Sunday, February 27, 2005

When is a site not a site - When it's ITSafe

Normally I probably wouldn't be criticising any effort to raise awareness of the need for properly protecting your home computer. After all, I banged on for long enough about government taking a role in this when I was at the Office of the e-Envoy. The folks at NISCC (pleasingly pronounced "Nicey") have responded to the challenge with a little site, itsafe. An odd choice of name - I guess it could have been ITsecure, SecureIT, SafeIT or any one of 1001 others, but it will do the job if enough people link to it (at which point the name of the site is irrelevant). The NISCC folks, on whom I relied more than a few times when at OeE, are a clever and capable bunch who also handle the UNIRAS site - a kind of tech-heavy version of itsafe. Another odd thing about the site is that the home page of the site today lauds the launch event, where a Home Office Minister unveiled the site:
That's not too bad - having a Minister launch a website these days is probably quite a tough thing to sort. After all, with 3,500 odd sites, they surely haven't launched all of them. But the launch is hardly important - what is vital is the content in the site. There was good press coverage though - the site is widely reported in the professional technology press (Computing etc) and even a bit of mainstream coverage with Mike Cross briefly referring to it in the Guardian (although I don't think he meant his referral in a good way). A site like this will need to be linked to by tens of thousands of sites to be effective though. It will need to be seen as a definitive source, and that will take a lot more work. The site has some useful stuff: there are a couple of "how to" ideas, e.g. how to update windows XP or office (but there isn't a how to update MAC OS X or any other operating system). There is a single advisory - the definition for which is when the problem won't affect enough users to justify an alert or email being issued - for problems in Firefox that can be fixed with an upgrade to the new version. With 25 million downloads already in less than 100 days, I think Firefox is gaining enough ground to perhaps be given alert of its own - if only to get the word out to yet more people that there are other options for browsers. What worries me though is that the site is nearly empty. And if it's to be a definitive source, it needs to have things that are hard to find elsewhere or that are much higher quality than you would find elsewhere; and information that is entirely vendor neutral. There are plenty of things that could be featured that would improve IT safety - protecting against Spyware, with accreditation of sites with good downloads perhaps? The right browser settings to give best protection, with the risks that you are still exposed to. A detailed study of phishing emails and how to recognise them? Perhaps an archived list of security measures you should already have taken? Maybe, just maybe, a tool that assesses the security of your setup - one that checks if your firewall is on, maybe even collects data from your PC on settings? Would you trust government do to that for you? I'm not sure if I would - but there are plenty of other sites that I would trust even less. Government moving in here could create a sea change in vendor behaviour. I always thought that government should provide a definitive source for all software patches you needed. You would log your configuration with a government site and then when you visited, it would know what downloads you need and would be apply to source them from a variety of places, bring them together, and allow you to download them. That would be a big leap of trust from where we are now, and it would require enormous vendor co-operation. But if government couldn't put the stress on to get that, then who could? Still, maybe it's just me, reflecting on yet another poor rugby performance from my national side who have just lost to Ireland. Three losses in a row is enough to put any supporter in a bad mood (not even counting the fact that they've only won 5 games out of the last 14). The wooden spoon beckons - beating Italy would not count as not winning the wooden spoon. Perhaps I should support Wales more often.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

They Had No Choice

Driving up to town today, via Hyde Park, I was struck by a status by the side of the road on Park Lane. It's striking - there's a full statue of a mule, a carving of an elephant, a dog and some other animals. A quick search shows what it is - a memorial to the hundreds of animals that served and died during various wars, with a special note to the 60 who have won the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Who'd have thought?
Animals at War Memorial
The BBC has the full story. They tell of: - 54 animals - 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, three horses and a cat - commended for their service in World War II. Among these heroes were: - Rob, a para-dog who made more than 20 parachute drops while serving with the SAS on top-secret missions in Africa and Italy. - Ricky, a canine mine-detector who continued with his dangerous task of clearing a canal bank in Holland despite suffering head injuries. - Winkie, a pigeon that flew 129 miles with her wings clogged with oil to save a downed bomber crew. - Mary of Exeter, another pigeon, which flew back with her neck and right breast ripped open, savaged by hawks kept by the Germans at Calais. - Search and rescue dogs, Beauty, Peter, Irma and Jet, who located survivors buried in the debris of the London Blitz. - Metropolitan Police horses, Olga, Regal and Upstart, who faced their fear of fire and the hail of flying bombs. Perhaps the only odd thing is that it's in the centre of a busy traffic island - along one of the few stretches of road in London where you can do 40mph on each side. It makes it eye catching as you make the right turn towards Bond Street, but perhaps not the easiest place to visit for a closer look.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The easy life?

