Ten Years of e-government – and I was there

At the end of last year I wrote a retrospective on e-government. Rather than publish it here, Ian Dunmore at Public Sector Forums kindly published it on his site. I wanted to follow it up – extending my occasional series covering the idea that government has won the battle versus “e”. To make it a little easier to read, I’ve split the piece into 3 parts. I’ll be picking up some of the threads in coming posts.

With the publication in November 2005 of the ‘Transformational Government – enabled by technology’ document by the e-Government unit, a strategy that advocates, among other things, rationalisation of websites, sharing of back office infrastructure and dramatic improvements in IT skills within government, it’s a good time to look back at what online service delivery has achieved over the last ten years, says Alan Mather, ex-Head of the Government’s e-Delivery Team.

It’s also the start of 2006 and therefore the Prime Minister’s goal of having all of government online should by now be reality…

As of 1995, the Internet was still in its infancy, although it was already ten years since the first domain name had been registered (symbolics.com in March 1985 if you’re interested) and the World Wide Web was just coming out of its terrible twos as far as the real world was concerned – in 1991 there were only ten web sites to look at, even if you knew how. Wired magazine had not yet celebrated 12 issues, Windows 95 was being readied for gold release, Marc Andreessen wasn’t yet a billionaire (Bill Gates was, several times over), the verb ‘to google’ didn’t exist, none of us knew what ‘first mover advantage’ was and the only long tail we’d come across was on a mouse.

Surprisingly, you probably hadn’t yet received your first text message, least of all one reminding you to send in your Self Assessment form.

The UK government however was taking its first steps towards an e-government presence with the launch of a portal – open.gov.uk – and this when portals were hardly the rage, even in technogeek land.

Open.gov was the product of a few visionaries in the Cabinet Office, the heart of Whitehall. For most, this part of government is like the centre of the hurricane – not much goes on whilst all around is chaos. But these few technologists were onto something.

They might have been working from John Major’s blueprint for Direct Access Government or they might have been in it just for the fun of running government’s first web portal. Indeed, if you search for ‘Direct Access Government’ there are still around 1,000 results to be found, demonstrating that one of the principal uses of the web is to find out how you’re no longer saying what you used to say, particularly if you’re in government.

Back then, open.gov wasn’t much to look at – although its adherents might tell you otherwise – but then Jakob Nielsen hadn’t yet achieved worldwide fame for his thinking on user interface design and anyway, wasn’t design all about furniture?

Open.gov was, simply, a directory of government – an A to Z where the Treasury was listed under ‘H’ (for Her Majesty’s Treasury). It was a strictly governmental view of things – but there was nothing else quite like it at the time. It was Yahoo for government (remembering that Yahoo didn’t go public and therefore enter mainstream consciousness until April 1996) but without the sense that someone had assessed whether the sites were worth looking at or even whether it was worth having a set of such sites to begin with. Technologists ruled the web back then and while it was ‘worldwide’ it wasn’t yet ‘wide’.

Ten years ago, the Internet had no more than 10 million users globally. In 1997, less than 2% of the UK population was online. As recently as August 1999, there were only 22,000 secure web servers in the OECD counties, with 16,000 of those in the USA. In June 2005, Netcraft announced there were 64,808,485 websites in total (with 70% running on Apache software and only 23% using Microsoft products).

At the end of 2005, with over £6 billion spent by government to deliver online projects, how did things stack up? Perhaps the best place to start is by looking at what else is done online and how services provided by the private sector have evolved.

• Broadband is now in 39% of British homes, up 100% on the previous year. 55% of the UK population have access to the Internet. Of the remainder, around half have no interest in the Internet and don’t know why they would want to use it and the other half believe it could be valuable but haven’t yet found something that would persuade them to use it.

