Sunday, November 27, 2005

Google complexity

I liked this, from Gerry McGovern this weekend: What do you see on the Google homepage? A very big search box. And is this all that Google offers? Of course not. Here's what else Google offers: Alerts, Local, Answers, Maps, Blog Search, Mobile, Book Search, News, Catalogs, Scholar, Directory, SMS, Froogle, Special Searches, Groups, University Search, Images, Labs, Web Search Features, Blogger, Picasa, Code, Talk, Desktop, Toolbar, Earth, Translate, Gmail. I'm not sure if it's apocryphal or not, but I heard a story where someone sent email to Sergey or maybe Larry every day with just a number in the subject - "33" say. I can't remember where I heard it, maybe I heard it at Google itself. Every day they'd get the same message and had no idea why. Then one day they changed the website, added some text perhaps, and the mail changed "34" or "35" or "36". Someone was keeping an eye out and saying "less is more". True? Maybe, maybe not. But simplicity wins. Oddly, I have no idea how to find that story via google and see how true it might be,

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Parking payments offline

My first parking ticket - ever - in the lovely village of Westminster. Returning to my car 4 minutes after my ticket expired, I was greeted by the warden taking photos of the car and posting a ticket under the windscreen wiper. Ho hum. I imagine one of the busiest times to pay fines is Saturday after a day shopping in town and, judging by how many tickets the guy was handing out in the street I was in, I'd be right. So when would you schedule a significant upgrade of your online payment service? Not Saturday afternoon surely? From westminster.gov.uk: This service allows you to pay Westminster City Council parking tickets online. Online payments is currently unavailable (Saturday 26/11/05). This is to allow a system upgrade to be put into place. This upgrade is schedule to take place between 16:00 and 21:00. Whilst this system is unavailable, please telephone our Parking Contact Centre on 020 7823 4567, who will be happy to assist you in paying your parking ticket. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused. Great. It's a shame that they can't even get the English right in the notice.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Directionless.gov rides again

Tom had the nerve to post that directionlessgov.com produces the correct answer when given the word "think" (as in road safety - see below) to hunt for. The "less" site (which is not to say the other is the "more" site) shows both direct.gov's search output as well as google's (which it rebadges and rebrands very nicely). I hadn't planned to defend direct.gov here, but it will look like I am. The google output is 9 links to the thinkroadsafety site and one to the hedgehog site (likely winner of the award for most unusual .gov website ... www.hedgehogs.gov.uk. If you care to visit, you'll find you have to "hog in" - I'm sure the bad jokes don't stop there but I didn't dare go any further). Direct.gov demotes road safety to number 7 as I posted before, but it does at least give 10 different sites, just in case when you typed "think" you really did want to visit rethink or RU thinking about it or whatever. Google probably don't mind if you hook into their site for the odd search, maybe even a few hundred (although they'd probably be a bit upset if they looked and found that directionless.gov strips out the ads which drive their revenues). But, there were 589,039 searches on direct.gov in October 2005 (from the EDT report) and I can't imagine google being too happy about that amount of freeloading on their servers. Indeed, when we talked to google (in my old job) about using them directly for government search (we even registered www.search.gov.uk I think), they wouldn't allow a direct hook into them but, instead, wanted to sell a google black box for close to $1mm. Not the best spend of taxpayer money I think - when most users are going to try google first anyway. Interestingly, if you use google and don't restrict the search to just .gov sites (which is what directionless does), and you search for "think" - where does the road safety campaign site come out? 7th. The other point, reinforced by Jason's comment below, is that there are still just too many domain names. There are probably at least 5,000 maybe 5,500 which reduce down to perhaps 3,500 individual websites (allowing for, say, www.ir.gov.uk pointing to hmrc.gov.uk - maybe that's a plan, we can just rationalise government departments to reduce the domain count?). I think that's 3,250 too many and if I'm really nasty, it's probably 3,490 too many. I've often stood at conferences and said that the average person has 10 bookmarks for key sites. The odds of one of them being government are pretty low which is perhaps why direct.gov whilst doing well with 1,500,000 visitors isn't getting anything like the 20% of the population visiting that it probably should get. Not an easy set of problems to solve - but it needs more than strategy, it needs action.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Think? Again?