It seems a long way to climb up just for a nap. No wonder, though, that my new apartment was finished 9 months later than planned!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

iSync to the beat

I've just taken delivery of a new phone - a Sony Ericsson P910i. Why that one? Well, the Treo 600 I've been using for the last 12 months or so has given up the ghost - that horribly designed stubby aerial that only an American phone needs has started to wobble, making call quality poor. The Treo 650 isn't going to be around until Mid-March and I needed a phone. I've had a P800 and a P900 before, so this seemed a good stopgap until the Treo 650 makes landfall. I actually wanted a sexy V3 from Moto, but the software quality on those is not great and with 500 addresses, the contacts function is too slow to use. What I don't get it why SonyEricsson haven't figured out that Apple is a cool place to be. Syncing with the Mac requires a degree in Computer Science. SE should be partnering with Apple and providing great software that works out of the box. Here's how I have to sync (thanks to Lozishere):
First step: Go to /system/library/application support/syncservice and then find a file in /501 called SymbianConduitDefaults.plist. Drag this file to the desktop. Now delete all the folders contained in /system/library/application support/syncservice/. They will be called things like 501, 508 etc. Second Step: Open and then quit iSync. Third Step: Open the file you just dragged to the desktop. Open it in textedit if it asks you for an application. Delete the file's contents and replace it with the following: kBTEmptyFolderIsOkayReally kBTFilteringDestinationFolderID F 126881400.11 kBTFilteringDestinationFolderName General kNSSyncConduitFilteringContactGroupMap kNSSyncDeviceID 00-0f-de-87-3d-56 kNSSyncDeviceName LoZ kNSSyncDeviceShouldSlowSyncCalendars kNSSyncDeviceShouldSlowSyncContacts kNSSyncDeviceUseCalendars kNSSyncDeviceUseContacts kSymbianConduitModelKey P910-1 kSymbianHasDeviceSynced
What on earth is all that about? What happened to plug and play? Or cradles and hotsync buttons? God knows how this guy figured out what needed to be done. Apple cannot go mainsteam until two things are sorted:- (i) easy interfacing with multiple supplier devices and (ii) proper rendering and interoperation of major websites (there are still too many,e.g. HSBC online banking, Parcelforce etc that don't work properly - the business case is not there for them). Tomorrow's task is going to be to follow the instructions above and see if I can make it work. I happen to know that getting a Moto V3 to sync, even to a PC is hard though - for whatever reason they decided not to support Outlook (!!?) and so you have to export all your data to a text CSV file, reformat the fields to map to Moto standards and then import again. Doing that the other day took 6 hours for a friend! I'm all for integration, but first I want interoperability and interconnectivity. No scratch that. Actually, I don't really care about integration. I'd like interop first, we can worry about photo ipods some other time.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Snow Fun

Running outdoors in this weather is no fun at all. The books say I should be doing "wind sprints" - they didn't say I had to do it in what seems like gale force winds. To make things worse, I've injured my leg - some kind of shin splint - which has slowed me down enormously. If I get round the course now, I'll be pretty pleased. Anything less than 5 hours would be a miracle given the pain I get over even short runs. Still, physio, ice and stretching have been prescribed and I'm going to get through it, come what may.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Delivering value online

The Australian National Audit Office have been checking up on how the folks down under are doing with their e-government initiatives. As in all audit reports, there is a brief discussion of any positives before rapidly getting down to uncover the negatives. The key points, though, are relevant I suspect to any and every country with an e-government programme: First, on website cost comparison

21. While agencies were able to provide estimates of the recurrent costs of their websites, they used different methods to calculate these costs and included a range of different items. Agencies had not conducted activity based costing of their websites. This made it difficult to compare the costs of websites against each other. The major item in most agencies’ recurrent costs of their websites was salaries for the staff responsible for managing the website. IT cost information was limited, and, where such costs were provided, most were relatively small.