• 15 million people actively bank online, managing 24 million accounts out of a total of around 115 million in the banking system overall.
• In 2005, 40% of Britons will have bought something online, double that of the figure only three years ago. Online retailing, in money terms, is growing at 4.6% per month, every month. During December 2005, some £150 million will be spent online every day, taking the Internet’s market share of retail purchasing this Christmas to around 6%.
• eBay launched in 1995. In 2000, its revenue outside of the USA was just $29 million; in 2004, it was over $1 billion (US revenue is nearly $2 billion). eBay is expecting to sell £4 billion of goods in the UK during 2005, around 1.3% of all retail sales. 50,000 of UK citizens get a sizeable chunk of their income from eBay sales – 70,000 Americans earn all of their money through the site. eBay now has over 150 million users worldwide.
• In July 1995, Amazon.com launched. Only a year earlier, Jeff Bezos had founded the company after, reportedly, seeing a statistic that the Internet was growing at 2,300% a year. Two months later, the site was handling $20,000 worth of sales a week. In 1997, revenues were $147 million (versus Barnes and Noble’s $2.4 billion). Amazon went public in May 1998 and in July 1999 – when the site was receiving 10 million unique visitors a month – its stock market value was around $20 billion. In 2000 alone, Amazon lost nearly $1.5 billion. It announced, in 2005, that advance sales of a single book – the latest Harry Potter – would eclipse their entire sales from their first year of operation.
• Figleaves.com, selling over 100 types of knickers (who knew there were so many?) from 260 brands has 400,000 customers and 2 million site visits a month. Sales growth has averaged 75% over each of the last 3 years.
• In July 2005, 2.76 million text messages were sent in the UK alone – an average of 87 million a day and up 24% on the previous year. During the Live8 concert, 26.4 million messages were sent. On New Year’s Day, 133 million messages were sent. The average person sends 36 a week or the rather stunning number of 100,000 in a lifetime (that’s around £10,000 in fees to your mobile phone provider at perhaps the equivalent of £700 per megabyte). 30% of London congestion charge payments are made by text.

So what of UK government? At the Labour Party conference in 1997, the Prime Minister had announced his plans for ‘simple government’ with a short paragraph in his first conference speech since taking charge of the country:

“We will publish a White Paper in the new year for what we call Simple Government, to cut the bureaucracy of Government and improve its service. We are setting a target that within five years, one quarter of dealings with Government can be done by a member of the public electronically through their television, telephone or computer.”

Less than three years later, in March 2000, having set a target of getting all services online – a shift away from pure usage to absolute delivery – by 2008 four months before, Mr. Blair challenged that aim:

“I am determined that Government should play its part, so I am bringing forward our target for getting all Government services online, from 2008 to 2005.”

Intriguingly, the press notes for the speech change the order of the channels so that computer is first and TV last:

“By 2005 all Government services will be available online through personal computer, telephone, or Digital TV”

In the 5 years between open.gov launching and the PM announcing the idea of putting all services online, relatively little had gone on. Certainly most departments had launched websites, usually run deep inside the IT department and often looked after by the very same folks who had put open.gov together.

By the end of 1999, there were perhaps 200-300 websites hiding inside the .gov.uk domain, almost all of which were either hand coded HTML or put together using early versions of Frontpage or Dreamweaver.

The sites were there because someone, somewhere in the organisation thought there should be one, but there was little expectation of using them to provide services or driving traffic away from paper channels towards online forms.

That all changed in 2000. Why? A few reasons, perhaps.

 • The Prime Minister’s speech galvanised departments into action – at the time many inside government said that if you wanted anything done, you needed the PM’s signature.
 • The government’s first e-envoy, Alex Allen, was appointed (although his tenure was to be short – he had moved on before the end of the same year). Rumour has it that it was Peter Mandelson’s idea to use the title ‘envoy’ which means, after all, a government representative sent on a special mission. In this case, the mission was, apparently, ‘e’.
• The Treasury made funds available for online services, via one of their regular ‘Capital Modernisation Fund’ rounds, shovelling tens of millions of pounds on the back of sometimes less than detailed business cases to a few departments.
• The Inland Revenue decided, months ahead of anything vaguely comparable in the rest of government, to launch its first fully transactional service – Self Assessment – making it available, potentially at least, to all 8 million people who filed their returns this way.

Ten Years of e-government, Part 2

Since then, it’s very much been a case of the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly. On the basis that bad news travels fastest let’s take a look at the ugly ones first:

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity and, in the case, of online government services, ‘they’ may be right. After all, if you don’t know a service exists, you may never look for it. So pages of bad news stories about services are likely at least to register in your mind and, some time later, you might find it (although I’d give you only a 1 in 5 chance of remembering any government web address from the time you first heard about it).

In the awards for largest amount of bad publicity, three services stand out:

Self Assessment The Inland Revenue moved too early and too fast and suffered great pain for its efforts. Their service launched in April 2000 but early versions required you to order a CD containing the tax return software with the completed form sent over the Internet. In July 2000, the press picked up that the IR were printing online forms and then typing them in again. In 2001, the Revenue were criticised again for striking a deal with Microsoft to provide a truly online, interactive tax return capability (actually, the partnership was with a small UK firm, but the details were lost in the storm). In September 2002, perhaps spurred on by the increasing popularity of Napster’s music sharing service, the Revenue inadvertently allowed users to share their tax returns with other people and although the total number affected before it was pulled numbered less than 20, front pages were plastered with the story. In January 2004 and again in January 2005, the service was criticised several times for being unavailable (at an important time of the tax year – returns are due in by the end of January). In 2000, just 75,000 people sent their tax returns in online; in 2004, the total was over 1,500,000. The 2005 tax year looks set to improve on that number by perhaps double digit percentage points.

