commercial incentives for developing it hardly motivating. Indeed, in October 2002, it was clear that certificates were “on life support” as I was quoted as saying in The Register. Interestingly, compatibility with browsers remains a problem today. Try visiting the Parcelforce website using Firefox on Mac OS X – you won’t get very far if you need to arrange redelivery of a parcel. With certificates, even simples ones, such as used by my online bank things are worse. They insist on a digital certificate to authenticate me – or at least to prove that I am the person that downloaded the certificate the first time when I registered; the certificate works fine with IE on a PC, but not at all on the Mac that I use most of the time. The Gateway, as the press have often focused on, is based on Microsoft technology. That’s not new and, probably, shouldn’t be all that contentious. Why? Because it sits in a neatly non-heterogeneous network of central infrastructure in government – with Solaris, Linux, IBM and others just as well represented. For all the criticism about what platform it’s on, the thing works. Today, it marks a full 12 months at 100% availability – perhaps not a rarity in the commercial world of such titans as eBay and Amazon but it’s unique in online government. Indeed, the Gateway even takes care of, say, tax submissions when other services are down - neatly buffering them until the backend systems are properly available. In 4 years, the Gateway has been proven to have never lost a message. When it was built, it was a big deal. It used new software, such as Biztalk (which at the time was not in commercial use and had not even been released to market), a complex architecture (with over 200 servers) and XML over both the Internet and the Government’s own Intranet. Departments connect to it from their portals (again, a wide range of different platforms) and link their back ends to it using connection boxes (known as DIS boxes) provided by Microsoft, Sun/Software AG and IBM/Etude. Over 30 different suppliers have been involved in connecting to the Gateway for the various customer departments that use it today. Arguing about whether it’s on platform A or platform B is a waste of time, as much now as it was then. Government IT consists of one or more of everything ever built, including many platforms that have long since stopped being built; the fundamental point is an ability to operate amongst all of those platforms – that is achieved in the Gateway’s case by strict adherence and, indeed, leadership regarding the government’s eGIF standards. All this time later, the answer to the question John Naughton posed is clear
“Does the Government really intend to force UK companies to run Microsoft operating systems on all of their devices in order to do business with agencies, departments and local authorities?” Nope, of course not, and it never did.
In the last year, over 1 million people have sent their Self Assessment returns via the Gateway, tens of thousands of businesses have sent their PAYE or VAT returns in and increasing numbers are making use of the newer services. They’re using all kinds of platforms to send in their forms, connecting to all kinds of government platforms – noone should care what platform they use or which they need to talk to. Over 5 million registered users is proof that noone does care. That's up there amongst the biggest services in the UK (whilst Egg has fewer at around 3.5 million, eBay appears to be the winner with a claimed 10 million). Since the initial release, the Gateway has been through some significant upgrades. The first allowed Local Authorities to connect to it via the Internet (previously, a secure, accredited connection via the Government’s Secure Intranet was required). Later versions brought in new functionality such as Secure Mail (allowing you to exchange emails with, say, the Inland Revenue to discuss your tax affairs confidentially) and Payments (meaning you can now pay your parking fine or council tax for several Local Authorities). Now you can receive a text message when you have sent a cheque to government confirming that it has been received and all is in order. There are even a couple of hospitals that use it to send appointment reminders via text. Alongside all of the developments in the UK, the Gateway is also in use in four other countries who are using it to help meet their own efforts to deliver e-government. Whilst the UK government may have sold missiles, submarines and other devices to foreign countries in the past, I’m not aware of any equivalent software deals. The rush is on now to meet the Prime Minister’s objective, set in March 2000, to have 100% of government services online by the end of 2005 (with a rider attached in late 2003 requiring high usage of the key services). The Gateway is an increasingly fundamental part of achieving that aim. Is there more to do? Of course. There always is. The team back at the eGU are doubtless plotting new strategies for making it easier to connect to, faster and simpler to access and yet more functionally rich. Technology is never easy, government technology less so; sometimes though it comes together and it’s worth seeing that and acknowledging how much has been done rather than point at all the things that might have been different. Four years on, it’s still a thrill to have been part of the team that delivered Gateway; still a buzz to see how much usage it gets; still fascinating to think about how things might develop from here. Kudos to the team, it was a special time back then; we have a right to be proud of what we got done.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Divine Discontent?