22. Websites in agencies at similar stages of Internet service delivery displayed wide variations in costs. However, it was not apparent whether these differences were related to the stage of website development and/or the size of the agency, or to other factors not identified. Further, there was insufficient comparable data to determine whether cost differences were related to degrees of website efficiency and effectiveness.

23. Only one agency had conducted a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the Internet was the most effective form of delivery for their online service. No agency had calculated an expected return on investment for providing the service. Despite having information on both costs and benefits, and having outlined this as one of the principles to be used in determining whether a particular service should be provided online, other agencies did not include a cost-benefit analysis in their business cases
And then on monitoring success

26. Three agencies had developed performance indicators for their online services. This meant that half of the agencies had not identified how the success of the program would be measured, such as by meeting estimated targets or achieving reduced costs. As well, while agencies included information on various e-government activities related to a number of their programs in their annual reports, few had reported externally on any specific performance indicators for their websites or online services.

27. ANAO considered that some agencies would have difficulty in determining appropriate performance indicators for their websites, because some of the websites’ objectives or aims were very general or not clearly specified. ANAO noted, however, that agencies were already collecting much of the information required to develop adequate indicators to assess performance.

28. Despite including evaluation plans in their business cases, most agencies had not evaluated their website redevelopments or new online services, although most planned to. Further, agencies did not generally have an integrated monitoring and evaluation policy for their Internet service delivery.

And they recommend

34. ANAO suggests that to improve their management of e-government, and their measurement of the efficiency and effectiveness of Internet service delivery, agencies:

  • establish coherent arrangements for management of their websites to further their more efficient use;
  • develop internal policies and guidelines for the Internet and encourage agency staff to use them;
  • quantify the benefits and costs of their websites;
  • consider using AGIMO’s Demand and Value Assessment Methodology to assess websites and online service delivery;
  • identify the audience for their website and online services, and consult potential users about their needs;
  • assess demand for the delivery of services via the Internet, and specify targets for achievements against objectives; and
  • compare the performance of their websites with that of other agencies or sites, to assist in assessing whether the website is efficient and effective.
All of the changes to bold text are mine. The report includes the comments from the various agencies audited and all agree the findings and the recommendations. I think that's the first time I've ever seen that with a public audit report. Someone once said to me that the NAO (the UK equivalent of the folks that did this report) know what their report will say within 2 weeks of starting their work but negotiating the wording takes a further 18 months, which is why reports are often published so long after the event being reviewed. The work on this audit was carried out from February to May 2004 and it appears to have been published on Feb 10th 2005. Maybe it's the same in Australia?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Dawn of the CPU/hr

