If we didn’t know before, we know now

At the end of each year lots of lists come out. You know the kind of things, “top 10 shameful video games“, “top 10 innovators for 2002” or the “top 10 alabama sports stories for 2002“. I guess it’s traditional now. I thought I’d do some lessons learnt, with a twist. Some of the lessons are things that we knew in 2001 that proved ever truer in 2002; some are brand new things for 2002 and the rest are things that I expect we’ll learn in 2003.

So, to kick off, here are the things that we learnt again

– e-government is hard. Not just hard in fact, but brutally hard. Few countries around the world have made the leap from the usual offline/online switch to delivering genuinely new services. In the UK we spent 2001 doing the former and carried on in 2002. This may not be a bad thing – in early 2001 the 4 stage model that I displayed at conferences predicted that we would do that. But, to paraphrase the PM at the e-summit – we’ve done ok, but not nearly well enough.

– The press have an eye for this stuff and tend to spot something going off the rails before anyone else. The press were quick to spot the PRO 1901 Census problems in January, quicker still to spot the Inland Revenue issue early in the Summer and have, at various times, pointed the finger at my own team for things that we’ve not got quite right. More power to them. I don’t always agree, but I do appreciate that this ensures that what we do remains in the spotlight, which means that we have to get better – because none of us can endure that kind of coverage for much longer! When we do get it right, I’m hoping that we’ll get the same kind of coverage for the good news as we did for the bad (on this note, check out Scott Loftesness’ good/bad/sad/great news searches on google).

– Innovation is hard to come by. Getting anyone to think outside of the box and figure out how to do something genuinely new and then encouraging them to take that risk is a serious challenge. There are many downsides to taking big risks in the public sector, and few upsides. When there is every chance that you will be reviewed by the OGC, the NAO, your own departmental audit team and then pilloried in the press, let alone by the PAC, it’s easy to see why innovation is rare. That attitude must change if we are to genuinely make a difference. Doing it the same old way will ensure that government looks the same to the population 50 years from now as it does today.

Some new things that we learnt

– The right service can generate enormous demand. The PRO’s 1901 Census service may have fallen over in January, but it fell over under the weight of several tens of millions of users trying to access it. Few would have predicted that kind of load on opening day. Fewer still would have had a system in place that could have handled it and, yes, I accept that we should have prepared for it. The PRO is back and working now and generating good traffic. Similarly, the Pathe film library is online – 250,000 users accessed it in the first 3 days. Hundreds of people have access the new Child Benefit service despite it having minimal publicity (just a link from the DWP home page); hundreds of thousands have visited the Inland Revenue’s Tax Credits site. So, we learnt that people will come, if the offer is right, if there is value there and if it all works. In 2001 we were guessing that would happen; 2002 proved it.

– Digital certificates moved from an interesting idea to an interesting idea on life support. Demand was stunted at best. In year one, it could have been just that they were knew and people were unfamiliar, but two years in it’s unlikely to be that anymore. They’re hard to use, don’t work on all browsers or all operating systems, aren’t portable and cost money. The value proposition is not yet there. Once an equivalent service is supported by both the private and public sector, there might be something there – because that will help encourage standards to be developed that remove the problems between browsers and will give people a reason to have them, because they’ll be multi-functional (if it was part of the widget that you used when travelling on the tube in London, why would you not use it for e-commerce too?). But, it’s still touch and go.

Things that we will probably learn again in 2003

– The right service generates demand. If we can develop e-government services that deliver value, are focused on the customer and their needs right at the moment they’re looking for something, then traffic will grow to government sites.

– As we develop more of these services, we’ll see that we need to stay pretty close to what, for us, is the bleeding edge of technology. We will have to implement complex integration layers to open up the backend, deploy CRM systems that operate across several channels and combine increasingly involved content management and transaction systems to present useful things to the customer. Many of these won’t work reliably either because of poor implementation at the supplier end, changing requirements mid-project at the customer end or just new technology that hasn’t quite grown stable. The Press will be bad. But the progress will be upwards.

– There has never been a stronger need than the one we have now for Government to have its own base of “intelligent customers” who are focused on managing suppliers, delivering to budget and to specification and driving the vision forward. This is a dramatically under-appreciated role in government and one that doesn’t fit well with the traditional policy route to the top. Sir Andrew Turnbull is delivery focused, so let’s hope that he encourages more recruits of his type, more incentives for them to progress within the hierarchy and a greater share of power for delivery instead of policy.

