Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What a headache

I had a bit of a headache this morning and idly decided to look and see what advice there is on the web.  Naturally, I turned first to directionlessgov (as the quickest way to get both google and direct.gov results) and then to both nhs.uk and nhsdirect.nhs.uk. I then went to dh.gov.uk and, for comparison, usa.gov (which is the old first.gov).  The top three, directly pasted in from each, were:

Directionlessgov
(google)
vs
Direct.gov

Google

Headaches
and cluster headaches are less prevalent, but have serious, and sometimes life-
.... Patients with chronic headaches: chronic daily headache (CDH) and ...

from http://www.dh.gov.uk ()

Page 1 148mm 13mm 13mm 40mm 8mm 5mm Profile Keys: Copy/Text Free ...
help to take away the headache and other symptoms of a migraine attack such as
feeling ... if you are over 50 and this is your first headache of this type ...

from http://www.mhra.gov.uk ()

Taking the headache out of managing your staff | Business Link
Home > Training Directory > Find events > Employing people events > Recruitment
and getting started events > Taking the headache out of managing your staff ...

from http://www.businesslink.gov.uk (17k)

Direct.gov

All about seasonal flu, including common symptoms to look out for and how to get a flu jab
Seasonal flu
from http://www.direct.gov.uk/

What causes strokes and what you can do to reduce the risks of having a stroke, as well as where to get help and advice
Strokes
from http://www.direct.gov.uk/

Find out about free immunisation schemes for influenza (flu) and other highly infectious diseases if you're over 50
Flu jabs and immunisation
from http://www.direct.gov.uk/

NHS.uk versus nhsdirect.nhs.uk NHS Choices

  • Headache
    A tension-type headache is the most common type of primary headache. � Sleep is often disrupted, with the headache causing you to wake up at the same time each night. � Headache
  • Treatments and Conditions
    Skip navigation NHS Choices your health, your choices. Search entire site Search for: search the site... search Main menu: �
  • Headache - Treatment
    � at the time of the headache. � dose as soon as a headache starts, a second dose can be taken after 4 hours if necessary. � taken to prevent a headache but taken at the time of the headache.
  • NHS direct

    Headache Prevention - Health encyclopaedia - NHS Direct
    ...menu Health encyclopaedia � H � Headache Headache...Headache ...during these periods will reduce headache frequency. During headache free periods, alcohol does not...
    http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/articles/article.aspx?articleId=496&sectionId=9
    Headache Causes - Health encyclopaedia - NHS Direct
    ...menu Health encyclopaedia � H � Headache Headache...Headache ...the painkillers and a withdrawal headache may occur if painkillers are...
    http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/articles/article.aspx?articleId=496&sectionId=5
    Headache Diagnosis - Health encyclopaedia - NHS Direct
    ...menu Health encyclopaedia � H � Headache Headache...Headache ...Keeping a headache diary may help you to...
    http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/articles/article.aspx?articleId=496&sectionId=7
    dh.gov.uk
    dh.gov.uk
  • 1. The Headache Clinic, York Hospital

    The clinic takes a person-centred approach to educating people about their symptoms so they can modify their behaviour and use the most appropriate strategy to control their symptoms. The lead clinician is a GP who has a special interest in headache and is part of a multidisciplinary team. The clinic has set up a specific patient pathway for this service.

    1 March 2005

    Quality requirement 2: Early recognition, prompt diagnosis and treatment section

  • 2. Guidelines for the appointment of general practitioners with special interests in the delivery of clinical services: headaches

    This guidance describes the core functions and responsibilities of a GPwSI in headaches, and factors such as evidence of experience to be considered in making an appointment.

    1 April 2003

    Publications policy and guidance section

  • 3. Action on Neurology programme

    Examples of good practice from the Action on Neurology pilots.

    11 May 2005

    Quality requirement 2: Early recognition, prompt diagnosis and treatment section

  • first.gov (which uses msn live search)

  • MedlinePlus: Headache

    Headache ... National Institutes of Health. The primary NIH organization for research on Headache is the ...

    www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/headache.html- Cached -More from National Institutes of Health

  • MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Headache

    Alternative names Return to top. Pain - head. Definition Return to top. A headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. Serious causes of headaches are extremely rare.

    www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003024.htm- Cached -More from National Institutes of Health

  • Headache Information Page: National Institute of Neurological ...