An old issue of BusinessWeek that I came across (from August 2004) had an interview with Jeff Bezos where he talked about needing a culture of "divine discontent." I'm not sure who is the divine one in this, although clearly jeff could be seen as a god (small g) of internet commerce. He was there at the beginning and is still there all these years later - when so many who came along at the same time or even afterwards are long since gone. He went on to say that every day he notes 10 things that are wrong with the site or the service offered and sets about fixing them. Now, you can do this if you're the boss of course! I agree with the principle though. Too many websites are left to stagnate. Content is added and then forgotten about. Errors are left for all to see, corrections are never made. Inaccuracies are left alone. In short, it seems to me that the people who create the sites aren't the ones that use them. They wait for customers to send in feedback about broken things - yet don't provide easy ways to give that feedback. And, if they do, how many people take the trouble to provide it rather than move on, find a different site, or do it a different way? The other day I used the TV licensing site to get my first ever licence (I've learned - the noun has a "c"!) and it came up, at the end, with a scripting error. Last week I sent a complaint to the Royal Mail about their service - the site isn't built to render properly on a Mac. A culture of editorial discontent with websites is a necessary thing. The problem, I suspect, is that there's always time to publish something for the first time but rarely time to go back and see how it looks later. The job just keeps getting bigger and bigger, the more that is put online.

Marathon Training

A little under 3 months to go before Marathon day and training is going well. I'm a little slower than I remember being but it is 5 years and 2 stone since I last ran these kind of distances. I've scheduled a half marathon the month before the full one, at Silverstone. That's going to be weird - one lap of the track in 2 hours or so; Schumacher does it in a couple of minutes. Donations to Macmillan have been fantastic so far. The total, including contributions from HM Revenue and Customs is £1,867.37. Way over 50% of the target I set and still plenty of time to go. There's a worrying trend started by one Mr Freeman that doubles the money if I run in a tutu. Of course, there's potential here, but far, far more money will have to be pledged to make that happen.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Bluetooth in your clothes

All that excitement over bluetooth jackets got me hunting on the web and, via engadget, I found this story about a joint venture between Motorola and Burton (they of snowboarding fame). They're talking about a jacket with space for your ipod and your mobile, speakers in the hood (with bluetooth available if you want to go wireless). One analyst, perhaps a bit non-plussed adds: "They're trying to connect with the upcoming generation," said Neil Strother, an analyst with In-Stat MDR, a research firm. "Will it lift Motorola to No. 1? I doubt it, but it won't hurt. It could go beyond a fad and be longer-term." Personally, when I'm on the slopes I'm trying to pay attention to everything going on around me lest I crash into someone but that's probably more a reflection on my skiing style than anything else. The Motorola press release says all of this will be available for the 2006 winter season and that "Motorola believes the greatest technological advances are made to make everyday tasks easier. For snowboarders, using a cell phone or an iPod in cold temperatures can be a significant challenge. With these new products, Motorola and Burton will allow snowboarders to overcome extreme conditions through their innovative designs and improved technologies, making the snowboarding experience on the mountain that much better." I don't quite get it though - my ipod doesn't have bluetooth so I guess I need a jacket for that, in the jacket; and then I have to have the right Moto cellphone and then I need a $700 ski jacket to make it work. Hmmm. All to take conference calls on the slope?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