1901 Census: On the first working day of January 2002, the Public Records Office launched their fully searchable digitised version of the 1901 Census records – the first time such data had been made available to people unwilling to devote hours to searching boxloads of microfiche stored in their Kew Gardens office. The service proved to be a huge draw with genealogists from around the world who accessed it in their millions. Or, at least, they would have done if it had stayed up. Demand proved too strong and the service buckled under the load, remaining unavailable for most of 2002 whilst large scale fixes were applied. The service was brought about using an innovative partnership deal with Qinetiq who fronted the investment in return for a slice of the revenues. It may have been just as well that there were problems early on as it gave the PRO time to correct some errors in the data entry process that had made some of the records very questionable. Since it re-launched, the census has attracted tens of thousands of users a day, earning millions of pounds in search fees – there are a vast number of budding genealogists globally it seems.

Flood Alerts: While the Census was struggling to work, the rains were tumbling down, not just on the plains but pretty much everywhere else as well. The Environment Agency had urged people to use its brand new service, Online Flood Alerts, to check where the worst affected areas were likely to be. Surprisingly given the low usage of most online services at the time, people responded in droves – promptly disabling the service at its most needed hour. The EA’s phone lines were besieged and most callers were unable to get through. When it rains, it pours.

Moving on to the plain ‘bad’, it’s easy to pick holes with a strategy (or perhaps the absence of one) that’s resulted in more than 4,000 individual websites, dozens of inconsistent and incompatible services and a level of takeup that, for the most popular services, is perhaps 25% at best.

 After all, in a world where most people have 10-12 sites they visit regularly, it’s unlikely even one of those would be a government site – most interactions with government are, at best, annual and so there’s little incentive to store a list of government sites you might visit.

As the count of government websites rose inexorably – from 1,600 in mid-2002 to 2,500 a year later and nearly 4,000 by mid-2005 – citizen interest in all but a few moved in the opposite direction.

Every site that could held definitions of services like ‘disability living allowance’ or ‘incapacity benefit’, instantly confusing anyone unlucky enough to stray across any such two (although incidents like these were likely to be rare given how few people used government services online anyway). Many sites tried to be the gateway to services they didn’t own and links from one to another were commonly poorly maintained, leading to dead ends or out of date information.

Meanwhile, the price of delivering even an elementary service was moving up fast. Running a single website costs anywhere from £100,000 to over £500,000 a year but little money was, it seems, spent on the basics: good design, accessibility for all and relevant content.

Over 80% of the cost of any given website was spent on technology – content management tools, web server software, servers themselves – as technology buyers and their business unit partners became easy pickings for salesmen with 2 car families to support.

Too often, design meant flashy graphics, complicated pages, too much information on a page and confusing navigation. Accessibility meant, simply, the site wasn’t.

Content was relevant to the author but not to the viewer. Local authorities would define services according to their geographic boundaries, not based on, for instance, the nearest option for a citizen. Central government departments filled their sites with policy-speak requiring a degree in politics (and from a good university too) to follow.

Services weren’t joined up so registering a new house for council tax meant visiting the local authority, the valuation office and then the local authority again.

Transactional services were even more separate – claiming more than one benefit (child tax credit and child benefit perhaps) meant two different, near identical processes. And things were worse still for business – one service would need your company registration number, another your VAT details, a third your PAYE reference, a fourth your National Insurance Number.

In short, services were supply-led by the government, not demand-led by the consumer. But where was the demand? Was the demand even there? Should it be up to the citizen to scream for the services they want and, if they did, would they – as Henry Ford claimed before producing the Model T – just want ‘faster horses’, or more of the same they’d always had performed a little quicker?

The UK population has been sceptical of online services provided by government since the start – and, in that, the UK is far from alone.

In December 2005 even the UAE was lamenting in the press the lack of usage of their services (despite them having 84% of services online, the Internet’s share is under 20%).

Despite the high adoption figures for commercial services such as Amazon, eBay and various online banks, usage of government’s much vaunted and expensively delivered online services did not match expectations – either those of government, the press or the public themselves. Government threw a huge party and no-one showed up.

Confronted by a lack of usage, the response was to accelerate the rate of spend – to relive the Field of Dreams analogy, ‘build it and they will come’. So more websites were created, with yet more content and, sometimes, more services.

The Prime Minister had declared a grand vision. He’d asked for simple government, for take up targets to be applied and for citizen-focused and joined-up government. He had, instead, been rewarded by a supply-led approach – ‘if we have it, we’ll put it online’ – and one that questioned almost at every stage whether the PM actually meant 100% online.