At breakfast with Jonathan Schwarz yesterday he was talking about Sun's recent launch of a true utility - a grid computer available to all. His pitch is essentially that computing should become a service like water, electricity or gas: one that you can turn on or turn off at will. The missing piece is that for something to become a true utility there needs to be transparent pricing, i.e. a clear and indisputable metric in units that are standard to everyone. With electricity, this was KW/h - and the move to utility led to ubiquity. The comparison between KW/h and CPU/h isn't seem straightforward - "CPU" after all is a moving target. Sun have helpfully defined what they mean though - a 2.4Ghz opteron (and there are accompanying stats on disk storage etc) - along with issuing a none-too-subtle challenge to IBM. Unlike electricity, you should get progressively more for less as time goes on - the folks who manage the grid perform upgrades and, hopefully, the price falls as the cost of computing is driven down by ubiqity and accompanying widespread use. I haven't notice my electricity bill go down recently but, as Jonathan says, the first person to have his house fully wired was JP Morgan and he needed full time staff to manage the generator; since then, bills have certainly come down. Whenever I looked at the task manager application on my PC I was always amused to see it registering mostly 95% idle (when I worked on VAX systems, I saw that rather than say "idle" they used "System tasks" in case any senior management happened to look at it and wonder why they were paying such huge bills I guess). So in terms of CPU/h, I am paying through the nose for 'CPU' and getting very little 'hour'. And, if I'm paying through the nose, then any corporate or public sector entity is getting nosebleeds unless they're running intensive activities all the time (oil exploration surveys come to mind) or they're running on out of date hardware and really sweating their assets. We're all used to paying for computing as "capital cost" though - we buy a laptop or a desktop for £1000, £2000 or £3000 - and then we manage it operationally (for perhaps £1,000-£3,000 a head from what I hear). Over 3-5 years of depreciation that's a lot of money for probably relatively few truly productive CPU hours. We probably don't even know how many or how much they cost. What Sun have offered here is a benchmark - a pure number that allows direct comparison with our own costs. I don't think anyone has tried that before. We don't know, of course, whether that's Sun's true cost of service provision (with appropriate margins built in etc) or whether it's a loss leader (their accounts a few quarters down will perhaps tell that story). But we do have a number that anyone can compare to their own data. The problem, I think, is that few will have the data to really determine the cost in CPU/h terms. To start, maybe it will be enough to sum the cost of the data centre and divide by the number of hours in a year. That, for most people, will be more than $1. And, if like every system I've ever seen, you're mostly idle, then all of a sudden it starts to look like $10, $100 or $1000 an hour. Or maybe more? Then come all the objections, all of the comparisons, the dependencies, the issues and restrictions. It will be something like "we couldn't move our data to Sun's place because of confidentiality" or because of "security" or "data protection" or "we don't run their software stack" or whatever. I think that's the beauty of Sun's move though - they're provoking a debate and some folks will take on that challenge and run the numbers and see if there's maybe a way that they can make use of Sun. Others will run the numbers and look for ways to cut their own costs and get more efficient. And others still will ignore it because they don't really want to know what their own costs are and how far away they are from true utility computing. If I could hook a truly dumb terminal up to their grid and run my own basic computing needs against it (I really don't need a grid but I'll take it if it's there) with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, I think my computing bill would be $10 a year or less. I wonder if there's a model there for the folks who don't have PCs yet, who don't quite know why they need one - a fully subscription based system with minimal hardware, practically zero management and a simple monthly fee (after all, it works for satellite TV). You turn your terminal on and you start paying for it - just like water, electricity and gas. I'm sure that Jonathan is not yet ready to get into the consumer market with this - he wants weather forecasting or seismic surveys or something - but maybe once it's proven there is a model with the right partner to do that. I don't think Sun will succeed at making this a profitable business, but I do give them credit for trying. And I'd love to see a debate provoked around what the true costs are for others.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Firefox - never going to compete?

A bizarre item, plucked from the news on Google:
They [analysts] point out that FireFox’s growth is so far ‘unsustainable’. Its features were designed more for individual users. Corporates need to think twice before using Firefox because it has repeatedly been targeted by worms and viruses. That is the reason why it cannot compete with the Internet Explorer. The analysts expect that Microsoft may consider retaliating with an upgrade, but that may depend on its upgrade plans for Windows besides the development of the much awaited Longhorn operating system
I must have missed all of those worms and viruses that have hit Firefox? Maybe I should switch right away to IE? What did I miss here? Is Earthtimes (the source of this) a Microsoft-funded newsletter? Doesn't seem likely? Just sloppy journalism?

Chip and Pin

I finally got my first UK chip and pin card this week. Thank you Citi - I know that you never sleep, but it seems to me that you've not been dealing with this one in a fully awake state. I used these cards when I lived in France and thought that they were great. No messing around with paper in restaurants - the machine comes to the table, the transaction is completed then and there, you never lose sight of your card. Of course, there is rarely any such thing as service charge in France so there's no fiddling with the maths of that. In stores, the pin device was set away from the cash desk - usually at the far end of the till, even away from the cashier - so that no-one could see you enter your pin. Everywhere I've been in London, the pin device is a tiny, portable gadget placed squarely in the middle of the till - where everyone can see whatever you type in. I don't get it. Keep your pin secure, except for the fact that even the guy 5 places behind you in the queue can see what you just typed? How does that work? And as for fast and reliable, I'm not sure it's any quicker. The gadget seems to dial in for ages before you put in your pin and then dial again afterwards. Long pauses with nothing but "Do not remove the card" to stare at as you anxiously wonder whether that cheque that you just put in really has cleared and whether you do have the money to pay for the things that are already neatly wrapped in the bag. Is this as good as it gets?

Backing Blair?