500% connected versus the big yawn

I love it when people leave comments ... like this one "The new age of iPod tricks and bluetooth enabled jackets is more like pointing towards 500% connected rather than 500% online. Online systems are a big yawn ... " I thought I'd got it wrong at first, thinking that the writer was talking about me wearing a bluetooth jacket (perhaps there's a new fashion there - gone is herringbone, houndstooth and whatnot); then I thought it was perhaps an ipod with a bluetooth jacket - like those horrible sleeves that people had to put around their Ipaqs. Then I realised I was right the first time, it probably is about a bluetooth jacket. I've been reading about those since Negroponte talked about walking up to someone, shaking hands and exchanging business cards from the spark between your palms. And still I know people who aren't able to use even the Nokia interface to exchange business cards between phones (and don't get me started about how the Treo 600 doesn't even support the standard business card format, .vcf). I'm all for 100% connectivity. I talked with Greg Papadopolous at Sun once about his thinking here. He believed then (and this was 2 1/2 years ago I guess) that the falling cost of connectivity (he measured it with the unit cost of an ethernet card as a proxy - I just bought one for £8) would lead to massive increases in the things that connect to each other. He had a great graph showing some power law curves so that the trend was clear to all. But to start that argument with a comment about bluetooth (let alone bluetooth jackets), well that's just half-witted. Bluetooth has been a pain in the arse since the first day. I still know only a few people that can figure out how to get any two gadgets, whether from the same manufacturer or not, to talk to each other. I see lots of people with headsets for their mobile phones though - they just have to shout twice as loud to be heard over the background noise. But the success rate of getting phone to hook to headset is nothing like 100% - geeks only need to apply. Eventually they'll get it right, by which time they'll have proved that the addition of bluetooth radiation to mobile phone radiation drills a hole the size of an apple in the side of your brain. Forget kids not using mobile phones, we'll have to stop them going out in case the bombardment from all the radiation kills them before they move. And then there's the ipod, that great example of an unconnected device. There's probably a reason that Apple kept it very simple - and it's not cost related (after all, they added photo capability - yes, you too can look at a pictures on a screen that is no bigger than a 35mm slide - for $100 and I see people buying those). No, the reason is that they know that the more they add, the harder the gadget gets to use and the less likely people are to use it. Connectivity is one of those hard things - ask anyone who tries to set up a secure wireless network at home, even with Windows XP. Or, perhaps try and share data across that wireless network (once you've got it going) between a Mac and a Windows PC. Or sync your Sony Ericsson P900 to your Mac. On the upside though, a year ago or so I plugged my xbox into my wireless network (using another gagdet) and connected straight through to xbox live without a blink. Now I can have conference calls with my friends around the world (and perhaps sometime soon with video too) and then blow the crap out of them on halo 2. Simple stuff. Yet they've just sold over 6.3 million copies of Halo 2 and only 380,000 people are online! Why's that - because figuring out how to stretch the broadband connection from your PC in the den to your xbox in the front room (or vice versa) is just too hard for most people. I firmly believe though that we are heading to an ever more connected world. But it's going to be more like 65% connected for a while, not 500%. I'd like the first problem solved to be the one that forces me to reset all of the clocks in my house twice a year the clocks change, oh and the dashboard clock. That would be a good test - kind of like the change of address problem for government. There are many things to crack before gadgets talk easily to each other. And with vendors arguing over the next DVD standard (also, worryingly, called "blue" - the odds of success are not good), there is little sign of them coming together to make it easy for us consumers. Some of the problems are: - Portable devices need good power supplies. Battery technology is way, way behind power consumption. That's why people are still excited about laptops that get 3 hours of life. I know that laptops are smaller and do more and have better colour screens and all that, but they still need juice. The ipod, while we're talking about that, is useful here too. Early versions ran for maybe 11 hours on a charge - but after a while, the battery gets tired and you end up running for a couple of hours at best. What, no removable battery? There are class action lawsuits on that point! - Complexity. It's hard enough talking to someone you know, let alone talking to someone you don't know. The same is true in spades for gadgets. - Security. I don't want anyone stealing all of the text messages from my bluetooth enabled phone, thanks. It's not that there's anything incriminating there, but if they can steal them, what else can they do to the phone? So, yes, 500% connected but only in very specific areas and only for the high-tech, high-touch, high-gadget dependent freaks. It will be a while before the consumer notices and then, I am sure, it will be in low end things. It will be that the audio system in your car gets updates from the same music source as your ipod (to save you having to jack your ipod into the car using the line out socket), it will be that your bluetooth headset plays music from your ipod and then cuts out when a phone call comes in - rather than your ipod becoming a phone or vice versa. Yep, e-government is a yawn compared to some other exciting projects, but compared to meddling and fiddling with gadgets trying to get them to talk to each other, e-gov is easy and worthwhile. I'd rather be an ABC1 serial planner than a hard and fast geek trying to get my bluetooth anorak to talk to my bluetooth socks.

