Thursday, February 27, 2003

Risk transfer

From HMT's Green Book The two main causes of optimism bias in estimates of capital costs are: poor definition of the scope and objectives of projects in the business case, due to poor identification of stakeholder requirements, resulting in the omission of costs during project costing; and poor management of projects during implementation, so that schedules are not adhered to and risks are not mitigated. Appraisers should adjust for optimism bias in the estimates of capital costs in the following way: Estimate the capital costs of each option; Apply adjustments to these estimates, based on the best available empirical evidence relevant to the stage of the appraisal; and Subsequently, reduce these adjustments according to the extent of confidence in the capital costs' estimates, the extent of management of generic risks, and the extent of work undertaken to identify and mitigate project specific risks. Departments or agencies may be able to provide the best empirical evidence to support adjustments for optimism. Alternatively, and if applicable, they may be taken from the Green Book, which provides the recommended adjustments to be made at the outline business case stage for buildings, civil engineering, equipment and development, and outsourcing projects. If no obvious empirical evidence is available, this may indicate that the project is unique or unusual, in which case optimism bias is likely to be high. In these cases, adjustments should be based on the nearest equivalent project type, and adjusted up or down, depending on how inherently risky the project is compared to its nearest equivalent type. If a department chooses to apply its own adjustments, these must be prudent. Where possible, the cost estimates, and the adjustments for optimism bias should be reviewed externally (using Gateway reviews for large projects, or internal audit reviews of smaller projects).

Tough days

It's been a crap few days. I was out of town last week and over the weekend - for longer than I expected to be. I had all of my luggage stolen from a rental car, including my passport (which would have made it pretty hard to get back home; it was a long swim). Strangely, a couple of hours after the theft, someone called me who'd found one of my bags about 5 miles away, complete with my passport. He drove all the way out to the airport to deliver it, proving that for every complete idiot on the planet, there may just be someone who offsets them. So, thank you David Crabtree for driving out of your way and returning my bag - you restored some of my faith in humanity. This also seems to have been the week of emails from the public. I don't know about faxyourmp, but emailyouregovperson seems to be doing fine. This week there have been quite a few emails from people questioning what on earth is going on with the UK's e-government efforts. This has come on the back of the various reports noting that several countries are moving ahead of us in the quest to deliver useful services. The UK is near the bottom of the European league table when it comes to readiness for e-government ... The UK is well down both in terms of the sophistication of its systems and country readiness ... Ireland, France and Finland were voted the top three countries ... The results will come as a blow to the government which was criticised just six months ago by the Treasury in its so-called Green Book report. The study found the government's targets and cost estimations were far too optimistic and attacked certain government sites for being poorly maintained. I can't disagree with reports that say we're not doing as well as we should, but I also find it strange to be seen below, say, France or Ireland as, having lived in one and looked closely at the other, I don't see the progress the reports do. Maybe it's smoke and mirrors. But, whether they are above or below is beside the point. Given the investment made and the profile of usage of other Internet services (say buying books or online banking), we're nowhere. That clearly means a supply problem, not a demand problem. The emails to me over the last few days, both from concerned citizens and suppliers, just reinforces that message. I try to reply to all of the mails I get, the rude ones and the polite ones (I don't have one of those rinky-dinky word filters on my mail system!). The message is clear, government services online have to look a lot less like government services offline. Otherwise, why would anyone bother to make the change? If the site is slow, hard to use, difficult to find, or frustratingly obtuse, noone will bother. I had a conversation with one of our supplier dinosaurs this week, one who has said enough is enough and wants to become more fleet of foot, more able to deliver. We pondered how a supplier can disagree with a customer, as in "that requirement is stupid, you need to do this instead of that". This will help avoid the Green Book's comments, articulated in PC Advisor ... There is an empirically observed, systematic tendency for appraisers to be over optimistic in assessing projects ... Optimism bias is caused by failure to identify and effectively manage project tasks ... targets and cost estimations were far too optimistic and certain government sites [are] being poorly maintained ... over the past 20 years, 54 percent of projects involving technical innovation and system development had exceeded their agreed timescales and a massive 200 percent had overrun budget estimates I haven't figured out how 200% of projects overran their budget estimates (unless they all did by such a large amount of money, it was the same as 3x as many projects getting it wrong?). But, again, beside the point ... 54% of projects are late and more are over budget - and there can't be any projects these days that the government doesn't class as technically innovative. After all, most systems are 20+ years old. So the folks from the supplier kicked some ideas around with us and concluded that there is no safe way to do it in government. If you disagree with the client, you don't get the business. If you agree, then you find yourself in change control later - and you probably make more money that way. So we have a self-reinforcing system. The real issue, as Mark Forman said a while ago, is that we lack enough people inside government who have experience of system delivery, coupled with business understanding. They do exist, and some big projects do happen on time and to spec, but the ones that hit the headlines obscure the successful ones. More such people are being drafted in, but they can't come fast enough. In the short term, there needs to be much greater accountability at a senior civil servant level so that projects are reviewed, risks and issues are discussed openly and supplier and customer work together in an honest environment. Simple to say, hard to do. Harder to do across such a large (dis)organisation as government, harder still to do for every project. It's going to take some brave people to try it out this way, prove that it can be done and perhaps embarrass the rest of the organisation into doing it the same way. Perhaps it's time for project league tables - top 10 projects with start date, end date and budget, tracked publicly month by month showing variance? I'm for it ... I'll put mine in the ring first.

Content free, or content full?

I'm speaking at a conference organised by the Public Sector Forum people at the end of March. I'm being asked to talk about the "Central Government view on metadata and interoperability", something that should be fun. The conference is on March 28th (recently moved from the 26th) - somewhere in Hendon. Book now to avoid disappointment - there are some good speakers there too. Particularly interested to hear Brighton and Hove's story on developing a bespoke content management system. Been there, done that, don't encourage anyone to do it unless you really are a masochist.

More excuses and apologies? Hardly.