Watching TV in the hotel last night - ok, I was bored - there was an anti-drink driving ad. At the end, I could have sworn I saw the tag "www.think.dtlr.gov.uk" on the screen. I thought dtlr went the way of the dodo 3 or 4 years ago. But, if you use that URL, you do indeed get to the right place which is actually, www.thinkroadsafety.gov.uk. If there's a redirect, why not put the right URL in place given that you're paying for brand time as much as the campaign? Why use an address that died a long time ago for a brand that no-one remembers or cares about? Why use a double parameter address rather than just the simpler "www.think.gov.uk" - which is a pure 404? Why not, dare I ask, use www.direct.gov.uk/think? Oddly, that last address provides the message:
We are currently experiencing technical difficulties on the Directgov website but expect normal service to be restored very shortly. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused and try again later.
The rest of directgov is fine, so this must be just a 404-type problem. I went to directgov and, out of interest, put "think" into the search box. It's a topical campaign, in the run up the Christmas period so you'd imagine it would get attention now. The top items are: 1) Rethink - for an organisation dealing with mental illness 2) RU thinking about IT - which is not about IT, but about safe sex (!) 3) Think u Know - about Internet safety for children 4) Viewing a property you are thinking about buying 5) Benefit cheats told to "think twice" No. 7 is a link to a newsroom story about the Think! campaign which carries a link to the main site.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Highway 101 - more potholes than Camden Town

Just arrived in San Francisco to find the weather is just like back home. Blue skies, bright sunshine and everyone wearing shorts. Just like London. I wish. I drove south from the airport, down route 101. I've driven better roads in India - and they have fewer cows on the roads there. There are still empty buildings either side of the highway, but it looks busier than it did when I was last here, a year ago or so. My hotel is right opposite Yahoo, Sun, EMC and a roller-coaster park. Just right for this part of the world. Virgin looked after me well on the way over. After nearly 15 years of regular travel - and 21 years of Virgin Atlantic - this is the first time I've flown with them. They were great. Limo pickup, check in taken care of while I'm sitting in the car, a brisk walk to the lounge through the fast track - and it's a great lounge. And then the marvellous invention: they have 50 films that you can watch and you can even press the pause button whilst you get a massage, go to the toilet or chat with the stewardess. What an incredible leap forward. After maybe 100 flights across the pond, I've finally got on a plane that lets me watch films the way I do at home - stop/start/stop/start. BA - your days are numbered for me. I just need to use up those air miles. If you're on a 'plane soon, I recommend wholeheartedly watching "Crash" (not the David Cronenberg version, although that had its moments).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Comments on Xform

Interesting comment after the last post 'So does that nett out to say do not expect too much of anything too soon? There is no burning platform to make these public sector folk change their behaviour or methods. "Transformational Government" to be filed under "Oxymorons of our Time" ' That would be a pessimistic view. Making things move in government is hard - for all of Archimedes' talk of a lever and a place to stand, he wasn't dealing with the public sector. Don't expect too much too soon - that would just set us all up for disappointment, but do watch for the signs of movement. If those green shoots start to appear then it's likely that enough energy could get behind it to do something. Take OGC's gateway reviews for instance - they started small and are now embedded everywhere, but it took 3-4 years and that was just peer review where no-one got to see the output by the head of OGC and the SRO for the programme. "Transformational Government" might be like "World Cup winning England Football team" - something that's right only once in a generation or two. Maybe it's our turn this time, for both.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Transformational Government

