Easing congestion

The Congestion Charge comes to life in around a month. For those of you who drive into London, it’s going to cost you an extra £1000 or more per year to come into town, at £5 a visit. I’m intrigued by the payment processes chosen. Given that building a tollbooth a few hundred yards from Tower Bridge is not too practical, the payment methods chose are all after the fact – go to a newsagent, a car park, a website or whatever and make your payment. Other tolls in the UK are collected using dashboard mounted devices from which a charge is debited as you pass through a ‘gate’, not dissimilar I imagine to the Florida SunPass, so I was pretty surprised not to see that implemented. But, the “new media” channels feature prominently – you will be able to pay via a website or via mobile phone text. Neither of these methods have proven too reliable to date, so it will be a good test of mainstream use (I am sure I have seen figures that say about £130 million will be collected annually – that’s a lot of £5s) and, if they hold up, that will bode well. If they don’t it will certainly be the end of the Congestion Charge, but maybe not the end of those methods. But given that this is an “overhead” and after the fact, if the methods available are not incredibly quick and minimally invasive, there will be a lot of chaos.

The congestion charging website is at http://www.cclondon.com – I’ve tried to check it out today but keep getting a 404 – can’t tell if that is a recurrence of the problems I had with my connection the other day or whether it really is down. I hope not the latter – if it’s down with no load that wouldn’t be good!

I met some people awhile ago who were proposing a mobile commerce system that would let you pay for anything anywhere using your mobile. This makes a lot of sense (I’ve been a proponent of using mobiles as the equivalent of a portable digital certificate for a long time), but needs some thinking about before you do it. During the meeting, I realised these folks didn’t appear to have thought it through, despite the fact that they were partnering with a very large operator. The idea was that you would run a WAP application on your phone that, when you wanted to pay, you’d fire up – it would go to a website and either take money from a stored value area or debit your card directly. Unless this app is on a hotkey (and has been preconfigured by an auto-SMS or by the operator on purchase) I just didn’t see someone standing in a queue in Sainsbury’s fiddling with their phone, plus so many supermarkets are huge warehouses these days that the odds of getting good reception are not good. I could see this model maybe working online, and that’s where it’s being used first. It will be interesting to watch the results – 70% of mobile phones in the UK are pre-pay (or pay as you go as we call them here) and given that this new process requires registration, a credit card or bank details (exactly the opposite of what someone with a prepay phone wants to use), never mind the fact that the customer will have to pay for the call and the merchant will stay pay the spread, it could be a bust before it starts. I won’t name the firm, but I will watch out for how it goes.

Cracking a tablet in two

The battles with my new HP tablet continue. I sent the first one back as it kept crashing when connected to my wireless network. A new one arrived a few days later which seemed better – maybe one crash a day instead of ten. But now it’s failing to boot completely – it just get a little way through and then loops endlessly. I’ve put it on diagnostic boot, it gets as far as checking memory and that’s it. So another one bites the dust. It’s strange because I’ve had a lot of new gadgets over the last few years, whether it’s phones, ipods, laptops, desktops, cameras or whatever, and this is the first one that’s broken ever. That’s not to say that I haven’t had frustrating times with phones (anyone for a Nokia 6210 or even the early 6310s?), but this is the first one that’s plain and simple given up the ghost.

Is e-gov worth it?

Following Mike Cross’ piece in the Guardian nearly 2 weeks ago, there was a bit of a flurry of press this week on usage (or lack of it) of government websites. We’ve been here before of course, and I was pleased to see Bill Thompson over at Voxpolitics say (in a sentiment that I can wholeheartedly agree with):

“It would be a tragedy if the growing pile of negative reports led to a loss of faith in the project as a whole – rather than just prompting people to try to do it better, learn from their mistakes and provide services that people want and will use”

What caused the flurry was yet another survey, by Portfolio Communications (I’m guessing that that’s their website as I can’t find the research report on it), and reported by Netimperative and ZDnet at least, says that (in a sample of 1,000) only 7% of people access local government services online during 2002, but that “over 40 percent of 18 to 34 year-olds would prefer to use the Web to access information“, and therefore “Public take-up of local government online services will remain low for at least the next 10 years”.

Portfolio’s director, Mark Westaby, said: “Fast pay-back is a key driver of public sector services, but this research suggests that the trend towards use of online local government services is unlikely to increase dramatically until today’s younger generation gets significantly older. Clearly, this is not going to happen for some considerable time, possibly a decade or longer. As a result it will be vital for government not only to ensure that online services are available, but also that local communities are educated about the benefits of using them and are fully incentivised to do so.”

