Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Starting the Value For Money debate

Ages ago I was asked about Value For Money and specifically whether I'd measured how we'd done in e-government and how I'd explain it to "Jim Bailey" I'm going to take this in a slightly roundabout way - partly because I'm feeling my own way through the question and partly because I don't have the time right now to condese the points into a single, short thread. I hope when I get to the end, the right route through it will be obvious to me and I can post a summary. Here's an extract from a February 2002 paper on the issues government is facing nearly 2 years into the e-government agenda. I was trying to lay down the argument for greater co-operation between departments rather than the historical silo approach. Bear in mind that, at this point, government had perhaps 800 websites in total, maybe even fewer: • Advanced technology. Requirements have developed from the initial need for “just a web site” to more complicated “portals”. New technologies will be required, including enterprise content management systems, multi-platform delivery parsers, discussion forums, e-mail exchange software and so on. Costs and risks rise per instance of deployment. Our track record for implementing any project, let alone those that involve new technology is poor. • Systems management. As we aggregate content and capability into single systems and as usage of e-government increases, each of these systems becomes a component of the Critical National Infrastructure. CNI requires rigid management, ability to absorb peak volumes (at the end of the tax year, for instance), well-rehearsed continuity of business plans coupled with disaster recovery locations and so on. • Security and accreditation. Accreditation of a single system presently runs at £100,000, whether it is connected to the GSI or to the Internet. Despite departmental experience, these costs are likely to remain, as back ends are connected the Internet, personal data is held on their portals, increasing the risk of security intrusion. • Identification and authentication. Making sure that you know who the person dealing with you is and that they have a right to see the data requested remains one of the largest challenges to delivery. Implementing digital signature signing capability can cost up to £250,000 per department (if done alone) along with additional costs of £40,000 for each new certificate provider (presently there are three but this is expected to rise to ten or more). There can be no cross-government authentication unless there is a single virtual record that different departments can trust. • Partnerships with intermediaries. There is a step cost for intermediaries to communicate electronically with government. Vendors communicating with the Gateway estimate their costs at £100,000. For many, this will be the first time that such a change has been made. Proliferating many ways of communication with government will increase these costs, reducing the number of intermediaries and therefore the number of people using the services offered. • Back end integration. Perhaps the hardest technical challenge – preparing back end (or “legacy” systems) for dealing with electronic transactions. Only a few departments are addressing this at a strategic level. Few vendors have taken what they know from one department and offered it to other departments at minimal cost (hence we have hundreds of systems that do much the same thing) – the first recent opportunity to do that was presented by the Government Gateway standardised interfaces. It is essential to engage all of the vendors in an overall programme of upgrades that will position us for the long term. The choice was simple - let a thousand flowers bloom, or concentrate on a few key programmes and drive participation around those. With the Shared Service agenda now in its first full Spring, it looks a little like too many flowers are blooming - and that the lessons learned from e-government, whilst learned, are not being lived. Offering a shared service is easy - here, come and share this, it works just the way you need it to. You take the CD, install it in your server at your data centre and everything is fine. Alternatively, you just copy your data across the network from your data centre to their data centre and off you go. The real deal is more complicated, inevitably. First, you need a few willing participants. Two is not enough - two folks can strike bilateral deals based on strong relationships, can wiggle through a few tight gaps and can, eventually, get something together. The Gateway started with three - and that brought in complexities: big departments, small departments, citizen focused, business focused, digital certificates, userid/passwords, outsourced providers, inhouse providers, technically literate customers, technically far from literate customers etc. Now we need someone in charge. That's going to be hard. Who should it be? The biggest? The smallest? The one with the most to gain or the most to lose? The one with the strongest person at the head? The one with the biggest team? The one without and IT partner, or the one with? The OGC Gateway reviewers will focus in on governce and will want to see a Senior Responsible Owner in charge with the right stakeholders engaged. And, to make it serious, everyone has to put some money into the pot. Enough to hurt if it goes belly up but not enough to cripple them. Only gambling money you can afford to lose (as the spread betting ads say) doesn't give the necessary incentive to make it work. It will be pretty weird to see government paying government money - someone with safe hands will have to guard the pot and make sure it's spent properly. To add to the spice, each of the participants should have a separate IT vendor. And this is where it will get fun. Contracts being what they are, it will be uncertain how one department offers services to another. The "indivisibility of the crown" means that one department can't sue another in the event of failure - and so a kind of musketeer principle has to prevail (all for one and one for all). That takes time, it certainly isn't natural. On top of that, the service will need, eventually at least, to be productised so that it can be offered to more people. That means documentation, service management standards, professional live service, disaster recovery and so on. Lastly, we need folks who are going to get together regularly and figure out how to get this done, who are going to sort out the real requirements from the fictious ones, who are going to prioritise good from bad and who are going to manage the various vendors and the challenges that will loom in the coming months. We want people who are going to give up large chunks of their lives to see a difficult project realised in full technicolour. We want people who can learn to trust each other and who can deal with the politics both in the room and in the rooms back at base. So three departments is the minimum, four or more is better - but increases the risk of not getting anything done because of no agreements. Money is needed, a person in charge and a way to deliver services to other departments. So how about we count how many shared services look like this?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Rumour of the Day

