When did local government IT become the aircraft carrier

December 11, 2013

The analogy is often used of certain large bodies being like the aircraft carrier that needs substantial time and space to complete a change of direction. Two years ago when attending the launch of the Government Digital Service  (GDS) I had been most insistent that they adopted the good practice that was available in local government at that time, for given the conditions local government IT was playing under, with frequent changes of legislation and guidance from government most local authorities had, with their IT departments, maintained a focus on the citizen.

Observing from afar over Twitter the recent SocITM 2013 conference I could only observe that with the ascendance of the GDS, roles had been reversed and local government IT in the form of lots of boats like some Dunkirk rescue mission all strung together was having a great deal of trouble manoeuvring, whilst GDS had become the agile one.

This is obviously not a full and fair comparison between all local and central government as the on-going failures by the Department of Work and Pensions to implement Universal Credit in a timely manner confirms, and also that some local authorities have done great things, whilst some have largely disappeared.

The question is how does one turn around that string of little boats (they are in comparison to central government). Some people observing suggested joining a many together and then one would the budgets and labour force, but would one have the management? That is the tricky part – local authority senior management and the elected members have always wanted to steer their own boats however small and insignificant they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but change is needed.  This is what I thought was going to come out of SocITM nearly two years ago as I took my redundancy, but it does not appear to have happened. I may have missed something but the fact that Mike Bracken of the GDS is still offering this week to work with local government, as I heard him say he would two years ago tells me something different.

Local government has had to cope with drastic cuts, redundancies and reorganisations galore since I left, but the bigger vision of turning the aircraft carrier seems to have remained a futile hope as budgets shrink further and staff disappear.

Please tell me it’s not true?


The Cloud of Unknowing

June 6, 2013

I’m pleased to say that the International Journal of Technoethics has just published a paper by me entitled “The ‘Cloud’ of Unknowing – What a Government Cloud May and May Not Offer: A Practitioner Perspective”, International Journal of Technoethics 4(1) 1-10 January – June 2013.

The abstract is as follows:

“Cloud computing is increasingly ubiquitous in the consumer and private sectors and with financial austerity there is pressure on governments to follow suit. However, the relationship between government and citizen is different to that of supplier and customer, despite the advocacy of New Public Management, particularly where the holding of sensitive data is concerned. The paper examines the potential issues of ‘cloud’ and how they may transfer to ‘government cloud’ (g-cloud), along with the potential problems pertinent to ‘g-cloud’ itself. There is an examination of the literature relating to security, legal and technical matters concluding with the considerations and principles that need to be observed prior to any major transfer of citizen data to a relatively new but still developing area of information systems.”

Whilst I have been largely silent on this blog I have continued with academic work, possibly more reading than writing, but have a couple of other drafts in process, along with what is hopefully a more profound work that may one day see the light of day.


Like a Virgin

December 22, 2012

I’ve been a Virgin mobile phone customer for years. Not out of amazing loyalty but for the fact that for my basic usage they provide the service at a reasonable cost and when I’ve considered the alternatives there were no major benefits. What does annoy me is that when I want to use their online service to check on things I inevitably get the message “Oops! You weren’t expecting that? Neither were we.” but after some many times I am now expecting it. It crops up when I try to log in, when I want to look at other pages, but all I’m offered is ringing a call centre to carry out what should have taken a minute of my time and will now take ten!

This I believe is what will become of “digital by default” in many cases. One would expect that given the years I’ve been using the site, Virgin would have sorted out these glitches but currently it’s worse than ever. I presume they’re laying off staff like everyone else and by the time the next round of cuts by central government have really impacted on local government, IT support will be a nominal service with the few remaining techies rattling around the empty town halls. Central government has always been somewhat bloated, so it will take a bit longer to hit home there and really affect Ministers but eventually there will be no-one to fix the web site and when the number is rung, no-one there either…

On that cheerful note – Season’s greetings and best wishes for the New Year…


Local Government Digital Service

November 18, 2012

In September 2012 I wrote about the Local Government Data Service but since then we’ve seen the publication of the central government Government Digital Strategy, and yet again questions have been asked about why local government hasn’t one or doesn’t get a mention. My riposte is that local government was doing this before the GDS, and it was largely set out in the Socitm publication Planing the Flag. Meanwhile Socitm has published a briefing entitled “The new Government Digital Strategy: what should local public services take from it?”

Whilst the Socitm briefing is largely a promotion for its website take-up and channel benchmarking services, all that is required by any local authority is to actively gather feedback from its service users about the different channels on offer and to use this to improve them. If this makes possible a shift to channels that are truly cheaper to deliver by web or telephone all well and good. I am, of course, ignoring the ‘digital by default’ diktat within the central strategy. In national terms this means the sharing of best practice amongst local authorities and a lot of cooperation by suppliers in helping to improve delivery, not just raking in short-term profits. This is where open source and open data come in – if the commercial applications use apps that can be cross-fertilised with others and the data can be similarly exposed (securely) across applications the benefits to both councils and citizens will soon become general.

Whilst the Cabinet Office report admits that “most public services are provided by local organisations such as local councils and the NHS”, instead of ignoring local government and starving it of resources, central government needs to cooperate properly and assist in making these changes real. So whilst I congratulate the GDS on producing its strategy I will observe whether it gets the rest of central government to cooperate, and whether it actually cooperates with those areas where “most public services are provided”. I’d also appreciate it if there were fewer questions about why local government isn’t do the GDS thing, and a greater appreciation of the fact that it was there first, just with much less of a marketing team…


My identity

November 14, 2012

UKAuthority.com states that four potential providers of identity service to the UK Department of Work and Pensions have been chosen in ID Providers chosen for Universal Credit. I wonder why they then list seven: Post Office, Cassidian, Digidentity, Experian, Ingeus, Mydex, and Verizon, or are some of them working together? It’s good that Mydex have a foot in the door, along with our own dear Post Office, but why oh why have we got Experian again. I’ve communicated my own experience with Experian in an earlier blog post, and they are about as user friendly as having a red-hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine.

Speaking out of office and ear-shot with some DWP staff recently I was concerned  that they can only see a future where their entire job is automated, which is how they interpret the government vision. The command and control hierarchy makes those HR-ish noises that they are considerate employers, whilst waiting in the wings to make them redundant. They saw no young people in their ranks, they are also encouraged to see career progression where there isn’t any in reality. I imagine the DWP sees them transferring TUPE-less to the ranks of automata that appear to answer the telephone at Experian. They were intelligent hard-working people and I feel sorry for what they have to put up with.

The recent Independent on Sunday report raising issues with the rollout of Universal Credit quoted a government IT adviser as saying that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary “has been hypnotised by promises of what an online system can deliver. Warnings were given to him more than a year ago. They were ignored.” This follows a history of such ICT hubris from politicians, which was a side conclusion of my doctoral dissertation, but whilst consuming millions of taxpayers money fails to fill promises for the plain simple fact that government and its policies is much more complex than ICT is capable of.


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