What’s interesting for me is that people are not saying “I tried it and it was crap, so I didn’t go back”, they’re saying that they haven’t even looked yet to see if there is anything worthwhile. Given that we have more than 50% of people online, there’s still a big part of the population that have the wherewithall to access services, but have not been persuaded to make the jump … so is that a marketing problem? We’re talking about local government services in this case, where finding your local council website is usually pretty easy (mine is http://www.southwark.gov.uk), so there’s no trying to figure out which bit of government you need to talk to.

A while ago I put a slide up at a conference (and this was before Mike’s leap of faith point), wondering whether we were finally “leaping ahead” in e-government – having broken down the initial barriers. The slide looked like this:

I did have a bunch of leaping frogs in there, but everytime I pasted it into my blog, they came up with white backgrounds (instead of blue) and made the slide too hard to read. You’ll have to ask me to show you that slide, in its full animated glory, at a conference sometime.

You’ll see the quote from Gartner (which I think was a May 2002 quote) saying that the benefits of e-government will be delayed past 2010, that many projects will fail and, separately, that we’ll spend a lot of money and that silos are still the biggest barrier. Not a lot has changed since then, except that there might just be a recognition that two of the key planks of the strategy will be marketing and education. It’s difficult if not impossible to market 1800 websites, so there’s an argument in there for rationalisation or at the very least cross-linking (if you visit many government websites now, you’ll see ad banners for other government sites – something that my team introduced a month ago or so on the basis that we can advertise on our own sites for free and on a hunch that cross-traffic might be easy to generate. Results aren’t in yet, but I’m expecting it to work well). Education is a bit harder – the 6,000+ ukonline centres are part of it, as will be the campaign in the Spring that the PM talked about at the e-summit, but I don’t see us waiting 10 years to get mainstream usage. By then, all the investment we have put in to date may be redundant and I’d hate to think that we wouldn’t get some kind of return!

But the real deal, if this survey is to be believed, is that people aren’t bothered to look for government services – which might mean that they have few interactions and so don’t go out of their way when they do have them, or it might mean that, as I believe, we’ve failed the neighbour test, i.e. that noone has ever said to someone else “I just looked on that blahblah.gov.uk site and got myself a £100 extra tax credit a month” … which is a shame, because you just might if you look. And if you do, will you promise to tell your neighbour? I wonder whether we should put a mail form at the end of that site that says “tell 2 friends about this by putting their e-mail addresses here”? Might work.

Incidentally, you folks at Voxpolitics have been very quiet recently, hope everything is ok or is just that not much happens in democracy in January?

Rumbled … RIP

I mentioned the folks at Stand the other day (which of course is better than not mentioning them), but also noted that I didn’t think I’d come across them when the RIP bill was being publicly dismembered. I am reminded today that I should have done because, as news stories at the time point out, it ‘was them wot done it’. Still, praise and credit where it’s due (obviously I don’t get out much) … just try and keep your website up when it’s in demand 😉

I’ve written about ID cards and ID numbers in the past though (and favourably about the concept, but not so encouragingly about the implementation risks), so although I can follow Stand’s arguments, I don’t agree. But like I said, the nice thing about my job is that I get to stay a long, long way from policy. I wait for that to be done and then deliver against the specification.

Not e-government at all

Occasionally I stray from the path of e-government. Today I’ve been posting some new photos on my ‘other website’ (actually the same one as this one, but one where I try not to talk about e-government). I’m not much good with cameras, anything beyond point and click is usually a step too far for me, but today’s photos look pretty good I think … until I visit someone like Noah Grey’s site. Then I realise just how far I have to go. Take a look at the link, his stuff is just amazing.

Time is too short

There’s a lot on my mind these days. Lots of ideas I want to try out and lots of postings I want to comment on or ask questions about. The Blog world expands daily at ever increasing rates – faster than I can keep up with. I really admire the folks that keep their sites uptodate continuously, contributing insight, wit and wisdom all the time.

My day job is getting more intense – we have a new project going out in about 6 weeks which is taking up a lot of time; the end of the financial year is approaching a lot faster than I’d like and we have a couple of big procurements out. Plus, I’ve got a couple of conferences out of town over the next 2-3 weeks which will keep me from posting (and probably give me a bunch more ideas that I’ll want to post). So, expect things to be a bit sparse for a while with most posts happening at the weekend. But don’t stay away!