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 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. 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)

One thought on “Ready. Aim. Fire

  1. Tom was making a different point along the lines of Ready, Fire, Aim, in that constant exploration would ultimately hit on a motherlode.

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