At every conference I ever attended from 2001 to 2005, there would be questions raised about why the target had been set and when different targets would be set. Of course, everyone had a different view of which target was right. In response, I imagined John F Kennedy in May 1961 saying “you know, it would be pretty good if we could get somewhere near the moon, give or take a few thousand miles, maybe we could send a dog or a parrot and, maybe, if you think it possible, we could get them all the way back home in a pretty good state – at least able to walk, if not for very long”.

 I cautioned that, even though the PM had said 100%, he didn’t mean that we should suddenly support ‘burial at sea online’ or ‘exhume your grandparents online’ but that he wanted people to choose how they interacted with government and for government, in turn, to adjust its approach to give citizens what they needed – so they could get what they deserved from the public sector.

Surveying the e-government landscape now, at the end of 2005 – right on cue with the Prime Minister’s 2001 goal of having all government services online by this time – things look more or less the same as they did three years ago; much is online, most of it’s hard to find, there’s little in the way of real usage and there’s a distinct lack of joining up.

There are, however, a couple of beacons of hope – signs that something has changed inside the great engine of government. These are the ‘good’ things.

• Direct.gov.uk Building on the early attempts at joined up government pioneered by ukonline.gov.uk (an unfortunate brand name shared by a better known internet service provider), directgov brought together people from across government to write – from scratch – ‘how to’ guides based on who you were and what you wanted to do. Perhaps you were a student looking to understand loans, or maybe a disabled person wanting to claim government benefits, or a mother wanting to send her first child to school. No matter, the site would bring together all the relevant things you needed to know, from all across government, and present them in one place – using consistent language, word style and web site design. I suspect this is what the Prime Minister had in his mind five years ago. It’s not all good news for directgov though – it is still, two years after its launch, unable to bring together transactions – so if you want to claim two different benefits, you’ll have to jump through whichever hoops are placed in your way by the government departments responsible and you’ll have to visit their websites to do it. But, in the last 12 weeks, directgov has averaged well over 1.2 million visitors per month with a peak of over 1.5 million.

 • The Inland Revenue, now HM Revenue and Customs has persevered through the problems of Self Assessment and, more recently, tax credits, gradually putting most of its services online. They’re all brought together through a single website that has broadly consistent branding and look and feel and with a single log-on for all of the services. There’s little, yet at least, in the way of cross-pollination of data – so you can’t springboard from your Self Assessment form to your tax credits claim and have all of your personal data come with you. Nonetheless, it’s likely that HMRC can lay claim to the most used government services across the largest range of clients – corporations, self employed and individual tax payers as well as tax credit claimants. Maybe having a few spectacular failures really does fix the availability of services in the mind of the citizen?

• Neighbourhood Statistics Every so often, someone comes up with a service that just wouldn’t be possible offline. Google is a good example – there’s no simple way to search even a few pages of a text book for a few words, let alone a million or a hundred million (or over 8 billion as they now claim). Neighbourhood Statistics, provided by the Office of National Statistics is one of those services, although perhaps one where only stats geeks need apply for regular use. Tap in your post code and it will bring up a wealth of data covering every aspect of your immediate area it possesses. I was intrigued to see the folks at IdealGovernment.com calling this service a ‘mash up’ the other day, although I’d be surprised if those clever people at the ONS refer to it in this manner.

Put together, the good the bad and the ugly constitute just a sample of what’s available today. For the most part, the ugly sites have moved on, resolved their issues, delivered sets of enhancements one after the other and now offer robust, useful services.

Ten Years of e-government, Part 3

But have we achieved the Prime Minister’s goal? Do we have simple, joined up, citizen focused government? Is everything online and is usage at the level that would be expected?

Simply put, no.

Despite the huge investment and even with a likely claim of close to 100% of services online (there will always be arguments over exactly how many are, how you count services that weren’t part of the target when it was set and what you do with services that are genuinely new and not available offline) it’s quite clear we still have departmental-led, low usage e-government.

We have government for government, not government for the citizen.

With so many services available, you’d perhaps think that usage should be higher. Early on, the argument was often made (I believe I made it too) that it wasn’t worth going online just to do one service – the overhead was too high – and that we needed to have a full range of services on offer – ones that could be used weekly and monthly as well as annually. That way, people would get used to dealing online with government and we’d have a shot at passing the ‘neighbour test’ (i.e. no service will get truly high usage until people are willing to tell their neighbour they used, say, ‘that new tax credits service online’ and got their money in 4 days flat, encouraging their friends to do likewise).