Monday, January 10, 2005

London Marathon - April 2005

I'm taking part in the Flora London Marathon 2005 on the 17th April to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Relief and would really welcome your support. Let’s face it – I’m going to need to raise a lot of money to make running 26 miles seem even vaguely worthwhile. I’ve just opened up a webpage using the “JustGiving” service, that automates everything and makes it all simple, and takes full advantage of the Gift Aid regulations. So, please, grab your credit or debit card and go to the site below - all donations are secure and sent electronically direct to Macmillan: http://www.justgiving.com/alanmather Additional Information on Gift Aid If you are a UK taxpayer, Justgiving will add an automatic 22% bonus to your donation, taken straight from the tax man (which has to be a good reason to donate in itself). Better still, if you are a higher rate tax payer (as many of you are), you can reclaim 18% of your contribution when you submit your Self Assessment tax return for 2004/5 (online of course). So, for a £400 donation, Macmillan will get an extra £112.82 and you will pay £92.30 less in tax. That’s free money to you and free money to Macmillan. Who could say fairer? Addditional Information on Macmillan Over one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer some time in their life. Count how many people there are on the distribution list of this mail and think about that. Every day, 739 people are newly diagnosed. Macmillan exist to help people who are living with cancer. They have, for example, a team of 2,500 nurses who help people with cancer live life to the full. Beyond that, they employ doctors and other health professionals, provide cancer care centres and offer practical help at home. The charity came about when, in 1911, Douglas Macmillan watched his father die of cancer and decided to make a difference to try and prevent as much of the needless pain and suffering that his father had gone through from happening to anyone else. The reason that I support Macmillan is much the same; my father died in 1992 from cancer. You can visit their website at www.macmillan.org.uk. Last year, they raised £993,000 at the London Marathon with only 645 runners. I want to be a part of making the 2005 Marathon an even bigger success. I’m looking to raise at least £3000 but will happily raise more if I can. With the Gift Aid regulations, your individual gift will contribute more than you expect, but don’t worry about giving too much, I’ll just raise the target on the website. Likewise, if you're strapped for cash, give what you can - every bit counts towards the target. There are even a couple of people who are promising to double their donation if I run the event in a tutu (underneath the regulatory Macmillan green t-shirt of course) - let me know if you are interested! I appreciate that with all of the terrible events unfolding in Asia, there are other charitable demands on your wallet and would just ask that you give this one the attention that I strongly believe it deserves. The job Macmillan do is a vital one. I'll post updates on how I'm doing with the training right here. Be bold and generous. Thank you

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Robert Parker - Good or bad for wine?

Someone left a comment in response to my "passing time" post the other day suggesting that I check out the film "Mondovino" and perhaps reassess my view of Robert Parker. I haven't seen the film yet but I'm looking forward to it - I see it as a kind Fahrenheit 911 on the wine industry from what I've read. The central story of the documentary is whether the big multi-national wine companies are introducing a boring uniformity to wine, aided and abetted by such people as Parker, Michel Rolland and others. The underlings - the small producers in rural France - want freedom of choice. Sometimes, based on the wine I've tasted out there, that's the freedom to choose to make mediocre wine, and charge high prices. The French wine system is fully broken. The classification systems are ossified probably even fossil relics. Sharp producers make wine as part of a "grand cru" designation and then sell it at inflated prices, despite it being barely drinkable. That leaves the consumer, me, needing a guide. In 1982, Robert Parker called the vintage "great" before anyone else. That call made his name. Since then he has gone as far as anyone to promote and publicise what can be done with wine, whether in Bordeaux (his speciality), Burgundy (via Pierre Romani, his co-worker), California, Australia or elsewhere. For me it's really simple. You taste a wine, you read the Parker notes. If you agree, then you see that your taste aligns somewhat with his. If you don't agree, then you read Jancis, or Clive or someone else until you find someone that matches your taste. The thing that Parker got right and, based on his continuing influence seems to have kept getting right, is that he captured the taste of many - and the aspirations of many more. And he applied a simple numeric format to that. 100 is amazing, 90 is pretty damn good, 80 is not really worth a go unless it's very cheap. He's proved that he can award 100 points to a $30 Australian wine just as easily as to a $1000 French wine. Wine is, obviously, the product of many things - the soil (the terrior as the French insist on calling it - a word that encompasses things like the angle of elevation, the amount of sun and so on), the weather (not just for one day but for months, with increasing focus towards the harvest), the care that the vineyard staff put into the vines, when the grapes are picked, how they are treated on the way to the winemaking facility and then the whole process of the wine itself - the type of barrels, the length of time in them and so on. And there are some, supporting the Biodynamique theory, who will tell you that the alignment of the stars matters along with whether they are burying the bodies of dead moles alongside the vines. It's all of those things that make wine such a pleasure and, potentially, such a hit and miss affair. The very best vineyards and winemakers turn out great wines no matter the weather. But they can also price their wine according to their heritage rather than the quality of the wine - 1997 in Bordeaux for instance. Likewise, they can underprice wines that have far more potential than might be expected - 1998 for instance. Just like mutual funds that change performance when the guy that runs the fund moves on, a winemaker moving on can be a chance for great new things. In the former case, look at Clos L'Eglise since 1997. Or things can stay the same - see how consistent Cos D'Estournel has been. In the mid-range of the market, the opportunity to drop a wad of cash and strike out with a wine that is perhaps not poor but just not worth the money is high. If you're in a restaurant and paying 3-5x retail, that's a much bigger risk. So having Parker in my pocket does a few things for me. It lets me try out new wines that I otherwise wouldn't try, with a little bit of extra security that just because I'm going off-piste doesn't mean I'm going to crash; it lets me try different vintages for wines that I already know, confident that the style will be at least consistent. And it lets me avoid wines that I'm either pretty sure I won't like, that are too expensive or just plain no good. And if Mondovino doesn't reinforce all of that for me then it won't be that it's a bad film, it will just be one that I don't agree with.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

