Tuesday, September 03, 2002

I promised some thoughts on the "soup to nuts" piece on VNUnet. The mole had a few key points - The plan we have for e-government is vast, wide-ranging and complex - There is now clear sense of direction and common purpose - But we may be inventing similarities where they don't exist with our ideas on "common engines" - The timescale is ridiculously ambitious - It would be better to start from scratch and change processes and apply technology to the new processes These are all good points and clearly have value. As you work through any planning process, you need to look at the issues from various angles. This is one angle that we looked at over and over again before proceeding. When the Government Gateway was first being put together - when it was only an idea on the back of a 4 page business case - the idea of building a "single anything" for government was difficult to contemplate. It hadn't been done before. Yet now, the Gateway is used by the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise, Dept of Trade and Industry, Dept of Envt and will soon add the Dept of Work and Pensions, some of the Devolved Administrations and others. At the same time, the functions it offers have grown from transaction routing and authentication (using digital certificates or UserID/passwords) to secure two way mail, payments and soon interfaces to the mobile networks for text messaging. There has been remarkably little customisation for any single department although we have made changes at various stages to improve the way the Gateway works or how it does particular tasks. We've now extended the Gateway "build once, use many" model to the front end - to web sites. Government has hundreds of web sites - I've been known to call them "matchstick Eiffel Towers" in the past - and they all look different today. Nearly all of them are static HTML sites, but the next upgrade cycle, to content managed web sites is happening now - piece by piece. If we end up with hundreds of web sites again, all different, then we have wasted money, time and effort and made the user experience just as hard as it is today and maybe even harder than the offline user experience. So it makes sense to apply standards, common modules and so on to the front end too. Our work so far tells us that around 80% of what any given government web site offers matches exactly a common core - the remainder is dependent on the department's function (so some departments might need particular types of feedback forms, or particular ways of presenting policy papers and so on). But if 80% is common and that would cost, say, £500,000 or £5,000,000 or more for each department- then building it centrally makes lots more sense and can be done effectively and efficiently. So, the next step is to extend that work into other aspects and, as Mole picks up on, functions such as booking appointments or notifying of changes to appointments are included in the next list. I am not as pessimistic as Mole. The trick is to isolate the pieces that can be built centrally - building them centrally doesn't mean that you only ever have one of them - you can replicate the code widely if needed and update in releases (after all, doesn't Linux work this way?) - this is practice that I have seen in many pricate sector companies. The alternative to build one and replicate is build many and don't replicate. I've watched banks do that in previous lives. The ones that did spent 1/2 a billion pounds on fixing it for Year 2000. The ones that didn't spent a whole lot less, deliver better service to their customers (across many different countries) and make regular improvements that benefit customers and lower further their cost base. I think there's a good case for this plan - if I didn't I wouldn't be doing it of course. But it's not "soup to nuts", nor "carpaccio to creme brule". It's more like a rare steak, cooked close to perfection by a capable chef at a reasonable price - that's where the beef is. And what else can you expect from eDt from here on? In a word, "more". More delivery, more capability, just more.

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