To date, no-one, anywhere, whether friend, acquaintance, business colleague or merely passer-by has stopped me to exclaim, wonder (or even the absence of wonder) at any government service – and I meet a lot of people who know exactly what I do so it’s no big leap to imagine them opening a conversation over dinner with a comment about some service they’d tried, good or bad.

With perhaps 40% of the population either shopping or banking online, there’s a viable target that within the next 18-24 months, the same number of people should be using government’s online services too. It will, however, take work:

 • Rationalise massively the number of government websites. In a 2002 April Fool email sent widely around government, I announced the e-Envoy’s department had seized control of government’s domain name registry and routed all website URLs to UKonline.gov.uk and was in the process of moving all content to that same site. Many people reading the mail a few days later applauded the initiative. Something similar is needed. The only reason to have a website is if someone else isn’t already doing it. Even if someone isn’t, there’s rarely a need for a new site and a new brand for every new idea.

• Engage forcefully with the private sector. The banks, building societies, pension and insurance companies need to tie their services into those offered by government. Want a pension forecast? Why go to government – what you really want to know is how much will you need to live on when you’re 65 (67?) and how you’ll put that much money away in time. Government can’t and won’t tell you that. Similarly, authentication services need to be provided that can be used across both public and private sectors – speeding the registration process in either direction. With Tesco more trusted than government, why shouldn’t it work this way? The Government Gateway, with over 7 million registered users, has much to offer the private sector – and they, in turn, could accelerate the usage of hardware tokens for authentication (to rid us of the problems of phishing) and so on.

• Open up every service. The folks at my society, public whip and theyworkforyou.com have shown what can be done by a small, dedicated (in the sense of passionate) team. No-one should ever need to visit the absurdly difficult to use Hansard site when it’s much easier through the services these folks have created. Incentives for small third parties to offer services should be created – Apple’s widgets for the Mac have spawned a thriving sub-culture of people willing to put their personal time into developing (mostly) useful programmes that enhance the Mac experience; is it too hard to imagine there are people who would put similar effort into developing useful government services? If the efforts of the theyworkforyou folks are taken into account, it can’t be.

 • Build services based on what people need to do. We know every year there are some 38 million tax discs issued for cars and that nearly everyone shows up at a post office with a tax disc, insurance form and MOT. For years, people in government have been talking about insurance companies issuing discs – but it still hasn’t happened. Bring together disparate services that have the same basic data requirements – tax credits and child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit etc.

 • Increase the use of intermediaries. For the 45% of people who aren’t using the Internet and aren’t likely to any time soon, web-enabled services are so much hocus pocus. There needs to be a drive to take services to where people use them. Andrew Pinder, the former e-Envoy, used to talk about kiosks in pubs. He may have been speaking half in jest, but he probably wasn’t wrong. If that’s where people in a small village in Shropshire are to be found (and with Post Offices diminishing, it’s probably the only place to get access to the locals), that’s where the services need to be available. Government needs to be in the wholesale market if it’s to be efficient – there are far smarter, more fleet of foot retail providers that can deliver the individual transactions.

• Clean up the data. One of the reasons why government is probably afraid to join up services is that they know the data held on any given citizen is wildly out of date or just plain wrong. Joining up services would expose this. When I first took the business plan for the Government Gateway to a minister outside the Cabinet Office, this problem was quickly identified and seen as a huge impediment to progress. ID cards will never work without such a clean up (I’m sure they will never work for all sorts of other reasons as well, but if they do go ahead, someone’s going to have to confront this).

In 2001, the UK clearly led in the vision stakes – and many governments from around the world came to visit or were visited so they could learn from what Britain had done.

In 2005, the vision still holds – and has been reiterated in the Transformational Government strategy with little embellishment albeit with more focus on the internal mechanics of how it might be achieved this time round.
Other countries will still want to visit and learn what’s being done here – partly because visiting is what these folks do but also because there are genuine lessons to be learnt from us.

It’s as the driving instructor tells his student, ‘drive as I say, not as I do’. Government departments would do well to learn the same lesson. If not, then it feels more like everyone is waiting for a Lord of the Rings ‘Look to the East’ moment. And, last time I looked, Gandalf was busy elsewhere.

Know your numbers

Eleven years ago I worked for a guy who worked for a guy who worked for a guy who was a main board director at Citibank. Jim Bailey was head of Global Transactions – Cash, Trade Finance and Securities – that business would have been generating billions of dollars in revenue annually. I was running operations in Citibank Austria – a small country in the scheme of Citibank’s overall footprint.

Jim was a fiend for numbers. One day when he visited for an update on how things were going in Austria, I was prepped and ready to deal with any questions. I’d had it drilled into me by my boss – “know your numbers”, “know your numbers”. Jim stayed true to form and asked intricate questions about every piece of data I put in front of him. He wanted to understand the detail behind the figures and sometimes really arcane stuff about securities settlements and cash management volumes. That day, I really got how important numbers are in some organisations. I think they should be important in every organisation.

