Wednesday, September 28, 2011

We Are All Integrators

My email runs on an exchange server, my files sync with dropbox or sugarsync, my calendar is in MobileMe (soon to be iCloud), my contacts are split across my phone/LinkedIn/Facebook, I collaborate in podio/google+/basecamp, I track projects in trello etc

In short, many times every day I act as the integrator for all of these services on my desktop, phone and iPad.

As governments (and corporations) move increasingly to the cloud, their employees will inevitably integrate products themselves. The "single helpdesk number" that they can avail themselves of today will be largely useless as there won't be a single provider - and any provider that there is won't know the whole picture.

There is a huge wave of change coming to government IT as a result of the focus on cloud.

Some corporations already give their employees a handful of cash and let them buy whatever laptop or desktop they want - the days of a "government laptop" are perhaps as numbered as company cars were a few years ago.

Perhaps another step is a budget for "apps" being handed over - if an employee wants to use googleapps or Dropbox or some other service then they can subscribe themselves. Project teams will coalesce around the same few apps to make themselves more productive and as long as everyone doesn't want to use a different email service we'd all still be able to communicate. Does there even need to be a single email provider in a department or just a good directory?

In short, for many workers in government, they will soon integrate their IT at work just as they integrate it at home.

There are interesting implications for government there - how does FoI work, how does availability and integrity get dealt with/understood, how do custom/legacy apps work (the lengthy package and build process doesn't fit this) and so on.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Daily Mail Guide to Government IT

Saturday's Daily Mail carried a story entitled "it's only your money going down the drain" which contained the following guide to successful IT projects:

First, ministers should scale down ambitions and choose systems shown to work elsewhere.

Second, they must open up competition to new contractors: it is estimated the six biggest firms win nearly four-fifths of contracts, despite often-lamentable track records.

And, third, technicians and contractors should make more use of open-source software and open standards, which allows systems made by rival — and smaller — manufacturers to work together.

Using such software, Martha Lane Fox and a small group of geeks built Alpha.gov.uk —which will eventually replace 700 government websites with one personalised portal — in under three months. It cost less to make than the price of one government tender process.

I leave the reader to conjure with the image of Martha and her group of geeks.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

HP ... Buy it now?

Rumours are rife that HP's board is considering replacing their CEO with Meg Whitman, she of eBay success and, well, gubernatorial non-success.  HP just announced, as I was typing this post, that Meg Whitman will take over as the new CEO of HP, effective immediate.

They say that everyone looks at a new problem with the lens they already know.

So Leo Apotheker was a software guy and figured HP needed to do more software, hence wanting to sell off PCs and buy Autonomy.

If the lens analogy is true, then what would Meg Whitman's appointment bring? The auction of pez-dispenser shaped servers?

After 8 months on the HP board, Meg Whitman finds herself in charge of a company with $100bn in revenue, about 4% of which is software.  From 1998 to 2008, she grew revenue at eBay from $4m to $8bn - a stunning feat; but not the same as taking on HP? Ask Carly perhaps.

Interesting times ahead.  Rumours are now spreading that HP will be broken up into its component parts with each piece being sold off.

There will at least be an easy place for HP to auction off all of the remaining WebOS tablets and perhaps anything else that needs to be moved fast in the event of a breakup.

Update 23/9/11 (Via Silicon Alley Insider)


On a conference call with analysts, HP chairman Ray Lane spelled out the three reasons the board decided to can Leo Apotheker:

1. HP's executive team was not on the same page. "This is a big company that requires the executive team to be on the same page ... we didn't see an executive team working together," said Lane. [It must have been filled with executives fighting each other.]

2. No operating execution. Interestingly, Lane and the board like Apotheker's strategy, they just hate his inability to pull it off. Lane said Apotheker couldn't get down deep in the business to land it ahead of expectations.

3. Communications were horrible. Sounds like Apotheker's undoing started on August 18 when the company announced plans to kill the TouchPad, and potentially spin out the PC business. It was muddled message, and the board didn't appreciate it.

Lane wasn't just negative on Apotheker. He was also negative on Mark Hurd. He said Apotheker came and the company's spending had been cut to the bone and it couldn't operate. Apotheker had a strategy, but the board saw "weakness" and didn't think he'd get the job done.

Lane believes that the three areas of deficiency he outlined are strengths for Meg Whitman, the new CEO. Her greatest attributes are, "leadership," "team play," "communications," and "execution," according to Lane

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Destruction By Default

Digital by Default is, I think, a good and well-meaning objective.  In 2011, why would you have a service that wasn't designed to be used digitally (with appropriate consideration given to access by those who aren't or can't get online)?

There is, though, a problem in that it implies, even if subtly, that we're continuing on the path set in 2001 with "100% online by 2005" - that is, that all offline services have an online equivalent and, indeed, that government itself continues to provide many services.

In 2006, when DVLA first put their tax disc service online (to my surprise), I wondered why government was involved (at all) in the tax disc process.  

And so I'd like to propose that the flagship policy be "Destruction by Default" - the first question is "do we need this at all?", the second is "does government need to be involved at all?"