A very, very funny flash video (and accompanying website) from Tim Ireland (who else?). Even if it doesn't agree with my thinking.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

More on Carly

Interesting comment on the post below. I'm responding here so that I can upload a graphic. The view posted is that Carly F did nothing for the business whilst she was there and, worse, destroyed as much as £25bn of value. The stock has meandered along during her reign. The graph below, from bigcharts, shows the last 3 years for HP stock (the symbol for which is HPQ - if you try just HP you get a very different company that's actually performed quite nicely over the time shown). I've compared HP to IBM, Intel and Microsoft. I hope it's clear enough - I struggled to get it to the right size to fit (still fiddling with Mac software that I don't understand). The picture is far from pretty - but, in fact, HP looks to have outperformed all 3 of them. The merger vote for Compaq/HP was in March 2002 so a 3 year chart looks reasonable. Picking a 5 year chart is not too different, but IBM comes out clearly ahead in that timeframe.
So, why do I say Carly is smart? The first reason is that I've met her and I was hugely impressed. This is a lady that definitely knows how to control a room when she's in it. She's articulate and well briefed across a range of subjects. In a world of CEOs of Enron, Worldcom, Tyco etc I think she's honest with an agenda to achieve, but not to the point of self-enrichment (although I'm sure some of that came along, it wasn't through fraud) The second reason is that Compaq was a basket case before the buy. The purchase of DEC by Compaq rescued another basket case - they hadn't had a hit product since the end of the 80s, the Alpha was going nowhere. But what it did get Compaq was a large number of highly skilled engineering consultants - which is what they were after: a service business to take them out of the low margin PC business, with the potential upside in the server space from DEC machines and perhaps Alpha. The third reason is that something had to be done. There were other choices - spin off the printer unit, focus on servers and ditch consumer perhaps. We're seeing IBM do this now with them selling their PC line to Lenovo (assuming the US politicos let that through) - something that I think will store up pain for the future. Merging with Compaq should have brought scale in a tough business and should have bolstered other product lines - e.g. giving them access to the Ipaq which still, I think, leads PocketPC technology (although it's a while since I've had one). Carly alone carried the merger vote - and that took superhuman effort. Was it the right vote? Well, if it wasn't, folks shouldn't have voted for it and should have sided with old Walter Hewlett. I wonder what he's done with the money he got from selling all of his stock - he sold out after the merger was approved. Last, revenues have grown - last year up 9% to $80bn, net income too, 38% growth in 2004 versus 2003. In the end though, the merger hasn't worked so far; money has been destroyed and it's hard to see what customers have got - that's all fair comment. I don't think anyone could have given it a better shot and I'd argue that Carly was let down by some of her lieutenants - the ones that she has already let go and some that are still there. I've met a bunch of those guys and been singularly unimpressed with them all - and it was they that were supposed to run the business. As the PM said only the other day, "delegation is such an important part of the job". And when that doesn't work, the chief carries the can - which is what has happened. Capitalism in perfect action, right? Meanwhile, the Register publishes a good version of the key events.

Carly doesn't live here any more

Just a few days ago I was reading a big spread in Fortune about Carly Fiorina at HP, the troubles the company was having and the questions that perhaps the board was asking. And now she's gone. The stock is up 10%, probably on the assumption that the company will now be broken up and the printer part will be left to do its own thing (the printer guys make almost all of the profits and count for most of the valuation; the rest comes for free). I'm sorry to see Carly go. She's an incredibly smart woman, passionately dedicated to the merged business that HP/Compaq had become. Indeed, the measures she took to make the merger happen could have been equalled by no other. Next stop politics?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Last Minute Balance

Mike Cross, writing in the Guardian, took (as always) a balanced view of the problems that the Inland Revenue faced with its Self Assessment service in the last few days of January. He also quoted me twice, which must make him correct in his thinking, right? Here's the balanced part

The overload was an embarrassment - especially as it was the first tax deadline to be handled by the Inland Revenue's new IT contractor, Capgemini, which took over last July.

But it was also a triumph. Although official figures are not yet available, the Inland Revenue was confident the number of people filing their returns electronically would exceed the record 1.1m achieved in 2002-03.

