This week saw a bit of follow-up from the article in the Independent questioning (I think) whether the Office of the e-Envoy would be around much longer and even whether the goals for getting the UK online would be abandoned. First off Kablenet kicked in with coverage from a PAC hearing with Sir Andrew Turnbull in the leather armchair. That’s a committee formed of MPs who are able to ask questions of civil servants. No questions are off limits and the topic usually gets stretched pretty wide. The measure of success if whether an MP gets an answer that he didn’t expect, or whether the civil servant manages to duck all the hard questions – which you take as success depends on where you sit.
Kable pull out some of the key points, although I haven’t seen the transcript yet so don’t know quite how close they got. Transcripts are usually to be found on the parliament site although when I looked yesterday it seemed to be having problems finding any texts from Hansard.
Once the point of whether Andrew Pinder, the e-Envoy, was going to be around after his contract finishes was dealt with (forgive me for being dumb, but surely the point of a contract is that it ends at some point and everyone goes on to somethiing new), the MPs moved on to some more specific questions, like
“Brian White, Labour MP for Milton Keynes North-East, said the target to get all services online by 2005 is now getting in the way of delivery, and asked how Turnbull plans to deal with the problem”
Fascinating question. So, this target that got everyone moving (when they weren’t) is in the way of getting people moving. Huh? I guess what he means (and I’m sure the transcript will bear this out) is that people are too busy putting services online without thinking about how they’ll be used. That’s kind of true, except that I think too few services are being put online for us to worry much about usage. Until there are enough to force a change of behaviour my view is that people won’t make the move – if you can buy books, DVDs, electronics and whatever from Amazon, you start using it a lot. If you can file your taxes, claim benefits that you didn’t know you were entitled to, look at planning applications in your area, check on progress with your passport and get a new tax disc from a single site then you likely will. How many of those are truly online? Not enough.
Sir Andrew is also quoted as saying “squeezing out the last 10% is always difficult”, which is true (after all, we have Pareto to thank for that even if he was talking about money). I wish it were the last 10% – and nothing in me thinks that by the time Andrew P’s contract comes up we’ll only be worrying about 10%. If we’d cracked 90% of it, we’d all be done by then. We’re still in the stage of converting existing processes to the web – a plan that should have given us time to make changes to the backends that would truly have allowed us to exploit the potential of the web, but few have started that transformation thinking or process (and those that have are rightly staying quiet for now less expectations get overblown). And the scary thing for me is that, just as we have done with websites and whatnot, departments will rush off and try to crack this problem themselves, occasionally making a ham-fisted effort, sometimes downright screwing it up and only irregularly succeeding having completely failed to learn the lessons of others or to have co-operated on that in a meaningful way. Until there is rationalisation, joint team work and harmonisation of need this stuff just won’t work.
Simon Moores chipped in too in his regular column on Computer Weekly’s website. Simon has some personal experience around OeE and you may detect a hint of bitterness in his text. He makes a point that I can only agree with, “The problem has always been one of perception in that the media are far more likely to concentrate on the failures and delays rather than the achievements”, although sadly that’s true of the population as a whole (after all, who wants to read about what a great singer Kylie is when apparently we can read intimate details sold by some former boyfriend). Simon goes on to say that the “OeE is continually moving two steps forward and one step back” and is missing out on putting in place strategic solutions for, say, authentication (a thorny problem to crack which few countries have managed to crack, even where national ID cards, smart cards and whatnot are in place). But, Simon is right with his closing point, “government needs to listen to constructive criticism on its e-agenda”. That should mean we move ahead faster.