Gateway and Local Authorities

The Register picked up the first LA going live on the Government Gateway – Shepway. The first of many in the next few months in fact. It’s good news for two reasons – (i) LA’s handle perhaps 80% of government’s interactions with the population and most of those are more regular than the annual central interations; the availability of more transactions that need to be done more often is one of things that I think will drive adoption of e-government and (ii) Shepway are the first people to use a SUN DIS box.

I don’t agree at all with Tim Holyoake’s anti-Microsoft quote about a “bag of bits”, but it’s about par for the course. What is important is that the arrival of new vendors of DIS (and there are more to come) indicate a market that has mass – because if there were no takers, then there’d be no need for more companies to be in the space. With one company there were too many restrictions so I’m delighted that Sun have entered with Software AG as their partner and can’t wait to see them deliver more instances.

I’m behind on where I’d like to be with LA’s and Shepway taking the plunge is a great sign. Over the next few months there should be both more services available and more and more LAs moving onto the platform.

The place for Central Infrastructure

A while ago I was playing around with a picture that would represent the right place for central infrastructure in government. It morphed into several related pictures that overlay. Once I had the pictures, I saw that there were some big challenges to face if CI was going to have a “place”, let alone the “right place”. I’m not sure that anyone has really solved those challenges, least of all in a way that makes sense in all situations.

The challenges that stem, for me, from these pictures are:

How to rapidly adopt new, innovative technologies that address current or near-term business issues, without disrupting the reliability and performance of what is already have in place

– How to take new technology and make it stable enough for widespread deployment through big departments, whilst keeping fresh enough for the more fleet of foot government entities

– How to remain speed-competitive at the low end, stable in the mid-range and scale-sufficient at the high end … using the same set of platforms

– How to be price competitive throughout the maturity/adoption curve – at low and high volumes

– How to anticipate longer term “might needsâ€�, balance shorter term “must-doâ€� and create architectures that are modular enough to adapt and evolve to meet all of these needs

Trying to be “all things to all people” in every space is never going to work – but each “person” wants “many things” and if you try and serve all the people, then all the things is the result. So picking the things you’re going to do and the people you’re going to do them for seems to be the essence of the game. It means that “one thing” isn’t going to happen for “all people”, but that one thing could happen for many of them; likewise, some people will have a few things.

In another paper, much earlier in the life of CI, I summed up the three issues as:

– Control. Departments are used to working in isolation to deliver systems that meet their specific needs. This results in a large range of inconsistent and often contrary requirements meaning that little sharing (of technology, lessons learnt or business best practice) takes place between departments, each department takes as long as any other to deliver a project and costs increase directly in proportion to the number of departments. With central infrastructure, a core set of requirements is agreed up front and then implemented for all departments – subsequent implementations take less time, lessons are learnt with each new department and shared across the others and costs reduce as more departments sign-up. There is a tendency to see technology as a differentiator between departments but, in reality, it is the business process applied to the technology that really makes something happen.

– Integration. Central infrastructure requires departments to do work to connect to it or to otherwise take advantage of it. This work may be outside of their current plans and may involve implementing new standards and processes, sometimes with vendors outside of their existing relationship. Such infrastructure allows third party portals and applications to provide government services more readily. With centrally-published standards, suppliers can develop programmes to connect faster and competition is introduced sooner.

– Joining up. By definition, central infrastructure involves a range of stakeholders deciding on overall system scope and timing of delivery. Functions are introduced ahead of the needs of most, but may fall behind the needs of the most advanced department. Conversely, the bulk of departments will get more than they might otherwise be able to afford or have the capability and capacity to deliver – the change in practice here is an “all for one and one for allâ€� stance versus “I must win so that the others loseâ€�. This requires a complex juggling of stakeholder requirements, timetables and priorities. The consequence of not joining up is, however, dramatically inconsistent experiences for the customer as they traverse government.

I noted that these three issues are the very reasons that CI makes sense – and, in the light of the PM’s speech, this week, I’m very encouraged that we can make good progress against all of them.

PM on reforming the civil service

Our PM, Tony Blair, spoke last week on the challenges facing the civil service:

The principal challenge is to shift focus from policy advice to delivery. Delivery means outcomes. It means project management. It means adapting to new situations and altering rules and practice accordingly. It means working not in traditional departmental silos. It means working naturally with partners outside of Government. It’s not that many individual civil servants aren’t capable of this. It is that doing it requires a change of operation and of culture that goes to the core of the Civil Service.

… But too many of these lessons are learnt in crisis and too much of it is exceptional not the norm. For example, I learnt much from the ghastly crisis of Foot and Mouth … But the blunt truth is that it was the Armed Forces’ intervention that was critical to delivery. Why? Because they didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer; they used rules as a means to an end, not an end in themselves; and as the situation changed, they changed.