Which head of a very large government IT project that is getting a lot of press these days is rumoured to be shopping himself around the major consultancies with an asking price of £1.6 million per year?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Shared Services are the new Black

Every where I go now all the talk is of Shared Services. Where once the mantra was "2005 / 100% online" (or, for a few, "joined up / citizen focused") it is now all about sharing. From the CIO's very own website: There are over 1300 public sector organisations in the UK and there is considerable scope to consolidate how we can share services across organisational boundaries so that our common processes are provided faster, better and cheaper. Google lists 582,000 mentions of the string "'shared services' government uk". That's quite a few less than the string "'e-government' government UK" which has 9,990,000. But, nonetheless, a healthy total given the relative newness of what we might call government 2.0 were a similar name/version not already in vogue for community-based sites around the globe. Indeed, I'd probably go for government 3.0. 1.0 was all about silos, castles and fortifications (was ever thus, at least since Cromwell's day), 2.0 was all about the promise of the web to break down the barriers and join up the front end whilst buying time for the back ends to be integrated and 3.0 is the promise of true sharing, whilst being cognizant that 2.0 didn't quite come off. A well placed source in government told me only the other day that he feared that there might already be 1,300 shared service projects in UK Government, i.e. one for every governmental organisation. That number is eerily familiar as is the thinking behind it. In the days of 2005 / 100% online, the start was one website per department (the end, if today can be referred to as the end, was sadly different with well over 4,000 websites). It doesn't seem unlikely that every one of the 1,300 government organisations is embarking on a shared services project, secure in the thinking that "of course their services is shareable, any body who wants to can come and use it". You can see the business cases now. Have service to share, all offers welcome. Sadly, with very few exceptions, not one of them will be shared with anyone else. Long ago, I used to put this picture up at conferences as an intro to shared services. The image below is from a deck presented to government's "e-champions" in October 2001. I'd ask the audience how many of them ran an expenses application. Every hand would go up. Then I'd ask if they thought that they could consolidate all of those into a single application - after all, expenses processing has to be one of the simplest applications out there. All the hands would go up again. I'd then say "so how about we do it then - we can start tomorrow." There's be a bit of shuffling, a few hems and hahs and a lot of people looking at their feet. Of course, I'd say, that would ne naive. Some of you like having the name of the person claiming at the top left, others at the top right, some of you sum the numbers differently, you'd all have different cost codes, some of you would self-certify and others would require some workflow, some would write cheques direct and others would do it through the payroll. It was never going to work. So I'd propose a way forward. Rather than consider a shared service as a project now, why didn't we define a standard for how expenses programmes would work in the future. Then, as everyone refreshed their applications and built new ones, they'd be built to the new way. We'd work with SAP and Peoplesoft and so on to have the new standard built into their applications, using the might of government and, pretty soon, a standard expenses form would be a dropdown choice in the configuration menu. People could converge when they were ready to. Had we started that in October 2001, I wonder where'd we be now. But then, it's not as easy as that. Joining up is hard to do. Three related factors get in the way: Power, Control, Trust. No one in government wants to reduce their power base by giving up control of delivery or operation and handing it to someone else who they don't trust to do it right. How do I know this? The first three government shared services: the Government Gateway, DotP (host of directgov) and the Knowledge Network (designed to make the sourcing and compilation of ministerial briefs simpler) are still, five and a half years after launch the only shared services out there. I was involved in the building of two and the operation of the third. In June 2001, this picture attempted to show the output of the business plan for the e-Delivery team, inside the Cabinet Office Government organisations, as is typical, have latched like barnacles to the bottom of an old trawler, to the promise of new funding for shared services - hey, I did the same in 2000/1, when the badge needed had a different name. Today, everything is being badged as shareable. Pretty soon, we will see napster.gov (formerly used by the Inland Revenue to let you share tax returns that weren't yours) rebranded as a clearing house for sharing services. The number of "tracks" available for sharing will soar, the actual number of downloads will hover near zero. There's one person in government who has the potential to change this - and that is Sir David Varney. Whilst all has been quiet since his appointment as a new Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, I hope that he's working on how government can build a convergence plan, starting with one or two focused but high impact services, that will make the case for doing this right.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