    Headache information sheet compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke ... 21st Century Prevention and Management of Migraine Headaches Summary of a workshop on 21st ...

    www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/headache/headache.htm


  • I've probably been in this too long to still be surprised at the results.  I think, though, that I am surprised that NHS.uk (NHSchoices), NHSdirect.nhs.uk (the famously recursive website name)  and direct.gov aren't all pointing to the same set of content - i.e. that one of them isn't the de facto authoritative source on "headaches".  NHSchoices sources its content from NHSdirect, although I'm not quite sure how (I think it's repasted, not synced via some clever method but I may be wrong).

    Some other points that intrigued me:

    - Google finds something on the DH site that is vaguely relevant - it's a PDF document (and, oddly, directionless doesn't give me the chance to view it as html), but it isn't the same thing that the DH site itself thinks I was looking for

    - USA.gov is following its original strategy of not being the source of content and instead links to somewhere it thinks is the right place; and it uses a rebadged search engine from Microsoft.  Maybe the US government thinks Google is too powerful now ;)

    - Direct.gov has a thing about 'flu and headaches, although I'm not sure this is the 'flu season, despite the weather

    This search business is definitely a tough old game.  The winner, though, has to be NHSdirect which includes a section on "treatment" - NHSchoices, despite rebadging the content, doesn't have that link.  But it's certainly not a winner by a knockout, simply on points.

    Perhaps I should have added the word "goat" to the search term

    Sunday, July 29, 2007

    Titles

    Just booking some flights on ba.com, I've come to the penultimate stage - entering my personal details.  I'm used to picking from Mr, Mrs and Miss in the "title" pulldown.  BA plainly have a very different class of customer travelling with them.  Their list includes Alderman, Baron, Comtessa, Group Captain, Her Highness and over 150 other choices including various foreign language equivalents.   It becomes quite a chore looking for "Mr" in a list that long.  As I scrolled down, I briefly found myself wondering whether choosing something other than plain boring old "Mr" might enhance my chances of an upgrade or just result in me being stopped at immigration for impersonating an officer/countess/baron or other noble person.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Government on the Never Never

    Storming (both me and the weather) along English roads and on into France - where it was more like cruising in bright sunshine - I was struck by the elegance and simplicity of the "peage" system today.  Blue arrows above the lane means pay by credit card.  Slide up to the machine, insert your card, and the appropriate fee is deducted.   Even small fees - the lowest I had was 2.20 euros are handled without fuss.  I have no idea how they handle credit card commission payments, but I know that almost nowhere in the UK would let you pay such a small amount with a credit card (even debit cards, with their fixed fee commission, usually attract a minimum of a few pounds)

    By contrast, just before I left for France, I had renewed my tax disc online (of course)   Super simple process - they send you a reminder in the post (they have my email address now; next year they should try that perhaps.  They could chance that I haven't changed it in the interim and, if they get a bounce-back or I don't buy my tax disc within 2 weeks of the mail, send me a paper reminder).  Anyway, as I've said before here (once someone had pointed out to me that it was available online), you type in the reference number, it looks up my insurance and MOT status and then you enter your card details and that's that.  Except not quite. 

    There's an extra �2.50 for paying by credit card.  As they explain:

    The charge levied by credit card companies for this facility will be passed on to the customer. Following a public consultation exercise on a number of different options, a flat rate charge for credit card payments was chosen. The �2.50 charge covers the costs incurred by the Agency for providing this service. Debit card payments will remain free of charge.  

    The levy is only a little over 1.2% on my tax disc price (which seems to indicate that I am dangerously polluting the environment - in my defence the car is so old that no one seemed to care much about CO2 emissions when I bought it).   The �2.50 is, it seems, a fixed fee - not a percentage of the total transaction - so those with efficient cars paying �35/year would definitely feel aggrieved in percentage terms at least.

