Monday, May 30, 2005

Crossing the Chasm

And there was me writing about "crossing the chasm" in my last post and then I find that John Gotze has already been there and posted a huge, huge piece on it.

Unfreezing the interface

Broadband is now officially bigger than dial-up. Who'd have thought it could happen so fast? When I got my first broadband connection in the UK in July or August 2001, I remember BT having to dig up the road outside my apartment because there wasn't a good enough line into the house. It took 6 weeks of to and fro to make it happen. In 2001, everyone was saying that for broadband to make it big, there would have to be useful services offered over it - that speed alone was not enough of a sales pitch. I used to do conference presentations and joke that the single biggest thing I used it for was to stay up to date with software patches that were, by then, already getting too big for dial-up. Itunes, Limewire and BitTorrent are, I'm sure, some of the big drivers of usage today. 16 million people can't be wrong. First it was the geeks that led usage before the chasm was crossed and Joe Public took up the charge. In a conversation with Marc Andreessen, over dinner at Zuma, a couple of years ago I asked him about the "back" and "forward" buttons and when he thought we might move on from there. I figured that they were already passe, being around 10 years old, and that they were a mark of a very linear web experience, yet, now, sites were starting to evolve far more complicated structures. He said something that has stuck with me since, "Interfaces freeze early." If it works and enough people get used to it, changing it dramatically is a hard thing to do. BillG said something similar once - he said that only incremental changes to the Windows UI could be made as anything too big would make it too great a leap for users who would be confused. The interface to government has been frozen for a long time. It sort of works and a lot of people use it. That's one of the main reasons that most online transactions with government look just the same as the offline transactions. Attempts to create different, better front ends have largely failed - if you need evidence, compare the usage of the Inland Revenue's own Self Assessment form (which is just the same as the paper one) with Which Tax Calc (which tried an innovative approach of asking questions about your finances and completed the form in the background); yes, Tax Calc cost money (I think perhaps £15 or £20) and yes, the IR form was free, but is that the only reason or was "good enough" coupled with familiarity with the form enough to keep people using the old interface, albeit with a shiny, electronic coat of paint? I had thought that competition bred the chance to create change in the interface. Based on the Tax Calc example above, perhaps I'm wrong. If Tax Calc had offered its product for free - and perhaps gone the Google way with targetted ads (easily done with ads about finance and so on based on a profile of the tax payer created by the product), would it have been more successful? I'm not sure. I'd like to think it would have been, but I wonder, again, whether the interface in this case is, in fact, the Inland Revenue, and that's what has frozen early. Thinking of freezing, when the Somerset House ice rink was being constructed for the first time - Winter 2000 I think - I suggested to Nick Montagu, former Chairman of the IR, that we should open it a day early exclusively for the IR staff to have some fun. He held his head in his hands and shook it wearily, counselling me that he could "see the headlines now ... Inland Revenue on thin ice again." And so, it opened on time for the general public alone. All the news about Gordon Brown setting up a new "benefit" for new house-buyers - where the government would own a share of the house, as would the building society lending the money - got me thinking. I have no idea if this equity-sharing thing will work and don't really want to get into the politics (e.g. MIRAS all over again?) or finances of it (e.g. who bears the brunt?), so bear with me whilst I ignore all that and, instead, use it as an example of how we might unfreeze the interface. First the assumptions:
  • The Chancellor has a declared desire to cut red tape. He wants to merge 29 regulators into 7, for instance. He also wants to take a "risk-based approach to regulation", something I thought was already done but perhaps he means a better stratified approach. As part of this approach, he wants to cut form-filling by 25%.
  • Those applying for a home purchase are already known to government. They're over 16 so have an NI number, they're probably employed so have a relationship through PAYE, they may be receiving tax credits, they might be claiming child benefit for one or more children, they're living somewhere now so pay council tax etc. They may also be known the financial institution where they're getting a loan, perhaps because they have a bank account or a credit card (indeed, to make that more certain we could insist that you could only get a loan from a bank/building society where you've had a relationship for more than x years)
  • It is realistically possible, today, to create an entirely paperless transaction that will be legally acceptable and be accessible to the entire country, whether through broadband in their home (whether they live in rented property, with their parents or wherever) or through a service offered by an intermediary (the CAB, the building society doing the loan etc)