e None, gov Won - Number 4 in an occasional seris

The scoreline for this occasional series is reading government 2, e-government 1. Sadly for the future of online services, today's topic is not going to improve things for the e-world. I'm not particularly picking out services that are under-performing, but selecting things as they come up in the news or just because some data comes my way that piques my interest. If there are other services I should look at that can redress the balance, leave a comment. What got me thinking today was the latest monthly report (June 2006) from the e-Delivery folks (who are perhaps now the PMDU folks - reliable sources tell me that they have not only fused organisationally but physically too, strengthening the link they had with the CIO, John Suffolk, working for Ian Watmore). It shows the Government Gateway cruising past 12,000,000 transactions since launch. Sure it's only a fraction of the annual total let alone the total that government has handled on paper since then, but it's growing. Except, and this is the kicker, it's not growing as it might have done. For the last few months, the number of transactions from those applying for, or updating, tax credits has held steady at 1,971,889. My memory is vague but I'm pretty sure this service crossed a million transactions in its first year. Indeed, over 447,000 people have enrolled such that they could update their claims electronically every year. Those people have all been disenfranchised. Since November 2005, this service has been closed after apparently wide-scale fraud was discovered and after some £130 million had been falsely claimed. A lot of money, but not as much as has been written off through error or because of the policy of basing claims on prior year earnings with the resultant need to retroactively reclaim money when earnings change in year. Over £2 billion has perhaps been written off because of these problems. These numbers are highly variable. The BBC quotes £2.2bn written off, of which around 15% was the result of fraud. The claim reclamation process was always controversial: you give people money, they spend it; few put aside any "in case the taxman wants it back" - how would you know how much with such involved rules? I advocated making early government services the giver of money to the public (see give and take.gov and this one), rather than the taker so it's time I thought through the implications of this. My thinking originally was that tax payments, whilst the first transaction that almost every government (globally) put on line would attract a niche group of "early adopters" (Geeks?), giving people the chance to actually get money faster from government than usual should result in a rush of traffic. Far more people take money from government through transactions that they initiate than send it - PAYE, one of the larger transactions (27 million employed people), is not self-initiated but handled through less than 2 million employers. Tax credits proved that the rush would come - although perhaps not for the right reasons (as the BBC says, "Low Risk, High Reward, Easy Hours") - with the online service made available months before the paper service, coupled with an advertising campaign that directed people to the website. Interestingly, if you try and access the tax credits site from the home page of HMRC, using the left hand navigation bar, it gives a 404 page. The service availability page tells me that tax credits is "temporarily closed" . 9 months is more than temporary. The rest of the site covers what to do now that you can't do things online: Renewing your claim is more straightforward than you think 1. Wait for your Annual Review Pack to arrive in the post. It will contain everything you need. 2. In the meantime you should get together the documents you'll need to check the details about your award and to work out your income. These include your last payslip or P60 for the tax year 2005-06, any receipts and records for childcare costs, and, if you are self-employed, your Self Assessment tax return. 3. When you receive your Pack read the instructions on your Annual Review form and check that the information we have about your personal circumstances throughout your award are correct and complete. 4. When we write to you, we'll tell you if you need to fill out any forms and when you'll need to return them. If you do, the next step is to give us the information we need and wait for your details to be processed - we'll aim to do this within 30 working days. That would not appear, to me at least, not nearly as straightforward as doing it online. Still, I never qualified for tax credits, although I was one of the first few to try the online calculator so can't be absolutely sure that the online process was easier. I'm rambling. The real point I wanted to get to was to ask "is this the death knell for online receipt of benefits (the give of giveandtake.gov) or is this something else?" The folks at HMRC have been pretty coy about what actually went on, but the folks at the BBC have a handle on a few things: The fraud was made much easier by a devastating security breach at the DWP: the theft of payroll data from the 2003-4 financial year which put names, addresses, dates of birth and national insurance numbers of at least 13,000 DWP employees in criminal hands, most likely thanks to action by insiders. Staff in centres ... have now found that bank accounts have been opened in their names and money siphoned out, potentially destroying their credit ratings. and