    My own recollection of commission costs for credit cards is that the fee is nearer 2.5%, although it could certainly be reduced by negotiations (Amex and Diners Card used to have commissions nearer 4% I think). It's possible that either (a) DVLA is absorbing the difference, (b) over the spread of different tax disc rates, �2.50 approximates to an average of 2.5% (tax charges for HGV are, it seems, much higher so the percentage would be correspondingly much lower) or (c) they have indeed negotiated a cheaper deal.

    It's an interesting dilemma for governments around the world.  There are several questions to answer before you commit to allowing credit cards to be used:

    - Should you even consider potentially adding to the credit burden of the nation? Whilst government gets the money early and on time with minimal risk of fraud, the country's credit card debt could increase significantly if credit card payment was available across the full spectrum of government services.  The long term potential downside of adding to the credit mountain is serious.

    - What message are you sending? Those citizens who are already in debt may use their credit cards to settle government bills that they cannot afford, worsening their debt position.  Of course, government gets the money from the credit card company, but it leaves the people behind - and is a step removed from knowing about and understanding the problem and therefore unable to help them work through it. Is it right that those who pay the minimum balance every month should incur interest charges on government bills?

    Does your legislation support the idea.  When we built the "payment engine" for the Government Gateway, I think sometime in late 2002 (someone will correct me if that's wrong, it could easily have been late 2003), we were unable to offer credit cards through the service - UK government legislation did not allow items such as road tax or personal tax to be paid by credit card.  That changed with the Finance Act of 2004.

    - Then, what kind of process do you have to go through before you start accepting such payments.  Some countries can I imagine, just get going - after all, credit cards are a de facto currency for most of the developed world (in the USA there is almost a complete absence of debit cards I believe).  DVLA chose a consultation that was entirely based on the premise that the charge would be passed on to the customer, the only point at issue was what the structure of the charge would be.  Interestingly, their paper presents 5 options and none of the 5 were selected - the nearest is the first option that suggests a flat rate of �3.50.

    - How do you build the business case? At the simplest level, credit card payments cost more than other forms of payment, purely because of the cost of commission.  The real question though is what is the overall cost of your collection process?  How much does it cost to handle cash over the counter, cheques through the post (with the dual opening and careful handling those need), debit cards over the phone (IVR and with customer service support), debit cards over the web, direct debit (set up through IVR or with support again) and then credit cards (phone, web and customer support).  Wrapped around this is the strategy you're going to undertake about which channels you want to drive.  Supermarkets all over the UK have stopped taking cheques in the last few months - so they've clearly made up their mind.  Ultimately we're all driving to and end point of direct debit, debit card via the web and credit card via the web - in the short to medium term, these need to be supported by phone support, but why not just IVR?  In this context, i.e. at the end point, the extra commission from credit cards will still stand out, but on the route to it, why should it do so?  One local council's report from the Audit Commission outlines the various costs incurred:

    Direct Debit �0.30

    Standing Orders - unknown

    Credit and Debit cards �0.71

    Girobank swipecards �0.73

    Town Hall �0.80

    Roosegate Housing Office �1.05

    Ormsgill Housing office �1.37

    Dalton Town Hall �1.58

    The credit/debit card line plainly doesn't distinguish between the two - and I don't think it's an average - so the credit card line would be a little higher, but perhaps not as high as the housing office amounts.  Standing orders are flagged as "unknown" - they cost more than direct debits because data has to be rekeyed.  I sense here, though, that all of these are manual processes requiring much data entry with the attendant risk of keying errors.  The costs also look, generally speaking, not fully loaded - they probably don't include bank handling charges across the board nor "overhead" costs such as premises and so on; but that's me speculating, it's not clear from the data and I may be completely wrong.

    - And finally, are you actually going to charge?  In the USA, the IRS allows payment by credit cards, and does not pass on the fee although several third parties do (including those who accept phone payments - which attracts hundreds of millions of dollars a year in payments) -  those who settle by phone seem happy to exchange that additional cost for the thousands of air miles that they receive in return.  The IRS had 1.5 million online credit card payments in 2005.  US consumer affairs organisations are worried about the impact on people's finances and whether they're doing the maths right, i.e. how much is an air mile really worth to you?  MSN Money, on the other hand, encourages it.  The real question is perhaps better phrased as "will you be subsidising credit cards if you pay the commission and therefore disadvantaging - i.e. increasing the costs - for those paying by other means"