Combining all of these points, we need to design a service that
  • Is Internet only or, better still, entirely transparent within existing processes
  • Reduces to near zero the number of "forms" to be filled in, i.e. does not require anything new to be filled in
  • Relies heavily on existing relationship data, with government and/or with the lender
  • Is self-maintained e.g. when the house is sold, the update to the processes happens in the background without any need for intervention
This wouldn't reduce "red tape" but at least it wouldn't result in an increase - and it reduces the ratio of "forms:services". The idea would be to create a model here that could gradually be backtracked into existing processes so that there would be a reduction in bureaucracy a piece at a time, with over-lapping and duplicate forms being eliminated (and ceremonially burnt in a huge bonfire come November 5th) Any new benefit, tax credit or other government service could be introduced only if it was a natural extension from an existing service that required no additional bureaucracy to qualify for it, or to prove entitlement. If it wasn't an extension, then something else would have to be deleted to allow this one to surface - or, better still, 5 things would be eliminated to introduce 1 new one, with some measure applied to ensure that the 5 things deleted weren't all 1 page simple processes to allow a 500 page mammoth entry. The lending bank, as part of its "Know Your Customer" process has already identified who you are, you have had a relationship with them for a while, your salary is paid into the account so they know where you get your money (and how much you can afford to borrow). The bank also knows how to talk to government and exchange data with it and the various departments involved in the process. The trick then is to link the "bank-known" data with the "government-known" data, i.e. to match "Joe Smith, Account number 010101010" with "Joe Smith, NI number 1010101010". So, in this case, the IR would provide the tracing services, cross-links to, say, the local council for other data and, data protection rules notwithstanding, we have the potential to set up a service where:
  • You have no need to prove your identity to government because the bank has done that and taken the trouble to link your "real world id" to your "government world id" - the two are not in any way the same, believe me. With that initial link made, leaping to new services online would be simply a matter of tagging extra identifiers to your main ID. I'm not talking "ID cards" here, just ID as in identifiers.
  • If we really had to, we could issue a digital certificate, perhaps on a USB dongle or as one of those little calculator-style things with constantly changing numbers.
  • The bank sets up the payment of the government's part of the mortgage either as a direct payment to them or to you as some kind of tax credit or benefit, to the bank account that you hold with them
  • If you sell the house, the bank will be involved in the sale and so can cancel the transaction. The bank can even cross-sell you insurance and god knows what at the same time, defraying some of the costs perhaps
I think this could work. More importantly, it starts with the idea that no new government service should be created that is based on a "form" or a "paper process." Only if we take that first step can we unfreeze the interface. Five years ago, I was involved in lengthy dialogues with a certain, large government department. They were launching a new service. It involved oodles of new IT, deployed at a huge cost. Risks and tensions were high given government's IT track record. The pitch that I and several others made was that the service should be introduced on the assumption that, by the time it was launched, it would be viable for it to be a fully online service. We were laughed at - this was mid-2000, when dotcom was in full flow (if perhaps in the first stage of its downturn) and everything was possible, or at least so we all thought. I sponsored (and paid for personally) a big dinner where we brought together all of the main protagonists at Teatro restaurant (now, sadly, a night-club come bar that has declined enormously - but I suspect its owner has far more significant things on her mind now). We agreed a ground-breaking deal where an Internet front end would be created for this service that would be available months before the paper and back end mainframe process, reducing the risk of the mainframe IT, reducing the bow wave of applications that would result from the paper process and hopefully, creating a transition to an Internet-only model. We asked for many other things to happen along with this, including changes to the back end architecture and parts of the process to make future changes towards Internet as the default much simpler. But, in the end, the most expensive dinner I'd ever paid for (at the time, it's since been surpassed), resulted in a monumental deal. It was, perhaps, the first step towards reducing red tape, reducing the need to fill in forms and unfreezing the interface. Five years on, it's time to restart such initiatives and lead a drive to decouple the link between "government service" and "form".

