TTL … TTD

Long ago, when first building U.K. governments online / digital capabilities, our team learned, early on, about TTL. Time To Live. The lower that value the faster you could see the effect of changes you made to eg domain names.

Projects run on TTD. Time To Decide. The faster decisions get made, the faster you can see their effect and decide if you made the right decision or need to change your mind.

Project boards operate on a monthly cycle. In the time between meetings, a typical project has made hundreds of decisions that the board never even saw. Yet some decisions get held up, waiting for the board. There is options analysis, risk assessment, rework. Another board meeting. The TTD gets longer than the project.

It doesn’t work.

The Project Management Myth

We hire people to run projects. We call them project managers (PMs). We give them Project Management Offices (PMOs) to support them. Sometimes we get grander and hire Programme Directors, and we give them Programme Offices.

Together, these hardworking people produce project and/or programme plans. Beautifully drawn diagrams that show an even flow from task to task. From project inception all the way to go live and lessons learned. Tasks linked by lines that all move forward showing steady progress to the goal.

You think you’re following along and realise he’s lured you into a dead end. You backtrack and think you’ve got it, only to find he’s hoodwinked you again. You loop the loop, trying to figure out where it’s heading.

But we know projects aren’t like that. Any real project is more like a well-written crime novel. Something by Jo Nesbo.

The only thing that flows steadily onward in a project is time. Everything else goes forwards, backwards and, very often, sideways. Tasks that you thought were done turn out not to be. Tasks that you didn’t need yesterday become critical today. Next week’s tasks are already redundant, replaced by new ones that you’ve just made up.

Project boards manage on a monthly basis. They review risks that will never happen. The real risks are the ones being dealt with every day – on a scale of “shit we need to get this done else we’re going to slip” to “if we don’t get this done by the end of the week we are toast” and plenty of more emotional phrases in between.

The real skill of a project manager is how they react to those crises. How they handle ten at once. Or a hundred. How they cope with significant uncertainty – paddling furiously under the surface whilst remaining calm, like a swan, on the surface. And how they know when to ask for help because, if they don’t, they will sink.

It’s a rare skill. It’s one learned in the doing. Not on a course, or from a book (although “the mythical man month is totally worth reading). You learn it when you get things wrong and have to recover. You learn it by taking risks, some of which pay off. You may be Prince 2 certified or a scrum master or an agile practitioner … but can you actually make it happen when it counts?

Most of what you do the project board will never see. Their eyes are on the rear view mirror – “what progress did we make last month?” Your eyes are on tomorrow and what could go wrong and likely will go wrong. Your eyes are around the next corner looking for trouble.

Moving to WordPress

Since the very end of 2001, this blog has been hosted on Blogger (originally developed by Pyra Labs, acquired by Google, in the pre “don’t be evil” days, in 2003).  In that time I’ve written some 1,199 posts.  Not all of those are intact here – various migrations, changes in publishing tools, fiddling around with templates and other errors mean that some have lost their images, line breaks are missing and doubtless some are entirely AWOL.

For a while I’ve wanted to move from Google.  I want more functionality – particularly a reliable way to compose and edit on mobile devices – and I also want out of Google (I’ve been a committed duckduckgo user for at least 7 years and maybe longer – I have no way to check as far as I can find).  I also feel strongly that if I’m using a tool that someone, or a company, has put time and effort into, then I should have a direct relationship with that company and should pay for what I use.  Wordpress is clearly the market leader and I wish I’d made the move years ago.

That said, domain names are being moved, posts are being exported and imported and CNAMEs are being repointed … and pointy things always break in such a move.  I’m on a streak of posting daily and hoping not to break it, but there may be a lull and then a catchup as posts go missing and then appear in the right place.

In the meantime, the site is currently hosted at digitalstorm.blog

UK Oil Refineries, Brexit … and Electric Vehicles

Reports in the last couple of days have said that some UK oil refineries could close, at least temporarily, and perhaps permanently if a hard Brexit meant that oil-based products were important tariff free (all the more so given that exports from those refineries would have tariffs imposed).  This is because the government has announced, though doubtless subject to change, that the tariff would be reduced to zero; exports would likely have a tariff of just under 5%.