    Oddly, despite the public consultation exercise conducted by DVLA, there's not a standard approach in government (sharp intake of breath and expression of surprise from all around no doubt).   As far as I can see, local councils were largely "told" to allow credit and debit card payments in one of the Better (Best?) Value initiatives.  But, for instance:

     - East Hertfordshire council don't allow credit card payments, for fear of encouraging those already in debt to take on more debt

    - The Waste Management Service in Bromley is unable to accept credit cards, perhaps because of system issues

    - In Stockton, credit card use is discouraged because of the additional costs that the council would face (indicating that they don't pass the commission costs on)

    - Generally, the Inland Revenue does not accept any credit card payments for taxation payments

    - I found one council, although I've lost the link, where they did the maths on accepting credit cards and found that it would cost them �26,000 a year in commission.  On the positive side of the balance, they speculated that payments would be made earlier, there would be less evasion and that, overall, this would counter the cost.   It seemed a reasonable business case.  In general, I found few local councils who stated on their site that they would pass on the transaction costs to the customer - and, whilst it wasn't a complete sample, I must have checked 20 sites.  One that did pass on the cost was Tonbridge and Mailling, who didn't say how much the charge was.

    What I think is interesting is that, as so often the case, each of these decisions is taken locally - and the business case is built locally.  Transaction charges for credit cards can be varied based on how big you are and, I'd like to think, what your risk profile is.  After all, the commission charged by credit card companies has a couple of components:

    - Their need to make a profit (so covers the costs of customer acquisition/marketing, operations/processing etc)

    - The cost of money - credit card companies generally pay the originator of the request (the merchant or, in this case, government) before they receive the money from their card holder

    - The risk inherent in the transaction.  All credit card companies put aside reserves to cover fraud, bad debt and so on.  With government, fraud is almost certainly zero - I'm unlikely to pay my parking fine/council tax with a credit card I've stolen from someone else.  The bad debt risk doesn't go away.

    On the council side, the costs of processing vary by a few factors:

    - The degree of automation.  A no-touch service is cheaper to operate than  one that requires customer service follow-up or telephone handling

    - The volume of transactions handled and whether that creates a reduction in commission

    Taking all of these together, it doesn't seem too big a step to argue that if a government developed its payments service around 4 or 5 payment gateways that routed to two or three different authorisation providers, the total volumes available would allow for a significant reduction in commission - remembering that fraud is going to be zero.

    The increased flexibility in payment terms and the agreement with the credit card companies to pay early should ensure that government has more cash sooner than it would have with cheque payments - and should therefore allow the commission cost to be offset entirely.  This should ensure that no one is receiving an unfair subsidy.

    Abandoning payment by cheque and switching everything to direct debit seems a sensible first choice. Changing phone support to be 80% IVR for direct debit set up, credit and debit card handling a sensible second step. And then working as a collection of local government authorities or central government departments to sign blanket deals that recognise the volumes and risks inherent in government transactions versus more standard consumer transactions.  Governments may save enough money in the entire process to allow them to underwrite the bad debt side of credit card payments made to government agencies, making the risk to the credit card company zero and allowing only for a "profitability payment".

    This approach has to be balanced by the need to ensure that money is collected.  I imagine that over the years each local council has found what it thinks is the best way for its own area to get maximum collection - and one of those ways is to offer as many varied payment methods as possible.  I couldn't fine one that used bartercard but perhaps that's worth a go too.  None accepted Paypal either, but I guess that is backed by a credit card so is much the same.

    Following a suggestion like this, some folks in local government would likely instantly lament the high cost of setting up an IVR, training it for local, regional accents and so on. The answer to that is to buy one, two or three IVR systems for a variety of local councils and services, not 100,200 or 300, or one for every local council.  At the same time, customer support is centralised into a few locations, and local difficult collections maintained for the can't pay/won't pay people who need some more direct attention.  As long as we continue to set everything up in the borough (loosest sense of the word - city, county or metropolitan area would all work) in which the money is paid, then whilst unit costs appear individually small, aggregate total costs continue to be high.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Tadpole Strategies

    image Big head, long tail.  Not that I'm stealing Chris Anderson's theory of the web, just re-awakening a description of government on the web that the OeE used in mid-2003 and one that we probably borrowed from Clay Shirky.