Saturday, May 28, 2005

It's the design, stupid

An interesting comment, in italics below, from P_SW11 in response to my post about "simplicity", with my thoughts, in plain, after each of his points: You are confusing design simplicity with user IQ, they are not inversely proportional. If it was, geeks would rule the world. Um, no, I'm not. At least, not in my mind. Perhaps I didn't make my point clearly or perhaps you missed the humour in "simple phones for simple people" as a tagline. As I believe you've said before, who would have thought an MP3 player with no off switch would lead the world? In many ways, of course, geeks rules the world for the first few generations of technology and then good design comes along to let the late adopters have the benefits too. Did you try putting a wifi network together before Windows XP, or before Apple put wifi in as standard? Good design principles remove the irelevant, misleading or ambiguous - E.R.Tufte writes clearly on these points for systems folk. In most cases. Although you'll be sure to remember the era of mini-stereos with 101 knobs and buttons of all kinds, driven by the need for boys to have things to fiddle with. Personally, I prefer the simple approach, witness my constant desire for a common approach to government website design so I don't have to look for the search bar (and, yes, I believe you need search - I haven't found a website of value that doesn't need search). Here's a place to go to satiate your need for design. Is design the be all and end all? Do we just know it when we see it? Do you have the same ideas about design as I do? Do you sometimes want something to just "be" rather than "be designed"? Complicated processes, design, systems and communications inhibit take-up. Why put a handle on a door you have to push open? Bad design decisions offend and just annoy. True, from my point of view at least. I think often of the Far Side cartoon showing someone trying to get into the School for the Mentally Gifted, leaning hard on a door that says "Pull". I always wonder why some doors have handles on both sides, perhaps it's something about symmetry - it's the ones where you have to look at the door frame to figure out which way it goes that bother me most; or where there's push and pull in a foreign language on each side - as if it shouldn't be obvious. If we can't get the "open door" interface right, how do you expect to do things that are harder? Maybe it's a lack of thought. Maybe different people have different ideas about design. Watching one of the new RollsRoyces roar by today, I realised that it is truly a "stunning" design, not stunning in the sense of beautiful, but stunning in that it forces a reaction, often emotional but not necessarily one of adoration. Is that bad design? Design a system for those of us who don't want to have relationship with our Govt, that is easy, fast and clear to use. I think you should read some of my previous posts. But, you have a relationship with government and a "system" will not cover up the complexities or, at least, not yet. Less is definitely more It certainly is.

Friday, May 27, 2005

The critic in me

I don't think I've ever written a post about a play before but I promised Richard Wilson (not the former head of the civil service but the former star of "One foot in the grave" who is the director of this play) that if I liked his play I'd tell a few people and this seems to be the best way to do that. It's called "The Woman Before" and is on at the Royal Court in Sloane Square. Before the show, Richard said that he wouldn't spend any time with us if we didn't laugh at least during the first two scenes which, oddly enough for a German writer, are really quite funny; but that after that, he'd understand if we didn't laugh so much as then "the darkness sets in." Well, I loved it. It runs an hour and a quarter, no intervals. And then you can pop round the corner for dinner at Le Poulet au Pot or, as the taxi driver said, "Ah, you mean the chicken in the pot".

I wanna have text wit chew

Perhaps the best text message to receive would be "See you at my place. 10 minutes. Angelina J", but given there seems no chance of that one, perhaps it is "We've posted your refund cheque. The Inland Revenue". Lo and behold, two days later, I receive my cheque. The IR have been sending text messages for over a year now - "Don't forget to send your tax return", "We've got your tax return", "We owe you money and are just working out how much", "You owe us money" etc - and, as far as I can tell, remain one of the few government departments to use text well or even at all. In January 2002 I did a couple of presentations on mobile government, and even (I've just found via google) a couple of interviews. Even the Guardian talked about it. I am, though, more than a little disappointed to see things take so long, but I see a lot of that as a lack of engagement from the centre to reduce the complexities, e.g. what "phone number" to use, how to establish a trusted relationship, how to deal with replies, how to avoid spam and, perhaps most significantly given government's predisposition to wordy messages, how to get your message across in 160 characters or less. Mobile isn't the be all and end all of e-government, but it's a channel that can be used far more, both as a reminder (as the IR principally use it) but also to convey real information. Exam results by mobile seem further away than ever. Is that because everyone gets all "A" grades now so don't need to know?