The opportunity for scoop on this paper, published recently by the Cabinet Office, has long since passed. The Idealgovernment folks, for instance, have been posting regularly, even garnering Jim Murphy the CO Minister on their list of authors. Mike Cross has also taken a look, worrying about the vendor side of the deal. Mike is a shrewd operator and will be worrying about more than that I suspect - and has probably been looking at drafts of this strategy as long as I have. I spent five years at e-Envoy, now eGU or even OCIO if you prefer, so have more than a few views on this document. It would be easy, perhaps, to be bitter and twisted about the whole thing, but it would hardly be productive. So overall, I think praise is in order - for now - for getting together CIOs from across government and having them endorse a cohesive articulation of what their jobs should be over the next 5 years. Previous strategy documents have come from the centre and been inflicted on the departments. This one has the feel of one that has been worked and reworked across government - with the commitment from senior civil service and ministerial level plain. That gives it a headstart over previous strategies, but it doesn't make it deliverable (to use an apparently over-used word, per Mike Cross). There aren't any new words here: - Citizen centred ambitions have been around a long time (the first UKonline, launched around a series of life events, showed up in 2001). The original vision of the e-government effort was that we would join up government at the front end, masking the wide mix of disparate services below the "scum line" (anyone who saw me present from 2001 onwards will remember that description), whilst buying time to re-engineer the backend systems and business processes to create real change. Indeed, direct.gov gets a one line mention in the strategy, but it's not entirely clear if the action plan is going to centre on driving greater use of that. Is that too sensitive a topic? - Shared services likewise (the government gateway is the pioneer of that, dotp a second wedge, and there were at least 1/2 a dozen attempts at joining up finance or HR systems in my time). Oddly, the fact that the gateway or dotp exist and could be leveraged isn't mentioned. On second thoughts, perhaps that isn't odd before. - Taking £1.4 billion away from departments - via, I assume, some kind of top slice process - is an idea that was put up 10 times (I have the notes to the Chief Secretary) but was never seen as viable. Has it changed now? It's a very big deal if it has and I'd applaud the CO if they've managed it. Caution will need to be exercised from here on - I can see a whole lot of excuses for why things haven't been delivered elsewhere landing on their doorstep from here on. - The problem before has never been a lack of strategy but a lack of will to "do" - to execute, to make things happen, to change the way things were done in the past. My worries then are: - The plan, it says, is to provide "technology leadership". We know that won't be enough. The technology, whilst challenging and fraught with difficult issues, can be put in place relatively quickly - but harnessing all of the requirements and needs of individual departments (centrally and locally) will be two orders of magnitude harder. Where is the equivalent business leadership coming from? - How is the commercial leverage going to come about? Vendors will follow the money, they have to, it's how they get returns. If there's a choice between a department that is waiting 3 years for a central system versus one that wants to get moving right now, which one is the vendor going to put time and resource against? - Is this a forward plan or a backward plan? That is, does the plan say that from now on, all things will be done this way and any new projects started have to conform, or is it going to reach back into projects that are already underway or have long since been completed and say "thanks very much for doing that, but it's no longer relevant - you'll have to adopt this thing over here". If the former, then the timeframe is probably optimistic - change will not be irreversible by 2011; if the latter, than there's a chance to do it sooner, albeit with more pain. Remember, many departments have been operating their main back end systems since 1981 and all those who want SAP or Peoplesoft will have put it in by now, or be saying that they can't wait 2-5 years for a central system. - The vision says that "government is enabled by technology - policy is inspired by it". Something in the pit of my stomach turns when I hear this. I can see a bright, young policy wonk creating something that turns on the presence of 3g phone networks in everyone's hand. I say this as the guy who came up with the strapline for his team, in mid 2001, of "Delivering the technology to transform government" - I believed it then and I believe it now. But I don't see it happening yet. - There's almost a throwaway remark about "systems were designed as islands, with their own data". That's true - and it reflects the IT governance practice of the 1980s and early 1990s: every system is a kingdom and whoever is king of that dom gets it the way they want it, without risk of interference from others. Turning that over has been tried in the recent past - with the CIP initiative that was explored by Lord Carter (Patrick Carter at the time). If ID cards are going to reach down into individual systems, that work is going to need a serious going over to get everyone signed up to it and, probably, everything else will need to be put on hold while such a significant change is made to everything. If you think capacity is stretched now, it could be worse. Alternatively, the front end government gateway approach that was proposed could be adopted and it could happen in the background. - Bullet 20 of the vision talks about not just doing "IT better" but doing "IT differently", something which looks to be a redux of the original brief I put into the Mission Critical IT projects brief of using Gate reviews to not just see if "we were doing things right" but if "we were doing the right things". Services that are more joined up and more personalised is an old saw. There's plenty of support for the former and unclear definitions abound for the latter. - I worry about the unsaid "GDP business case" argument. There's much talk about efficiency and about "customer satisfaction not being the only goal" but the real money is not on the inside of government. The Inland Revenue spent £2 billion to collect its £200 billion in tax. I suspect HMRC spends £3 bn to get £300 bn. Neither are ratios that would worry you if you were a business - indeed you'd be at the top of the tree. So if HMRC halves its costs (feasible I think), the ratio goes from outstanding to simply stunning. But if HMRC allows savings of £1000 in costs per year from 3 million small businesses, or £100 from 9 million self assessment tax payers, I'd like to think the numbers would stack up better in pure GDP terms. The tax take may go up a little, but the economy would be goosed with more money. Neither goal is mutually exclusive, but there is little that I can see explicitly about the GDP business case. In 2001, we thought that e-government could be worth, by 2011, 2% on GDP. - The less I say about website consolidation at this point the better. I wish it were only 2,500 websites. I guess that's pure central government ones. There were certainly over 4,000 on the domain name list I saw recently. Dan had a good idea - we need to declare a half life on these things. - I love the idea of Customer Directors and am intrigued about the first candidates being for parents and for small business (what then, I wonder, has the Small Business Service being doing for the last 5 years - and what role does business.gov have in this?). I'm intrigued how it's going to work with a minister leading the charge - and how they will steer a cross-government budget across department lines. Such issues over funding, control, risk management, implementation, vendor contracts etc will be faced at every step of the way with this strategy. They are not new issues, but they were never comprehensively dealt with, despite some very fine attempts. Early sight of how this is going to happen will, in my mind, give the strategy enormous credibility both inside government and with those cognescenti from the outside that worry about those sorts of things. - The kind of people that are suggested for taking this forward - customer directors, "customer group teams" and so on are probably pretty rare in government. Finding the right ones with direct.gov was difficult - but it was done (and done well - 1,500,000 visitors in September can't be wrong after all). Finding them from outside will increase the risk of failure - the antibodies in government will quickly find and exploit their weaknesses. And the last place we should spend the £1.4bn freed up from the budgets is on new people. There's a tricky shift to get right here. - Para 33, part 7, drops in, pretty much from nowhere, that citizens should be able to access and manage the data held about them. This is a version of the "data in the cloud" strategy that has been kicked around before. This could be the single killer app - real time pension forecasting has been a bit of a sleeper hit precisely because it allowed people to see something that was barely, if at all, visible before. It's a huge challenge and has to be accompanied by joining up data identifiers (so a change of address in one replicates across the others) and it's fraught with complexity (not least identity and security), but what a goal to bury 2/3 of the way through a strategy. I have a 101 detailed comments on the text and a pile more questions. If I get time, I plan to send them to the powers that be as formal feedback. Overall though: - Bonus points for pulling it all together; and if you have all the CIOs together as one on this, double bonus points - Well done for getting the PM to endorse it and do a webcast (You might need someone else to do one soon though, at this rate) - The timetable looks crap - nothing happens next year because you're too busy doing that you already promised to do (and the artful departments will suddenly launch a bunch of initiatives next year which get too far down the track to change). But maybe you're being realistic and following the once bitten, twice shy rule. - It all rests on the action plan now. Some specific deliverables and visible items that we can see and touch (and throw sticks and stones at of course). I'm going to be watching this with great interest. It could be a new beginning where lots gets done or one where we're left at the end of the film thinking about how clever they were to position themselves for a sequel.

