[insert word] soar [out of control]

image Something or other is always soaring as far as the newspapers are concerned.  It’s possibly their – tabloid & broadsheet – favourite word.  Whether it’s losses, costs, assaults, shares, emissions, corruptions, deaths, prices, provisions, sales, spirits, revenues or bankruptcies, they’re all soaring. Even when the market is crashing, something else is always soaring, echoing Newton’s what goes down must go up somewhere else. In the very worst case, of course, soaring things are actually soaring out of control.    As a word it’s far easier to use in multiple circumstances than “crash” (too many aircraft/helicopter/car connotations), “shrink” (nearly always financial, occasionally psychological).  The only word that appears to be used in equal measure is “fall”, although, again following Newton, they’re often paired as in “Wie continues her long fall as Matthew soars”.

image So I feel perfectly justified, if very late, in saying “Costs of government websites soar” on the basis that “soar” applies when things go up a little, a lot or enormously and even when the baseline is unclear.  Just searching for “costs soar government” turns up some gems. The UK child database has seen its costs apparently soar although it’s entirely unclear from what to what. In Durham, the costs of a reorganisation have, it seems, soared from �32 million to �12 million and back to �30 million (you’re confused? Don’t worry, I was too).  It would be helpful and perhaps Dan could oblige, to have a grading scale for when soar is to be used – for instance, a 5% increase is hardly a soar, but a doubling could legitimately be called “soaring out of control” unless, of course, there was evidence of control (which would usually only be found long in retrospect when the various audit bodies come along to see how things went … “costs have soared, more than doubling from their original forecast, however the significant increase in requirements/lengthy delay in securing planning permission/complete obfuscation on part of the management team appear to justify fully the delta.”)

So back to government websites, “soar” seems appropriate because I’m not sure we know how much they used to cost or, really, how much they cost now.  Every year a parliamentary question is submitted to most departments (called a round robin) and each minister would reply with what they knew.  Some costs would straight away look out of whack – too high or too low – although the high numbers were generally taken as honest and the low ones were generally taken as missing out a few important numbers, not through malice but because the question was never phrased in a way that would ensure all of the true costs were considered.  I very much doubt that any country in the world has a proper handle on how much its government websites cost – and I suspect “soar” is an appropriate word to apply to them all over the last decade.

In the past, I had several goes at figuring out how much UK government was spending on its websites, using bottom up data, private sector comparators and top down estimation.  The 3 slides below come from presentations delivered, respectively, on 21/5/2003, 28/9/2004 and 13/5/2004.  In the first I estimated government websites to cost �140-250 million in total, based on counting how many pages existed and figuring out a metric for frequency of maintenance and then cost of maintenance; in the 2nd deck, the page count has moved from 2.6 million to 5 million (in a little over 15 months) and you could therefore imagine the cost being nearer the top of my range or perhaps even higher; in the last deck I estimate costs being in a much higher range, from �400-700 million- this was after analysing the various PQ responses and also taking some private sector comparisons where even lean and mean websites – operating entirely on open source, in-house managed software – were found to be costing �150,000 per year when all costs were included (such as content author time, servers and bandwidth) – you try multiplying 3,233 websites by �150,000 lowest possible realistic, fully loaded cost – pretty soon you’re talking real money.  I have no idea which number is correct and I’m pretty sure that no one else has either and mine are as likely to be right as anyone’s.  The recent NAO report, delivered by an old friend, Patrick Dunleavy, suggests that the current costs are �208 million a year.  He might be right, he might be wrong. He’s more likely to be wrong:

PWC event slides - 21.05.2003 - tadpole slide IDeA slides - 28.09.2004 - website curve Dan Jellinek Transform slides - 13.05.2004 - website curve

Three conclusions pulled from the exec summary of the NAO report help answer why the number might be wrong, with my notes in []:

  1. Government web sites tend to be text heavy and complex to understand and to navigate [text heavy and complex to navigate means, for me, complex to maintain and, therefore, probably not well maintained]
  2. Many agencies have little information about how much online provision of services costs [see my next paragraph below]
  3. Most departments lack sufficient information about who is using their sites and how they are being used [see my previous blog post about the difficulty of establishing a business case for a government website]