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Simple Things

Alain Senderens, the chef at Lucas Carton in Paris, announced this week that, after 28 years of holding onto his 3 Michelin stars, he's going to hand them back and concentrate on a simpler cuisine, slashing prices by perhaps two-thirds. When I lived in Paris I had the good fortune to eat at Lucas Carton several times, each of which was a monumental feast. The odd thing is that the dinner was, for the customer, entirely simple: you go on, sit down and then everything comes to you. Simply pick the tasting menu and glasses of wine with perfectly matched food arrive throughout the evening until you can hold no more. I say "wine matched with food" because that's the way the menu was structured. Now he appears to be making it easy for him, the supplier, as well as for the customer. Vodafone is launching a range of stripped-down, no frills phones - simple phones. They'll do voice calls and text only - no camera, no bluetooth, no gadgets. The idea is to lure in customers who think that today's phones are too complicated. I'm not sure I believe that anyone wants to be labelled "too thick to use a cellphone" but Vodafone insist there's a market. The more comfortable people are with their phone, the more calls they'll make and the more texts they'll send - and so Vodafone achieves growth in an otherwise saturated market. I can see the tag line: "simple phones for simple people" Mobile phone games are getting simpler. They're relying on an interface that can be controlled by a single thumb. The simpler the interface, the more people will use it and so the more will be sold, making more money. The counter-theory is that people are getting simpler and so need to use fewer digits to control a game. My old friend (is that too strong a word?) Dan is getting in on the act too. He says that life is simpler if you only have 3 types of pasta in your cupboard. He's found a supplier who, pleasingly, numbers their goods for him so he has only to pick up No 9, 18 and 27 whenever he's shopping. So is e-government following the trend and getting simpler? Simple enough so that more people will use it? Simple for the customer as well as simple for the supplier? Perhaps not. I observed as much in my "Stop. Rewind. Play" piece a week or so ago. An interesting comment posted to that said:
Absolutely - couldn't agree more. And surely the virtual structure concerned is Directgov, where departmental silos (at least from the user perspective) are replaced with common sense categories and roles? While the site isn't quite there yet, it's also on track to become the kind of 'giveandtake.gov.uk' you envisaged (check out the Money franchise, say).
I almost agreed, right off the bat. But I thought some more and it occurred to me that directgov, whilst a great improvement on what went before, is the equivalent of giving someone an instruction manual, at least written in plain English, for their horribly complicated mobile phone. The phone still has too many buttons, odd shortcuts and sub-menus, long key sequences and hidden menus - even if all you want to do is make a call. Simple government, as the Prime Minister declared he would provide in his party conference speech in 1997, means both changing the customer experience and changing the supplier side. Simple government is cheap to use and cheap to adminster. Directgov is making it cheaper to use, although it's not delivered transactional government yet - joining up benefits, say, along the lines of my giveandtake.gov idea. For really simple government ("RSG?") to arrive, the drawbridges have to be lowered between the towering fortresses that are government departments, data sharing principles will have to be simplified and re-established, identifiers will have to be joined up (not made unique, in an ID sense of the word) and processes will have to be rationalised and made more consistent and, perhaps even, common. If this government wants to throw away its 3 Michelin stars - which, after all, require delivering complicated things in a specific order with vast numbers of staff to support the process - and concentrate on simpler fare, I don't think too many people would have a problem. Simpler for the supplier, simpler for the customer. Everyone wins.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Shuffle

Since I left government at the end of last year, the only shuffle I've been concerned about is the button on my ipod that plays random tracks from my music collection. Today was the first time I'd really caught up on antics at Cabinet level. Putting aside whether it was or wasn't a botched job, there are some interesting times ahead. Patricia Hewitt, almost a part of the furniture at the dti (lovingly called "the department of total incompetence" by Angela Vivian [who died only just over a year ago] and now renamed "the department of Probably Eternal Incompetence") has moved to run Health. Mrs Hewitt will inherit a big job, priority one of which might be to get a handle on the NHS IT programme. Accenture announced in April that they were down about $150 million because of, I assume, missed deadlines and the consequent penalties (plus inevitable need to keep a team running longer). Today's Independent, in an article about the abuses that management consultants are guilty of, notes the case of the e-booking system - that has purportedly cost £200 million (I'm pretty sure that's not true) but has made only 63 bookings against a target of over 200,000. That same article in the Independent also suggests that the cost of the programme will rise from £6bn to perhaps £30bn (I'm not sure that's true either, but I don't have any better data). Gossip in the industry and amongst the headhunter community says that BT will be the next one to announce they're up against it and that they'll be looking for new people to look after things. The NHS programme is (and always was) one of the hardest jobs to pull off in IT. The groundwork has been laid with the procurements and contract lettings, but the delivery side has struggled with complex integration work between multiple suppliers, near impossible stakeholder management and difficult technology deployments, plus one or two other obstacles, like the EMIS issues. Will there be a shuffle on the NHS client side? Patricia Hewitt, although I've never met her, looks to be very different from John Reid and might not interact in quite the same way with the folks running the NHS IT show for her. Want to place bets on some early exits this summer?