Netnation 2.0, not quite web 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, the nice people at netnation (who host this site) did a big upgrade of all of their servers and software. Everything changed - directory names, passwords, URLs, management tools, etc. Since then I haven't been able to get anything to work and have been forlornly trekking through their help files and FAQs, corresponding with their technical support people and generally holding my head in my hands trying to get it all to work. I think I've cracked it now, although it did involve deleting my entire set of archive blog files (a bold decision if only because I may be the only one who likes to know what I've written about before). The previous post, on the Internet Listing Scam, has been in limbo for a fortnight now and that seems to have made it through the gates.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Internet Listing Scam

"Annual website search engine listing ... £47.50" ... what a steal! Internet Listing Service Corp wrote to me today asking me to send them a cheque or credit card details for their service. It looks like an invoice (it talks about money after all) and it even looks like a domain name registration invoice. They even ask for the money within 15 days to "ensure all listings are final". But it's just some scam where they post my domain name plus some tags to "20 major search engines". On page 2 it finally says "this is not a bill, this is a solicitation." Well that's clear then. Their website, ilscorpc.co.uk (I'm not linking to them deliberately), tells me:
1. Why should I go with Internet Listing Services Corporation? Over 80% of referrals come from search engines. To be successful, your site must be listed in many search engines. Search engine referrals are by far the most inexpensive way to drive traffic to your site. Many times, search engines do not list you or drop your site after a period of time, without informing you. Search engine submission does not just mean going to the top several web sites and submitting your URL. URL submission is a critical part of any site maintenance plan. You must submit and resubmit to search engines to ensure that you will get listed and maintain your listing. With so many search engines out there, this is a process that should be automated.
Ummm, nope, that's a reason I should make sure I'm represented on search engines, not a reason why I should use ilscorp to do it. Plainly people do accept this deal, otherwise they wouldn't send the stuff out. But why, oh why? They didn't even include a reply paid envelope. One more for the shredder.