    When I first worked in e-government, there was only one strategy for getting government online. It was driven by the the "2005, 100% online, citizen focused, joined up government" vision which, arguably, is as much a strategy as you need, but there wasn't anything more explicit than that. 

    The result was thousands of government websites, very frequently replicating content that was already available elsewhere, still more often providing content that was less than authoritative or was quickly out of date as few had realised how genuinely hard it is to keep a website up to date and relevant. 

    During 2003 I regularly tracked the number of occurrences of a few government products across the entire .gov.uk domain as a proxy for the degree of duplication.  I repeated the test today to give some comparison For instance:

    Product June 2003 count July 2007 count Growth
    Disability Living Allowance 9,000 122,000 13x
    Tax Credits 11,400 193,000 17x
    Housing Benefit 49,000 1,160,000 23x
    Self Assessment 22,700 401,000 18x

    This is a far from perfect proxy but I think it plainly illustrates a staggering rate of duplication, even just within the .gov.uk space.   To try and refine the measure a little, I looked at the rate of growth of the same terms within the site of the nominal owner of the product:

    Product Owner 2003 count 2007 count Growth
    Disability Living Allowance DWP 1,010 1,660 1.6x
    Tax Credits HMRC 2,730 28,800 10x
    Housing Benefit DWP 2,180 3,900 1.8x
    Self Assessment HMRC 2,820 41,700 15x

    This shows that whilst the products certainly occur more frequently now than in 2003 within the owner sites, the growth is far higher across the wider government domain for 3 of the products (and a little higher for the last, self assessment).

    My argument, often expressed in this blog, is that this is wasteful for government and confusing for the customer.  In July 2003, there were 2,643 government web sites.  I don't have a current total but the last time I looked, about a year ago, the total had increased to over 4,000.  I suspect it's not far from that now - given that very few sites appear to have been closed since then.

    One of the consequences of confusing customers appears to have been that few used online government services.

    PSF Slides - 28.03.2003 - government balls

    At a Public Sector Forums conference in March 2003, I shared this slide with the audience.  It showed that individual government sites had low market share and low loyalty when compared with market leading sites (such as the bbc and amazon).  When aggregated together, however, the potential market share for government was significantly higher - although loyalty didn't budge much. In short, joined up government online has the potential to reach a big chunk of the market

     

    To illustrate this point further, here are the current market share figures for the top 10 government web sites for last week, sourced from Hitwise via Public Sector Forums (the comparison figures are those from July 29th 2006):

    1 Met Office www.metoffice.gov.uk 13.42%  (versus 11.48%)

    2 Jobcentre Plus www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk 9.89% (versus 10.21%)

    3 Directgov www.direct.gov.uk 7.18%  (versus 4.51%)

    4 HM Revenue & Customs www.hmrc.gov.uk 4.31%  (versus 4.49%)

    5 Vehicle Licensing Online www.vehiclelicence.gov.uk 2.55% (versus 4.39%) 

    6 10 Downing St www.number-10.gov.uk 2.28%  (not listed)

    7 Driving Standards Agency www.dsa.gov.uk 1.77%  (versus 2.15%)

    8 DVLA www.dvla.gov.uk 1.73%  (versus 2.1%)

    9 National Center for Biotechnology Information www.ncbi.hlm.nih.gov.uk 1.57%  (versus 2.13%)

    10 National Archives www.nationalarchives.gov.uk 1.55%  (versus 1.84%)

    Local government websites, individually, all have market shares of less than this - which makes sense.  But, like I said, upfront.  Tadpole.  Big head, long tail.  Or maybe that should be long tale.  Here's another view of the tail, from a conference in May 2003, this time looking at pages of content per site (and showing that the bulk of the content is in just a few sites - something like 80% is in less than 5% of sites - although this isn't a perfect measure as some sites hide content behind passwords or database engines).