Funny world that we live in. Just catching up on VoxPolitics after a week out of town and came across a link to, a blog run by one of the FaxYourMP geeks (their word, not mine). It seems that my blog is full of excuses and apologies. It's not personal, apparently, although everything I post is disagreed with. That's ok, I don't take much personally, so no need to worry about that. But, let's be a little realistic here. 50,000 faxes does not knock down all of the e-government barriers folks, it doesn't prove that you have cracked it and it doesn't make me break out in a cold sweat wondering whether I'm doing the wrong things. Now, funnily enough, I don't claim that I have knocked them down or cracked it (no, that's neither an excuse nor an apology), but I do know that some of the things we've done are pretty good. 50,000 faxes is pretty good too, but it's not democracy in action, not yet. But maybe it will be - the more PR faxyourmp gets, the better as far as I'm concerned - let the faxes roll. Less than 50% voting in a general election is a terrible reflection on democracy. I'm always up for new ideas ... the reason I don't allow comments is because I can't figure out how to get the blogger software to do that. If you know, let me know. In the meantime, I'll watch whitelable for an actual idea that might improve things and I'll continue to torture the English language as only I know how I guess.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Strange stuff

Some odd stuff going on with blogger these days. I keep losing the titles from previously filed posts. And today, it's posting in reverse order, so as I look now February 18th is above February 19th on the page. Before it's always been most recent day first. Not something I have time to fix today, so it will have to wait a bit. Sorry if it's causing confusion.

Stats and bloody stats

Just checking my log files this morning to see who visits the site (both the diverdiver home page and this blog). Traffic is up about 250% since the Guardian piece by Mike Cross - and I'm still getting referrals from that funnily enough. The other thing the log files give me is things like search terms used ... here's one "about mobiles physics not alabama not phones", or how about this "fully executable e-government", or even this "ibuprofen allergies", or finally "unix error number 111". I'm not sure if I'm not doing my job or not, as clearly it's unlikely that those would have found much on this site. Strangely, each term was put in twice - I presume because the answers weren't believed the first time. One search that I thought should have found an answer was "what is e-goverment?". That's a deep question, but I doubt whoever was looking got the answer that they needed. I really ought to address what it is to me and I'll do that next week. Meanwhile, I'm away again for a few days. Be back early next week, so posts will be light (or, more likely, absent) until then.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

More on Ireland

Kablenet have followed up on my note on the issues Ireland is having delivering e-government (particularly the infrastructure that joins it all up), and have written a much worthier piece than I managed.

Deal broking delayed

The folks in Ireland have issued an almost candid update on their progress on e-government. The principle issue is a delay in the award of the contract for the "Public Service Broker". This is pretty much a Government Gateway clone, although the ideas emerged independently. I met some of the folks on the project team about two years ago (just after we launched) and, when we compared notes, things looked pretty similar. The only difference is that the Irish have included a "vault" - a store for common data that could be exchanged among department. I'd like to do that in the UK, but can't get anyone to take the punt as all are fearful of data protection issues. Another day I have to write my views on the data protection dragon (see John Lettice's piece on Congestion Charging to see how quickly concerns can spread on this topic, and he's only talking about congestion charging). Ireland came out near the top in a recent survey on e-government transactions. I'm a bit confused by that though as I've looked at a lot of what is on offer and also talked to the people bidding for the contract who, naturally, come to show us what they're doing in Ireland as a way to try and get business in the UK. Not much of what is promised is on offer yet - much depends on the PSB. But, the vision is right, the ideas are right ... all they need to do is sort the delays and motor ahead. Anyway, as their Minister, Mary Hanafin, says ... "Today's publication sends out a clear signal to all of us responsible for its implementation, to focus on minimising delays, and ensure the continued delivery of our action plan. We are committed to this." That's another one of those Mooresian points about public sector projects always being late, isn't it!

Blogging imbuggerations

Just lost a lengthy piece I'd written. I must use Word to write my posts - there's no error recovery in blogger. It trashed the post on upload and, although I've hunted all over my hard drive, I can't find it anywhere. I'll re-write it and post it later, maybe it will come out better second time round (or not, as it turned out).

Monday, February 17, 2003

Back to basics?

‘Can anyone then give me a successful example of any on-time, on-budget, large-scale government technology project?’ asked Simon Moores at a recent conference. Unsurprisingly no-one ventured to raise their hand. I’d say the odds were good that he’d get the same response if he’d left out the word “government”. Scope moves, costs change, things get put in, taken out and shaken about. That’s life in the world of project delivery. For something to come in on time, to the original requirement is indeed rare. Simon goes on to ponder whether the big picture is too big, whether there is insufficient money to deliver (slightly mixing his topics by referring to the ability of the economy to stay solid) and whether the right foundations are in place. Certainly, the big picture is plenty big. Surely it would be no fun otherwise. Visions are supposed to be way up there - after all, as I’ve said many times on stage, Kennedy did not ask that we send a dog somewhere near the moon, bring it back dead or alive and not to bother about when we did it. Some of the local authority people Simon talked to noted that many previously accepted specific targets are now “aspirations”, doubtless a code for the dog near the moon. So, do we go back to basics? He quotes one public sector manager who says “There are foundations and there are applications. Foundations should come first but they’re invisible and don’t give central government the results that it’s looking for. Applications are sexy but they are expensive and what we have to do isn’t found in any one box in the eGovernment section of PC World. The problem is that you can’t have both without asking for more money, which you aren’t going to get. So the effort goes into the applications and you hope the foundations, like authentication, will be resolved somewhere else". I’ve heard pretty similar views as I wander through the maze of government. It’s a naive and useless view. In essence, it repeats the old arguments - you have to give us money to deliver, it’s all so hard, we have to do it ourselves because noone else will do it and what does it matter if we build a few things that don’t work too well - we can blame other people for non-delivery. That’s about it I guess. The real problem is that government (and I’m not singling out any one country here) is fragmented, not given to working in cross-functional, let alone cross-departmental, teams. Government is composed not of silos anymore but of well-defended, heavily reinforced forts. Ever since Cromwell signed away the power of the monarchy in 16 hundred and whatever has this been the case. Breaking down the walls of these forts requires a few hundred cannons and a big stack of balls - not just of the cannon variety either. ............................................. If the mechanisms to conform to common practices, to leverage off team projects and to work towards common architectures were there, then at least the technology would underpin the business. But today, that impetus is not there where I look - it may be there in the countries that have truly succeeded in e-government initiatives and, if it is, then they will truly have transformed. Projects will always fail. The “intelligent customer” role is seriously lacking in government. There are few “intelligent suppliers” and a good number who field the Z team when dealing with government. Governments need to maximise their intelligence by concentrating on small numbers of initiatives that can be delivered in short, sharp, modular fashion delivering incremental benefit with each phase. The days of the large-scale, big budget project ought to be over. That game was one noone ever won - the customers certainly lost and, ultimately, it didn’t do the suppliers much good. But let's be clear. It is in the power of all of the decision makers at every level in government to make this happen - the "public sector managers" cannot say it is someone else's problem, or that they need someone to solve authentication for them. Much of the foundations that are needed are in place, much of the technology is there - in several places no doubt, as there are many exemplars of good e-government (and indeed, of good government). A better questions is perhaps, is the business ready to adopt what someone else has done? To leverage off others? To avoid making the errors that, oh so many of us, have made? It’s time to change. And, although change must come from within, I fear that there is not yet enough incentive “within” for that to happen. But, as a wise chinese proverb says, “If we do not change our direction we are likely to end up where we are headed for”. And that’s a place we’ll deserve to be.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Sage words on Security

