All Numbers Are Made Up

Anyone who has worked with me for even a short while will recall a time when I have prefixed or suffixed a number with “this is made up” and usually followed up with “all numbers are made up.”

This is usually in one of two contexts:

  1. “This project will cost £50m (made up number), what does that mean for us, where will the costs fall, what should we worry about in terms of over-runs, where are our risks?” – the aim is to stimulate debate about the project as a whole and give everyone a number to play around with to help get to a (much) better number later.
  2. “I’ve heard that the consequences of this going wrong could be (made up number) £100m.” In this context I have no idea what the right number is but I want to know what other people think, so I throw a number out and see what other people think on the basis that we need to start somewhere.

My general theory is that all numbers you hear quoted are made up – sometimes with a bit of science, but sometimes they’re purely Wild Assed Guesses. The problem is that few admit to the numbers being made up, and so there’s somehow a belief that the fact that someone has stated a nunber must mean it’s true.

Only a few days ago, there was speculation that the cost of repatriating the Thomas Cook passengers (and, at that, just the UK citizens – no one talks about those from other countries who have to find ways home) would be £600m. It was unsourced and plainly completely made up, but very few dared admit that it was nonsense.

Which brings me to today’s story on Government Notify saving £175m in the next five years (my italics).

We don’t, therefore, know how much it has saved in the last 4 years, though we do know that it has been used to send “more than 500 million messages.”

We do know that it’s supposed to save £35m a year for each of the next five years, so 5 * 35 gives us £175m.

There are essentially three ways to get to that number, and it could be a combination or sum of all of them:

  1. Assume that everyone would have to spend some money to build or buy the equivalent capability to Notify. There are commercial equivalents of course. There are costs to integrate to either solution which, one could argue, are the same and therefore they are left out; but there are also operating costs (the commercial services are often SaaS based so there would be no build costs). That might be (Wild Assed Guess) £25,000 per service and we know that there are 1,200 services using it, so that would be £30m for the services to date (who would, of course, not save further money from here because they are already inside the Notify world, unless there is a cost of operation that they need to pay; we don’t know either way)
  2. There’s an arbitrage cost between low scale users and high scale users where message costs are cheaper for the latter and so bundling together lots of government (to get to 500m messages over 4 years for instance) would result in a unit cost save per message, provided you hit the volumes you specify. That might save (made up number) 4p per text message and so we would get £20m savings for all of the messages sent to date.
  3. There’s a business cost save if, for instance, you implement text message reminders for, say, Doctor’s appointments and you track the before and after attendance rates and see that 25% more people attend at the right time when they’re reminded. That might save (made up number) £250/appointment … and multiply that by the 25% extra and you have a savings figure. In the world of truly Wild Assed Guesses, this could be tens or hundreds of millions, depending on how many GPs, Hospitals and others use the services. But the organisatons with the highest number of users are Cabinet Office, Ministry of Justice and Home Office, followed, oddly by MoD, DfE, DWP and HMCTS. No NHS. So we don’t know.

What’s perhaps odd about the £175m savings is that it is quoted as £35m/year for the next 5 years. That is, it doesn’t increase (or decrease). That suggests that there will be no more users, no more services and no more messages sent (which, at least, is better than reducing any of those). That would be a shame – it’s a well used service, filling a clear need and one would imagine that, given that many services are still not online, and of those that are, may don’t use Notify, that there is a market opportunity.

All told, it means we have no idea what to think about the savings and whether they are real, or entirely made up (note: all numbers are made up).

This is an interesting topic, because using my patented eDt Time Machine (TM), I can go back to 2002/3 and look at the case we put together for why we should build a notification engine (we called it “Notifications” – clever, hey?) and we looked at (1) and (2) for our own case and (3) to help the services who might adopt it figure out what the benefits for them would be. We worked with a partner to do the heavy lifting and integrated it with our existing capabilities – HMRC were amongst the first users (sending text messages to say that your tax return had been received for instance).

The outloud thinking about this led to articles, such as one by Charles Arthur in May 2002, that speculated about exam results being sent by text, and another by John Lettice, and the Guardian also picked it up (it may well have been a slow news week). For the record, it came true in 2009, as I noted right here on this blog. And now, it appears that it’s even more true, although we may never know what the real numbers are.

If it’s a made up number, just say what the assumptions were when you came up with it. Transparency and all that.