– Outsourcing or using a prime contractor is not, was not and will not be the best way to get your projects delivered. Period.

– We’ll have more bad news stories, more outages, more problems with demand (whether it be predictable or not); we will learn a lot about managing complex Internet systems, just as much (in fact) as we should have learned last year and the year before but probably didn’t.

Things that we’ll learn for the first time

– When it works, it’s great. And we will deploy services in 2003 that are genuinely innovative and make a difference. And that will be great.

– We’ll learn a lot more about personalisation and multi-channel delivery. We’ll start to see e-government services prompting you via your mobile phone, e.g. “you have an appointment at the fracture clinic tomorrow at nine, please confirm you’ll be there”. We’ll see the first services that ask you to volunteer a little information and then present a menu of interactions that are specific to you. This will draw people to use e-government services in far greater numbers than before.

– There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train rushing towards us.

Doing web design right

Web design is more than quite important, it’s vital that we get it right. Jason Kottke summarises the few key principles that you need to know … “Use CSS and XHTML to make your pages clean and fast-loading. Use a database or XML to store your data so that it can be easily output into multiple formats for different devices & programs. Put the most-used tasks right on the front page of your Web site. Make sure your server is up most of the time. Think about what you have to offer to people and give it to them in the most useful way. Make it easy for people to contact your company in a variety of ways”. That’s a great start; do that in government and you are a long way to what your customer wants. Do it the same way on lots of sites and you are nearer still. Don’t have too many sites in the first place and you are close to the end game.

Startling patent emerges

Scott Loftesness (who I met a few weeks ago at a meeting in San Francisco, albeit too briefly) has picked up on a patent filed almost a year ago by Amazon. It covers personalisation, of all things. When I talk about personalisation, I nearly always use the ‘Amazon’ quote – people who bought this book also bought this one; not because it works well all the time, but because I figure most people know about it. But the idea that I now, in theory, wouldn’t be able to implement that in a website is bizarre. But, on the upside (for us in the UK), I don’t think patents for what is, essentially, a business process are valid in the UK – such a patent would never be granted which means as long as I don’t launch a takeover of the US e-government initiative (not something I’m planning right now), we should be ok.

For UK government personalisation, we ought to be able to get a lot closer than “people who wear clothes often buy …” (which seems to be the line Amazon is taking with its recommendations for apparel). Given we already have a population of 60 million people we ought to be able to establish a rough model that links related benefits (some of these are easy – if you have a child less than 18, then you get child benefit; that means you might be due child tax credit, depending on your income – and I don’t have to know the latter to suggest that it’s worth looking). It might be possible to map it by postcode, but I doubt that there’s enough data there to do something truly personal. Over on Slashdot there are a lot of comments about this patent application, most of which say Amazon’s recommendations aren’t all that great. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t – it may all be a question of data. If I knew which of the 1800 government websites you looked at, maybe I could build up something that was useful – but perhaps I couldn’t because no matter how many you look at, you never find the one that has what you need? Maybe if I tracked the things you searched for on ukonline? The real deal here will be how much of this data will you want me to use, how much will you give me voluntarily if it gives you a better service and how much will you let me extract from the backends to really give you what you need. The answer to those is probably not much, a little and none for now – but if the intial “not much” and “a little” start to make a difference to what you see on government sites, then maybe you’d be persuaded to volunteer a little more?

Hold The Press – Version 9,002,473

Oh. Another one. I see that James over at VoxPolitics has stopped posting for the holidays so I thought I’d sneak in with this one. Hedra, the management consultants (and one of the biggest suppliers of ‘consultant bodies’ to government) have been doing some surveys on government websites. The results are not encouraging – only 1 in 20 Internet users regularly use any of the 3,000 government websites; the survey of 600 (which, they say, is statistically valid) couldn’t find anyone over 65 or from social groups DE that used any of the sites regularly. The press release on the Hedra site concludes with this piledriver quote “Hedra Deputy Chairman Stuart James said: The Government needs to look carefully at ways of driving more traffic to its sites, such as discounts on taxes, like those already available to those who pay Council Tax by direct debit. Design and functionality are also important issues. The Government needs to find ways of managing relationships with IT suppliers to get the most from the Internet”. The BBC also picked up the story and added a few gems from the recent PAC report that’s been covered elsewhere.

