2005 – PM’s Milestone reached?

It’s the end of 2005 and, if Santa has been kind, the PM’s 2001 goal of “Getting all of government online by 2005” (most of us interpreted that as the end of 2005 but there was much debatein some corners) should have been reached. Some say that local authorities have managed as much as 97%. Central government will, I’m sure, announce a similar figure any time soon, although Ian Watmore is cool on the whole online services agenda and more focussed on creating shared back-office services for use inside government. In March 2005, 75% of services were reported to be online.

Of course, as many have said, having any percentage of services online is not much good if too few people use them. There are, though, many services that haven’t found their way online yet – and you could argue that these are the kind of services that would perhaps attract most usage:

Here’s how to claim Disability Living Allowance (you can download a form)

Or Incapacity Benefit (ditto)

And there still isn’t any thing like a service that allows you to find out what government owes you or could owe you if your circumstances changed – the UK equivalent of the US’ GovBenefits for instance.

With all the problems of fraud with Tax Credits (a plain old-fashioned offline fraud made simpler and quicker to execute using the online channel in the absence of any front end authentication for the service), perhaps it’s as well that some of these services aren’t yet online. In the past I’ve argued that there needs to be a shift to paying money to people online – or creating services that save people money and significant time – rather than taking money from them.

I’m not quite holding my breath for the announcements on what is and isn’t online but I will bv fascinated to see what is commented on. In the meantime, I’ve got a bit of retrospective underway that will be out soon.

Implementing Pan Government Search

Is search the missing “killer app” that will drive usage of e-government? In May 2003, I put together a short business case for a government wide search engine that could both search all of government but be called by any site to search locally. The economics seemed obvious at the time but the head of the civil service wanted to see all of the necessary departmental customers signed up first – “shared services” were still in their infancy (there was only one at the time – the government gateway) and funding them (it) had proved enormously challenging. So, we didn’t get it done. I’ve put extracts from the case below (I’ve stripped out vendor and price details):

“Since work began on e-government, departments, local authorities and agencies have created more than 1,800 separate websites. Some 75% of these sites have a search capability (“a search engine”) that allows the citizen to look for items within that site alone.

What we know about search engine usage in government is limited, but there are some important notes gleaned from ukonline data:

– The Government Ad Server (available on ten government sites to date) which eDt put in place late last year includes a “search government” ad which is clicked on seven times more than any other ad, indicating that citizens want access to search.

AM note: the ad server was another one of eDt’s projects – we wanted to drive traffic to other sites and give visibility of government campaigns on our own sites (and for no cost)

– Over 60% of ukonline visitors use the search engine (and most of those use only the search engine).

– The top search terms in ukonline usually relate to departments directly: “inland revenue”, “home office”, “health”, “hse” and “dvla” were all in the top ten in April 2003

It’s apparent from this data that not only is search perhaps the most important route to finding what a citizen needs, but that departmental domain names (www.homeoffice.gov.uk, for instance) are not well understood by many citizens.

A search engine has several components – a software licence, a hardware configuration for installation and then regular maintenance costs to ensure that it remains current and returns appropriate search results. A search engine that does not return the most relevant result high up the list quickly falls into disuse, making the maintenance work essential.

Typically, search engines cost from £25,000 to £300,000 to install (including hardware and the one-time setup work that defines business rules and requirements) with 0.5-1 person required to keep them updated. The very smallest sites can use open source engines that, naturally, cost little to licence, but do not reduce the business work around rules and maintenance. This initial work should not be underestimated – if done well, it can take weeks and involves assessing important content, tagging it appropriately (“metadata”), defining dictionaries and taxonomies and so on.

If a conservative 1,000 of the current sites have search engines, and all are at the low end of operation then the installation cost to government was as much as £25,000,000 with between 500 and 1000 people engaged in keeping them up to date (at an average cost of £20,000 per head), making £10-20 million in annual costs. It takes only a few of these sites to have large engines (at the £300,000 or more end of the market) for the cost to quickly double or triple – many departments are presently actively reviewing their search engine with a view to going to procurement for a new, more capable engine.

A single search engine in the centre of government that searches all government websites and that is able to provide both single site and multiple site results would normally be licensed at perhaps £Y based on current market rates for two years – and the licence would typically restrict usage to just one site (historically, ukonline is the only search engine that spans all of government).

eDt has negotiated a deal with a supplier that, subject to approval, provides all government websites with access to the central search results, with only small code changes required to each site to gain such access (the e-Delivery team will work with departments to measure their existing search engine performance, demonstrate the potential of the central engine and then jointly handle the migration). Results can be presented both for that site and other government sites, increasing the chance that the citizen will find what they need. All results can be presented in the “look and feel” of the home site – with or without reference to use of the central engine.