How Much Should A Website Cost Anyway?Too many websites v2 .. web cost curve

To the second bullet above, quite regularly the answer to the round robin PQ would be “unknown” either because the costs were all wrapped up in a bigger outsource deal or because the cost of finding out was greater than �500 or so, which is the trigger for a disproportionate cost.  I’ve had a bit of fun analysing these costs in the past when trying to figure out what the breakeven price for a centrally managed content management system would be (what became DotP which, of course, is no more).   I came up with this hopelessly approximated curve (on the right) – it’s at times like this that I wish for the insight and mathematical capability of the late and much-respected Chris Lightfoot.  I used data from PQs and from samples that I collected here and there.  There’s probably more data available now and I really should do it again.  My point was to show that there were certainly plenty of departments that could operate at the left of the curve (90% of government websites, in 2004, had less than 2,000 pages; 1% had more than 200,000), but that there was a point when site management costs would get much higher (and that’s not necessarily a function of page count – the government gateway has a handful of pages but is more expensive than most by an order of magnitude I would guess, but then it’s doing far more that isn’t strictly “website” related).

In the graphs higher up the page, you’ll see that I always expected government would, one day, start cutting back on its web presence – and that one of the benefits of this would be increasing volume of usage and, specifically, transactions (fewer sites would make it easier to find what you needed – and I don’t mean “google” what you need but genuinely “find” what you need and find it in a way that is designed around the citizen rather than leaving you to piece together 101 bits from a dozen different departments or government entities).  It followed, then, that the operational cost (software + hardware + bandwidth + system support + editorial effort) would then be eliminated for each site that was closed down; some of this money could be redeployed at the centre (or in several centres if there were several main sites, such as NHS, business, citizen – although there are strong arguments for (citizen+NHS) and business as the two main sites),some could be saved and some would be paid in exit costs.  I have a whole deck on how to rationalise government websites (from March 2004) that, flicking through now, I realised proposed having a competitive environment of a few providers of content engines (probably as managed services) that would compete for business.  I’ll post that another time.

Dealing With The Unknowns – Pricing Central Infrastructure

All of this work, and worries about the total ongoing cost of websites – staying up to date with refreshes, adding new capability (such as transactions) and so on was what got me into DotP in the first place.  But one of the big problems was how do you charge for it?

Plainly you can’t charge the first department that adopts a central solution 100% of the cost of build, and you probably can’t charge the first two departments 50% each – so you have to estimate that if you got, say, 10 departments, would they all be willing to pay 10% of the cost and could you get ten on board quickly enough to cover the overdraft from building it?  Commercial companies face these choices every day with every product; government almost never faces it – its transactional services, all long established, are charged (to the customer or to HM Treasury) at: cost to provide divided by number of transactions plus a fudge factor to provide for future investment (whether it be IT, infrastructure, people or pensions).  Beyond that, each department has to factor in whether it will actually get its desired funding from HMT and then allocate money as it needs within their settlement.  It’s not simple, but it’s easier than trying to price central infrastructure from scratch.  Had the government gateway, ukonline and direct.gov not received central funding from [an inspired] HMT, there is no question that they would never have got off the ground.

Pricing Shared Services

Getting to a point where you can deliver shared services in a government is actually pretty difficult without (a) central funding to build it and cover initial hump costs, (b) a known customer base usually with some kind of mandatory commitment to join issued from the top of the organisation and (c) a flexible, long-term service provision contract that doesn’t see costs jump disproportionately with volume, time or refresh.   Of course we, and other governments, price shared services all the time – hospitals for instance.  They’re built and operated at a known cost for decades – someone has to budget for all the infrastructure upgrades, staff, drug, administration and provisions costs; and managed any associated indexation (and, of course, deal with any central or local reduction in budgets as things change around them). So what’s the difference with IT shared services?   That, I think, is a topic for another time.  But comments welcome as always.

Writing On The Wall (2)

img004 (WinCE)Here’s a flipchart shot from a recently visited meeting room.  Time flows right, our intrepid avenger (project manager? policy wonk?) runs left to right (apparently somewhat suspended already) only to confront a looming wall.  Impact brings “Tragedy. End of World”, leaping the obstruction brings “SD Comedy”.