Stop. Rewind. Play

The day after the last election, in 2001, I was the first speaker on stage at a conference, to be followed by Steve Ballmer. I remember talking then that "e" as in "e-government", "e-auctions" etc had probably run its course and that the latest trend was clearly "x"; as in "xbox", "windows XP", "Apple OS X", "XML" - and, because William Hague had resigned about 10 minutes before I stepped on stage, "an X leader of the Tory party following an x-lection". Suffice to say, Steve was a lot funnier than I was. I even put up a few slides to walk the audience through how joined up government might arise, what the obstacles would be and how we might get around them. You'll see (if you've got good eyes - that slide looks very small) that I was into the "far away sunset" background for slides. Visionary stuff and all that.
Odd, 4 years on, that things should be so similar. The election was notable, to me and others excited by the potential for online government, for a complete absence of any talk about "e-government". I haven't seen a trace of debate about "2005, 100% online" - that may be because it's assumed that victory has been declared and there's no need for a debate about it, or, perhaps more likely, no-one really wanted to talk about it because it wasn't mainstream enough - 10 years after Amazon and Netscape launched, e-government still isn't the default! Nick Montagu, former chairman of the Inland Revenue (and someone I'm proud to call a friend), commented as much in a recent speech at the SOCITM Spring conference:
"My worry is that joined-up government has slipped from not just the rhetoric but from the priorities [of government]," he said. "We haven't heard a lot about it in the second term. It's a complicated business, about changing attitudes of ministers, officials at both local and central levels and most importantly the citizen, but it is a battle well worth waging to win."
"Think what life would be like if everyone had a single account with government and all those transactions were netted off against each other and the net sum automatically credited or debited to the bank account. The savings would be massive, in terms both of the transactions themselves and of the prevention of fraud."
"But what's really needed is a reinvention of government which, I believe could dwarf [Sir Peter] Gershon's £35 billion [in his efficiency review for the government] or [David] James' £35 billion [in his efficiency review for the Conservative party]." "It's quite worrying that if you look at the present Cabinet, the level of e-literacy is pretty small. Thought leadership should come from government."
The esteemed member of the civil service that brought me into government often said, usually after I had railed (again) about the lack of desire in that department to join up with other departments, "Show me the line of people waiting to join up and I'll sign up now". He was right then and he continues to be right. Sadly, few departments want to join up. It requires too many changes to be made. In a 2002 paper on joined up government I wrote of the problems that had to be overcome if there was to be any hope of technology helping things join up:
  • Departments have yet to align their requirements. Government departments have long been used to the luxury of customising individual systems and applications to their precise workflow or detailed mode of operation – making it difficult to draw out common requirements and, therefore, to realise the potential of joined up development and delivery.
  • Departments are not ready. Not all departments are ready to implement their e-government programme. Integration can sometimes be achieved in steps but may also require a more mature department for the full possibility to be realised. Adoption rates vary, as does use of the functionality available.
  • Departments are used to having control of their IT. Systems can be delivered at their own pace, subject to Ministerial and other commitments. [Joining up] forces a collective delivery cycle where one change may impact several departments. This can be both good and bad – it can accelerate delivery for some, but it can conflict with other projects for others.
  • Departments are used to having control of their [own] IT supplier. They want to know that there is a chain of command, with a chain that can be yanked at all levels.
  • IT suppliers compete against [joined up government]. For many suppliers, the idea of government working together means that there is less money spent overall, which can result in strong resistance from the supplier community. Suppliers, however, are coming to realise that joining up government is of high overall benefit – more standardisation means more opportunities to add value, and more opportunity to provide integration services.
That first bullet hides a 1001 sub-reasons. There may be many reasons at a business, data and technology level, why alignment is not possible. Data is often at the core - "customers" are not identifed in a consistent way, e.g. a corporation may run many payrolls for PAYE purpose but have only one entity as far as VAT is concerned; council tax payable by a resident has no relation to Self Assessment paid by the same resident etc. Those issues remain and, for Nick's "single account" (or department of give and take.gov as I believe I called it in February 2003) to succeed, they will need to be overcome. And after all of those "micro" issues are resolved - because they're the ones that government departments will put as their first defence - the macro reasons can be confronted: legislation is drafted at a departmental level, there are no incentives, ministers seek to control what's in their domain, accounting officers can only be accountable for what is within their own department, control will be decreased and, ultimately, the shape of the civil service will be redefined and those who have spent 25 years climbing to the top of the old shape are unlikely to want to move to a shape that they don't understand. It's possible that the next head of the civil service, rumoured to be Gus O'Donnell, presently at the Treasury and the man who put the C into HMRC, will be able to make a difference - after all, he's already shown willingness to lower the drawbridges on some fortresses. Surprisingly, the Conservatives didn't seize on the £6 billion-odd pounds spent so far on e-government to say that it was a waste. Perhaps because of that, the Labour party didn't feel the need to defend what's been achieved - and point to the IR's Self Assessment service (more than 1.5 million people last year), or the 40% of driving tests that are booked online. Could it all have been done for less? I'd like to think so - but that shouldn't take away from what has been achieved to date, given the obstacles that faced e-government early on and, especially now, those that continue to face it. From here on though, the Head of the e-Government Unit (who has followed his own course away from the "e" to create an Office of the CIO - a far more comprehensible title, at least to Corporate Britain) has a bit of a battle ahead to renew interest in joining up and create a vision that can last through to the next election. From where I sit today, things look pretty tough. There's a lot to do. A revolution is needed. Maybe even a 1789 revolution - without the actual head knocking off bit - where the aristocracy of government are thrown out and the peasants take charge. Those who have not grown up through the ranks of it will not appreciate the way it was and so could design new structures. Ministers plainly want to see change, they want to see dramatic reform; but that doesn't come by starting where we are. I have a sense that people are afraid to volunteer for the scale of change is needed. The status quo is a powerful magnet and it keeps people where they are. So let's start somewhere different; let's create structures - initially virtual ones - that are centred around the customer, where the incentives for staff are geared to delivery in a timely way of benefits, resolution of cases where alimony is outstanding and repayment of tax to all those who are due. The potential is enormous and partnerships between the citizens and government, between technology and process could just make it happen. With a majority of 64, is there enough gumption to do it? I think so - it might be a bluff with just a low pair, but it's worth raising a few times to see who calls.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