It's definitely harder to find services that would succeed in the first category - ones that we could get rid of tomorrow.   It would be easiest to continue what has already been started - website rationalisation, data centre consolidation, shared services, back office consolidation and so on.  But if you start with true services and say "what can we just not do" that feels hard.  So let's skip that and come back to it.

Considering services on the basis of whether government needs to be involved at all is easier.

Tax Discs (to repeat an earlier topic)

Insurance companies give you a tax disc when you buy insurance and come up with some clever model to wrap that cost so that it appears cheaper.  Better still, there isn't any such thing as a "tax disc" only "tax" - after all, no one makes me wear a coloured sticker on my forehead when I've paid my VAT bill.

Council Tax

Today council tax is calculated for your property based on a price for your property calculated by a wing of HMRC known as the Valuations Office.  The work was done years ago and so your house is valued, as far as VOA are considered, as it was 20 years ago.  It probably doesn't matter when the value was calculated.  If your house was expensive in 1991 it's probably more expensive now; if your house was built since then, it has a new value attached to it.

What if you calculated council tax on the basis of electricity used?  Big houses with big families use lots of electricity, big houses with single occupants use less, small houses with elderly occupants use less still.  The tax is levied on your electricity bill in the same way that VAT is collected by stores, and then handed to government each quarter (or more regularly when smart meters come if desired).

This has (at least) one real benefit and one glaring flaw.  The benefit is that this could act as a super-incentive for becoming greener - not only would you save electricity costs by being smarter about what you left on overnight, but you could save tax.  The flaw is that governments - local or central - like their budgets to be clear and fixed at the start of the year and if you reduced electricity consumption during the year (or installed solar panels and so collected money perhaps), you would leave a hole in the tax budget.   Still, I like it.

To be continued ...

Transformational Slide Rules

I was in a meeting the other day when someone said they had something that would "Accelerate Transformational Efficiencies." I'm pretty sure the capitals were his, for emphasis, rather than mine.  Naturally I was intrigued and looked up, asking "How so?"

In his hand was a slide rule which he held up.  This revolutionary gadget would, he said, achieve this said acceleration of transformational efficiencies.  All by itself. It would, he went on, allow government entities to achieve the strenuous cost save targets that they had been set - and, better still, it would (of course), by virtue of its accelerating effect one assumes, allow those savings to be brought forward.

Ok, so it wasn't a slide rule in his hand.  But the rest of the conversation is pretty much verbatim.  It wasn't that far off a slide rule but it wasn't quite an electric adding machine.

Having seen the gadget and experimented with it, I am entirely confident that I wasn't looking at the next increment in the computer revolution.  I've encouraged him to lead his product sales with something a little more realistic.

Gove Makes Case For Cloud

With today's FT front page story (update: and a BBC story not behind a paywall which says that there isn't a story after all), we might just have found another supporter for increased use of the cloud in government, albeit an inadvertent and perhaps unlikely one. Who knew that Michael Gove would be such a help?  Maybe he just wants a GoveCloud?

New arrivals in government are often surprised by the processes and controls that they operate under. I suspect this government, perhaps the first to be truly wired, felt it more than most. After all, when Tony Blair took office, a web was something spiders spun. It strikes me that the last thing anyone was trying to do was to hide information from the FoI act.

Instead they were, in my view, reacting to:

- A desire to be in control of their own inbox so that they could read and answer every email rather than have a gatekeeper or administrator preview it

- Their experience in opposition when they were doubtless used to reading email on their phones, their tablets, a web browser on holiday or on their sleek MacBooks.

- A first time experience with a government laptop and an all too common 40 minute boot time coupled with the requirement for probably 3 passwords (alphanumeric and mandatory special characters) not to mention a dongle. All enough to drive anyone to an alternative solution.

Cloud in and of itself isn't the solution to these problems but the consideration of the cloud will force departments to think about the realistic security controls their data needs. That will lead to downgrading much of the perceived need for increased security - after all, corporations the world over who doubtless worry about their corporate secrets just as much as government worries about its own secrets.

Data in the cloud and in a government domain, held under a government contract, will be just as liable to the rules of FoI as data within the big data centre firewall. But it will be more useful to its users. Alongside that costs will fall and productivity will even go up, discounting for the changes in work/life balance.

And then the non-story that is today's FT front page will, instead, be asking questions about why government data is still locked behind big, expensive, unwieldy, dedicated, 20th century systems.

Meanwhile, I suspect a lot of people across government swallowed hard when they read this story - almost certainly after it was forwarded to their private mail accounts - and wondered whether to carry on using their android tablets for email.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Seeking email data

I'm interested in finding out for central and local government entities what buckets email falls into.  So, for a typical month:

- How much email is entirely within the domain (so never leaves the department or local authority servers)?

- How much email is to other equivalent bodies (so in central government to or from the GSI or similar networks)?

- How much email is to or from the Internet

I thought this might give an interesting view on the likely levels of security needed in cloud email.  It won't say everything but it might help.

So if you have that kind of info - or want to speculate - let me know.  All data gratefully received, even anonymously.