Being able to talk numbers, provided they’re grounded and you understand how they came about, is a fundamental skill. I had it drilled into me at Citi – because the guys at the top wanted to know that you knew your numbers. Not being able to back up your argument with data meant you were just giving your opinion. Opinions are like a**holes; we all have them but we don’t (and shouldn’t) get them out and show people all the time.

Spraying numbers around with abandon or, worse, using compromised numbers means I lose faith in who you are and what you stand for – if I can even figure out what you stand for.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for the Home Office, is going through thw pain of not having reliable data now – he doesn’t know the numbers, because his people can’t provide him accurate ones. One of his people, Dave Roberts, didn’t have “the faintest idea” about any numbers to do with immigration. I’m pretty baffled why no one seems to have asked “We understand why you don’t know how many there are since the dawn of time, do you know how many have come and gone since, say, January 1st 1998? Or 1999?” – surely that would be a sensible question to ask?

Dr Reid did have this to say though:

Asked about the cabinet secretary’s suggestion last week that no civil servants were likely to lose their job over the foreign prisoner releases, he said: “Don’t count on it.” Numbers do have some importance then – I’ll be watching his “count” with interest.

Government still seems not to know how many websites it operates which is pretty odd given that there is only one way to register a .gov.uk domain name. Domains aren’t the same as sites, I know, but it’s a pretty good proxy (and it’s not hard to strip out obvious duplicates, e.g. ukresilience.gov.uk and ukresiliance.gov.uk). And, after all, the government does run the Office of National Statistics – maybe we should ask them?

Still, I digress, this wasn’t meant to be about government websites, it was about needing to know your numbers, needing to argue from a factual baseline that you align with the other parties – to make sure that your definition of a “call” or a “job” or a “hit” is the same as everyone else’s. I’m stunned when folks on my own team or, worse, vendors still come to me without data and expect to have an anecdotal conversation. As Number 10 is fond of saying, “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

e None, government Won – Number 1 in an occasional series

If there ever were a battle for e-government, it’s over. Government won, e none ran the scoreline.

Accenture are out today with their annual survey of global government performance in the online stakes. Showing how wonderful the Internet can be, this would be the same Accenture who the Indian government are denouncing today for failing to implement an e-Tea auction. Or was it an ET-auction? Misery loves company, of course. “IBM and Accenture had been entrusted with the task of designing the software but it was a total disaster, Jairam Ramesh, union minister of state for commerce and industry, said.”

The UK is, probably, ranked 12th. Apparently “The report does not contain an updated ranking of the egovernment league because it is largely unchanged from last year, says the company. Last year the UK was ranked 12th“.

All is not lost though. Accenture, recognising that some business could come their way, observe that with the “Transformational Government Strategy”, the UK is potentially on the verge of significant and dramatic change.

Around 38% people used an e-government service last year, about the same as the previous year. That’s not a terrible number – but it is surprising that the number hasn’t budged in a year. That would, honestly, make me think that last year’s figure was over-stated. Usage of direct.gov has doubled over the last year – if that has only taken traffic from existing sites rather than stimulating new traffic then the advertising has been a waste. Of course, we’re not measuring “satisfied” users here – maybe we had 38% last year who didn’t find what they wanted?

When we started all this, the plan (vague as it was) was to create an enveloping set of services that would hide the chaos and confusion of the real world of government and create some innovative, joined up services that would aid the citizen. This, in turn, would buy time for the real infrastructural issues to be confronted – the lack of common standards around identifiers, legislation on data sharing, retirement of inflexible legacy systems and, of course, civil service obstinacy and resistance to change.

Today, despite the best efforts of many, we’re left with a world of fragmented services that still require the citizen to figure out how to get around. Direct.gov, whilst making great strides, is only painting those services orange. I’m a fan of dg (as has been clear from many posts here), but they’re definitely up against it.

Here’s just one example that shows, I believe, why e is still losing to government. I appreciate that a single anecdote does not consitute data, but that’s why this is “number 1 in an occasional series”.

Direct.gov is majoring at the moment on local council services. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of the “report an abandoned car” service, thinking it’s a perfect service to join up. Trying to do that on direct.gov gives the following experience:

Home page
Connect to your council (one click)
Abandoned vehicles (one click and a new window)
Enter postcode (one click)
Report an abandoned vehicle (huh? just said I wanted that) (one click)
Customer portal login (what? ah, the small print says I can ignore that) (one click)
Smarter Borough Reporting Facility 36608 (what?)