According to an MSN report, the 6 refineries currently operating produce about 400,000 barrels a day of gas, and export about 30% of it.  Commentators speculate that cost reductions would be brought in and that any closures would be short term. 
There is, though, a bigger problem.  According to the UKPIA (Petroleum Industry Association), the downstream oil industry is important to the UK:

The sector contributed £7.7 billion directly to UK GDP in 2016 and supported directly and indirectly 300,000 jobs, as well as enabling all other key sectors of the economy – from chemicals and other manufacturing to almost all transport-related business – to grow.

and that’s backed up by this picture:
46 billion litres of oil products consumed by road vehicles (taking the picture literally, cars, buses and vans/lorries, both petrol and diesel).  A further 7.2 billion litres of oil were used to manufacture petrochemicals that then find their way into all kinds of things – clothes, electronics, paints, tyres and so on.
The thing is that these refineries produce lots of products, but many are side effects from their scale business – that is, refining products to be used as vehicle fuel.  As the move to EV gathers, ahem, steam, it’s easy to see that there is a loss of that scale, which will mean that the other products are either produced less cost effectively or, perhaps, not cost effectively at all.
It’s hard to see when this change takes effect, and it will likely be just the way Hemingway went bankrupt – gradually then suddenly – but it’s coming soon.  Some of those 300,000 jobs … and perhaps quite a lot of them are going to go away.  A strategy would be good methinks.

Filing and Sorting Emails – What’s the Real Problem?

I came across this opportunity in the marketplace today. It’s worth a read. If you want to apply you only have a few days left though.

https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk/digital-outcomes-and-specialists/opportunities/10373

My first thought, on reading it, was “are these folks crazy?”

The civil service is, by and large, not at the power user end of the email community. I don’t have the figures to hand but when looking at a move to Office 365 at a 35,000 strong government department, the number of emails/day was nothing earth shattering (I was thinking about migration and how to keep everything in sync at the time so daily volumes were my focus).

Edit 21/8/19: Found the data that I had:

https://blog.diverdiver.com/2012/02/more-on-email.html

and

https://blog.diverdiver.com/2012/02/e-mail-in-uk-government.html

Seven years old so doubtless much has changed.

End edit.

It’s also not very different from any other organisation. Government has, of course, to respond to FOI queries, but banks have to deal with financial authorities looking at, say, insider trading or other inquiries (which also extend to voice calls and texts).

My next thought was “why not go and see Google and Microsoft and see what plans they have?” – surely every possible option for filing and sorting emails has been looked at to see what would work at scale and what wouldn’t, and there would be teams of people who would have a deep understanding of the art of the possible.

And then I wondered whether this was looking at the problem the wrong way up. The assumption constrains the problem. That is, what we need to do is sort our email more effectively so that we can more efficiently find things later. As my dear friends at Group Partners have said for two decades or more “how do we avoid solving the wrong problem really well?”

The trouble is that the civil service has long since moved on from email. Take a look at any reasonably sized department and you will see that the work is done in several of the following

– Google docs

– Office 365

– Sharepoint

– Slack

– Teams

– Jira

– Confluence

– Text

– Web content engines

And a few others that I’m sure I have missed out. Perhaps the final version of a document is sent via email, and certainly there is little in the way of cross-department collaboration capability (let alone with those outside of government) which means that to and fro there is in email. But the thinking and development behind a policy (why does it look like this) and all of the iterations are unlikely to be in email.

The better question then, to capture the direction of travel and not the current position (“skate to where the puck is going” as Steve Jobs said, quoting Wayne Gretzky – I think this was at the iPhone launch in 2007; plainly Gretzky would have said it earlier, assuming he said it), is “how should we set ourselves up so that we have the best chance of harnessing all of the information we have and making sure the right stuff ends up where it needs to be” so that you end up with an easy review of “how did we get here” as well as a Library of Alexandria for the historians and regulators to pore over in the future.

My guess is this alpha will end up in disappointment. It won’t be able to solve the challenges inherent in the pure email problem, and it certainly won’t solve the “we have so much in so many places” part of the problem.

That said, I hope they publish the results of the discovery (the opportunity says it will only be released to the shortlist of bidders) as well as the results of the alpha. There will be interesting stuff to see in the thinking and approach to the problem. I suspect Microsoft and google (and slack and others) will be interested too.

Eight Years On From GDS …

… and what have we accomplished?

I wrote about Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of e-government (shortly thereafter to become digital government, though Martha referred to it all as “government online services”) in November 2010.  The recommendations were not particularly new but they were tightly focused and provided the impetus to set up GDS and give it a power that had previously not been available to either a Cabinet Office technology-led function or, I think, any other cross-government technology-led team.