Impossible to argue with both of those points. Embarrassing to fall so painfully at the final hurdle, but impressive that growth should be reported as strong. Full disclosure here: I worked hard on the original implementation of SA online for the IR early in 2000 and 2001 - when the press was nothing but staggeringly negative. Mike goes on (here's the PR for me):
More significant, says Alan Mather, former head of the Cabinet Office e-delivery unit, the large number of last-minute online submissions shows that people are beginning to trust government on the web. However, this trust will not last long if government services continue to be overwhelmed by
Resilience is expensive, but Mather says there is no alternative if people are to turn en masse to e-government. "If any of this stuff is going to make a difference, it needs to be there all the time, accessible in an instant and comprehensive with its feedback. Otherwise, why would anyone be daft enough to make the switch?"
And a bit more balance, tinged with pointed humour:
Such fiascos demanded a radical solution. Government IT chiefs came up with one - henceforth, public-facing web services would be set up with no publicity. This is one reason why almost no one knows you can pay car tax online; another is the continuing delay to the MOT test database, due to go live in November.
And notes that there is much to learn - but it's not as if there is no-one to learn from:
Other sites, as the Inland Revenue has discovered, will have to deal with peaks of demand. Commercial organisations have painfully discovered ways of handling such loads, for example stripping out graphics at busy times and hosting sites at shared service centres that can cope with peaks.
He's right. And government has been wrong. Hiding your service so that no-one can find it is no solution. If it works with 100 people, there's no guarantee that it will work with 1,000 or 10,000 - so testing it upfront is essential (and there are all sorts of tests that need to be done). Then, if you've tested it, go for the colourful PR launch. One of the problems with finding online services in the UK remains the need to sift through 1000s of websites. Google doesn't help you find transactions so easily, it doesn't tell you whether your local council lets you handle your council tax online - it gets you to the site. You then have to dig through the interminable layers of navigation to find what it is that you need - only to find (often) that you can't do what you want. So here I go again - fewer sites, designed to handle more load, with better capability, far better thinking around user need and delivered in partnership with intermediaries and third parties so that there is a single definitive source. Easy? I wish. Important? Yes. Fixing world poverty important? Depends on your point of view - but some things you can wish for for a long time and get nothing, others you can take steps towards making happen!

Monday, February 07, 2005

Marathon Update

The sponsorship total climbed past £2,000 today, thanks to a donation from the USA - thanks Bob. Closing in on the first target, £3,000. I guess I'd better make sure I do it now! I'm delighted with the response so far. As some who comment on this site have said before, there are more important things than e-government/joining up government, and raising money to help those with cancer is way up on my list.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Doing the incentive thing

Thinking some more about the move by Companies House to double the offline fees, I wondered what the big picture plan was. The Inland Revenue are trying to pay you to go online (the £10 for Self Assessment may be defunct, but the £250 for PAYE is still going strong), HM Customs lured you with an extra week to pay if you did it electronically (probably quite a deal if you're a small business ever worried about cash flow) and now CH, part of the dti, add a new model. Imagine a systematic plan - with baselines drawn up for where things were before, populations normalised and data collected on rates of change of use per channel etc. But I just don't think it's going to be that well thought through. Even if it wasn't, now would be a good time to change. After all, the populations that IR, Customs and CH deal with overlap neatly here. If you're doing PAYE, you're certainly a limited company and so certainly filing returns with CH; you're most likely doing VAT too. So if you take the baseline population as those that file with Companies House, you could work through the other departments quite neatly. It doesn't always work the other way round - those filing VAT don't always have limited companies and many companies have more than one payroll. There's room for a business-focused study here that could yield very useful data on what it is exactly that stimulates people to go online and use government services. Some interview samples from willing traders that backup the statistics would help clear out any particular blocks too. Once the data is available - and it should take perhaps 6 months to get a reasonable sample - some conclusions could be drawn and then rolled out across all departments dealing with businesses online (and from there to Local Authorities and business rates). The data might even apply to citizens as well, although I can imagine doubling fees for continuing to use paper services being a controversial move (I can hear the cries now - only 50% are online; my granny doesn't have a PC etc). Paul Miller left a comment on my post below wondering whether we need to push harder on incentivisation. It seems to me that if you can: - Say that a big enough range of services is available and - Commit that the services will be available when they're needed Then you would only need to test the incentive process. After all, Amazon offers free shipping above certain amounts, why can't government differentiate the same way? The incentives could even stack on each other - the more you do, the more benefit you derive. Is there a plan coming together here? Is there a tiny bit of joined up government going on with a range of departments figuring out in a semi-scientific way what the best approach is? I'd love to believe it were so, but it almost certainly isn't. Maybe I'll put in an FOI request and ask!