Now they want my name, address, email address and, worse, the index at the bottom tells me that this is “page 1 of up to 9”. Apparently, this is all provided by a company called “NonStopGov”. Well, get this, you just stopped me in my tracks. So much for first.gov’s famous “3 clicks to service” objective.

This being Hammersmith and Fulham, they still don’t recognise my post code (council tax being paid nothwithstanding). As always, I use a spoof address and am given a UPRN (I have no idea what that is), it’s 00003408295 – is that a national ID for the fictitious property I use when I need to prove to LBHF that I live here?

I’m now on “Page 2 of up to 4” – productivity is going up, they’ve figured out that I don’t need 5 pages. But they’re now wondering if I’m reporting an abandoned car at my address or another. I don’t want to go through this again – what it it’s half way down the street that I actually live in – the one that they say doesn’t exist?

So I’m going to give up.

Five years ago, when I talked about reporting an abandoned car, I figured that all it would take would be a text message from wherever I was standing looking at such an abandoned car. If the council were worried that I was reporting my neighbour’s car as abandoned just to get back at them, they could wait for 2 (or 3, or 4) texts to come through before taking action (check my posts on 777 – buried in a piece in a piece about ID cards, no idea why, from 2003); or they could just swing by next time someone was in the area and see if there was an old banger on the road. Golly – they’d have my mobile number – they could even call me to check if I was seriously; I doubt many people steal mobile phones and then report abandoned cars so there’d be a good chance if I was giving them my mobile that I was genuine.

Why would they need to know my address? Why would they care about my name? Why would I need to log in? Why would it matter which council I was reporting the car to? Surely a car abandoned is a car abandoned? I just want to report it. Please don’t tell me if they know my details it lets them follow up by snail mail? Or, god forbid, market new services to me?

And if you think this should be easy, go and try and report a pot hole.

Maybe this is just my borough and every other one has it just right? Views at the bottom please. Try it in your area. I just checked a few – a couple don’t let you do it online and a couple need you to provide your entire CV before they’ll let you report.

Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones…

…but keychains and logos do not a business change deliver. I’ve been ranting on this topic for as long as I’ve been blogging but rarely, if ever, have I actually blogged about it. So count this as “been a long time coming”.

In government (maybe that should say “Whilst working in government”, lest you think I was actually “in government”) I used to lament that “Having a policy is not the same as delivering one”. Too many long in the tooth mandarins would believe that making a pronouncment was the same as it coming true – for instance, “we’ll deport all foreign, non-resident, criminals at the end of their sentence” or “we’ll pay the right amount of tax credits to all those who claim”. The work would go into crafting the words behind the legislation but not into ensuring that the legislation had the right effect and worked on the ground in real circumstances. That would be like, as an example, a big computer vendor releasing a piece of software designed to make your system more secure that actually increased your exposure to hackers and having to fix it later. Oh, hold on, that happens all the time (and it doesn’t matter with o/s you have)

So, if having a policy is not the same as delivering one, then having a catchy programme name with an accompanying logo isn’t the same as making change happen. Yet how many programme teams spend their first couple of weeks coming up with that “catchy name”? Catchiness is in the eye of the beholder of course. Internal names mean little to external eyes which is often the point, especially in takeover or security situations, although even that seems to be changing:

Discontinuing Protection of Unclassified Project Names

In keeping with the spirit of Executive Order 12958 to protect only the informtion that must be protected in the interests of national security, the Chief, Office of Policy has determined that there is not sufficient cause or justification to continue to protect unclassified project names. Therefore, effective immediately, UNCLASSIFIED project names (i.e. VICTORY, BEANPOLE, etc.), will no longer require protection with the FOUO caveat when separated from the classified project descriptions.

Who knows what people were thinking when they decided that the very word “Victory” might need to be classified? Nelson must have turned in his grave that day. And, as for beanpole, nothing like creating a project name that is fully disassociated from anything.

Victory and Beanpole might, however, be examples of better than average project names. When it comes to “business change” (cue Twilight Zone music) projects, folks get far more creative. As the Intranet Portal Guide says, “The name should sum up what the project is all about and build on your vision”, before going on to say that names drawn from Greek Gods lead the pack (amongst a 14 page slide deck that comprehensively explores planets, dances, “e”words and more). Having worked for a telecommunications company named “Mercury”, messenger of the Gods and son of Jupiter, I know all about that.

I’ve seen names of explorers (that, sadly, usually provoke more of a snort of derision when the true history of the hero’s efforts are better understood); complicated acronyms spelt out by people desperate to make all the letters in the word “Euclid” mean something to someone; attempts at humour (that often combine acronyms too – I’ve seen “Muppets” spelt out 3 different ways in 3 companies in the last 5 years) and then project names that mean something to the people involved, an almost Freemason-like nod and a wink about something going on internally. I’ve been guilty in the latter case myself with “Caledonia” (whilst the project was highly successful, the name was consigned to the bin within a week in favour of calling it actually what it was – the Government Gateway).