500% online. That's what we need now.

100% online. What kind of a target is that? It should be 500% online. That'll give the folks that like to disagree with the old target something to think about. Let them waste some energy arguing about that. Let’s try this to help explain the extra 400% : In April 2000, the Inland Revenue let you register to send your Self Assessment form to them via the Internet (perhaps the first true online government service in the UK?). A little later, you were able to send the whole tax return in, using a bit of software on a disc. The year after, you could use a web application. Box ticked – Self Assessment was online. Not really, and they knew it - so they fixed it. Despite all the flak from the flakes, the IR went on adding stuff that you could do. After all, sending the form in is only a part of the process. Now you can check your statement (to see how much you owe or, maybe, how much is owed to you), pay the tax owing, get a text alert to remind you of deadlines, change your address and so on. One service – multiple sub-services. Back in the day we used to call this a “life event”, that is, paying tax (although I think we kept them a bit higher level than that with stuff like having a baby, dealing with a bereavement etc). So what counts as 100% online? All of the headline services available? Or all of the headline services plus the multitude of sub-services that sit underneath them? Got to be at least 5x as many services that way, maybe more. So we'll go for 500% online - by when? 2005? 2010? One of the consequences of those sub-services is that the gaps between government functions are exposed – and not necessarily just the gaps between departments and other entities but within departments and local authorities. Changing your address with one bit of a department – council tax, say – doesn’t mean that you’ve changed it with housing benefit. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve changed it with child tax credit. Ah, bless those silos and silos within silos. The fortresses that were built as Oliver Cromwell ravaged the land are still fully intact. When we look at a whole lifecycle of dealing with government, the transactions that we do – that at first appear to be pretty much once per year type things – become quite frequent and burdensome, if only because of the fragmentary nature of who we are dealing with. Beyond that would be the clever stuff that people talk about – the bit where we get rid of our forms-based mentality and start talking about information chunks flowing smoothly from our bank, our PC, our accountant to the government and back without us having to interfere. A lofty vision that is some way away I guess. Without addressing those sub-services – the way the Inland Revenue have done so – people that make the switch to online services quickly hit a roadblock that they can’t circumvent without reverting to paper or phone. And if they have to go to paper for that bit, maybe they’ll stay on paper to keep it all simple and collected together? And then we get a lower adoption rate than we might otherwise get and one that doesn’t quite justify all of the money thrown at it. I’ve just come back from a few days in the USA. Let’s call it my “going abroad” life event. I booked the flight online (via the BA website) and selected the seat I wanted – you know the one, with the extra leg room. I booked the hotel online, via Lastminute.com (I was a shareholder at the time and figured that they needed all the revenue that they could get). I mailed the hotel and selected the room I wanted – 1001 – and arranged for them to take delivery of some packages for me. I booked 3 restaurants using the wonderful opentables.com (which is a lot like our toptable site in the UK) and even checked their winelists. I ordered the things I wanted delivered to the hotel from Amazon and other sites. All without picking up the phone. In most of the government world, I might have been able to “book the flight” (i.e. send in the benefits form) but I doubt I could have done the equivalent of all of the other things. This is changing, slowly and in some fortresses. I can email my local council and, most of the time, they respond; except when I want to talk to them about a planning application in my area. They’ve been pretty silent on that one. Let me rattle on for a bit about my recent “moving house” life event: As part of moving house, there’s a ton of things that need to get done. There are people to update with the new address, new licences to get, utilities to get connected or re-connected and so on. I wanted to do as much of that as possible online – I was even prepared to spend extra time, just to prove that it was all completely achievable. Phone – check; water – check; electricity – check; broadband – check; address changes – uhoh. I live in a brand new build – fresh out of the ground. It’s got a post code that no-one seems to know about. The phone company and the others didn’t seem to care – they knew that they had pipes in the ground or whatever. Everyone else, no dice. The banks, the insurance companies, the parcel delivery services – not one of them was interested. Most of their websites assumed I had made an error with the postcode and so sent me back to the post code entry scheme. So far, so customer unfriendly. Still, I was sticking with it. The Post Office promised me faithfully, via their online look-up service (free registration, only takes a couple of minutes) that I had the right post code. Next stop, the local council. I don’t exist. Well, not so much me as the property. It doesn’t exist. Numbers 1-9 are fine, but number 11, not there. I'm pretty sure the place isn't an afterthought - I mean, it looks like it was meant to be part of the whole building. There’ll be an inspector from the council along in a minute (well, sometime, they promised) to check if there really is a property there. I told them I was sure there was, after all, I was mailing them from the living room. But I wasn’t breaking my online only plan. They’ll figure it out when they update their PAF file from those lovely folks at the Post Office. Ah, the GPO. Although they know where the place is, they seem to deliver here only when it suits them rather than when there is mail. I wonder whether they wait until there’s enough to warrant a man wandering down with his post trolley. The Post Office’s sorting centre is, after all, a good 10 minute walk at a brisk pace. Gradually, the number of websites that will accept my post code as valid is increasing, as they feed in the latest PAF CD or whatever. Home insurance is proving a bit of a bigbear – those insurance companies were always a bit slow on the uptake with technology. Maybe they can send an inspector to satisfy their curiousity. That leaves the TV licence. It may be my education that suffered, but I was never really sure of the difference between “licence” and “license” – maybe it’s a verb, to licence, and a thing, a license. Anyway, the website for the tv folks is www.tvlicensing.co.uk. Not .gov.uk, not licencing, but just as I’ve listed it there. Eventually I found it through directgov – which was higher up the search rankings that the tv site itself. All went well there until I came to the button to complete the transaction when it promptly popped up a window asking me to complete a customer satisfaction survey. Oh was I going to have some fun with them. Inconsistent naming conventions, lack of use of alternative spellings, badly designed site. But then the site gave me an error message and asked if I wanted to debug. I wasn’t sure whether that meant I’d be on the hook for fixing their whole site, so I politely declined. I have enough to do without debugging someone else's site! 500% online. Got a nice ring to it. A stretch target I guess it would be called.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Did you ski the mountain or did it ski you?