Piece from Simon Moores' on authentication issues, Quizid, digital certificates and so on, definitely worth a read.

Give and Take

Ages ago, we e-governmentalists in the UK were somewhat hoisted on our own petard. By that I mean that the measure of our e-government success became, accidentally, the online Self Assessment service. Whatever happened with the service was widely reported - every outage or issue, whether real or imagined, was covered. Back when I was still involved, a well publicised and well planned outage to allow for an upgrade was a lead item on the Beeb's 6pm news broadcast, for instance. Given another chance, I don't think we would have allowed this situation to develop. So now, when I present at conferences abroad or where there are several governments present, I usually ask how many of the representatives there have put tax services online. Pretty much all the time, all of the hands go up. The follow-up question, whether they have put benefits online, is greeted with just a smattering of hands, if any. The lesson learnt is clear - "don't make tax first". Why? Governments are hung up on putting services online that often reflect the ones that are hardest for them, not the ones that are hardest for the citizen. That's not to say that tax is simple. It isn't. But it's a once per year thing that is usually left until the last minute - the online peaks (in September and January) are just the same as the offline peaks, despite the fact that the software certainly makes it easier. Benefits, on the other hand, are usually triggered by a change of circumstances or status - an addition to the family, a change of address, an illness in the family, the loss of a job and so on. That means that the claims period is more spread out, that interaction is possibly more frequent (across the population as a whole) and that, with the right pointers, people can be encouraged more easily to use the online services. Benefits are also the province of many departments (certainly in the UK) - the Dept of Work and Pensions, the Inland Revenue (for tax credits), local authorities and so on. Navigating the maze of government to get money is pretty hard - and that's for something that people really, really want. Usage of the online tax service is definitely rising, which is great news. But it is not the be all and end all of online government and it's a shame that it so often seems that way. So if you want to see your take-up figures go up, delivering online benefits may be the answer. So, my vote is for a website (not another website, surely!) called, where all of the benefits are laid out based on who you are, what's going on in your life and what might happen. That would be some killer-app.

e-government popularity

Today, Google lists only 25 stories for the search "e-government UK" and 178 for "e-government US". Does that mean we're bored with it, or is there more going on in the US? I note that we don't seem to have as comprehensive a set of sites as FCW or GovExec which provide extensive coverage of government stories (whether e-government related or not). Kablenet is the nearest we have, which does a good job, but seems to be less frequent than it used to be.

Big forms ... small pipes?

I was intrigued by a post on FCW noting that the IRS (which has made great strides in e-filing of individuals'tax returns, with good results, nice TV adverts and pretty good PR) is pausing before continuing with company tax filing. Like us in the UK, "the IRS has focused on using Extensible Markup Language to make it easier to file multiple returns and the many attachments that are often included in the returns. The tax-specific XML forms developed also will help to validate a lot of the information automatically, saving time for IRS employees. However, the IRS' electronic filing infrastructure cannot yet support these large returns." I can understand this ... XML is only a language and a particularly clumsy one at that. Take a text file of 1kb and parse it into XML and you'll have a file of 5kb. So take a 36,000 page company tax return and think how big that file is going to be! Any bets on over 50MB? Moving such large files around the web is quite a challenge - both for the sender (let's hope there's a T1 there at least), but also the receiver (dealing with one at a time is usually an issue, but not nearly as bad as if you get 100 within a minute or so - a perfectly feasible scenario). I know that we've struggled with this - how big do you build your system? How long do you wait for a file to arrive? Do you design the sending application so that it breaks the file into smaller pieces (easy if it's your app, but takes longer if it's a 3rd party app like, say, SAP or Oracle and likely even worse if it's an inhouse app at the company concerned)? Do you put the attachments in as XML or binary (or PDF)? And so on. So, understand that problem!