The new method [of fraud] is an identity theft attack on existing claimants, where a bogus telephone call changes the claimant's registered address. Then, once enough time has elapsed to assuage suspicion, the fraudster changes the bank details as well. Payments, it seems, do not have to go to an account in the name of the claimant - and some accounts are being used to aggregate such fraudulent returns, something which is beginning to be flagged by banks' and building societies' anti-fraud systems. and, perhaps the clincher: The first the claimant knows is that the payments suddenly stop. But if they try to resolve the issue, they then fail the security checks thanks to the fraudulently altered personal information. So we're not really talking about an online fraud here - this isn't about passwords being guessed or accounts being hacked into (take note HSBC). This is about old-fashioned social engineering, stealing data on paper or insiders making off with payroll data. The internet is then used as a quick and easy way to bulk upload the claims into the tax credits system - I can see an offshore "farm" of people now, busily tapping away and getting a few pounds for every claim they put through. That means, presumably, the fraud is still going on now, except that same farm is busy writing out, in neat copperplate, dozens or hundreds of multi-page paper applications. The real issue here is that authentication checks are inadequate across the whole of our paper-based transaction system, whether that is banks, government or loyalty cards. In the modern age, "tell me your mother's maiden name" doesn't cut it - it hasn't cut it for a decade, yet so many services (online and offline still use it). That latter point is what attracted us to digital certificates in late 2000 when the Gateway was first built. If only we and the industry had been able to figure the technology out to make them reliable and useable. But, digital certificates, even if they work well, only secure the online part of the deal - the paper and telephone channels still rely on signatures, the occasional face to face visit and a few chunks of ID that appear to be readily available and certainly available for less than a full year of tax credits claims. Nope, to make this really work, we're going to have to bring together some far more rigorous tests involving, at the very least, dynamic data. Already, HMRC are using this for the online VAT service where you have to provide a wealth of information including how much VAT you paid last time, what your last payment date was and so on. I haven't seen a service aimed at individuals do this yet, but I'd like to know of some. Five years ago, we proposed a link with Experian (the credit checking company which was, at the time, part of GUS but I think is in the process of demerger now) to help with dynamic checks. Indeed, a pilot was run for offline applications at the Passport Office for a short period - although I believe staff didn't like the "probability" assessment that Experian used and so rejected it in the end. Not long after that, we proposed a kind of "Green Shield Stamps" model where you'd get various stamps in a virtual book that indicated the depth of relationship government had with you - if your bank vouched for you and you banked online that would be worth "X" points, if you had paid Self Assessment from that same bank account for the last 3 years that would be worth "2X", when you got to, say, "5X" we'd allow you to claim money from government, to that same bank account. We thought this had a lot of merit, but it didn't get past go and didn't enable us or anyone else (least of all the fraudsters) to collect £200. It had its flaws for sure, not least is that it wouldn't have been any good for the first transaction anyone made - but maybe that's the point? Dynamic data coupled with cross-service enrollment is surely the right way for government to deal with this fraud. For a fraudster to perpetuate over several months a fraud that involves multiple services, making payments to government and using accounts that have been verified by the major banks and their Know Your Customer policies is certainly possible, but the effort is far harder and therefore the payoff in terms of risk/reward not so good. Fraud is much like terrorism though, you squeeze down in one area and another route is found. With the online channel shut, the fraudsters are doing it the old way, that's proving harder now with more focus on it, so they're checking out other means. Has the absence of an online tax credits service put back the journey to ubiquity of e-government? It probably did in November/December when it hit the news. But since then, things have been quiet and people have perhaps forgotten the service even exists - or can't find it when they click on the link anyway. When the service comes back, perhaps quite soon (how temporary can they mean?), there'll be a renwed bout of press interest and, not unlike Self Assessment's Napsterisation (when you could apparently see the tax returns of other people), the press will drive interest and there might be a new rush of usage - that, in turn, could drive cross-usage of other services (after all, it's after 2005 now, 100% is apparently online). It worked for the PRO all that time ago after all. But, I'm calling this as e-government None, government 1, taking the overall tally to 3-1 to the corridors of power in the old fashioned edifices of Whitehall.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Public Sector IT