I’m on the record here and in a variety of other places with my thoughts on government websites. Indeed, I’ve been speaking at conferences since January 2001 and have often talked about what I think is wrong with what we do, what we need to do about it and how we might do it. I’ve done this in front of audiences anywhere from 50 people to 6,000 people; in countries as diverse as Japan, Romania, the USA and, of course, many times in the UK itself. So, don’t for a minute think that I am shying away from this issue. But also, don’t for a minute that I think another survey list this adds any value at all.

– I’m no expert on statistics, so I can’t guess whether 600 is statistically valid. Instinct says it isn’t. But that’s hardly the point. I do know that there aren’t 3,000 websites though, so if they’ve got this wrong, I start to question all the numbers. When I checked at the end of November, there were around 2,200 registered domain names for government. Stripping out duplications (e.g. inland-revenue is not a different site from inlandrevenue) gives us about 1,800 sites. There are a few (but not many) .org, .com and others, so maybe we have 2,000 sites. So the survey is 50% high. But that’s still not the point.

– The figures I have seen, that are from samples far in excess of 600 (and I will track down the sources when I am back in the office) tell me that, in aggregate, government websites attract about 5,500,000 individual visitors per month from the UK – that would be (by my maths anyway) about 10% of the total UK population and about 18-20% of the online population (a bit more than the 5% claimed). This is something close to Amazon and also to the BBC (for UK visitors only) so I’m told. Two thirds of that traffic is garnered by about 20 sites – the top 2-3 usually have about 10-12%, but which ones they are vary. So during the exam problems this summer, DfES was high; during September, the Inland Revenue is high because of Self Assessment. Before any of my colleagues accuse me of hypocrisy, I’m not a fan of research – I like cold, hard numbers like visitor counts because as long as I always count the same way, I can tell what’s going on. I know, for instance, that traffic on ukonline has increased by 10x this year (end January to end November) – from a low base to be sure, but still a 10 fold gain is impressive. Ukonline is now one of those top sites. My usual quote about research is that it “is like a drunk with a lamp post – more for leaning on than for illumination”. But that’s still not the point.

The real point is that government’s progress with websites, whilst enormously beneficial in terms of the potential for the citizen to access raw information, has not been sufficient, has not driven the usage that it should have done (versus the pounds spent) not has it directly benefited the citizen in terms of faster processes, better services or, more aspirationally, transformed government. I haven’t met the deputy chairman of Hedra and I’m sure that he doesn’t write the quotes that are attributed to him, but he should probably check them before issue. All of these surveys usually come up with some inane recommendation, a snappy one-liner about how government could overnight improve its web offering – in this case, all we have to do is give some discounts on taxes. Oh, he says, and by the way, design’s quite important too. So maybe we should do something about that. Oh and lastly, perhaps we ought to manage our relationships with suppliers. And none of those are the point either. So strike three for another survey that adds data to support a well known conclusion but adds zero value to the debate on how we should progress. So, let me get to the point at last:

– Government’s web presence is designed around government. That’s fine for government, but not much use to the citizen. Noone knows or cares how to navigate around the 700-odd entities within government. Why should they? Do you know that the Inland Revenue administers Child Tax Credit, but the Department of Work and Pensions administers Child Benefit? No? Thought not. What you want to be able to do is go to a site, tell it a few things about yourself (either anonymously or not, as you wish) and then have the site tell you what you need to know. That is pretty achievable today – but it would mean linking to lots of different sites for you to get the information you need and each of those sites looks different, works differently and doesn’t know who you are (even though you told the first site a little). This makes it hard to gain “mind share” (and I’m grateful to colleagues in Opta for putting this concept firmly in my mind). The average person has room in their favourites menu or their links toolbar for perhaps 10-12 sites – the ones that they visit regularly. One will be google, one yahoo, one the bbc, one Amazon, one the local football team, one perhaps tesco.com and so on … that doesn’t leave a lot of space for “government”, especially when it is so fragmented on the web (by the by, ukonline could be a nice placeholder in this space as it will get you to all the others).