Handily, the EU have published their “Digital Economy and Society Index 2019“, and there’s a specific report on the UK.  Perhaps the last one of these that we will see.  The upside of that is that we may be top of the table in the next one that we self-publish, if only because it will be a table of one.

What, then, have we accomplished?  I’m afraid it doesn’t make for good reading.

We rank 11th overall in the EU.  The authors kindly say that this is “showing a somewhat above average performance.”  I take that to mean that given there are 27 member states, we are just above the mid-point.  If you were to measure performance by GDP, or by capital invested, or by expectation of position, I’m quite sure that this is a well below average performance.

It gets worse.  We are 18th for online service completion and a woeful 27th for pre-filled forms.  Put to one side the idea that “forms” are still the vernacular more than 20 years after we started down the online path.

Our best ranking, by far, is “digital public services for businesses” – I may be biased but I would put that down to the original work by HMRC as far back as 2001 followed up by good work by Companies House (which chose to do things their own way but nevertheless did a very good job – far above average one might say).  It is perhaps interesting to note that GDS has never paid much attention to business transactions – Verify ignores businesses (in the too hard box), the work with RPA around payments to farmers was abandoned after a disastrous launch etc.  And yet there we are in 2nd place.

Who’s first?

Estonia I hear you cry.

Would be a good guess.  They’re 2nd.  Finland is first.

Estonia is let down by open data (where they are 25th); Finland is let down by digital public services for businesses (16th) and open data (19th).

There are some lessons to learn here.  Trouble is we just never seem to learn them.

The Future of Filling Stations

According to Zap-Map there are 9,328 public charging locations, 14,821 devices (individual charging stations, so 1 1/2 per location) and 25,225 individual connectors (nearly 2 per device), for Electric Vehicles as of 18th August 2019.  Those numbers will change by the time you look at the link – roughly 1 new location is added per day (based on figures over the last year).

For comparison, there are 8,398 filling stations in the UK, according to Statista.  Let me call them petrol stations; it’s just how I think of them.

A filling station might still have perhaps 6, 8, 10 or more individual pumps, so there are still more “places” to fill your diesel/petrol car than places to charge it.  But the filling station count is falling (down from 12,500 in 2000) and the charging point count is plainly rising.  Average annual mileage is falling at the same time as the car count is falling.  There’s less demand for fuel, before the switch to EV is even considered.

Maybe there’s a better number for potential EV charging points. There are c20m homes in the UK, and around 27m households, according to the ONS.  Some 60% of those have off street parking and so can, in theory, charge an EV without a cable dangling across the pavement, waiting to trip up some unsuspecting soul.   The 40% without off street parking will likely have to wait for chargers to be installed in lamp posts, their streets to be dug up to lay new charging points or autonomous cars that can drive off and charge themselves.  Or will have to charge at work, the supermarket or elsewhere.  It’s not a good solution and it will slow adoption in dense urban areas I’m sure … but people living there may be the very people who are opting out of car ownership altogether.

That means that there are, or could be, 12m charging points, plus the 10,000 (and growing fast) public charging points.  That’s important because, assuming you park your car at home at the end of every day, or at the end of every journey, it’s full of “fuel” the next time you want to take it out.  No need to go anywhere, at any point, to charge your EV for perhaps 90% of the journeys that are made day to day.  If your office and the supermarket have charging points, you may never charge anywhere else for most of your journeys.

This suggests that as EVs become more common, local petrol stations will need to fight for a role.  They are already mini-markets, newspaper stores, car washes, air pumps, ice cream sellers and so on. There isn’t much space, in most, to support an EV needing to charge for even 5 minutes, let alone, 10, 15 or 20 minutes.

Long journeys are mostly made on motorways which suggests that service stations will dominate charging – they have the space for multiple, high power chargers, and they have the space to entertain you and the family for longer than you need for a bio-break.

As well as the £28bn of fuel duty that will be lost, until it’s replaced by some other charge, government needs to think about the loss of jobs and revenue from petrol stations.  Rural communities, villages and even small towns, may lose another anchor tenant – the post office and bank have already gone.  What happens if the petrol station goes too?

UK Car Industry – What’s the Strategy?