In the US ... Funding delays stall expansion of online identification

I don't envy the position the e-authentication project team seem to be in over in the USA ... An article in GovExec notes that money is tight and deadlines might be missed because of it. The e-authentication project, one of President Bush's 24 initiatives to put more government services online, seeks to allow individuals to garner identification credentials to sign and transmit documents and transact other business online with government agencies. Adrian Fish, GSA's deputy project manager, said at an E-Gov conference on Tuesday that officials might miss a target for launching the gateway because of funding issues. 'Our milestone had been September of this year. ... I don't think we're going to make it now ... What we have now is an interim gateway that does work. It can continue to do business, but it's not really where we want to be'. When we built the UK Gateway, we had the money up front thanks to a funding bid by, amongst others, the Inland Revenue. That allowed us to build the initial release and then subsequent bids gave us enough to develop it further. We now have a fully functional Gateway that connects 10 or so departments today and handles thousands of transactions a day. Had we been tasked with collecting the money some other way, perhaps from individual departmental contributions, we would not have succeeded - government (and I single out no particular one here) is not geared to working on joined up projects: the accounting is complicated, the audit and review process very involved and the accountability even more unclear. To have developed the initial release and then suffer from funding delays must be a huge challenge for the project team. All e-government work so far is about funding hump investments upfront. Joined up projects all the more so. They offer little immediate likelihood of a return on investment - not until there is significant take-up of services will we see that (and it's likely that we're 10+ years from that if you are pessimistic ... although I think quite a lot sooner). This reality tends to focus departments on building their own systems, their own portals, gateways or networks because the path to a return is much clearer (and the money can be managed through existing budgets, from the baseline so to speak). Anytime you pop your hard above the investment parapet and try to do a joined up piece of work, things get tougher. For joined up projects to work, funding must be directly pointed at them. Departments must be incentivised to partner and disincentivised from building their own systems or solutions. This requires a lot of new thinking and new processes - both at business case, funding approval, management review and later audit review. Without these changes or without this being in place on day one (for those countries still developing their strategies), then solutions proliferate, usage is low and return on investment is multi-decades. A government with 1000 or more websites cannot declare itself citizen focused nor can a government that requires its people to learn who it is, rather than the other way round.

Fax your MP

Good press for this great service in the Guardian last week. But I'm not sure about this ... Still, there are hints that some of the team secretly hope the civil service might one day step in and help them out - a bit like the stories you heard in the mid-'90s, when David Bowie or the Teletubbies would call up fan page webmasters and say: "Hey, your site's much better than my official one. Why don't you come and work for me?" Would people still use it if it were "official"?

Talking of States of the Nation

Mark Forman is quoted in a speech last Tuesday as noting a significant need within government for technologically-savvy people who can lead e-government projects, “We’re looking for people who can give us solutions. Now we have too many people with an invested interest in the status quo ... IT projects will need managers who can motivate employees and build on recent progress in overcoming a cultural resistance to change ... IT managers will have to sharpen their skills in making good business cases for project funding and in avoiding cost overruns, Forman said. They will need to find ways to save money by taking advantage of buying large quantities, standardizing equipment, using existing technology to its full capacity and eliminating redundant systems Mark's right on all of his points. The same is true for the UK. My worry is that the best people are staying put in the private sector now, keeping their heads down until the economy turns. Such people have rarely shown a desire to work for the public sector anyway. My other worry is that, increasingly, so-called IT projects are only 40% about IT with a huge requirement to understand the business, the way people talk to government, the standards that need to be in place and the politics within an organisation. That's a pretty tall list of skills for a project manager! Mark seems to be on the road a lot recently. A few days earlier he made a speech on the futility of government departments all buying different things and almost purposefully making them impossible to integrate later (the latter my words, not his). There's an awful lot of redundancy" in the government as a result of multiple agencies performing the same functions, including human resource services. We have to fix the lines of the business if we really are going to get the productivity out of IT investments. Rather than buy 50 different department software, licenses ... can we leverage the 'buy once use many concept'" for licensing software and other IT products Another piece in FCW looks at the work that will have to be done on architectures to help sort this problem out.

Accelerating e-goverment in South Africa

South Africa looks to be moving ahead with its e-government progamme, per this story quoting President Thabo Mbeki on how it will accelerate [the] gateway project The government gateway project aims to enable the different government computer systems to communicate in order to fast-track service delivery and make services available on a 24/7 basis. The President went further in his "State of the Nation" speech: We will this year also finalise the proposal for harmonisation of systems, conditions of service and norms between the public service in the national and provincial spheres on the one hand, and the municipalities on the other. I've been asked to go to a conference there in March and will be talking about what we've done in the UK, the lessons we've learnt and how things like a "gateway" can help (or, indeed, hinder).

Fone Frustrations

Dear Nokia

I've been a long-time customer of yours, but it's getting harder and harder to buy your phones now. Back in 1989 I had a Motorola 8800X (you remember, the brick shaped phone with the long, rubber aerial), then an NEC-P9 but then I found Nokia. I started with the 2110 (small, flat with a stubby aerial), from there to 6150s, 6190s, 8800 (the banana phone), 6210, 8850 (the first tiny phone), 8890 (my first tri-band), 6310 (and the i version too), 8910 (titanium), 7650 and, finally, the latest phone, the 6610. I'm a bit of a phone junky, I think that's obvious.

For those of you not familiar with the full Nokia range, the web proves a wonderful resource). From the first Nokia to today, I've only had one non-Nokia phone, the Ericsson T68i - because I wanted a triband phone and had lost my 8890. Today, nothing would make me buy another Motorola or an Ericsson. This weekend I spent a good two hours trying to take the settings from my 7650 (a Symbian phone) to the 6610 (not a Symbian phone). Why would I do that? Well, the 7650 is a great phone, with some useful and well-designed features. But, it has a terrible battery life. It rarely lasts a day, usually perhaps only until about 5pm - and that's after fully draining and re-charging. So, despite the fact that I think it's Nokia's best phone yet, it had to go.

So, dear Nokia people, here are some things for to consider for your next few versions:

- Keep all of the PC suite software the same. Use the same formats for everything. Today, the 7650 uses one kind of PC software, the 6610 another. So you can't just copy from one phone to the other. If you do that, then any piece of software will work with any phone, and you can just add modules for any new functions.

- I had the 7650 for a few months and, during that time, it learnt a lot of new words for its T9 dictionary. Those words are stored, never to be retrieved it seems in the 7650. Wouldn't it be great to be able to suck them out of there and blow them into the 6610? If it can be done, I can't find it.

 - I also had some ringtones on the 7650 that I liked a lot (naturally, many were assigned to individuals). First off, I can't just take the ringtones from the 7650 and move them to the 6610 - I can't even send them straight from PC via infrared to the 6610 as I did with the 7650 (I have to change the format first and that doesn't seem to work all the time). Second, if I had managed to get them off the 7650, I'd have wanted to keep them assigned to the same people. No dice.

- The 7650 had a couple of progammable keys on the front, one of which I set to divert (best way to get me during the day is via text, the phone is always on divert); the second was set to "new message" so that I could do text quickly. Those have gone on the new phone - so it's umpteen clicks for divert (menu, settings, call settings, call divert, divert all voice calls, activate, to voice mail box). Let's not even go into how many clicks to send a text.