    PWC event slides - 21.05.2003 - tadpole slide

    Back to the top 10 though.  Downing Street's site makes a rare entry to the top 10, perhaps driven by the change in PM this month (although they were, I think, at the top during the petition against road pricing excitement).  I'm fascinated to see NCBI in there - and even more surprised that it is a consistent top 10 entry. Directgov is, though, the only site to show a significant change in market share - increasing nearly 60%.  In October 2005, Directgov's market share was lower still, at 2.8%.  It looks like the killer government website might be a site that finds jobs for weather forecasters

    Only two government websites make it into the top 100 UK sites according to Alexa.  Jobcentre is at 83 and Transport for London is at 92. So a market share of around 10% is good for only 83rd place. Incidentally 10% UK share is 0.01385% of global market share.

    There are, then, two strategies for dealing with this.

    1. The folks at directionlessgov (oh how they must have laughed when they came up with that name. I'd probably have gone for indirectgov - there's plainly "direction" even if there are those who disagree with it) believe that the solution to the vast number of government web sites is to provide great search, by harnessing google.   They're widely quoted as having spent �60 and 75 minutes developing the site, not to mention harnessing the $168 billion market cap of google. It's been tuned since then and looks really nice - and it's also added a post code search capability which is very smart.
    2. My approach and now also that of the Transformational Government programme, is to aggregate content into "one" site and drive traffic to that through changing the balance of government marketing to promote it heavily.  Government is complex - it's like the most incomprehensible film you've ever seen with a convoluted plot (The Good Shepherd anyone) with threads that diverge and never get picked up again.  Without a guide, you're lost. You sit and scratch your head wondering what it's all about.

    Today, both strategies are needed - but should that be the case always?  Without a guide, such as the search engine offered by directionlessgov or the aggregation of direct.gov, you'll struggle to find what you need in government.  I like what the directionless guys have done and government departments, like many corporations, need people to thumb their nose at it and show it there are other ways - so these comments aren't a dig - but it doesn't solve the real problem which is that tens and probably hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent supporting, maintaining and promoting a vast array of government web sites that rarely see any visitors who almost certainly have very little loyalty - because, for the most part, they don't get the answers that they need.

    The problem with search engines is you have to know what you're looking for - what the search engine does is tell you where you can find it.  So a search for "tax credits" will absolutely take you to the tax credits site (actually, in google, the number one return for this is directgov) but if you're a new parent and you want to know what government can do for you, what would you search for?  Searching for "new parent government uk" takes you to a content aggregation site - parentscentre.gov.uk.  Go to direct.gov and you're one click away from a whole section on what government can do for you as a new parent.  Likewise, you're a click away from everything you need to know about employment, motoring, travel and whatever else you need.

    Direct.gov has, of course, a search engine.  But it's deliberately hobbled.  It's job is to keep you inside the direct.gov website so it only returns entries from that site.  When we built direct.gov there was a huge internal debate about whether it should do that.  I was, for a long time, pro a wider search.  With ukonline.gov.uk, we'd had a full pan-government search engine (using a product from inktomi). As I've said before we tried to do a deal with google - who, at the time, were extraordinarily difficult to deal with. We ended up talking to Eric Schmidt and Sergei Brin directly before we got any traction.  We explored a few options, including using their API and rebadging the results (as directionless does) although the problems with that are several fold:

    1. We couldn't promote specific campaigns by influencing the search results to ensure that our chosen campaign hit the top spot (although there are ways to do this with sponsored links, it hardly made sense to pay for such a "benefit"). I can't even remember, to be honest, how developed ad words were when we were doing this in late 2003.
    2. Newly posted content wouldn't be available through search immediately (we'd have to wait for google to index the site and we had no control over how frequent that indexing was)
    3. Google makes money through advertising and, in theory, had we used them we'd have had their ads alongside our content (directionless strips those which I'm sure is fine for a few dozen searches a week but not so for several hundred thousand or even a few million)