In addition to the savings in licence costs and in people maintenance costs, people using the search engine would have an immediate benefit. The more people that use a search engine, the better the results it provides:

– It can log which links people click on and move those that are clicked most frequently to the top of the list, increasing the chance of finding the right link first time.

– Search results can be provided for both the local site and for sites across the rest of government (so, for instance, a citizen arriving at the wrong government site would, on typing something into the search engine, have a good chance of being directed to the right site).

– Search engines can provide personalised search results based on prior usage – so if a citizen regularly searches for common terms, the results can be tailored to give more relevant results.

– The engine can be tailored to also present results from commercial engines, perhaps pointing citizens to related articles on the Internet.

Savings for these latter points fall into the “common good” category. Joining up government functions provides significant benefits to citizens that are difficult to put financial measures against.

The search engine will also be used to drive a search function available from a persistent toolbar, driven by the Online Government Store project.

AM note: the “OGS” became direct.gov

Implementing this search engine could be achieved in a 3-4 month project, with up to one week additional for each government department that connects. Departments (websites) would pay £X per annum to make use of the central search, with the search service more than paying for itself (including hardware, set-up time and maintenance) after 25 sites connect – before the “common good” saves are factored in for citizen benefit. These fees would be recovered through eDt’s planned charging process.”

So, I show this not so much as an “I told you so” but so as to help make a wider point and to hopefully, as one commenter says below, put the issue of search to bed:

– Good search is vital. As the comments below note, all of the biggest and best internet businesses (ebay, amazon, yahoo, google etc) centre on helping you find what you need fast, using search.

– The commerce businesses – ebay and amazon – search only their own sites and have good control over how things are tagged and presented. Even then, you will find lots of irrelevant items coming up in response to your search, particularly if it’s a one or two word search (and I’m sure the average word count is 1.5-1.7 but I can’t remember where I saw that statistic). If, using Amazon, you type in “360” then, of course, you get lots of items related to the xbox 360, but you also get a Kodak camera. If you enter “lost” then you get the DVD and book of the TV series, but you also get books about endangered species. You’re smart enough to know which it is that you want and, if you’re unsure, a click or two and all will be clear.

– Government search is, I think, different. If google ranks based on “authority” – i.e. you’re important and if you link to someone then that makes them important too ad infinitum – then there is a large need for links to sites and articles within those sites to be clear who is the definitive authority. Government should, by definition, be the authority on the stuff that it does – but if every site owner thinks that they should try and all be all things to all people, then you end up with thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of references to “tax credits” or “disabilty living allowance”. Many of these references are out of date, a little misleading or sometimes plain wrong. The right job of a search engine is to bring up the definition that has most authority in a world where authority is hard to pin down (e.g. housing benefit, whilst on the surface the same all over the UK, actually is highly locally varied – perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is).

Anyway, great search is a necessary part of driving e-government adoption. I just believe that without significant consolidation of websites, it won’t deliver what’s needed.

Lies, damned lies and service numbers

An interesting comment below that I’ve pulled out because I think it needs wider viewing:

Interesting that success is still being measured in the number of services online – so what was the 100th service, the Gateway web site makes not mention of it – it was last updated with “What’s New” in March 05 and the list of services available on Gateway looks no way near 100 – sounds like people’s definition of what a service is and what is really a useable service by the public are something different – also, you say 7.5 million people registered on Gateway – sounds a little far feteched to think that over 7m people have logged onto Gateway and registered and then the uptake of services is so poor – typical government dept thinking to use stats such as number of services and number of registered users to demonstrate some measure of success – why not publish how many people are actually enrolled for each service and how many transactions go through each service on a monthly basis – bring real visibility to the success of Gateway

I agree that the metrics aren’t great, but they are what they are for now. But, it’s pretty harsh to say the other numbers aren’t published. I’ve commented on them several times here (for instance).

eDt’s October report, which contains every number you might want I suspect – and far more than I have ever seen from any other government department – is here, on the Cabinet Office website. I suspect November’s will be up any day now if it’s not already.

The numbers tell the story and they’re presented openly and honestly – you can see transaction flow year by year since the launch in 2001. You will also see that the Inland Revenue (now HMRC) can lay claim to the most used services and that other services are far behind. You can see what’s being used and what’s not. Draw your conclusions and comment here – constructively or not. Adoption of services is a big issue that needs to be addressed – I’m not sure that the population is “not ready” so much as not aware, not convinced or not enthused.