But essential to their being able to do that, was that people accepted that’s how they were. The political contribution – other than to remove obstacles – was circumspect. They were allowed to take risks. If something failed, they didn’t waste time with a Committee of Inquiry; they tried something else. They had a remorseless focus on delivering the outcome.

What does it mean in practical terms? It means the following:

a smaller, strategic centre;
a Civil Service with professional and specialist skills;
a Civil Service open to the public, private and voluntary sector and encouraging interchange among them;
more rapid promotion within the Civil Service and an end to tenure for senior posts;
a Civil Service equipped to lead, with proven leadership in management and project delivery;
a more strategic and innovative approach to policy;
government organised around problems, not problems around Government.

Too often government’s structures reflect vested interests and tradition. Departmentalism remains strong in Whitehall – usually too strong – and the allocation of ministerial portfolios sometimes unhelpfully reinforces these barriers. So this too is a challenge for politicians as well as officials.

The IT projects now underway in the NHS are among the biggest and most complex in the world – that’s why it was right, for example, to bring Richard Grainger in to oversee IT in the National Health Service. Similar arguments apply to finance and human resource management. The talented amateur, however talented, is simply not equipped for these complex, specialised tasks.

In future the key roles in finance, IT and human resources will be filled by people with a demonstrable professional track record in tackling major organisational change, whether inside or outside the Service.

Of course, I’ve been selective in the quotes I have lifted – and I’d encourage you to read the whole speech, it’s a “line in the sand” speech that says we’ve come a long way (from 1854 when the first “reform the civil service” speech was given, as it says in this speech), but there’s a lot more to do. The speech firmly endorses the Gershon review (see the articles in the FT from a couple of weeks ago that I quote below), looks to the power of technology and underlines the need to rationalise government around the problems it’s seeking to solve – i.e. how to deliver services to the citizen the way the citizen needs them.

I think this is an amazing speech. It’s timely, forward thinking, ambitious and huge in scope. In just a few pages, the PM has laid down an enormous challenge for government – ministerial and civil service – to respond to.

One trick pony?

It’s funny how you sometimes get labelled early in a cycle. Long ago I think I picked up the “man from the centre” label – you know, the “one that’s here to help you”. At a session last week with a couple of senior IT people they wondered what was coming next from Central Infrastructure – and even had a couple of ideas that could do with some research.

For the last 9 months or so I’ve been wondering how to fill in the missing piece of the puzzle in IT in government – whether that be UK government or any other government. Thinking about it, there are doubtless many corporations that have the same missing piece, although I’ve seen many that have fully nailed it.

The bit I’m talking about is the “middle of the pyramid” – the part where entities come together to collaborate on development and then have just one of something between several of them. It might mean that there are 10 across the whole of government (rather than the one that central infrastructure implies) – which is way better than the 1000 that probably exist today (or the 3,000 in website terms). The slide below hopefully explains it:

What I think is that the “centre” can facilitate the conversations that need to happen to make this a reality and can help foster the market with supplier partners who are going to do the heavy lifting. The key bit for this will also be some good, common and widely supported standards – so that, over time, convergence to fewer platforms or a swapin-swapout process could result, where aging (or failing) platforms are replaced by newer ones or stronger ones. The NHS procurement processs seems to have arrived at this as an ideal solution – with the option (I think) for entire consortia to be replaced just as easily as some components. A fascinating idea that I think has a chance at success across the wider public sector. If I’m right, then I think it plays out per the slide below:

Identity Crisis

Drawn to Mike Walsh’s blog by a posting on Dave Winer’s blog, I was fascinated to see his saga of trying to prove his identity to a credit agency, Equifax in this case.

I went directly to the Equifax site to order an online version of my report. According to the info available on the site, I was entitled to one credit report per year at the Federally mandated price of $9. In order to get your report you type in your name, address and social security number. The system then issues you two multiple choice “challenge questions” to verify that you are who you say you are. So they hit me with…

Question #1: You have a mortgage with:
a. Acme Mortgage, b. Niagara Mortgage, c. Northland Savings and Loan, d. Screw the Homeowner Mortgage Company
e. None of the above

My answer is e. I never even heard of any of these companies.

Question #2: Your monthly mortgage payment is:

a. $865, b. $936, c. $1,184, d. $1,345

e. None of the above

My answer is e.

Whilst working on the Gateway, we’ve often contemplated the idea of “challenge questions” (or shared secrets) to make for a stronger proof of identity – but we know that, often, people will either forget the answer or we’ll have bad data initially. In Mike’s case it’s either bad data or someone is using his identity – the latter obviously being far worse.

When I tried the UK equivalent of this process, with experian, they didn’t know who I was either – a legacy, I think, of having spent several years abroad and of having had a different address every year for about 7 years. We don’t ask such challenge questions in the UK though – but maybe we should?