End of the world is easy to imagine.  But SD Comedy, whatever that is, seems scant reward for such a dynamic leap.

What it might mean, I leave to you to imagine and comment upon. 

Ready. Aim. Fire

Here’s a presentation I gave 6 weeks after arriving into UK government. It was April 2000, just after the first (that I know of) online, transactional service had been launched. I was brand new into this department and brand new into a government role. My previous jobs had all been private sector – telecomms, chemicals & banking. Government is different and yet, there they were, suddenly finding the walls were coming down as they exposed their services, their products, their secret sauce to the public.

Looking back now, 7 years later, I’m surprised that they let me stay any longer than 6 weeks and 1 day. I am, however, glad that they did; I love working in government and, after more than 2 years away after that first stint I’ve been back for nearly a year.

The issues that I raised in this deck continue to exist now and are doubtless faced by governments all over the world as they grasp what e-government really means.

I’m pretty sure I borrowed the title from Tom Peters; and the style of it has a lot in common with him too, although I have more text on my slides than he usually does.

It was early in the e-government cycle but there were already some emerging themes – here are some of the trends that this department, shall we say, adopted early; I’ve tagged my subsequent thoughts after the original bullet in []:

-The absolute last thing that you want someone to know is just a click away and people will find it out [Budget reports were published with the MS-Word edits still visible, doctor’s personal details have been made available online, Census records entered by prisoners serving at HM’s pleasure have been edited inappropriately. All of these were good learning points but some seem always to need to learn the lesson themselves rather than seeing what has happened to others – but, there again, banks and credit agencies who continually lose customer records or suffer financial fraud seem to be no different]

-Another channel added, but nothing taken away [cost saves only come when you can dismantle something as a result of the new offer; internet transactions coming in at 1/10th the cost of offline transactions doesn’t help the cost base unless you can reduce the workforce, sell off buildings, reduce postage and so on – and all of that takes sufficient mass to make it worthwhile. Departments, globally, continue to struggle with the heavy cost of IT investment coupled with the need to maintain pools of thousands of staff]

-Your systems and your inadequacies are visible to many [problems in government processes were often hidden away from the public, with the odd notable exception such as the new passport process; but once services were available on the internet, downtime became front page news. operational process limitations suddenly stopped straight through processing from being achievable – long-held workarounds carried out by harried staff didn’t work online. Private Sector companies suffered through much the same process – nanking customers wondered why they couldn’t see their credit card and bank statements in the same place, their mortgage and their current account on one page (and, many, including me, wonder why still)]

-Push back on decisions that make no sense (100% by 2005? Don’t make me laugh. What’s the point of 100% with 0% usage?) [I’m actually a staunch defender of the 100% target – because it was a rallying call to persuade people that things were changing; i’m not, however, defending what happened immediately as a consqeunce of that which was billions of pounds spent on replicating the offline world, duplicating what others were already doing or putting online services that had no business being online. Governments the world over entered the dotcom rush a little later than the private sector and, just as there were a dozen places to buy pet food online, there were several thousand government websites where you could find out about tax credits]

-Make sure there’s an owner for every decision, who’s accountable for each piece of work [and when it goes wrong, take action – the RPA’s single farm payment scheme may be the most recent example of sword-falling in action, but I don’t think this practice is widely prevalent. The main thrust of this bullet (and you can see that in the slides) was to encourage people to actually make decisions and stay with them, rather than to delay and consider ever more options in ever widening briefs]

– Supplier partnership; the mutual admiration society needs to stop [this is still out there. in a few cases, both supplier and customer confront the issue and I applaud them for getting to grips with it, but in many cases, the sheer size of the deal (hundreds of millions over contract lives), the length of the deal (a decade or more) and the paucity of other options (terminate? wow!) means that many just trundle on dealing with it. only the NHS, under Richard Granger, can perhaps be singled out as confronting this issue directly and publicly – but it remains to be seen whether the approach will pay off)

And, one final one, which I think is the single biggest outstanding point to be cracked in the pursuit of joined up government, shared services and delivery a truly citizen-focused service set:

– Every time you move now, there are external dependencies [Some departments found this out as they published XML schema for transactions that were taken up by 3rd parties, then, when the department wanted to make a change, they had to support multiple versions, or issue lengthy notice periods before making changes. Departments offering services to others, like the Government Gateway, suddenly found that both suppliers and departments needed to be heavily consulted in any change control process. Sites like direct.gov have to stay on top of what is happening with their own site as well as with policy and process changes at other departments. Rationalising requirements and simplifying policy & processes – easy to write, staggeringly hard to do – continues to be the biggest blocker to massive progress in government]

Of course, with some points, I was ridiculously off base

– the NYSE makes $75mm/year, do you think they pay well? [the scandal over Richard Grasso’s deal sure disproves that]

– Or cast of millions e-mails. Or 4MB attachment memos. [there’s definitely little sign of abatement here. e-mails, if anything, are sent to more people than ever (although bcc which was prevalent for a while seems to have reduced in usage), and 4mb is a small attachment. As a committed crackberry user, despite previous protestations, I almost never open attachments]

Seven years on, this is an interesting look back at what I thought just 6 weeks into a 5 year stint in e-government.

(this post is finished now – thank you for bearing with me. Slideshare.net works just fine, although it turns out that editing a page with the slide show in it is really hard – Windows Live Write won’t let me do it so I have to go back to blogger. Very strange. Be pleased to see comments, thoughts and criticism)

Writing On The Wall

I’ve long held the view that the safest place to write company confidential information is on a whiteboard in a well-used meeting room.  I think this for 3 reasons:

1) Anyone coming into a room more than 5 minutes after the previous meeting has ended won’t have the faintest idea what the stuff is about; even if they were in the room when it was written up in the first place

2) Most of the time, no one is able to read the writing of whoever had the pen; I doubt the person writing it could read it 5 minutes later anyway

3) 7 times out of 10 they’ll wipe the board clean after a cursory glance to see if there’s a note saying “please leave”. The first wipe swipe has already started by the time the “please leave” note has been seen

I’ve even taken to snapping shots of whiteboards in meeting rooms dotted around the country as I travel between companies, departments, roles and engagements.  So far I’ve stayed away from posting them – despite hoping to prove the point above – lest I offend anyone.  A few weeks ago, however, I came across a board that actually broke the rules: it was clear, legible, made sense and on a flipchart (so I couldn’t wipe it off). It was, however, entirely meaningless.  I don’t think this will offend anyone, so here it is:


Apologies for the awful colour control – only after I’d taken it and left the room did I discover that my HTC Touch phone has a series of settings for photos and that if you’re taking a picture under “incandescent” or “fluorescent” light, you have to set it specifically, otherwise it comes out orange, like this photo.

The three bullets are:

* Are we out of control?

* Are we trying to be too ambitious?

* Are we taking too much risk?

Curiously there’s a tick after the first bullet.  I take this to mean “yes, we are out of control”.  There’s also a tick after the second, “yes we are trying to be too ambitious”.  There is no tick after the last bullet, so despite being out of control and overly-ambitious, perhaps the risks aren’t that great.  A helpful “x” would have made that conclusion better informed of course.  The last bullet is also in a different colour and in a different hand-writing style – perhaps two people were collaborating on this set of questions?

Sadly, there were no conclusions or actions on the sheets that followed. It’s a funny set of things to write on a flipchart – there’s no set of qualifiers or set of contributing factors or even some points to balance out the tick marks. Ever since I saw and snapped this flipchart image, I’ve been wondering what the topic of conversation was.  And often, I ponder Mario Andretti’s quote, “if everything’s under control, you aren’t going fast enough.” 

Still, you can’t believe everything that’s written down – and even the same bit of information can be reported on in several different ways. For instance, here’s a cut and paste from google news today:

Forecasters see less active 2007 hurricane season Reuters

US forecasts above-normal 2007 hurricane season Monsters and Critics.com

Hurricane forecast reduced — slightly Miami Herald

Experts Upgrade Hurricane Forecast Daily Green – 56 minutes ago

One Storm Forecaster Lowers 2007 Estimate Slightly InjuryBoard.com, FL  

And the tabloid version: Forecasters: Storm season to be busy Florida Today, FL – 1 hour ago

So, based on that sample, this year there will be either more or fewer hurricanes than normal. Buy oil if you believe more, sell if you believe fewer. Everyone’s a winner with this news story.