Whilst at the Cabinet Office, the folks at No 10 would always remind me that there are only two news stories about Public Sector IT: (1) It cost a fortune and didn't do anything for the money (2) It's a new Big Brother and will be watching everything you do for the rest of your life I was reminded of this on Sunday by the Telegraph's "feature" on Sagas of Late Delivery. There is no shortage of data in this area, whether it's NAO reports (which are mentioned in this article), Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reports, FOI data etc but what undermines all journalism is when the facts are wrong. One of the other things I learned at the Cabinet Office and, for that matter, at the Inland Revenue and every other government department, was that you instinctively start to distrust everything you read in the papers. It's easy to do that because every so often there's a story that you know quite a lot about because it's close to what you're working on, yet the version you read in the (insert name of any paper here) is so riddled with errors that you assume that shoddy journalism must abound. After a while, you pick out the journalists that know how to balance a story and know where to get their data from and you read only their stuff; or, you just read The Register and realise that if you're going to get a slant, it might as well be an extreme one which is at least entertaining. With Public Sector IT, there's too often no need to get the data wrong to make the story work and certainly no need to get the basics wrong, which is what ticked me off about this shoddy bit of work in the Telegraph: In February, the Home Office's new payments system - developed by Accenture - was blamed for the late filing of the department's accounts. I spent a while looking this up - and made the mistake of looking for references to Adelphi and Accenture (which brings up lots of references but not closely related). Then I remembered that the Home Office uses a partnership called Sirius, headed by Fujitsu, for delivery. And that's where I found the result on Adelphi, and the fact that it wasn't developed by Accenture. Three months later [the NAO] flagged up concerns over Aspire, HMRC's new IT project - also being implemented by Accenture. I guess "project" is a pretty loose term for an outsource of the Inland Revenue's IT that was forecast to cost between £300 million and £400 million a year for between 10 and 18 years. Moreover, I'm sure CapGemini will be a little upset to see that they've been displaced from running the entire contract. The project is also not "new", it was signed in 2004. On the up side, I'd guess that they're closer with their numbers - the outsource is probably costing more than plan, but I'd like to imagine that's at least a little related to the merger of the Inland Revenue (who originally signed the contract) with HM Customs. So who's got a thing against Accenture here? The watchdog published a report on Choose and Book, a new system for hospital appointments, which has already cost £12.4bn. Now that is a lot of money! £12 billion pounds - almost the entire amount spent by the Public Sector in a single year on IT, all on a little itty bitty programme to book appointments. There certainly appear to be problems with Choose and Book, not least the fact that it is not being used by as many GPs as expected so is not booking as many appointments as it should, but it's not likely to have cost this much. If it was more than £100 million, I'd be surprised (And I'm pretty sure that £64 million was the budget cost at the beginning). Interesting, no mention of any supplier ... There have also been enormous and high-profile problems at the Child Support Agency and with the administration of tax credits, which resulted in £2bn of benefits being paid to the wrong people. Problems there have been but I'm pretty sure that the £2billion was paid to entirely the right people, but that it was overpaid - a relatively simple consequence of the legislation's requirement to adjust the payments made annually in arrears. Naturally, people who were given money spent it. The money went into the economy and, probably, boosted the retail environment and, so far at least, has not contributed much to inflation so could even be judged a good thing (in absolutely the simplest sense - after all, if the money hadn't been given away it might have been spent on another IT project that didn't work out). And no supplier here either ... Sadly the advice offered isn't all that great either, at least in my opinion: "IT evolves quickly, and so over a three-year contract the clients' needs often change also. And this can make the contract more expensive, but if you didn't adapt it the client would end up with a system three years out of date." The problem is not IT evolving - it's that requirements change; developments that take 3 years or more with no incremental deliverables are bound to suffer from updated requirements. What's needed is not "flexible contracts" but disciplined change control, a robust and challenging approach to apparently new requirements to make sure that they do, in fact, hold business value and, finally, the timely purchase of IT equipment (although that is relatively a small part of most application projects) to make sure that the right amount is bought at the right time, so as to reduce the amount of kit sitting around rusting before go live. It then goes on to confuse things: The Government has now launched a new bidding system called eAuctions, which, it claims, will reduce the £14bn annual cost of public sector IT by 20 per cent. The system allows contractors to bid online against competitors in real time. I believe this is referring to the oddly named Zanzibar (one of the Spice Islands if memory serves) - which is a buying system for commodity purchases: laptops, pencil sharpeners, paperclips and whatnot - IT or otherwise. If £14bn is the total cost of public sector IT (5 years ago I calculated it was roughly £13bn, but that was before NHS, ID cards etc so I suspect it is more than £14bn now), then a saving of 20% would be a pretty good number. But, the bulk of Public Sector spend is not on commodity goods but on resources: consultants, development resources, outsource providers etc. The good news is that I broadly agree with the last point: "Few politicians understand that making what can appear simple changes can end up costing a fortune. And of course the private sector is always willing do that work rather than point out it's a waste of money." Not perhaps that politicians don't understand it but that the private sector doesn't do enough to educate the client about what is and isn't a good spend and how the spend might be better controlled. Once government is in up to its neck, it's pretty hard to walk away without significant adverse PR or wild exit costs. The public sector doesn't need me to defend it and Accenture certainly don't (and it would be so unlike me anyway). There is plenty of other stuff out there to peruse on public sector IT, such as this, on Richard Bacon's website from a PAC report less than a month ago: By the end of March this year, the four major contractors—BT, Accenture, Fujitsu and CSC—had received only £250 million in payments on£5 billion-worth of contracts. However, their spending in what I believe to be a doomed effort to make the fundamentally flawed system work has been massive. Accenture has wisely already set aside £260 million as provisions against losses on the contract, but the remaining three companies have remained strangely silent. By the end of March this year—two and a half years in—BT had received just £1.3 million on its contract of£996 million. My best advice indicates that BT has spent more than £200 million trying to get systems up and running. That amount does not yet figure in its annual accounts. I understand that BT intends to replace its existing software supplier with Cerner, fresh from that company’s poor performance at Nuffield. However, that means that most, or perhaps all, of BT’s work in progress on the existing contract will need to be written off. Uhoh. Trouble ahead? Now, all I need is a Big Brother story. Where did I put that piece on ID cards?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