    The final deal we worked on was using a "google appliance", effectively google in a box of its own (one that was made up to look like swiss cheese I think), that we'd host alongside direct.gov and therefore have full control over.  We would have been the first overseas user and google had no UK presence, so would have helped us maintain it remotely.  The price, in the end, made us baulk - Tom has commented that it would have been money well spent, even for a million or so, but at the time there was no way we were going to do it. So we looked at other deals and ending up working with Verity, now owned by Autonomy (I don't know if the new direct.gov still uses Verity).  We spent a lot of time with Verity, working towards our original aim of searching all of government.  At the same time, the direct.gov (actually, it was called the Online Government Store at that time) folks were building their strategy of having a "closed search engine".  Oddly, it was Verity's inability to perform at the scale we needed - it just couldn't return the search results quickly enough when we had a full index of the whole of government - that aligned us with direct.gov's strategy.  Verity, despite their best efforts and the involvement of the guy who wrote the engine, couldn't solve the problem.  And so we ended up, both by design and by default, with an engine that searched only within the walled garden of direct.gov.

    Plainly direct.gov isn't all of government.  In it's early days it wasn't even very much of government, but it has grown now to involve 18 different government departments, all of whom assign people to work co-operatively to join up disparate pieces of government policy and process in a way that makes sense for the customer.  It is, of course, still a veneer.  Government isn't joined up behind direct.gov - and it won't be for a long time but the take up of direct.gov shows that there is demand for it to happen.

    As it aggregates more and more content and especially when it bolsters that with transactional services inside the same brand, then the need for a pan-government search engine decreases - because all of the content is housed in one place, in a consistent and sensible way that is easy to navigate.  It will never do everything right - the directionless folks note, in parliament no less, at the responses you get if you put the word "goat" into the search engine (google takes you to defra's goat pox page, direct.gov takes you to a page about pregnancy, and not about goat pregnancy - where it advises you not to eat goat's cheese). 

    Who knows what you're after if you type in "goat" - maybe you're looking for the law on having a goat as a pet, maybe you're after a picture of one, maybe you want to know what grants are available if you want to be a goat farmer; maybe it's a typo and you really meant "boat".  Government websites aren't going to learn to read minds. And no single site will, any time soon, hold all of the combined knowledge of government that is distributed over those 4,000 sites and however many hundred million pages.

    But, for 80% of the people, it's reasonable to expect that a single well designed and architected site could do 80% of what they need.  The rest probably need a good search engine that looks across all of government - and for that, direct.gov could do far worse than link to directionlessgov (after agreeing a deal with google that lifted the cap on search volumes perhaps).  I even wrote the pitch for a pan-government search engine, posting it on this blog at the end of 2005 (I wrote it 2 or even 3 years earlier I think) - I ended that post with "Anyway, great search is a necessary part of driving e-government adoption. I just believe that without significant consolidation of websites, it won't deliver what's needed".  I still believe that.

    In the meantime, direct.gov is doing something right.  It's volumes are growing at a hefty clip, reaching just over 4,000,000 a month in January 2007 (and I've heard numbers up to 5 million since then):

    directgov volumes

    In early 2003, I proposed a plan for dealing with the problem as I saw it.  I haven't much wavered from this plan as the ultimate way of dealing with e-government strategy, although I've probably written it in a dozen different ways at various times over the last few years.

    • Fewer websites not more. Kill 50 websites for every new domain name.
    • Less content not more. Delete five (or fifty, or five hundred) pages for every page you write.
    • Solve the top 50 questions that citizens ask ... and structure your content around those first. Then do the next 50 and the next. The people who know these questions are the ones that answer the phone in your call centres, the ones that write in to your agency and the ones that visit your offices for help; likewise, they visit accountants, advice bureau, charities and so on.
    • Test search engines to see how your site ranks - both from a mind share side and for individual queries.
    • Impose rigorous discipline on use of "words" - plain speak.
    • Impose even more rigorous discipline on the structure of the content, including metadata so that it's easy to read - by people and by search engines.

    It seems to me that executing against this plan will drive out cost from government (freeing up money to invest in new services and capabilities), encourage greater take-up (if every government letter had a single site name printed on it, pretty soon it would stick in everyone's mind), spark the necessary initiatives to join up the back ends (customer pressure would soon call for that to happen) and so drive out back end efficiencies in government.  It would even reduce the environmental footprint of e-government.  Wins all round.

    Tuesday, July 03, 2007

    Everyone Entitled To An Opinion. But One Wins. Eventually.