Government Gateway is 100

A quiet post in the comments sections below tells me that the Government Gateway enabled its 100th service yesterday. That’s a big deal. Big because 100 is a nice round number in our counting system (Dan will doubtless comment) and big because it’s been far harder than anyone ever thought it could be. Growth in 2005 has largely been down to enabling local authority transactional services – payments as well as form filling.

It’s taken a lot of hard work by people from all over government and the private sector to make this happen – whether it was vendors (Microsoft, Sun, Software AG, EDS, CapGemini, Atos, Cable and Wireless, Vizuri, Nfocus and a dozen others), contractors (you know who you are), Cabinet Office civil servants (you certainly know who you are) and then the departments and LAs that have plugged in, often with their own vendors, partners and contractors alongside them.

Volumes are still not where I thought they would be – despite their being over 7.5 million registered users, the bulk are accessing self assessment, PAYE and so on (I’ll let someone else say and “defrauding the tax credits system” – but that’s not an internet issue as far as I can see). As another comment – and a particularly erudite one – says, “egov is missing a trick, the vast majority are not yet ready for services”. I’m not sure I agree with that, but plainly the trick has been missed because people are not using them. I think it’s because the services are not bundled in a way that makes them attractive to use. Making a congestion charge payment via text is an attractive option because it beats all the other ways.

And, as to building a search engine instead of the gateway. We did “build” a search engine – a couple of times. But searching 3,500 government sites that are architected differently, don’t use the same names for the same things, frequently duplicate data, have out of date data and so on, made it hard to find the right answers. That is, I think, why direct.gov got out of the pan-government search business. Google does it so much better.

Anyway, happy 100th service. My congratulations to all of eDt, then and now.

The government is a different country …

… They do things differently there. Interesting comment on my post below about integration:

“The challenge you have not tackled is how to spend the money wisely – given the government’s dismal track record of successful IT delivery, especially in the eGov space, how do you think they can successfully spend that amount of money and still deliver benefit/value? If you think it is possible, just look at the mess over in the Dept of Health – give them £10bn and they still can’t get GPs to use the technology!”

You’re right, I didn’t tackle it. It’s not an easy topic to tackle in a few lines, but that’s no reason to duck it. Here’s a few points to provoke a debate:

– IT projects on a large scale are fraught with difficulty and risk, whether public or private. For instance, Sainsbury’s supply chain system (half a billion wasted?), the FBI’s Virtual Case File project ($200 million wasted?) and so on. I could list a few dozen. If I tried to list the most successful IT projects over £100 million in cost, I think I would struggle to find more than a handful. So perhaps lesson one is, don’t try to do anything that huge – you will get it wrong, it will cost more than you thought and it will be ugly. But how then do you build systems that cater for 60 million customers. That’s lesson two:

– If you are going to build something huge, then put the very best people you have on it and run a portfolio that only has a couple of these at any one time – because you can’t resource more than that effectively. Departments in government don’t have the kind of people in the numbers needed to pull this off, which argues strongly for departments actually not having any of them. Delivery of complex IT is a specialist skill and should be seen that way. An in-house government IT SWAT team (it’s been argued for before, more than a few times) may be the answer although no entry from such a team is likely to be silent, surgical or short-term.

– Whatever you are delivering, make it incremental rather than all out. This has been one of the central tenets of IT delivery in government since the SPRITE report by Ian McCartney, is listed as one of the 7 (8?) reasons why projects fail by the NAO and is assessed whenever an OGC gate review is being carried out. Easier said than done – if you’re bringing in a new tax credits regime for the very first time, how do you roll it out incrementally? Well, perhaps for one thing, you don’t turn off all of the old systems overnight. Legislation is a difficult thing to bring in a piece at a time, but the risk of no fallback needs to be included if there’s going to be an all out approach.

– Do things together, not apart. By having a portfolio of projects across government or an organisation, aligned to business process and overall goals, you can see where you’re doubling up or where you’re not putting in any effort. This would show up, say, just how many portals are being built or how many CRM efforts are underway. Aligning business processes across an organisation – even a small one – is challenging, doing it across multiple organisations (i.e. government departments) is enormously hard. But if you don’t start, you’re never going to show it can be done. So a Department for Receiving Money would be an obvious place to start as would a Department for Paying Money. HR, Finance, Payroll type systems are usually the first place to start with shared services – they’re identified as low risk but, actually, are probably harder to do than external systems. The internal blocking is likely to be much greater with,e.g. an expenses system – believe it or not there are people who believe having the name of the person claiming in the top left instead of the top right is a meaningful differentiator between systems and deployments (just like where the search bar goes on a website – people get very wedded to it).