New York Marathon November 2006

Just wanted to say thank you to those folks who have donated money to Macmillan as I train for the NY marathon. The total is building up and I'm on track with my training too, much aided by good weather.

4 years on, text messages emerge

After I evangelised years ago about the prospect of kids being able to get their exam results by text, it's finally starting to happen, albeit in small doses. At a government conference in early 2002, I majored on the potential for text messages to be used as a major channel for government services. The story was picked up pretty widely in the press. At the time we didn't have the technology ready but we weren't far off solving some of the issues. John Lettice, at The Register, gave me a bit of a hard time in a follow up piece. John noted: We do however doubt the examining bodies' and/or schools' willingness and capability to collate and distribute results in secure SMS form. Or indeed as email, or posted on a secure web site. Reality check: just yesterday The Register supplied sprog one's school with a single first class stamp, GCSE result delivery for the use of. Under the circumstances we do not expect them to be asking us to stump up for our share of an SMS server in the foreseeable future. As with most things in government, it's all about timing. The Daily Telegraph carried an article a couple of weeks ago (ok, so I'm behind with my reading) on exactly this topic: mobile phone delivery of exam results. "We have a delay in giving the results now because the exam boards print out the results for each subject, distribute them to thousands of schools and the youngsters then have to go to the school on the Thursday," he said. "But it is changing. In Scotland, in the Outer Hebrides, youngsters are getting results on the phone, and now in England we are trialling results on the internet." I followed up my thinking with some conference speeches on the same topic, wondering about the issues involved - such as how to provide assurance that it's really government alerting you, how to deal with replies and so on. The Exam Results folks aren't the first to get there - the Inland Revenue (as was) were sending text reminders and payment notifications in early 2005. And, perhaps most notably, the congestion charge folks have been accepting payment by text (with an account set up previously) since launch. So kudos to the QCA folks for getting there - they gave me just as hard a time as John Lettice 4 years ago, so it's good to it happen. Of course, with time, everything becomes their idea. And I have absolutely no problem with that - bring it on. Now if we could just launch the 888 idea, I'd happily applaud.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Meanwhile, in the land of Nod