Any meaningful change in the shipping volumes of Electric Vehicles in the UK is going to have a huge impact on workers in the car industry who are based here.  Some figures, from the SMMT (a car industry lobbying group, presently focused on telling us all that diesel is fine (i.e. government has orchestrated a scare campaign about its nasty effects), that Brexit will be a disaster and that we should, of course, be buying more cars):

They publish a handy booklet that contains more information.  Some of the numbers are different, eg. the picture above (which is in the booklet) claims 856,000 workers, the table below that picture in the same booklet says 823,000 (my sense is there is both 2017 and 2018 data mixed up throughout).

There are a couple of numbers that I suspect are more important than the others.

1. 2,722,325 engines built (in 2017)

2. 1,334,538 cars exported (out of 1,671,166 built and 2,540,617 registered)

That is, we build engines for a lot of cars that are not made in the UK.  And we export about 80% of the cars that we build; and we import pretty much as many as we export.

Plainly, as we, and the rest of Europe (and the world) switch to EVs, that number of engines built is going to fall, probably quite dramatically. There are many countries with far more aggressive targets for EVs than our own, of course, and they will stop buying engines far more quickly than we in the UK.  Maybe 50% of those engines are diesel (the overall number of diesel cars purchased has fallen in the last 2-3 years, perhaps by as much as 40% but some car makers, Land Rover, for instance, are still heavily dependent on diesel) – and those will therefore stop being built far faster.  The recent introduction of the WLTP test has done little to help the car industry.

If you play in

– the increasing trend of teenagers and young adults to skip driving lessons and the ritual of trying to pass your driving test (in an urban centric model of better public transport, Uber and other things to spend money on, why would a car be high up the list of wasting assets to purchase?)

– the use of PCPs as a profit centre (I’m told that the entire profit on a new car comes in the arbitrage between interest rates as car companies increasingly finance their own sales) which is going to hurt as the second hand value of diesels falls precipitously (first) and then, later, as petrol cars go the same way (whether replaced by hybrids or pure EVs)

Car purchases are likely to continue to fall, even before we get into the potential for “connected and autonomous vehicles” as the SMMT refers to them (they don’t mention EVs in the booklet).  They will bottom, of course, but it doesn’t feel like they bottom with the same number of employees as we have today.

Similarly, if other countries are buying increasing numbers of EVs, they’re not making the cars that we are building today.    This is why car companies are trying to outdo each other by striking partnerships, link ups, buying each other and investing ever increasing numbers of billions in EV capability.

There’s also some worrying data presented.  The picture below, notwithstanding that the headline suggests CO2 emissions were 8.3% lower in 2018 for new cars, also says that emissions for newly registered cars rose 2.9%.  Confused?  I am.  Mort importantly, the EU target for just 2-3 years away is more than 30% below current emissions levels (and the chary handily says that we have reduced emissions by about that much since 2000, i.e. in 18 years.  As I’ve written here before, if the car companies don’t hit that target, they get fined – that’s one of the reasons for the partnerships (the theory being that the emissions target will then be averaged across the whole fleet and so come down if e.g. a company that makes small cars partners with a company that makes larger vehicles).

The booklet notes £3.75bn is invested annually in R&D in the UK.    Most of what, I assume, is in the vehicles of today, though it must be switching, pretty rapidly if they can see the same data presented here, to an EV focus.

What then, is the strategy for the car industry in the UK?  In a market where there is a rapidly declining requirement for “engines”, a falling need for new cars altogether and an increasing focus on EVs?

The Travelling Salesman Problem – more on EVs

The Travelling Salesman Problem asks you to figure out the best route between lots of points on a map, given you know the distance between each point.  “Best” is typically taken to mean the shortest route, rather than the most scenic.

With deliveries of online orders ever increasing, it seems likely that, in any given area, a dozen companies – UPS, DPD, DHL, Parcelforce, Yodel as well as Ocado, Tesco, Sainsbury etc – are all grappling with this problem.  In reality I suspect that each driver has a reasonably defined route – the same people are generally placing the orders day to day and week to week – with occasional exceptions that deviate a little from the route.

We’re in a society where “we want it all, we want it now” has become the mantra.  Order online and “get it tomorrow if you order within 1 hour 3 minutes and 16 seconds.”  Or get it this afternoon if you order before 11am.  Or get it in an hour if you live in a certain postcode.

And, at the same time, we want to be greener, cleaner and less polluting; we want less traffic on the roads.  We certainly don’t want more diesel vans racing around the streets of the towns or villages in which we live.