Friday, February 04, 2005

Stay Offline and Pay Double

In 2000/1 the Inland Revenue tried a model where those who sent their tax returns in online got a £10 rebate. It was probably too early for that to work and few were interested in just £10. Five years on, Companies House is having another go. But they're charging you more if you use the paper channel. A disincentive to do things the old way! The new prices take effect this month and, helpfully, they've left their old prices available for comparison. I'd like to say easy comparison, but they've swapped some things around and added a few new descriptions so it's not easy at all. The numbers might appear small, but they're obvious. Sending in your annual corporate return (which pretty much just says who the directors and shareholders are and what the main addresses are) is £15 if you send electronically (which is how much it cost last year to send by paper) and £30 if you send by paper. That's not quite what I was expecting. You'd think it would be cheaper to do it electronically this year than it was to do it on paper last year. But no, in a cunning strategy, if you want to do things the same way you did last year, you have to pay double. And if you want to pay the same then you have to go online. Other things are better: Same day incorporation goes from £80 to £50 and only £30 if you do it online. There are some other changes but the overall trend seems to be down. I'm impressed - both at the idea of a disincentive to use paper and that Companies House are first in. I wonder what the reaction of the small business community will be? Choice (a) is that it will be seen as a further tax on business, (b) that it will be seen as government working the efficiency angle, (c) that Companies House never made money on the old fees so had to raise them to stay afloat, or perhaps (d) the right strategy to get people to switch to online methods where prices can be brought down over time.

Template Change

It's been ages since I changed the template I use for this blog, so here's a new one. The primary criteria for picking it, apart from it being blue, is that it allows me to have a "previous posts" sidebar with the titles of a few recent posts (I'd like to be able to pick which ones go there, but that might be a job for another spare week). Of course, nothing's easy and it didn't come with a widget that allowed me to have my favourite links on the sidebar too, so I've just spent a pleasant few minutes fiddling with enough HTML to last me another couple of months so that I could have those. I've also sorted the links into "professional" - i.e. links to companies and "people" - i.e. links to those individual's blogs who I read regularly. It also has arrows in it, which is nothing to do with either or, it's just the graphics it came with. A project for another day is to change those, so I'm up for offers of graphic design assistance as long as your resume extends beyond all things pornographic.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