I’ve been through hurricanes in the past – and wouldn’t wish them on anyone, but if you must live in Florida, it’s part of the trade for great weather the rest of the year.  But here’s what the NOAA actually said


That is, there’s an 85% chance that the season will be above normal, but that versus their forecast in May they have slightly reduced the top end of their calculation for the number of hurricanes and named storms. 

They have not, however, reduced the forecast for the number of major hurricanes and that is for 50% to 150% more than “normal”.  In many ways, all the headlines are right, depending on which bit of the slide you want to focus on.


And, showing that it really is a slow news season and that you can’t believe everything you read, here’s a story that follows in the footsteps of the Sunday Sport’s famous “World War II bomber found on the Moon”:


He is, apparently, living in a Land Rover in New Zealand.


I am in no way fit enough to run a marathon any time soon.  After 4, nearly 5 months, without taking a step any brisker than a slow stroll, my running days are well behind me.  But, game as ever, after receiving an email from the Flora Folks who run London’s big race, I thought I’d enter.  This year, for the first time, they’re doing a pilot with that brand new thingy, the Interweb.  They have a whole website where you can register for entry and maybe even get a place.  Beats filling out paper they say.  They may be on to something, possibly a whole new means of interacting not just with runners but with all sorts of people.  They may even venture into selling merchandise online one day.

The thing is, they’re limiting the number of online entries allowed to 10,000.  And, of those, only 2,000 will actually get a place.  Contrast this with 90,000 entries last year via the paper process and only 30,000 odd actual runners.  The odds of a place appear, on face value at least, to be 1 in 3 by paper and 1 in 5 by web. What kind of an incentive is that?  Imagine, if we ever got online voting sorted, but your online vote counted less than your paper vote?  Actually, given the state of online voting in the USA, it’s just possible that’s already the case, so maybe I should suspend that analogy.

I went ahead anyway.  It’s possible that the 1 in 3 ratio is corrupted by the number of people that get charity places so maybe it’s really 1 in 4.   I have no expectations of getting a place – and, actually, not much expectation of being fit.  But if I were to magically get a place, the incentive to get fit would be sure to follow.  Powerful things these incentives.

On an e-government front, incentives may have had their moment.  In 2000 we had �10 for sending in your Self Assessment.  In recent years there have also been pretty substantial incentives for sending other tax returns (for small businesses, PAYE and so on) – and, as far as I can tell looking at the take-up figures, these have paid of.  Certainly, volumes are up quite substantially – some of that will be because of maturity of offering, some will be because small businesses are increasingly online, some will be because more and more commercial packages support sending returns online by default; but it’s all wrapped up in the idea of cash back which can’t hurt at all.  Once you’re online and sending some things to the tax man, it’s a much smaller step to send other things, decreasing the need for incentives. Five million monthly visitors to direct.gov can’t be wrong 😉

On the other hand, we have the payment disincentive.  Pay by credit card (to renew your tax disc) and it will cost you more money – �2.50 more to be exact.  Pay for your television licence online and whether you pay by direct debit, by debit card or by credit card, the cost is the same �135.50.  Plainly, having 20 million TV licence transactions allows you to save more money than having, umm, 38 million tax disc transactions. 

By the by, there’s an odd error on the TV licence site – if you enter your renewal date as 1/9/2007, the validation of the date fails (and it says “Please check that your licence valid until date is correct”), and you have to edit it and put in 01/09/2007 (ok so it does say the format is dd/mm/yyyy, but still!).

DWP Away Day - 19.06.2002 - takeupI wondered, as I thought about the absence of those incentives, whether we might have reached the point of critical mass in e-government.  In mid-2002 I put this slide up at a conference (and internal government one hosted by the DWP).

Do we have enough “useful services” now that the default place for most people to engage with government is online?

After all, in 2002 there were barely two dozen government services online.  Now, there are, how many?  Hundreds?


For some reason, I followed that slide with this one, a little later in the show.  I’m sure it made perfect sense at the time. DWP Away Day - 19.06.2002 - which way