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.

Leave a Reply