- The 7650's stick was a joy to use (of course). The 4-way button on the 6610 is hopeless. It works intermittently ... no playing Repton on this phone.

- The 7650 stored well over 500 contacts. The 6610 only 300. I finally figured out how to get the contacts off the 7650 and onto the 6610 after a long bout of experimentation. It turns out to be simple, but I doubt it would be the first thing many people think of. I created a new contacts area in Outlook (Mobile Contacts), used the 7650 PC software to copy the entire phone book to Outlook, deleted over 200 contacts that I figured I no longer needed (or that were in my Ipaq) and then synced the 6610 to the Mobile Contacts folder. The PC software to do that is pretty poor, good luck if you have to use it.

- So far the 6610 seems bug free at a software level, which is more than can be said for the 6210 (frequent hangs), the 6310 (seemed to be on, but actually wasn't taking calls), the 7650 (regular log errors). Time will tell. The sad news is that I'll have to stick to this phone for a while. The battery life looks good, it's triband, 300 contacts is enough for now (although I'm sitting at 289 right now), the polyphonic tunes are reasonable (but not as good as the 7650) and it's small and lightweight.

But my Nokia friends, if anyone ever figures out how to do a phone at least as good as yours, I'll be gone in a flash. Just because Motorola and Ericsson aren't doing what you're doing, don't get complacent. Others will soon figure it out.

Given that the UK market looks pretty saturated, the odds are that most people are either going through or are about to go through their first upgrade - colour screens, polyphonics, cameras etc are all beckoning.

 I imagine that few of them will have stored all of their contacts on the SIM (which is no use if you store more than one phone number per person), many will have figured out predictive text and so filled up their T9 dictionaries and they'll want to move phones easily and quickly. Good luck to all those who try.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Moroccan Roll Redux

A few days in Morocco certainly opened my eyes to a new view of e-government. I've spent a little time in 'emerging markets' countries in the past, but not enough to have really understood all of the issues. I'd prepped on the issues by reading an excellent paper that John Gotze co-wrote on the "ten questions to ask" in developing countries. The fundamental theme of the report (as it says itself) is about "transforming government to be more citizen-centered". The paper is a must-read if you are in the e-government space, whether in a developed country or not. The issues there are significant - telephone infrastructure is limited, half the population is illiterate and so on. But the agenda for improvement is as ambitious as the issues are big - the King and the Prime Minister are committed to making changes: improving education, increasing the infrastructure, making Morocco an attractive place for inward [foreign] investment and, certainly, driving up tourism from the present 2.5 million visitors a year to 10 million over the next 7 years or so. There's a lot to be done. Many surveys are published ranking various countries against each other, noting the services that are in place (or, often, the ones that aren't) and making comments about web site integrity, transactional capability or rate of usage of the key services. Another such survey is picked up by The Register, this one by CGEY and examining progress in European e-government initiatives over the last 12 months. Said survey makes some good points: "Income-generating services have become the most developed on-line across Europe, but researchers said that substantial improvement is needed in the area of permits and licences" "A worrying gap is also growing between on-line services aimed at businesses and those aimed at citizens. In nearly every country surveyed, the sophistication of the services for business is greater than that of services for citizens, and the number of business services available on-line grew 19 percent during the year, compared to just 12 percent growth for citizen services" And, linking nicely to John's paper ... "E-government in Europe should now focus more closely on the transformation of government authorities into customer-oriented service providers" I can't disagree with that last point really, except I'm going to. It's too trite really - especially in a country like Morocco where so much needs to be done at all levels of the economy and the population. My stance would be that change must start at the point of least resistance, most immediate benefit and fastest implementation, so that the government can (a) try out the new processes and business logic and understand what changes and standards have to be introduced, (b) experiment with some of the technology that underpins the initiatives and (c) prove to themselves, their population and the nay-sayers that something can be done. So, for a developing country, it would make most sense (I think) to introduce changes to make it easier to start a business, easier to employ people and easier for foreign businesses to enter the country. You want to encourage entrepreneurial spirit as well as bring in established companies that will employ more people and contribute most to the economy. So a focus on business services is understandable - it's also understandable because the rate of take-up for businesses ought to be faster (most will put systems in place for payroll, accounting, order management etc and all of these can naturally link to government systems). At a conference in Prague a year or so ago, the Minister for Information Technology in the Czech Republic told me that he thought 100% take-up of online services for businesses could be achieved in 4-5 years, but that it would take 12 years or more for citizens. Of course, all of it usually needs legislation to allow data sharing, a common identity number is also helpful - if the right conditions are not in place now, it takes time to get them in place. Citizen services are essential of course, and they should be introduced taking advantage of intermediary channels - people who can do the translation, handle the technology and make sure people know what is happening (the UK equivalent might be the Citizen's Advice Bureau, but there are many others). And that's where I'll disagree a bit with the report quote above, where it notes that revenue generating services are doing well (there doesn't seem to be a conclusion on whether this is good or bad). For me it's bad. Plain and simple. If you give people money online, they will pay it back online. If you make them give you money first online, the odds of high takeup are reduced - I think we have learned this a little (the hard way) in the UK. I call this fictitious service "give and" - the service where you find out what government will do for you and what you need to do in return. In some ways, it would be easier for a developing country to merge several local offices into a single building so that a citizen could visit and get all the permits, stamps and paperwork they need in a single visit. Then you design the process in that office to be simpler, and then you automate some of it with some kiosks, and then you make it fully electronic. Such a process would take time, but it would deliver the benefits needed step by step and increase the odds of success dramatically. In a country where few citizens are online and where education levels are low, a citizen-centered government is going to be difficult to do. So, to finally disagree with the CGEY report, I don't think the world needs any more benchmarking studies that say what's online where, praise the countries that have increased the services online or whatever. It needs more reports like the one John was involved in, with some real case studies fleshed out. Developing countries want to learn from what everyone else has done, they want to take the things that worked and dump the things that didn't, without going through all of the pain that was involved when we learnt the lessons (the hard way, I don't need to add). That was reinforced at every meeting in Morocco - how did we do things, why did we do it, how did we cope with resistance to change and so on. There are several approaches to e-government that will work, but one of them will work fastest and best for anyone trying it. A few countries can contribute to that "best in class" case study. If that were to happen, then some of the countries who are now lagging could really start to make progress. I really enjoyed my trip to Morocco. I'm only sorry that I barely saw any of what looks to be a beautiful country, with some fabulous architecture and a tremendous history. Maybe on another visit I'll get to spend longer doing "tourist" things and contribute to the extra 7.5 million people a year that they want to attract.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Moroccan Roll

Just back from a few days in Morocco - whirlwind tour through Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech. A speech at a conference on e-government, meetings with UK and Moroccan government officials and a lunch with the Consul and some smart people from the private sector. Got some interesting thoughts that I'll post during the week, about this trip and also some other e-government news. Oh, and I can't claim credit for the title of this post - David Rowe came up with that.

