A cut above

The Independent published a little piece on the office on Friday. Within minutes of arriving at work I was given a few copies and then the ‘phone calls started. It’s been a while since there was any overt press on the OeE – which, VoxPolitics point out, probably says that we haven’t been managing our media profile. I don’t agree.

If I were in Sir Andrew Turnbull’s position (and, at the rate I’m going, there is no likelihood of that ever happening), I’d be looking around to see who was doing what, how much they were spending and what I thought I could change. It’s the same when any new CEO takes over a corporate. What you do then is start close to home – and the centre of government is as close as you can get, bigger than it needs to be (so the press and even government says) and probably duplicating a few things, which is what happens when you throw a few separate departments together. If Sir Andrew carries out the changes that may be on his mind, when he later goes to see some of the larger departments and says “I’ve done my bit, what about you?”, it will be pretty hard to argue. Whether “the bit” in question matches the numbers in the Independent story I have no idea, doubtless that will be made clear once the budget process is done – and, at the same time, it will be made clear for the centre of government as a whole, not just for the OeE.

What made me wonder about the article was the link to Peter Mandelson. It’s true, so I’m told, that he kicked off the idea for an e-envoy, but he’s long since gone from any position to influence it. So why run the article referring to him, with a photo too? Maybe Andrew Pinder is not well enough known, in which case why not use the e-Minister, or Sir Andrew T himself? Or maybe there was an underlying point because Mandelson was in the news recently and this was just a bit of extra ammo?

It’s been three years since I started working in government and, over that time, I’ve gone from a rank outside when dealing with the press to a belligerent rebutter (some of you will remember that period) and on to someone who genuinely appreciates the task before a journalist. A source gives you a hint of information, you dissect the data and try and remove the inevitable spin on the leak, you add your own spin, put some other pieces of data with it and come up with the story. The same story fed to five journalists will be interpreted five different ways – I know, I’ve sat in rooms with ten writers and when I’ve read the stories afterwards I’ve wondered if it was all a dream and I actually wasn’t in the room with nine of them. Now that I’ve seen what can become of my own words, I wonder a bit more about what becomes of others. It doesn’t for a second stop me reading the press or even being taken in by what’s said – after all, if your own filter matches the writer’s, you’re more likely to agree than disagree. I love what John Lettice writes over at The Register, even though I agree only occasionally. He has a way of taking a few bits of data and forming an elegant conclusion that is often convincing and always entertaining – John’s filter, though, is different from mine and where he sees conspiracy, I see cockup.

The other point raised by VoxP (a point entirely independent of the Independent so to speak) was that a few hits would have done wonders for the OeE – a faxyourmp, or an upmystreet or similar. Services have been slow to come online – good ones even slower. Usage of the tax credits site is ramping, ukonline traffic is up more than 10 fold in a year, self assessment increased its usage and so on. But those good things are not yet enough to make online government services worth the extra effort for many people. Something like 5,500,000 people visit government websites in a month (10% of the total population, 20% of the online population), more than the often quoted 3%-7%, but not dramatic. I’ve only been briefly involved in front end service provision since joining government, for most of the last three years I’ve been working behind the scenes on the technology that people don’t really see. Actually, that’s not quite true as I understand bugger all about technology, but it’s close enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take ownership of the lack of usage. I do. And I’ll work to change that, however the budget round comes out and however many people are in OeE – the vast bulk of the work that OeE needs to do now, having established policies and so on, is influence the decision makers in goverment into doing the right thing. That doesn’t need an army, that needs the right people doing the right things and talking to the right people … as the Independent says itself, “[the e-envoy] will be a galvanising figure, a champion, rather than forming policy.”

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