Plainly we've all been missing a survey on e-government and handily, the kind souls at Microsoft have filled the gap. Apparently 37% of the UK population think e-government services are as good as those offered by the private sector but 64% never use them. So at least a few people, if not lots, have an opinion about a service they've never used (perhaps more evidence of us passing the neighbour test?). 7% said that services were old fashioned and inefficient - if that's the set of people within the 37% then 20% of users think the services are rubbish, if it's within the 64% then just over 10% of people don't use the services because they've heard or think that they're rubbish. Which all goes to show that surveys are, for the most part, absolutely and utterly pointless. But I think I've been there before. Still, the source of the article I link to, publictechnology.net is home to some of the strangest web advertising I've seen in a while. Words in the article are double-underlined and link to ads when you hover over them. So if you hover over "public services", you're offered a link to Human Services Degree Information. Hovering over "survey" gives you an about real estate and surveyors. All very useful stuff I'm sure. I hope that's not the basis of their revenue model. Two conclusions are offered: With figures highlighting how access, digital inclusion and educating citizens are the key to increasing the use of online services, there needs to be a renewed focus on the importance of partnering with business to help support the public sector in developing solutions and enabling access for all. (which may be a Microsoft conclusion, although it's not stated) Improving take-up is the next big challenge - adverts with the strapline 'Connect to your council' have been appearing over the last few months in the press and on radio. We need to continue to encourage people to use the services on offer and get some real momentum going among local citizens – and that's everyone who lives in this country." (which is a conclusion from the LGA representative). Take-up is the next big challenge. Good lord, where have you been for the last 5 years. Take-up has always been the challenge. Even I've posted about it 67 times on this blog, let alone the number of times I've talked about it on stage. Zzzzz.

e Won, gov None - Number 3 in an occasional seris

The last two brief looks at online services have clearly shown old world government taking the lead over e-government so I'm pleased to see the trend reversed. I'm probably last to the dance on this - at least one commenter has pointed me at the Car Tax Renewal service - but I'm there at last. Renewal time came and after walking a couple of miles to the post office where I renewed my tax disc last year I was disappointed to find it was now a furniture store. Banks into bars and post offices into posh sofa stores. Next stop, tax offices into travel agents? As far as I can tell, the renewal application doesn't run on direct.gov but it has a 'skin' that matches (indeed, you can see the skin specified in the URL), but it's simple to find from dg. The site shows you pictures of the forms you'll need - even if you haven't been sent the reminder (which, for the second year in a row, I hadn't received). All you have to do is key in one number. DVLA then checks your insurance and your MOT (giving rise to the one restriction - you must have a new-style MOT which most of you will have unless you happened to fall victim to a recent outage that would have meant you stil had a hand-written MOT). Three minutes after you start during which time you're kept entertained by a graphic of a car moving down an animated road, you're done and your tax disc is in the post. Maybe in future generations we'll be able to print one out right there with a special bar code on it to prove it's valid (on the assumption that the police can check the tax disc database as well, displaying a tax disc ought to be redundant these days, but perhaps it's useful visual check?). The next day I called DVLA just to check on a small point. By coincidence, someone I work with, who was at the next desk, had their tax renewal stuff with them and overheard me talking to DVLA. They renewed right there as did someone a few desks away. I hope it works otherwise I'm in trouble. Whilst I was on the phone to DVLA, two things impressed me: the first was that their system told me how long I was likely to have to wait (between 2 and 5 mins - which turned out to be about 2 1/2) and the second was that they referred me to directgov if I wanted to look up information online, not to the DVLA site. This is the first e-government service I've experienced the "neighbour effect" - a test I coined in January 2003 (on this blog anyway, I may have used it at a conference earlier). I'm really quite excited by that - it may only be a sample of one, but it takes only one to start a trend.