Monday, February 03, 2003

Engaging the unengaged, or even the disengaged.

Lovely note by James Crabtree at VoxP on a new document out this week (from the Cabinet Office) covering "how e-democracy could help certain groups of people who may currently be excluded from the democratic processes" ... There is some more encouraging news hidden thereabouts: a generally positive response to the idea of electronic voting, and easier routes to contact decision makers when it matters ... [and] ... well worth a read, not least to show quite how unrealistic it is to suggest that eDemocracy can engage the unengaged, rather than making it easier for the already engaged I still think my 777/888 idea might help. Comments?

Spam solution?

For those you struggling against the never-ending deluge of spam, try spamnet from I've been using it for a couple of months and figure it knocks out perhaps 9 out of 10 spam without me having to interfere. Since I upgraded to Office 11 beta (and therefore a new version of Outlook), I get a prompt everytime I get new spam mail before it kills it (once per download rather than once per mail) that I can't turn off, but I hear it will be fixed with the production release of Office. Go download it now.

Is Your Project at Risk for Disaster?

From Baseline, the project management centre, a quick quiz to take to see if your project is headed the way, say, Libra went.

The Semantic Web, some chance

Marvellous note by Matthew Thomas on why the Semantic Web probably won't work, with a link to Cory Doctorow's even more specific "Meta-crap versus Meta-utopia".


For those you struggling against the never-ending deluge of spam, try spamnet from I've been using it for a couple of months and figure it knocks out perhaps 9 out of 10 spam without me having to interfere. Since I upgraded to Office 11 beta (and therefore a new version of Outlook), I get a prompt everytime I get new spam mail before it kills it (once per download rather than once per mail) that I can't turn off, but I hear it will be fixed with the production release of Office. Go download it now.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Mobile Government

This week I did a short presentation on mobile government, for CIPFA. The same morning, I did a quick check on Google News for stories on "m-government" - I found less than 10 compared with more than 350 on e-government - surely a sign that m-government is not yet over-hyped and so might have a chance to make a difference. One thought-provoking piece I did come across was by Michael Zalasak, posted on - it's in two parts (that link is to the first). I should have read it before I presented, but only got the chance today. Michael makes many good points, but one in particular struck a chord, on Return On Investment, a topic du jour ... Return-on-investment models and cost/benefit analyses should not be filled simply with financial data. To save money and be more efficient in internal administration are partial objectives for governments, whose core business is actually to serve citizens: the financial benefit of better services that are more accessible to citizens is hard to calculate, but leads to indirect gains, e.g., in a higher appreciation of tax-collection, because citizens who are in close and intimate contact with their governments realise the importance of mutual benefits and obligations

Free Research

In a demographically insignifcant poll of one, Alan Mather was asked "How many websites should government have?". The answers, of which only one could be selected, were provided as follows: a) One per department b) One per initiative c) One per department and one per initiative d) One per citizen of the UK e) One The survey participant was torn for minutes between (d) and (e), with (d) being the right answer if we could really deliver fully personalised government content to everyone that wanted it. But then (e) was clearly the right answer because to do (d) you'd start with one website which would make it easier to customise that content (because it was local, properly tagged etc). So (e). I haven't seen a single survey yet that raised this as an issue. The question that should be asked, perhaps, is "Where do you go when looking for government content online?" - with the answers unprompted. If the answer is "don't know, haven't looked", what does that mean? If the answer is hundreds of different sites equally weighted, what does that mean? Difficult stuff, but surely more useful as a survey result than noting the quality of a site's design, the ease of use or the number of technology issues?