Would you accept a later delivery – perhaps all of your orders in a week come on a given day of the week, at an agreed time (when you, or someone, will be home or when there is access to your “safe place” etc) – if the quid pro quo was that the vehicle was modern and electric?

Would you prefer it if all of the deliveries in your area – be that post code, borough, village etc – were made by a single company, with each company carving out an area of operations that made sense for them, based on their fleet size, investment plan and ability to retain drivers?

With the average life of a diesel van perhaps 10-12 years (a little longer than the life of the average car), it will take time to make the move to Electric Vehicles, but, at the same time, it feels like it could take far too long to make this happen unless we propose, or even impose, some constraints on delivery companies, and on the customers of online sites.

There are, already, some companies that propose “green slots”, that is delivery when they know that they are coming to your area and will be close by, thus reducing the overall mileage.  But what if you had to pay extra for an EV to make the delivery, or pay extra if you didn’t want an EV?  Or you had to wait a few days and got it for free, but paid if you wanted it tomorrow?

I suspect that these are the only ways to, ahem, accelerate the change in vehicle type … along with some consolidation of delivery companies.  The railway franchise model is clearly not a good benchmark, but perhaps there is a way to carve up territories between just 2 or 3 delivery companies – enough for competition but not enough to fill the roads with vehicles?

The EV Challenge

Every country around the world, as I’ve written before, has been busy setting targets for EV adoption.  It feels just like the early days of e-government when one country would announce a target for when all of their services would be fully online, only for another country to advance that deadline a year with the aim of being first.  In the UK we moved our deadline from 2008 to 2005, largely (as the rumour was at the time) because Canada had announced an earlier date than us.  Arguably, 14 years after 2005, we are still not 100% online of course.  But deadlines do help focus the mind. “Put a man on the moon, maybe bring him back alive, do it whenever you’re ready” wouldn’t have had the same impact I’m sure.

India, like the UK, has set a deadline by when all vehicle sales will be electric – theirs is 2030, ours is a less ambitious 2040 (and even then, there are arguments about what exactly that deadline means).  That’s a leap from around 0.1% today (not very different from the UK if you separate hybrids from pure EVs) to 100% in 11 years.
Countries have several levers to help make this happen – subsidies (to the consumer in return for splashing out on a new EV), penalties (e.g. for car makers that don’t meet stringent emission targets, just as the EU is ratcheting down now, and perhaps all the more so following the VW et al scandal), infrastructure programmes (for charging), taxation (a combination of subsidy and penalty – free car tax for an EV, ever higher taxes for polluting cars), additional charges (e.g. for parking – parts of London already charge double for some diesel cars and there is, of course, the ULEZ in London).
At the same time, no country wants to be left out of the bonanza of jobs that could result from EVs (and all of the associated technology, all the way to eventual autonomous vehicles) being researched, developed and built within their borders.  I’ve noted before that the UK isn’t in a strong position here – notwithstanding the various R&D grants that UK government has already made and plans to continue to make.
India has taken an interesting step with their programme of subsidies and penalties.  Sales tax has already fallen from between 12 and 18% to 5% (VAT / sales tax is relatively new in India, introduced in only 2005) and there is an overall plan for subsidies of c£1.25bn.  The kicker, though, is that India expects half of the components in an EV should be produced within its borders.  Given that an EV has far fewer parts than a conventional vehicle this doesn’t sound too hard – many of the specialist parts could be imported, but the traditional components (doors, windows, wheels, wheel rims, seats etc) could be produced locally.  I’m sure that India is going to ratchet up that ratio – looking for the high technology components in all vehicles to be produced locally too (just as they have demanded that Apple assemble its iPhones in India).
This measure was, seemingly, introduced very suddenly. And it halted car (and other vehicles – scooters etc) sales overnight. You can see this both ways, just as when the UK introduces, say, new taxation (on bonuses, cigarettes, alcohol etc), purchases are pulled forward, or delayed if tax goes up. In  this case, car makers might have stuffed the channel with product that was non-compliant.  But an overnight introduction, just as when the Indian government, changed what was legal tender (to try and reduce the size of the black market and increase taxes), is a pretty tough challenge for the supply chain to handle.
It very much seems like each country is feeling their way through this.  There is little in the way of long term publicly available strategy – the UK’s Road To Zero isn’t a strategy so much as a set of aspirations with little in the way of plan.  Each country will learn from others, and because it’s all happening at the same time, lots of mistakes will be made along the way, making those aggressive deadlines unlikely to be hit.