– Because our web presence is designed around government, every website looks different. By that I mean the search button is in different places, the menu buttons aren’t always where you think they should be (can you imagine trying to use Word and Excel and having to remember where “save” was because it moved each time?) and so on. But, worse still, each site will have a different view of who you might be – some will be structured around the departments within the department, some will have gone so far to think about you as a customer, some will just be lists of items. So you’ll have to spend time on each thinking about how to use the site rather than thinking about how you get what you need – which is, after all, what you went there for.

– Your interactions with government are probably pretty rare as it is – maybe you pay Self Assessment, you probably have a council tax bill, perhaps you claim child benefit. But it’s quite rare that you actually deal with government – you probably renew your tax disc at the post office, your garage sorts out vehicle registration when you buy your new car, your doctor’s known you for years and so doesn’t ask for your NHS number (and you’re not often sick, so you don’t go to hospitals) and so on. So what you need is for most of the other interactions to be taken care of for you – just the way the post office deals with the DVO (bet most of you don’t even know that DVLA is DVO now. Why should you?). And they ought to be taken care of, in many cases, by intermediaries that you already deal with – the banks, the building societies, the post office, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and so on. That’s a big step for government, but one that is coming. What seems like a long time ago I published a graph of how I thought goverment’s web presence will go – it will shoot past the present 1,800 odd, then level out and start to reduce rapidly. The mid end-point is perhaps a dozen sites. The end end point is none – because everything will be dealt with as you need it through a variety of intermediaries. At the time, I don’t think I made the “end end” point clear, but that’s where I think it will go in the very long term.

– Because we don’t treat “you” as an individual, it’s hard for you to figure out what exactly it is that government can offer you. So, unless government knows something about you and how it can contact you (so that when something changes – like a new tax credit being introduced) it can contact you, it’s hard to see why you would even visit more than a few government websites. This is an argument for personalisation – the kind of thing that Amazon already does (‘people who bought this book also bought this one’ – although Amazon persists in recommending me every new edition of something called Farscape, even though I keep telling them that I don’t want them). Personalisation is hard. Hard because you need a big store of data that is stored with information that lets you break it into individually relevant pieces of information; hard because you need some pretty standard definitions (a child must always be a child – but different bits of government use different threshholds which makes life complicated for the technologists); hard because content syndication and aggregation is not yet mature enough to do this well (more on this another time); and hard because it requires a full rethink of the way government manages its web presence – it would mean individual departments giving up control of some aspects of their world and handing them over to central administrators.

– Once the information is there and personalised so that you know what government can do for you, the next stage is to deliver transactions (obviously these happen in parallel in an ideal world, but some things are harder than others). Transactions is where things get messy – you have to open up those nasty old backend systems and tinker with them so that people on the “outside” can put things in them. That exposes all kinds of new weaknesses about business rules, availability of the systems and so on. Transactions are hard. When the Government Gateway launched, there were 3 – PAYE, VAT and IACS. Today there are over a dozen (with some transactions having several parts to them – e.g. PAYE is not a single transaction but about 30). By the end of Q1 2003, there will be about 30. Simply, this is happening faster now because departments have spent time opening up the backends to support these new ways of working. It’s by no means done. But it is working.

– Finally, to my earlier point about who owns Child Benefit versus Child Tax Credit, without a single brand that everyone knows (that mindshare point again) – so one that is marketed, advertised, linked to, referred to, referenced in the press and so on this won’t happen. Where “this” is online take-up. It doesn’t matter if there is more than one site after the intial entry point (at least initially), but if I (as a citizen) have to decide which government site might do what I am looking for, then all is already lost because I don’t speak “government”, I only speak “I want” or “I need to”. So I need a place to go, that is on my favourites or my Links toolbar, that will help me get around the rest of government. That already exists today – it’s ukonline – and maybe that’s the right place for this ubersite to be in the future, or maybe not. But there does need to be one such place. Underneath that single entry point is all of government, with its own brands and specialisations – because we know that individual departments already have their history, credibility and brand presence online and should not disturb that. But we do need to bring people to a place where they can find those specialists.

The benefits that come from doing all of this are that people find information quickly, get access to services that they need when they need them, gain real financial benefits (in the shape of tax credits or whatever) that they didn’t know they were entitled to etc. Gradually, government transforms its backends, reduces its cost of handling, delivers more efficient government and then the benefits flow from that transformed government. That latter point isn’t a 2005 goal, indeed it will take many years to achieve fully. But it will happen. On my watch too.