ID cards ... love them or hate them

A few interesting stories on the ID card consultation this week. One on Kablenet lauding the survey results (more research, but this time they post the question that was asked) from Schlumberger-Sema that say there is strong approval for a card. Apparently 50% of people were fine with having a photo of their iris on their card, whilst 30% wanted a fingerprint. Impressive - I can't believe that they found 1000 odd people that would know about how the iris is scanned and didn't have a problem - haven't they seen Demolition Man or Minority Report? Fingerprints are notoriously unreliable - something like 20% of the population don't scan well (think builders who deal with rough materials all day, or people who work with chemicals that have burned off most of their skin!), and (as far as I remember), they're fine for closed populations (i.e. you scan 20 people and say that these 20 can open the door to the secret room) but don't work well for large populations (too many variables, too big a databas to scan, too many issues with the angle at which the finger is placed and so on). The conclusion from the survery results is ... SchlumbergerSema also published its own response to the proposal, advocating the use of an iris scan on the card and suggesting that different security measures could be used for different transactions. A personal identification number could be used for most transactions, but for more important ones, such as entering and leaving the country, the biometrics on the card should be matched with those of the person presenting it. All of the relevant information would be stored on a national database In contrast, the Register notes that there is more opposition to cards than was thought. Which probably goes to show that research results depend more on the questions asked than anything else. Or, perhaps more accurately, on who is asking the questions and for what reasons. After all, the Stand folks get responses from those who are against the ID cards, S/Sema get responses from those who are pro - both sides have a direction in which they would wish to lean, rightly or wrongly. So maybe none of it is worth anything? Better still, what it hopefully tells us is that democracy is alive and well but that it takes a bit of prodding from people with a point to press before it actively emerges. One of the great challenges facing government today is how to get people more engaged in the democractic process. I don't mean voting, although it's clear that turnout could do with a boost, I mean looking at the issues that we face today. People like Stand and, for that matter, The Register and the other online journals and news-breakers do a good job of prodding at the issues and making people aware of them, but it's not clear how to get from the (I imagine) relatively small audiences that these sources attract to more mass market involvement. I've developed an idea about that, here's how it might work (and I have to credit Matt Durcan at HP for sowing the seeds of this at a meeting perhaps a year or so ago). Matt alerted me back then to something he'd heard about a plan to create an 888 number - just like 999 but for those things that weren't emergencies. That might mean everything from a cat in a tree to a pothole in a road to a zebra crossing light being broken. Nothing has emerged on such a number and, try as I might, I haven't found anything that relates to it. Now, imagine if the 888 service was web, phone, SMS text, DTV and kiosk integrated - so that no matter what level of income you had or what devices you had access to, there would be a way to get to it. People would report issues to the 888 service, all of which would be logged. The output would be a colour coded map of your postcode, your street, your borough, your town or your county, showing the issues being raised in your area. So if a particular road had holes in it and the local people were suitably mad, they'd get together, contact 888 and the map would glow flashing red. The local council seeing that they had a community of interest that was on their case would despatch the road fixers. Take this a little further forward and say there's a 777 service (or maybe still the 888 one) that lets you express concern about fox hunting, people who wear furs, drink driving or whatever ... interest groups could drive their members and supporters to log their point of view via this service and rapidly drive up support (or ant-support) for any given issue. The 777 service could be restricted to topics du jour, it could require authentication (using an anonymous token, as used in voting) to make sure that no-one voted more than once on any issue, for instance. Would something like this, developed a bit further, I'm sure help engage more people in important issues? After all, Downing Street say around 2,000 responses on ID cards, Stand say they put nearly 5,000 in - but that's only 7,000 out of 60,000,000 on an issue that concerns us all.

Congestion Cleansing

I was thinking about the Congestion Charge today - it's coming for Londoners (and those who drive in for work or fun) in just over 2 weeks. I'm not at all close to this, so any thoughts are purely speculation. Anyway, I'm guessing that for the last couple of months it's been in the equivalent of User Acceptance Testing - i.e. the cameras have been snapping pictures of number plates as they zoom (or crawl more likely) past the cameras. Once the plate is snapped, it must be looked up in a database, presumably the DVLA's records (or, if they're doing it right, a clone database that is held locally for faster performance). Most databases that I come close to have error rates of around 20% - 30%. Let's suppose that DVLA's is 20%, maybe it's as clean as the average tax database (after all, I assume that every car older than 3 years gets its address updated with every MOT? I don't know the split of cars younger than that which will have worse data, or the number of company cars that perhaps have better data). So, the plate gets looked up, the address found and a letter goes off the next day if the money hasn't been paid. Doubtless if the letter is one of the 20% that goes to the wrong address, the recipient will ignore the first one (or maybe, if we're lucky, mark it as "address not known" and return it to sender). If they do ignore it, they're going to get a shock a few days later when the debt collection mob show up. So, how do you improve on the 20% and so cleanse your database? I guess the easiest way is: Once you get the number plate and the address from the DVLA database, you do a look up on a clone of the electoral roll and see if at least the names match. I don't think there's a single electoral roll (at least not a complete one) for London, so either there have to be separate lookups to individual boroughs, plus those outside London (and, it could be a car from Scotland or anywhere I guess, to make it more complicated) - so that probably doesn't work. I think that leaves someone like Experian or Equifax, who have good records - and have the software to do fuzzy matching on various spellings of names. I have no idea if that kind of thing is allowed by the Data Protection people, but it would seem to me the only way to improve on the matching - after all, pretty much everyone who has a car probably has a credit file and so appears on the lists that these folks maintain. Richard Granger, he of NHS and highest paid civil servant fame, is one of the people who put this programme together, so I'm guessing that all this kind of thing has already been covered as he seems very smart. It will take a few weeks for it to play out, but I'm still expecting there to be a lot of wrong addresses receiving bills for cars they don't own ... and it won't be long before the Evening Standard reports the first debt collectors turning up on someone's doorstep to confiscate or clamp their car.

Online stats ...

Came across a great place to check stats on who is online, what they're doing, buying or looking at. It's on the website for New Media Age magazine (which is a weekly publication). Some of the stats haven't been updated since middle of last year, but they're still useful. Incidentally, the front page of this week's New Media Age shows a story on Government portals "seeking aid". The text isn't online, but it's talking about some of the deals we've already done, e.g. with MSN's Citizen Channel to syndicate content and indicates that there will be more. It's early days yet, but it's going to happen.

US e-government efforts slowing up?

In the past I've written about how the US could easily run ahead of everyone else in the e-government stakes (even though it started far behind). It has an e-envoy equivalent who has power, budget and backing - Mark Forman - and who is doing a great job in the face of the nightmare of a massive, fragmented government machine. It has money allocated, vision (the Quicksilver initiative), standards (albeit nascent ones) and drive. And now it has progress tracking - public naming and shaming of those who aren't doing so well (which is pretty much everyone today it seems). The Washington Post follows up the story too. I'm all for that - as long as the criteria are known and the evaluation process clear, I think everyone should get assessed this way. The key thing though would be those who were being assessed "green" being given the task of helping the "ambers" and "reds" get things sorted out - after all, this is about joined-up e-government, so having one or two departments streaking ahead does nothing for the overall mission. Somewhere in the news last week were stories of the US e-government budget being slashed ... if that happens, it will seriously hurt the efforts to move ahead. No money, no progress. The Return on Investment for external facing initiatives is not well proven (as Mike Cross so ably pointed out a while ago), and we know that it takes a hump of investment (i.e. money upfront) to build the new infrastructure and then a delay until sufficient numbers use the service before it becomes economical ... and then a much longer delay before you can turn any of the old channels off. But maybe the money wil get put back (budgets are always like this ... lots of outs, then some ins, then some outs, then some ins ... that's why everyone always bids for more than they need because they know they're going to have the budget cut. It's an old game, and it's time people wised up to that and were taught to submit ground up bids to a known number).