More on Marconi

Some interesting posts in response to my note below on the Marconi story - with an overwhelmingly "protectionist" stance on the grounds that "hey, we're talking critical national infrastructure here." Interesting indeed. Of course, the water system is part of CNI and we let Warren Buffet run a chunk of that. So is the electricity system and EDF run large parts of that. But I do see the point - they say we need a capability in the UK and today we're too dependent on the USA, e.g. GPS as one comment points out. When the US want to, they can just disable it and leave us all lost at the top of Snowdon, or wherever we happen to be at the time. But if Marconi is the be all and end all of that capability we're in trouble. As the FT says today: - Marconi has cut its R&D budget by 40% in the latest dti survey compared with average cuts of 27% in the sector. Down from £300mm to £185mm. - Marconi spend less per employee on R&D than Nokia, Cisco, Bookham, ARM etc - Marconi was 29th in the Patent Office league for filings, against 13th last time Besides, Marconi winning the BT business wouldn't have meant that they didn't get bought by a Chinese company anyway (how odd is it that after Rover we even think of entertaining bids from China?). We've seen before what happened with, say, Qinetiq (that used to be DERA). That was arguably even more core to the nation than Marconi is now (Agreed that back in the days of Plessey, it was a different story). So, if we're going to retain national capability here, what do we do? Nationalise a few firms? Target some seed capital at new firms to do the work for us? Create [more] tax incentives for R&D? Interested in all suggestions!