So here’s a parable about project names:

The executives in a big company (thinking about ut, “the executives in a company” will do just fine) start a huge business change initiative. They pull a crack team together and give them the task of revolutionising the sales approach, integrating end to end with their suppliers, harnessing the power of the organisation and driving down costs in every aspect of the operation. The team get together to think about the brief. Their first task? Choose a name for the team and, ergo, the programme. It needs to be something catchy. Something to rally around. Something clever, funny almost – but only to the insiders; those who get the joke. After all, what’s a programme team if it can’t be a clique?

Soon after the project name has been chosen, communications briefs are prepared, pens with the logo embossed on the side and security card chains that proclaim the new name are ordered. The team festoon their digs with the logo and come up with more improbable acronyms to highlight what they’re trying to achieve: anyone for “Customer” aka Caring, Understanding, Sustaining, Till-ringing, Open, Mindful, Excited and Rubberising (ok I made a couple of those up)?

Any organisation of more than a dozen people quickly finds they have 1 project name for every 2 people in the building. Within a couple of weeks, no one knows what anyone else is talking about anymore. Project names are swapped like business cards at an evening at the Chemistry Club. People confuse project “Focus” with project “Approach” and Nutkin collides with Amoeba in everyday sentences; no one is quite sure whether Mars is further out on the timetable than Venus or whether Jupiter can go ahead without any further approvals, it being the chief god of course. The comms team for each go into overdrive to make sure that their project stands out. More pens are ordered – this time bigger and better. The colours on the logo are made bolder and an A0 plotter is ordered so that bigger posters can be produced. Soon, posters adorn every corridor in the building.

Plainly change is afoot. All of the activity all around only goes to show that. With all these projects underway, surely the organisation is destined for great things? Monthly reviews quickly descend into farce as projects compete with each other for executive attention. The organisation is so busy reporting progress on the snazzy new templates issued from the central team that all effort is diverted away from making progress to report what would have happened if everyone had actually been able to do work that month, rather than report progress. Competition increases for executive time. The early templates are dispensed with and each team starts to use their own, hoping for ever greater quantums of time. The executives are lulled into a false sense of security – they see their people scurrying around, always too busy to meet to talk about progress and assume that all is going well.

Some months later, it’s plain that nothing is changing. The troops in the trenches, the men with spanners, the people in the call centres, have all been oblivious to the efforts focused on achieving change. They’ve been carrying on, doing what they do, making the calls, fixing the engines, paying the bills, reconciling the accounts. But they’re doing it the way they’ve always done it.

Management realise that their organisation has misled them, that they’ve employed a series of (mis)directors who could go up against David Blaine. They issue an edict:

No more project names. Just call it what it is. Revolutionary, some would say.

If you’re changing your customer call handling project, they say let’s call it the “Call Handling Improvement” project; if you’re speeding up debt payments, call it “Making Debt Payment Faster”. If you’re furthering university clustering consistency (don’t even think of using an acronym), then say that’s what you’re doing.

The executives go further and require that the set of projects running at any one time in the organisation have to fit on a page, including the one line description of each. Anytime a new project arrives, it has to bump another off the list.

Further still, they insist on a single, consolidated communication on progress with every achievement backed up by visual, tangible proof from within the organisation that something has happened.

Monthly reviews get shorter and sharper; progress gets visible and doesn’t need to be written about so much. People take to attending progress reviews rather than sending the deputy’s deputy’s chief of staff’s assistant graduate. The organisation swells with pride as they see real change happening. Other organisations copy them and soon a revolution is underway. Books are written with titles like “Back to basics”, “Getting it done”, “Just doing it” and so on. Tom Peters even has a slide on it in his latest deck – with no acronyms in it and only one exclamation point.

Pen and keychain companies go out of business. There’s a national outcry about the loss of jobs in this under-appreciated industry. Workers, who have made keychains, with their own hands of course, as man and boy, cry for the TV cameras as they lament the lack of support for this once great industry. They blame the government, without realising that government continues to be their only customer but, alone, was unable even with its largesse, to prop up the industry. Even the government had struggled to come up with a catchy name for the ID cards project, rejecting “project barcode everyone” early on (despite that perhaps fitting the idea of just say what you’re going to do).

UK companies go from strength to strength and start to lead the world in productivity and performance. Even the Chancellor is seen to smile and nod sagely about how his “better regulation taskforce” had come up with the policy of banning project names.