Rant over. Nearly. One last thing, the supplier community (as I will soon outline in my “Seven Deadly Sins of Suppliers”) does its level best, for the most part, to persist this state of affairs by failing to leverage solutions already developed (often within any given supplier let alone when two suppliers are involved); by failing to deliver robust and reliable services (think PRO, think Inland Revenue, think all the others that you’ve heard about); and by failing to take the business side of implementation – because nearly all the issues that I outline above are about business, not technology. Dealing with government is not easy, I know that, but the lack of creativity, vision and capability within large numbers of suppliers to the public sector is not helping.

Of course, to use a quote from before, “a consultant is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today” … and who did I say was one of the largest supplier of such to government?

There’s plenty of room at the bottom

Back at the end of 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture at CalTech covering, principally, why big things can get a whole lot smaller. He talked about how we could easily envisage writing all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin, how we could have an electric motor no bigger than 1/64 of an inch cubed and how we could build a computer that would recognise someone’s face (without the machine being the size of the pentagon). He could see no reason why we couldn’t do any of these things. I’ve been a fan of Feynman since I studied physics at school – I wish I’d had him as a lecturer, my grades would probably have been a lot better. So 43 years and 1 day ago, Feynman was thinking of the world the way it would likely be in the future – as he did with so many of his ideas. It seems to me that there is a lack of vision in many things today, that people are focused on the short term – on the financial results of the next quarter, on the housing market during the next 6 months, on the Nasdaq at the end of 2003. The big picture needs to be reiterated so that we can aspire to it, break it down into smaller steps and then start to live up to the dream that it inspires.

More on data protection … the banks know about it too; so do the newspapers!

On Thursday I was wondering about the data protection problems that local councils have and how they could look at what the banks have been doing with their account aggregators for some support. Friday’s Wall Street Journal had a feature in the “Personal Journal” section titled “Weighing the Pros and Cons of Grouping Accounts Online” (I’d link to it but (a) I’m not a subscriber to the online version and (b) you’re probably not either, although I do hear that they have some 10s of thousands of online readers, I know that there are only 100,000 readers in Europe).

It’s a good article. It talks about both client side aggregation and server-side aggregation – and how the UK banks have pursued the former (because of those dratted data protection issues) and the global banks have gone for the latter (including my own bank, Citibank). The banks thought that this was going to be the killer app (the El Dorado the article says) of online banking, but so far it hasn’t worked out that way, but it is, apparently, picking up. There are something like 150,000 to 200,000 users in the UK. Citibank’s lawyers say that as long as the client initiates the aggregation and the client’s data is in safekeeping and not used by the aggregator, there is no breach of the rules. Egg uses the client-side method. The only issue with this latter approach seems to be that if you regularly use different PCs, you’ll have to install the plugin on all of them to allow you to see the details – something you might not want to do.

But it still strikes me that there is something in this. This approach ought to be applicable in lots of scenarios where data protection might otherwise be a problem. For instance, we’ve long talked about the idea of a “citizen vault” where commonly used data resides so that you don’ t have to keep filling in your name and address on government forms, for instance. There’s nothing to stop this data being on your own PC for now and then you can grant or deny access as you wish. Some may worry that “government” will take this data and do things it’s not supposed to do. Believe me, people I work with in government spend enough time agonising about doing what they can do and are allowed to – the idea that any of them would knowingly create a process that broke the law or even bent it is just not real. Government strives to be whiter than white in applying its own laws – to the outside world it probably doesn’t always look that way but on the inside, that’s what’s going on every day, all the time. Here’s a case where government can still be white but can make life easier for people … the only step that they have to take is to be clear what it is that they want to happen, a simple change of address process; and then make it so.

The flaw in the “citizen vault” process above is that it doesn’t help government get it right in the various back end systems with which the citizen hasn’t chosen to interact or doesn’t know about. That means it doesn’t revolutionise what we do in government, but it does kick us a step nearer the end goal. It also doesn’t require a whole heap of new backend code to be written. I’ve been thinking a lot about the “backend” problem and will be writing some more about that soon. I’ve got a few things I want to write: my 7 deadly sins of suppliers and customers; the legacy problem and how we might address it; some stuff on single signon, including the problem of “digital identity”; a view on syndication and why it’s not yet what it needs to be (coupled with a piece on the end of the hyperlink in government) and then (sooner than the others I hope), a year end wrapup.