Happy New Year. I'm just back from a bit of great skiing in sunny St. Johann, Austria. Pretty good snow and a good time on the slopes, linked with probably the best fireworks display I've seen since Paris 2000. The news to start 2005 is that I've wrapped up working at the old OeE (now the eGU) after 4 1/2 years or so. I had a lot of fun there, worked with some incredible people, solved some difficult problems, achieved a few impressive things and, sadly, left too many things undone that should have been long since done. I wish everyone still there a great 2005 as they head into the home strait for the 100% online target. 2005 will bring some new challenges. I'm taking a bit of time off before starting the new new thing. There are some nice offers out there but there is no rush and I'd like to take the time to think through what the right thing to do is. I'll be posting here a little more regularly at last, partly because I have some time and partly because the recent restrictions on me have been lifted. The posts I make here will continue, as always, to represent my own thoughts and opinions on issues, and not those of my previous employer. Doubtless that will cause some consternation somewhere. I believe strongly in the potential of e-government and also believe that we have barely touched on that potential. The first piece that I write after this will reflect my thinking on that. The UK is no better and no worse than many other countries - the potential lies, for the most part, untouched. So, into 2005. As my ski teacher, Ronnie, constantly reminded me last week "Either you can ski the mountain or you can let it ski you." Which one is it to be for you? And, a year from now, when you look back on 2005 will you say the same thing?