    This made me laugh.  Someone, doubtless long-storied editor at Wikipedia, has posted a [probably complete] set of disputed stories from the pages of the online encyclopaedia - the great "edit wars", presumably to continue for many decades to come.

    It includes such gems as:

    Gary Glitter
    Is he a pedophile famous for being a rock star, or a rock star famous for being a pedophile?

    (I'll leave Dan to wonder over paedophile versus pedophile; like encyclopaedia versus encyclopedia)

    (But surely, to add another opinion, he was famous as rock star and is now an infamous paedophile?)

    United Kingdom
    Should the first sentence describe it as a country or state? The final conclusion being that it should be called both and left up to the reader to work out.

    (Many people I know wonder about the state of the UK)

    List of numbers that are always odd

    The number 3 was being considered as possibly being not odd. Page protection was needed to halt the heated debate.

    Daffy Duck

    Did Daffy Duck father any children? Should the events of certain animated films be taken to have occurred in "real life" while others should not? Daffy to Wikipedia: "No comment." A Barbara Walters special is reportedly in the works.

    Jesus

    A very long dispute arguing over whether to use BC/AD or BCE/CE for era notations, resulting in the somewhat foolish use of both systems within the article (i.e. 400 BC/BCE and 30 AD/CE) with the BC/AD terms usually preceding the BCE/CE terms. The dispute is sometimes resurrected.

    (love the wit of that last sentence)

    Halo 2 and Halo 3
    Should there be a disambiguation to pretty hate machine and "Head Like a Hole"? Are Halo numbers official and accepted by Trent Reznor? Are the Halo numbers notable enough to be disambiguated? Are any people going to search for Halo 2 or 3, not expecting information about a video game? Is the form of the Halo number Halo 3 or halo_03 or HALO 3?

    Sorry for the formatting throughout, cutting and pasting seems to be unpredictable with these paragraphs.

    It just shows that there are as many opinions out there as people; that even the definitive online encyclopaedia probably isn't ... and therefore you shouldn't take any of it, including this blog of course, too seriously

    Back In Time

    image I buy magazines all the time.  By the kilo.  I have "always read" magazines that I either subscribe to (BusinessWeek, Fortune, Wired) or buy on reflex when I see them (Edge, The Business, Shares); I have "sometimes read" magazines that I buy because there's something on the cover that I like and that I buy more often than not (The Economist, New Scientist, American GQ, Running); I have "occasional" magazines that I only buy when they really pique my interest (Wallpaper, USA Esquire); and then I have the "I'm waiting at a train station/airport/hotel lobby and need something to read that I haven't already read" magazines which usually means ones about gadgets, computers or cars.

    The net result of this is a constantly growing pile of magazines by my desk at home (and a work bag that always seems to weigh a couple of kilos more than it needs to).  Right now the pile is about two feet tall and that doesn't include the magazines that I've "archived" (i.e. decided that I really must read and can't throw them away but don't have space for in the usual place). 

    The problem is there's always some new, must-read article or even an entire magazine (I've recently started reading "Mother Jones" and the "New Yorker", both of which are cover to cover reads) that hits the top of the pile - and, weekly must-reads arrive, by definition every week.  And that's not to mention the FT every day and the Sunday papers.  So, every so often, I pick a few random magazines from deeper in the pile and catch up on the stories in those. 

    If I go right to the bottom, it seems like I can go back in time. Back to a time when global warming wasn't on the front covers, when Tom Cruise was still a major movie star, when Abu Ghraib hadn't jaded our thinking and when Pirates of the Caribbean was getting good reviews.  After an intensive reading session of old magazines - usually on trains or planes - I end up with a far smaller pile of torn out pages, where I've read something that I want to work further on or perhaps with a weblink that I want to look up when I'm back online.

     Going through my old slide decks has been a similar experience.  I've dug up some ideas and pitches that I put together that just don't make any sense now - maybe they didn't even make sense then; seen some ideas that have taken firm hold and been developed, whether by me or by others; and seen some things that remain startlingly obvious but, at the same time, unexploited.  The ideas that didn't work out are best left unexposed in many cases, but I'd like to shake a few out and see why and whether I can rework them to make them worth a look again; the ideas that are unexploited, I'll expose again and see if there's more do be done.