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Buy British, It's Your Obligation

I'm simply stunned by the press this weekend on the Marconi/BT [no]deal. Understandably, the Marconi team are pretty upset that they didn't win a share of the £10 billion BT buying bonanza. It seems to me, though, that they've broken rule 1 of the book on "what to do when you don't get your own way". It says "Deep breath, engage brain, don't say a word." Instead, they've gone for the "It's disgusting .... how can BT not buy from a British company ... These other companies are getting subsidies." All otherwise known as "It's not fair." A senior Marconi source, according to the Independent, said:
"We would hope they would have a word with BT and assist us to get back in there," the source said. "In other European countries, this wouldn't happen. They always favour the local vendor."
I heard similar stuff on TV last month about Rover. Someone on the box, a Rover employee I seem to remember, claimed that it was all the fault of the British public who, unlike the French and the Germans, weren't willing to buy domestic. Another employee's wife professed disgust at the way they were being treated noting, to my astonishment, that the British public "were perfectly willing to send money to the tsunami disaster folks" but unwilling to buy British cars with the money they have left, presumably. I can see the conversation in BT a few days ago. It would have been between a few senior execs and it would have gone along the lines of "Bugger ... we didn't select Marconi? Are you sure? It could put them out of business! Think of the flak we'll get. Go and make sure we did the sums right. See if there's anything we can do. Was it close? Could we give them something? Make sure we've got a good audit trail; a lot of people will want to look at this one." Someone - Paul Reynolds I guess - then drew the short straw over who had to call Marconi. And, in return, he's got a torrent of vitriol, most of it in the press. I suspect the conversation on the phone was more subdued - more like "Oh shit. Are you sure? Ok. That's pretty bad. Is there anything we can do to recover this? No? Ok? Thanks for taking the time to tell me". BT say
"We picked suppliers on the basis of technological, operational and commercial considerations. On this occasion, Marconi did not meet the commercial specifications. At other times it has."
It's a tough market and there are a lot of players who want in to the IP network business. The big companies - Cisco, Alcatel etc - have deep pockets and, naturally, can price more keenly at this stage. Maybe they bid low, looking for a reference, maybe they just have better kit and enough offshore manufacturing to make it much cheaper. BT don't have to publish their full criteria for evaluation, but it might serve them well if they did - so that Marconi know exactly what happened and the rest of us too. But Marconi will get a debrief and then they'll know. Want to bet that it all goes quiet then? I'm sorry for the Marconi folks who may lose their jobs; I can't imagine what it must be like to be in that position. The bigwigs should be hunkering down now, thinking through the options, analysing what went wrong and trying to figure out how to move forward. Slugging it out with BT in the press won't make BT suddenly roll over and say, "oh sorry, we meant to give you the deal in the first place, we were just seeing if you'd lower your price if we said no deal." Buy British. It's your obligation. Even if the cars / comms equipment / televisions / snowglobes are more expensive, not as good and not as reliable. Right now I'm just buying British strawberries. They seem fine.