– Finally, the stakeholders need to be right there. The assertion that the DoH have spent £10 billion and haven’t even got the GPs to use it perhaps illustrates that. The NHS is absolutely huge – no organisation touches its scale in a single geography. People talk about Walmart (geographically spread, local systems), the Red Army (no longer with us) or the Indian Railway (look at their safety record) as being equivlent and, of the 3, Walmart is probably the only comparator – but it has a CEO, a board and a line of control. The NHS has none of these. Whilst I think the NHS IT programme could be singled out for many failings, coming up with a trite “I’d have done it this way and it would have been fine” is not easy. The level of integration is enormous – of process and technology, but particuarly the process change that comes with the new technology. Maybe GPs are not fans of change nor of technology. The NHS is littered with pilot after pilot that has never been rolled out – arguing that incremental delivery has been tried 1001 times but has never been shown to work. So an approach similar to big bang was adopted … and, so far, is hasn’t worked (at least as far as the press is concerned – I suspect that there have been many victories along the way).

Like I said – all to provoke a debate. Responses welcome, agreeing or disagreeing, as long as they’re accompanied by proposed approaches that could be tried.

Hello? Ja, bitte? Si, Pronto? Allo?

A lovely quote from Chuck Prince, CEO at Citigroup, in one of the many FT’s I leafed through on the to Paris this weekend. Talking about squeezing more money out of the bank’s (or should that be “Financial Super Group”?) cost base, he said

We have lots of great technology and none of it talks to each other

I worked for Citi for 7 years from 1992 to 1999, helping formulate the 5 year vision covering 1995 to 2000. One of the things advocated was a consolidation of legal vehicles – first in the FX business, then derivatives and, in parallel, across European Consumer and Corporate banks. The plan was that this would allow Citi to reduce the number of general ledgers from 18 to 1, stop dealers betting against each other in currencies or interest rate products and allow the consumer bank to be serviced from a single platform. When I left, the plan was well underway – certainly the FX piece was done and the consumer bank part was just kicking off.

Chuck is plainly now looking at the next step which, I imagine, is the thankless task of integrating or consolidating all of the other systems – securities settlement, credit cards, dealing accounts, private bank etc. The year 2000 programme cost Citibank something like $600 million, the preparation for the Euro perhaps $400 million. Big numbers for sure – representing the spend to keep a huge technology base in check.

Citi’s latest quarterly revenue (to October 2005) came in at $21.5 billion. Corporates spend about 2-4% of their revenue on IT, so Citi’s annual overall spend on technology could be somewhere between $1.6 billion and $3.5 billion. That’s a lot of spend to harness (HMRC, as a comparison, spends about £300 million to maybe £400 million, based on the figures when the CapGemini contract was let). It needs a pile of investment to integrate though – which means that spend has to be redirected away from, say, replacement/replatforming, new products or maintenance, and towards making things talk to each other. That is both good and bad – it forces a focus on the business case of integration measured against the business case for a silo product launch – but, let’s face it, the integration case has not often worked in the past as it brings complexity, dependency and higher risk of failure.

Of course, we know that most corporates have too much technology … here’s something that I wrote around this time of year 3 years ago. And something a bit similar from mid-2003 on the lack of channel integration.

The parallel with e-government or government generally is that the recent Transformation strategy talked about redirecting some 10% of the annual spend on technology (in the UK’s case around £14 billion, or $22 billion – perhaps 10x Citibank’s) towards shared services and greater integration. It’s an interesting strategy:

– The money has to be freed up ahead of time (you have to know you’re going to have it to spend) so that you can launch procurements and sign contracts

– You have to put joint governance over it (every department involved has a stake and will want a say)

– Someone needs to be in charge (accountability needs to be clear and the head of the department running the specific project will be the one that stands in front of the PAC to defend or praise the project later)

Contrast that with Citi where the CEO can put the right executives in place to make this happen, can direct spend where it needs to go to create most impact and can drive co-operation across the board through rewards, punishments, death and glory.

I spoke at a conference about 3 weeks ago, in San Francisco, to the top 250 managers of a major tech company. They’d asked me to give them a customer view on how they were doing. My major theme was that systems by themselves rust and that too few vendors remember what the customer was actually going to do with the purchase – service card holders, let people make calls, manage leakage in water systems, sell books etc. Instead, for the last 10 years or more, it had been a game of how much hardware, software and maintenance could be sold. Deals got better every quarter or year end, encouraging customers to wait for the right moment (if they could) and to see the products as commodities rather than as fundamental components of the business. Future growth would come less from the commoditisation of products, but from innovation and delivery that helped the real customer get what they wanted, in turn choosing the provider of that product who, in turn, would choose the partners that they needed to deliver.