Security is the issue ... what was the question?

There was another survey out this week, I think from Checkpoint (the people that make firewalls, and pretty good ones at that). Their survey talked about the barriers to filing tax online, with 48% people (from a sample of 200 if memory serves correctly - was that 200 Self Assessment tax payers who were unrepresented by an agent I wonder?) saying that security was a barrier, 10% saying it was the Government Gateway and a few other issues. Now, you all know that I'm pretty sceptical of surveys and maybe I'd be proved wrong if I could find this survey on the web (I checked the Checkpoint site, The Register, VNU and other obvious candidates but couldn't find it - and I'm pretty sure I'm not making this stuff up). But, let's suppose that the first question on the sheeet is: Do you see security as an issue with filing tax returns on the website? Now, even I'd answer "yes" to that - because it should always be an issue, and one that people should be concerned about. But if the question were: If you didn't file your tax return on the Internet this year, and you were eligible, what are the reasons that you didn't? Then I'd expect a very different set of responses to come out, because the answer is unprompted. Similarly with the Gateway issue ... did the survey ask "Did you have problems using the Government Gateway?", or did it say "If you did not file your return, was the Government Gateway part of the problem?" or something like that. It's a bit of a "have you stopped beating your wife?" question, isn't it. If the answer is prompted then the survey is valueless. If it isn't, then we're onto something useful ... but I'd need to know what the issues were specifically so that I could fix them. Last April, the Inland Revenue sent a pre-registered PIN to every Self Assessment tax payer who was not represented by an agent (i.e. all the people who might file online). Therefore, none of those people needed even to see the Gateway, unless they lost the PIN. Even then they need not have seen it if they just used the IR's website, which handles everything pretty much by itself pretty smartly. On average, 35,000 people register on the Gateway every month - whether that's for PAYE, SA, Tax Credits, Child Benefit or whatever. I'm all for research (I won't use that quote about a drunk leaning on a lamp post again), but show me the questions, tell me about the sample, give me some specific quotes ... and then we can address the problem. Give me none of those and then it's only so much paper for the wastebasket, isn't it? (An hour or so later ... I found a story on the Checkpoint press release, at Security Focus)

It's deja vu all over again

Today, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day. Two years and 7 days ago we launched the Government Gateway, certainly the first joined up government technology initiative in the UK and probably the only in the world at the time. Since then, just under a million transactions have flowed through its servers, on their way to back end systems in the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise, Dept of Work and Pensions and many other departments. Less than we expected? Certainly. But volumes are way up on this time last year and have exploded in the last month with the end of the Self Assessment filing deadline. One year and 11 days ago we relaunched We named the project "Groundhog" for reasons that those of you who were close to me when the project kicked off will be only too familar. Those not familiar need only look at the link for a clue. UKonline's traffic is up more than 10-fold in the last year, maybe even 15-fold. Not bad at all given where we started. Although my team delivers the platform for ukonline, we don't do anything for the content (I occasionally throw in a few ideas but they're usually, correctly, rejected for being crap) - that's the editorial folks in the Office of the e-Envoy, who have done well to make the site a destination point for many people looking for help with government services, online or offline. This week's surprise result (and I do mean surprise because no-one I spoke to was expecting it) was ukonline featuring in Practical Internet's Top 100 websites in the UK (that link goes to the magazine's website, but you won't find the top sites there for some reason - maybe they're somewhere else. For now you'll just have to take my word for it). Anyway, apparently they asked 50 famous people (Richard Branson is a name I remember from the list) what their favourite sites were, and ukonline came in at 30th place. Not bad, and the only government website to feature. Before you ask, I wasn't in the list of voter and nor was anyone else from OeE. While 30th is nice from such a select audience, I won't be celebrating until we hit 30th or better (top 15 would be nice) in a survey of the general public - then I'll know that government websites have arrived. Other surveys out this week show that it might be perhaps only a short while before the top 15 spot is claimed. The Register picked up on a press release from Keynote Systems. I hunted around for who they might be ... there's a few options. They might be Keynote, the Internet Performance Authority, or they might be Keynote Market Research, or they might even be Keynote Systems. Anyway, depsite hunting through those sites I was stumped for the source report - just shows how unhelpful the 'net can be sometimes. So, we'll have to go with The Register's summary which says some good things about government websites and some bad things. The bad things are that there are broken links - as many as 10-25 on some sites. Actually I think that's not too bad - links break all the time and no-one that I know fixes them in real time, so at any single snapshot with thousands of links on a site, having just 1% or less broken is probably not a bad result. Some overall conclusions... "There were examples of 'best practice', particularly among new sites or portals established specifically to deliver e-government services to the general public, alongside government Web sites which had a number of integrity issues such as poor image optimisation, large pages and broken links," said the research And then some good stats: NHS Direct Online receives half a million hits a month. UK online is the fastest growing government website, with an average 119 per cent growth per month. More than 500,000 people use UK online a month I'm on record from June 2001 (and in an NAO report from the end of 2001) as saying that two million visitors a month might be a good target. At the time ukonline was less than 5,000 per month. So we've grown 10 fold per year since then, and only need to grow 4 fold this year. Two million would really be something I think. It looks hard, but maybe do-able.

Saturday, February 01, 2003

Space shuttle

17 years ago and a couple of days I remember being in my aunt's house in Somerset watching the TV footage of Challenger taking off and a couple of minutes later being stunned into silence as it exploded. Today, the same emotions are going through my mind. I don't have a TV in my home and moments like this are when you really miss it - although there is nothing to say and even less to do, it seems the closest way of being connected. Dave Winer posts an image from the National Weather Centre in the USA that shows the crash. Outside the Intercontinental hotel in Miami there's a monument to the 7 astronauts who died in the last accident. I've walked past it so many times never expecting that we'd need another one. Richard Feynmann was one of the key investigators after Challenger and I remember him explaining how the 'o-ring' problem arose. It will take many more bright minds to understand this one, and 100x more than that to make sure it doesn't happen again. Sometimes it seems like we're trying too hard to get some place, only to find that trying hard doesn't cut it. Dan Gillmor says what I was thinking.