When things just don't work

The Inland Revenue has come in for a lot of stick this week for problems with its online Self Assessment service (see the Guardian, Telegraph, the FT - who note "The Revenue knew beforehand that 3.5m people had not filed their returns at the start of January, so it should have been easy to predict what would happen", and, of course, Simon Moores writing on Silicon, as opposed to the normal parchment that he uses, whilst lamenting that e-government is failing taxpayers). Apparently more than 5,000 people were trying to access it during the peak hour on 31st January - the very last day when people can send in their returns before they have to pay a penalty of £100. I completely understand why people leave it until the last minute. First, it takes time to pull all of your tax details together: your bank interest statements, stockbroker information, rental income from property data etc; second, paying money to people is the last thing on anyone's mind and if you owe people money, you leave it until the last possible minute (after all, how many of you give money to the Gas/Electricity/Phone company before they take it from your account? When they ask you what date you want the direct debit set up, you pick the latest one possible). After all, it's our money before it's the tax man's! And I want to make use of mine for as long as possible before I hand it over. But then, when they do leave it to the last minute, the right answer is not "You should have done it before the deadline", "You've had 9 months" or "Early October is quiet". That's tantamount to asking the customer to plan for the government's capacity planning problems. Unlike Disney though, there are no signs up saying that there will be a queue taking up to 90 minutes from this point in the line. How should the customer know that there will be problems? Now, people who go to Disney pay for the privilege to stand in line and people who go in the Summer holidays know that there will be delays, because there will be swarms of kids hanging around, rushing to get ahead of you in the lines and generally causing mayhem. The culture of Last Minute is firmly embedded in our psyche - you can't imagine existing if it didn't (ok, I know Google built a brand out of a non-existent word, but the exception proves the rule). The Internet is about being able to do things at the last minute. It's about suddenly remembering that it's your best friend's birthday tomorrow - and he lives on the west coast - and the only way to get something to him on time is to ship it via Amazon USA. If Amazon's not there, ready to deal at the last minute, then not only do they lose the business (and someone else gets it) but it may result in the deal not happening at all. The Revenue have, to be entirely fair, done their bit this year - the ads have been on the tube, on the radio, on the TV, in the magazines. They even say they've upped their bandwidth by 50% to cope with the load (not a helpful comment given how many other things can go wrong that aren't anything to do with bandwidth). And they've processed record numbers of returns. But just imagine if they were on a promise to do 50% of tax returns online by the end of 2005. Hold on, they are. They're one of only two departments with specific adoption goals for this year - and it's a full 50% of everything they do through the online channel. That could be as many as 4 million returns. That's a big step up from 5,000 per hour. That's only 456 an hour if they come through 24/7/365 ... but if they're concentrated as they were this year with, say, 2% on the last day, they're going to be handling 80,000 not 30,000. But, plainly, bad PR discourages people from making the effort. The initial response to say that the £100 fine would stand if anyone didn't file on time was not helpful. The retraction with the caveat about something to do with failure messages was marginally more helpful but not entirely comprehensible. Better PR would have been, "Hey, we screwed up! We're going to give everyone an extra 2 weeks to get their returns in, as long as they do it online." That would have given everyone who hadn't taken care of their tax a kick in the pants, would have resulted in extra PR coverage and more front page reminders that there was still time to get it done. Too bad that didn't happen. Getting to 80,000 in the face of a sense that the service "might not be there" requires the customer either to take the lesson of "do it early" to heart or some serious upgrades to capability and capacity by the Revenue's IT provider. Let's not forget here that this is about IT providers, not government departments. The requirement on the provider is clear - don't make us look stupid - and it's there that there needs to be some concentration. There and with the PR - but, let me tell you, getting a 2 week extension on the fly is not simply a management decision; I can imagine that one going to the top of the tree and back down again several times, possibly even requiring a change in the law! Nothing's ever simple. Just in case you think the Revenue are alone in having these kind of problems though, I thought I would do my bit of public service and remind you of a few others. Amazon had a "mornings" worth of outage in December 2004, although there were signs the problem had been on and off for at least 11 days. In October 2004, eBay's own PayPal service had some serious problems - it was down for 5 days. In June last year, Pipex, the ISP, had some lengthy downtime. Also in June, major sites such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and even Google were down for several hours. Shooting fish in a barrel. There's no excuse for it, whether government or corporate. But it happens. The question is, how do people handle it? Do they bury their head in the sand initially (as did Intel when the first problems with the Pentium were found) or do they confront it head on and manage the PR (as the Aurora World Cruise folks did, resulting in massive positive coverage for what should have been a mess). You could even take the Labour party approach and release posters that you never planned to put up, get coverage about how terrible they are, then get coverage for taking them down - and all the time, they're on page 1,2 and 3 of major newspapers. Now, ask anyone about their view of Michael Howard and the first image that springs to mind is either him looking a little pink with a pair of wings, or him swinging a watch a la paul mckenna doing hypnosis. The power is in the PR! Or, we could all take the Calvert County example and ask the customer to manage the problem for us.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Marathon Training

As part of the gruelling training plan for this apparently endless run I'll be doing in a couple of months, I think it's important to hang out with the right people. So here's a shot of me hanging out (and mugging it up) with someone who actually can run, Kelly Holmes (check out that bicep!).
Somehow, I don't think Kelly's style is going to work with me in my race though. I can't quite see how I will fight my way past 30,000-odd people if I wait at the back until the last couple of miles. So I may be reduced to hanging at the back and finishing there - I'm not ready to guess what time that will be but I'm hoping it will still be race day. Still. this photo certainly beats the one that Simon Moores has posted of me. I have no idea where he got that one from but I will say that the Saudis have taken pictures of me before and super-imposed my head on someone else's body to ensure that I was seen wearing a tie.
Everyone knows I never wear ties.
Simon also comments on my Gateway story and notes that "joined up government" and giving blood are pretty much the same thing. After my time in government, I can vouch for that - except that at least with the National Blood Service they only drain a pint at a time. With Simon's associations with the Conversatives, I'm not sure he's realised that should Michael Howard ever make it into Number 10, an awful lot more of us will be giving our pints of blood. After all, he has something of the night about him, that Mr. Howard. UKelect are predicting a Labour majority of 88 and PoliticalBetting is giving Boris Johnson 66-1 odds of being Prime Minister before 2014 (although Hills have him at 25-1).