Going Postal

I got my shiny new postal voting form this weekend. It shows me 5 candidates, none of whom I've ever heard of. The incumbent MP, a Labour man, is retiring and everyone else seems new to the game. The two main parties, Labour and Conservative, are just a smidgeon apart - 2,015 votes in the last election. Apparently that makes where I live the most marginal seat in the capital. The bookies, who are, let's face it, rarely wrong with these things, have the Conservative's 11-4 on to take the seat with labour 2-1 against. Having money riding on it is always a useful indicator of commitment. The problem is, though, how do I tell what these candidates can do for me, for my street and for my borough? The ever useful Theyworkforyou.com tells me that the previous Labour candidate, Iain Coleman was, putting it fairly, nothing more than a middling MP (and, based on the figures below, I could probably be a lot less fair):
  • Spoke in 1 debate in the last year — 632nd out of 659 MPs.
  • Asked 7 written questions in the last year — 471st out of 659 MPs.
  • Replied within 14 days to 39% of messages sent via FaxYourMP.com during 2004 — 482nd out of 590 MPs. (Sample size: 79 faxes. Important Caveat.)
  • Has attended 52% of votes in parliament — 559th out of 658 MPs. (From Public Whip)
That said, he was a parsimonious chap, coming 615th in the league table of people spending money, assuming theyworkforyou ranks 1st as the highest spending. This is really the time when theyworkforyou ought to be buckling under load - the 'net savvy folks out there all ought to be checking their MPs form. They should also be checking PublicWhip. But, like I said, how do I do this for people who have no form? Based on the voting figures, a vote for anyone other than Labour or Conservative is a wasted vote. The other parties are sooooo far behind that I doubt such a vote would even register as a protest. Both the Labour candidate, Melanie Smallman, and the Conservative, Greg Hands, are councillors in the borough. The local council website doesn't have much to say about either of them: notes from the odd meeting here and there, the occasional profile. I haven't met either of them although each has sent me one of the ubiquitous form letters that say only that they know how to take a template from party HQ and recycle it. Any letter that starts "Dear Alan Mather" is on a loser for me - does the database not record my sex? So that leaves the individuals own websites perhaps? Ms Smallman's is poor, Mr Hands' pretty competent, with a comprehensive profile and details of all of his campaigns, news articles and thoughts. No blogs for either one though. Perhaps it's only MPs, rather than prospective ones who take the time to blog? Some might question whether it matters who I vote for - that it's more about the party at a General Election. My own feeling is that at least 50% of the vote is about the candidate - if I thought that the person standing was going to be no good for the local people, there'd be no point in giving them a shot at power. Even an MP of the "wrong" party can make a big difference locally. This whole postal vote scandal has been fascinating. Postal vote requests have shot up 500% and more, the story is in the press every few days and then there's a report that requests have shot up even more. It's a bit like when the Inland Revenue's tax site was down for a while a couple of years ago - more people find out that it existed and so usage went up as soon as it was back. Perhaps it's the same for postal voting? A few years ago, maybe 2002, my team suggested that we use the Government Gateway to help with postal voting. If you've registered on the Gateway for a service, whether it's Child Benefit, Self Assessment, Tax Credits, etc then we know your address - or at least the address you had when you registered (there's no requirement necessarily to keep that address up to date - and the Gateway doesn't store it, the departments do so, hopefully, they're the ones getting the updates). Using your Gateway ID to request a postal voting form, irrespective of which service you have actually registered for, would be a quick and easy way to do a simple check. Given that there's no check now, this would be a step forward. There are 6 million people registered on the Gateway now. Not enough to provide blanket coverage for postal voting but my guess is that everyone in the population is covered by at least one of the services offered by the Gateway - 8 million Self Assessment, 6 million Tax Credits, 600,000 new Child Benefit claimants a year and, of course, everyone who has ever paid National Insurance will be able to register for the Real Time Pension Forecasting service. So, sign up for one service and, as long as the address that you use for that service matches your home address (another caveat, but a small one I think - there would be some wrinkles around expats who use accountants in the UK I suspect), the postal voting form would arrive a few days afterwards. There would need to be links to all the local councils but this, in theory, could be done by email (it would take a bit longer to set up something fancier but it could be done pretty fast). Too late to do this now of course, but no reason why we couldn't pilot it ahead of the local elections next year. We could even make it a two part process where you have to come back online once you've received your postal vote, log on again and activate it using the PIN code that we send with the postal vote - to reduce the chances of interception at your address (e.g. in student accomodation or other places where more than one person lives in a single address). This would all be pretty trivial to set up. It wouldn't be perfect - userids and passwords are involved so there is some risk of compromise; perhaps having postal voting services would increase the risk of a phishing attack on the Gateway, leading to some peoples' logon profiles being compromised (but, in some ways, that's a nice problem to have - it means that there are enough users doing things of high enough value to provoke fraud attempts). It also wouldn't work for people not living at home but who had not yet registered with government their new address - today, those people can have a postal vote sent to any address. But that's the whole cause of the fraud, so closing the loop on which address postal votes can be sent to would be a big part of stopping the fraud. Those who propose checking signatures on postal votes are misleading themselves that this is any better. Banks don't do it any more, except for very large cheques and then only on a sample basis; few government departments do it on routine transactions, preferring instead to check on an exception basis (i.e. did you sign this self asssessment form sir? no! well, where's the one that you did sign and send in then?). Signature checking will slow things down, lead to many disputed claims where the signature doesn't quite match the template and, finally, will not provide additional protection - those prepared to forge postal votes will have a good go at forging signatures too. A bit of technology can solve a problem here. The technology and the processes that go alongside it are well proven, there are enough services available online to give broad coverage and increasing numbers of local authorities (who manage postal voting) are signing up, meaning that secure connectivity with them is available. What's the risk? Central government will know something about those requesting a postal vote? I don't see that as an issue - they wouldn't know what the vote turned out to be, the Gateway is regularly audited by independent experts who would see that none of the data was made available. I think this is what the Gateway was made for. When we proposed it in 2002, it was probably too early, now, it makes perfect sense. It would be a cost-effective and rapid way of improving security on postal voting - a service that many need to make use of (I will be away from home on the 5th, for instance) and still more could make use of if it were reliable and secure.